Spoilers from the outset for this review of HBO’s adaptation of The Last Of Us.
Last week, we had a post-pandemic love story, sweeping audiences away with an earnest, original insight into Bill and Frank’s relationship. There were strawberries and songs, suicides, and Ellie sitting inside a spaceship, or at least in her imagination. This week, it’s a gritty, unforgiving pilgrimage into the centre of Kansas City, a location controlled by a well-armed and fiercely-regimented rebel group. The episode teases the humvee that serves as a ruthless menace to Joel and Ellie during the Pittsburgh chapter and presents the most significant challenge Joel and Ellie have faced yet. The episode has another layer to look into, and it comes from their blossoming friendship in the face of such dangers. Firstly, we have Ellie’s pun book. Ellie delivers dodgy gags one after the other at a less-than-impressed Joel, who couldn’t look more uncomfortable with the interaction.
Joel does, throughout the episode, begin to warm to Ellie’s theme, firstly beating her to the punchline of a bad joke involving scarecrows and later laughing into his sleeping bag as Ellie succumbs to a fit of giggles. The jokes are semi-verbatim to the source material they came from, as well as the inclusion of a few new ones. Secondly, we have Joel talking to Ellie about Tommy in a scene that further expands his backstory, which, much like Bill and Frank’s heartfelt saga from one week ago, had been resigned to the infrequent line of dialogue in the video game. Tommy was a soldier drafted into Desert Storm, formerly foreshadowed by the bumper sticker on the back of his pick-up truck in Episode 1. Post-outbreak, Tommy abandoned the army to join a crew with Joel, and in doing so, they would later meet Tess.
Joel’s bitterness toward the Fireflies, it would seem, stems from Tommy’s fateful meeting with Marlene, which led him to join her group. Joel feels Tommy made the same mistake joining the rebel group as he did entering the army. As they build trust, the banter Joel and Ellie share evolves too. We have Ellie’s distaste for Joel’s coffee, which he slurps noisily to annoy her, and Ellie’s fascination with the pictures inside Bill’s magazines. After opening a door for him, Ellie asks where he’d be without her help, to which Joel retorts he’d likely be in Wyoming already. They share more banter as they move in secret through the city. After climbing more than forty flights of stairs, Joel concedes and rests his legs. Ellie could easily keep going for another twenty more.
Joel’s concern for Ellie deepens in his decision to stand awake and keep guard of their camp while she sleeps. Unlike Tess, whom Joel considers family, he remarks that Ellie is nothing more to him than cargo, but it’s beginning to feel like his perspective of her is changing. Plus, Joel teaches Ellie how to hold a gun in a scene that echoes the source material quite closely (shooting rats with BBs, that scene). It’s not all perfect, however. Their newly-found friendship becomes strained by the revelation that Ellie secretly stole a weapon from Bill’s house, subsequently using it to save Joel from a hostile survivor. These are members of the lawless rebel group occupying Kansas City, led by Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey).
Joel’s attacker is perhaps the same age as Ellie in the second game and is called Bryan. After being shot, he loses the ability to move his legs, and despite his pleas to spare his life, Joel kills him, leaving Ellie horrified. Joel makes an awkward attempt to comfort Ellie later, telling her that she shouldn’t have to know what it’s like to kill someone, blaming himself and apologising. Ellie admits that on another occasion, she’d found herself in a situation where she’d had to kill but decides to keep details of the story to herself. Likewise, when Ellie asks Joel how he could have known it was an ambush, Joel tells her the crew he ran with pulled similar tricks. Ellie quizzes him whether he killed innocent people, but he keeps quiet. The silence, however, speaks volumes.
The chemistry feels authentic and honest and is more than just a testament to the show’s writing. It’s the performances and the connection between Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. Sure, it’s a world away from the video game. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson’s performances are unique and could not be more different from the television iteration – but Pascal and Ramsey have made the series their own. Now, we should probably talk about the Kansas City rebel group. In the fifth episode, judging by the trailer for next week, we’ll receive more explanation as to how the Kansas City Quarantine Zone fell and how this new militia, led by Kathleen, came to power. Kathleen is the brutal leader of the militia, and she’s searching for Henry, a prominent character featured during the Pittsburgh chapter of the game. The series, not for the first time, veers away from his story in the source material and instead has him on the run with his brother Sam. Henry shares a connection to Kathleen’s brother, murdered inside a holding cell of the plundered FEDRA HQ.
Kathleen and her second-in-command Perry (Jeffrey Pierce – the voice and mo-cap actor who played Tommy in the game), along with one hell of a beard, find Henry’s hideout and child’s drawings of superheroes (made by Sam). They also discover a massive crater in the ground. The B word is on everyone’s lips, and while neither Kathleen nor Perry say it aloud, we all know what’s lurking beneath the crater. Bloater, this is seriously exciting. The setup for the monster’s reveal next week is perfect. Plus, let’s take a beat to mention Jeffrey Pierce’s beard. Real or not, he looks hardcore. After Joel and Ellie’s ambushers are found dead and returned to the FEDRA HQ, Kathleen vows to see those responsible and any collaborators executed. Bad news for Joel and Ellie, severely outnumbered and outgunned in a strange city. They will soon enough have the support of Henry and Sam, who appear right before the credits, holding guns at them as they wake up.
Visually, Episode 4 is another masterpiece. On the drive into Kansas City, gorgeous images of a post-pandemic world sweep by, from abandoned theme park rides, endless, winding highways, shipwrecks to a train hanging off a collapsed bridge. These pictures, as haunting and movie-like as they are, are accompanied by ‘Alone and Forsaken’ by Hank Williams (from which the episode owes its title). Other musical Easter eggs from the games include Lotte Kestner’s cover of ‘True Faith’ playing out the credits, and finally, the confirmation of Joel’s age. He’s revealed to be 56. So he’s a pensioner in the sequel.
If you missed last week’s review for Episode 3, head to the link here.