Spoilers from the outset for this review of The Last Of Us.
Sometimes, HBO’s The Last Of Us can find a way to tug at your heartstrings with a line of dialogue or the death of a character cherished by all. The opener earned a reputation for pulling on said heartstrings within the first thirty minutes. The Bill and Frank love story, well, the episode speaks for itself. Episode 6, as we cross the mid-series threshold, not only tugs but yanks on heartstrings in such a profound way, adapting the fall chapter from the game. The basis of this heartstring-tugging comes from an unlikely source, and that would be Joel.
Pedro Pascal sells in his performance, demonstrated best in a scene alongside on-screen brother Gabriel Luna, who plays Tommy. The last gloomy minutes of Episode 5 reshaped Joel and Ellie’s friendship as they continued west. Episode 6 picks up their journey three months later, opening with a harrowing reminder of Henry and Sam’s fates. Supported by some of the most dazzling cinematography in the series, Joel and Ellie find a couple living in a remote lodge somewhere in Wyoming.
Marlon (Graham Greene) and his wife Florence (Elaine Miles) warn them to avoid travelling west, but Joel and Ellie ignore their cautions. Moments after leaving the lodge, Joel has a panic attack. After making camp, Ellie reveals to Joel that she attempted to use her blood to save Sam’s life after being bitten. The conversation shifts to what they intend to do after the Fireflies create a cure and save humanity. Joel talks about owning a sheep ranch, while Ellie aspires to become an astronaut, taking after her inspiration, Sally Ride. The following morning, Joel wakes to find Ellie on watch and insists that the next time he falls asleep, she should wake him up.
Between asking Joel to teach her how to hunt rabbits (could we soon see the iconic rabbit in a future episode?) and trying to whistle, Joel and Ellie’s journey takes them through some extraordinary snow-laden landscapes. Fleetingly, they find Tommy’s dam, a primary location in the video game. The series swiftly skips over this location, establishing roots in the Jackson community instead, which features prominently in The Last Of Us Part II. Plus, Joel doesn’t know how water is turned into electricity, and advises Ellie not to ask.
Members of Tommy’s group (unknown to Joel and Ellie at the time) later ambush them. A dog, assumably the lazy, loveable Buckley you can pet at the hydro-electric dam, trained to catch a scent of infected people, first approaches Joel and then Ellie but fails to trace her infection and instead rolls in the snow with her. At this moment, Joel suffers another panic attack before a woman on horseback, Maria (Rutina Wesley), recognises Joel’s name and escorts them to a vast, walled community. Joel is reunited with Tommy while Ellie eats her body weight in food.
At dinner, she warns off a young girl watching her distantly, which could either be Cat, a character only referenced by name in the sequel, or Dina, Ellie’s future love interest. Tommy reveals that he married Maria but to Joel’s visible chagrin. Maria and her group established the settlement seven years earlier during a time with far fewer people. Their remote location is vital to keeping external threats at bay. The community has a church, a school, and a jailhouse (which they never use).
The settlement produces heating, water, and electricity, engineered by the dam Joel and Ellie passed. Everything the town creates is collectively owned, according to Tommy. He rebuts Joel’s remark about communism, only for Maria to argue that the community is a communist group. Joel shares a glance with Tommy, who looks sullen, suggesting Maria often has the final say on such matters. This characteristic is later reinforced as Joel asks Tommy to take Ellie to the Fireflies in Colorado.
Tommy turns down his brother’s request to travel to the university, while Joel suggests his hesitance is due to Maria’s domineering stance in their marriage. Joel is further distant after Tommy reveals Maria’s pregnancy. After leaving, he suffers another panic attack and spots someone who bears a resemblance to Sarah. Ellie, who knows of Joel’s dark history, is informed by Maria that Sarah was his daughter and died in the years before the outbreak.
We further learn that Maria lost a child (whether it was with Tommy or not remains unclear) named Kevin. She tells Ellie that the only people capable of betraying her are those she trusts, a line foreshadowing a pivotal scene coming later. Ellie attends a film screening of the 1977 romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl, a film which echoes narrative elements from The Last Of Us.
In the following scene, Joel reveals Ellie’s immunity to Tommy and confesses his fear that he might become responsible for Ellie’s death should they continue. He cites the moment Ellie shot Bryan, a member of Kathleen’s rebel militia, to save him in Episode 4 due to being deaf and slower than he used to be. He talks about Henry killing Sam and how he’d frozen at that moment, similarly to how he’d reacted during the ambush, which links to the panic attacks and dreams wherein he fails to save Sarah’s life.
The conversation is intercut with moments of Ellie walking through the town, presumably searching for Joel. Later, she tells Joel she’d overheard his conversation with Tommy and shares what she knows about Sarah before Joel tells her they’ll be heading their separate ways. The scene is staged almost entirely verbatim to the source material, perhaps a tad more direct. Nevertheless, it hits just as hard as in the game, followed by Joel privately reflecting on a Christmas with Sarah.
Inevitably, Joel changes his mind, saying goodbye to Tommy, and takes Ellie on horseback to the University of Eastern Colorado. The five-day hike is spent teaching Ellie how to shoot and talking about Joel’s past life as a contractor, football, and an admission from Joel that he once wanted to be a singer.
Almost instantaneously, Joel and Ellie’s chemistry changes. Joel’s more relaxed and upbeat and engaged with Ellie. At the university, they find no signs of Fireflies and only monkeys. They surmise the Fireflies were headed to Salt Lake City by a map, and after attempting to escape raiders, Joel is stabbed in a fight. They flee on the horse before Joel succumbs to his wound and falls from the horse. A piano rendition of Depeche Mode’s ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ plays as Ellie struggles to wake Joel.
Episode 6 is an emotionally fraught, character-driven chapter supported by spectacular cinematography and immense performances, notably by Pascal. It cannot be said enough that his work on the show has been outstanding. The various references that foreshadow events from The Last of Us Part II with the recently-announced second season are surprising and assist in the world-building.
There’s the fleeting cameo of a young girl who could be either Cat or Dina, Shimmer the horse, a man with a banjo, presumably planted into the episode (Maria giving the tour) as a nod to composer Gustavo Santaolalla, and of course, Buckley, the all-threatening, terribly evil doggie that does nothing more than lick you to death.