There are few things that were ever going to top last week’s devastating love story, so it was nice to see The Last of Us not even try. Rather, Episode 4 (“Please Hold My Hand”) feels like an interstitial, a transition into the second act of our nine episode series that sees Joel and Ellie (Pedro Pascal and Belle Ramsey) begin their journey to Wyoming in search of Joel’s brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna). Now that Joel has officially accepted his responsibility as Ellie’s guardian, their relationship can begin to take shape.
The beginning of the episode sees Joel and Ellie traversing the midwest. As Joel siphons gas from an abandoned station, Ellie begins reading puns from her joke book, “No Pun Intended,” eliciting groans from both Joel and, inevitably, the audience. Of course, this is all part of the charm, but it’s the catalyst for what feels like the first genuinely funny episode of a series that has only been chuckle-worthy up to now. As noted in previous reviews, Bella Ramsey’s take on Ellie is far more heightened than that of the source material; her jeers cut deeper, but her laughs hit harder. It also helps that Ramsey has the cutest, dorkiest smile on TV, making her instantly lovable when she lets her defenses down.
This, in fact, is what makes this episode such a joy to watch and a welcome reprieve from many of the first act’s emotional heartache. Not to say it’s suddenly lollipops and rainbows, but much of the original game’s appeal are these two personalities finding the light in the darkness through growing closer together. Listening to Joel recount what life used to be like before the outbreak is funny, if not also deeply sad, and helps to illustrate not only the differences between these two protagonists but also their surprising similarities. It’s good setup for Joel, who equates Ellie’s inexperience with the past as innocence, of which there is little left.
When Joel and Ellie enter Kansas City, they are quickly ambushed by an unknown group of armed civilians. In the midst of the shootout, Joel is pinned down and nearly choked to death until Ellie shoots the opponent with Frank’s gun. Joel was previously adamant about Ellie having a gun, but their silent confrontation afterwards speaks volumes to the paradox of it all; Joel wishes to protect Ellie from exacting violence, yet was saved because of violence. He knows damn well he would have done the same for her. Both Pascal and Ramsey feel incredibly present during this moment in particular, teary-eyed and exhausted but not emotionally overwrought.
During a later moment in hiding, Joel teaches Ellie how to properly hold a gun. Of course Ellie has experience from her time in FEDRA’s military school, but Joel immensely improves her grip. It feels like a passing of the torch, an acknowledgement of her own ability to not only defend herself, but defend others. Still, it’s unclear if Ellie is ready to take a life; she is clearly distraught after shooting the civilian, so Joel has her hide behind a wall before he stabs the civilian, killing him. These scenes feel monumental in their thematic subtext (love as violence!!) but subtle in their progression of the plot. Some fans may be taken aback by this patience, but others will be glad that Mazin and Druckmann strike this balance.
The show’s ongoing motif of love through violence proves to have a domino effect when we meet Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey). She is introduced interrogating a doctor who has become a whistleblower for FEDRA, only to be interrupted by the arrival of dead bodies. Turns out those killed civilians were members of her community, a separate rebel group with a perimeter around the city. Believing this was the work of Henry, a character the doctor is allegedly protecting, she returns and shoots the man point blank. It’s yet another twisted act of love, this time post-mortem, setting them onto Joel and Ellie’s trail.
Whether you interpret it as justice or vengeance, it’s a concise character beat all the same. It tells us what we need to know about Kathleen; she is a protector, in the same vein as Bill and Joel, and she has a community not only to protect, but to honor. Kathleen is so radicalized that there is not an ounce of remorse left in her, and Lynskey’s performance captures this with a soft self-righteousness––the equivalent of a tired mother who knows she knows best but is no longer ready to let you learn it for yourself. It’s on a different wavelength than the rest of the cast, which only makes it that much more troubling.
Though this week’s story setup involving Kathleen is intriguing (including what can only be described as Chekov’s Clicker), our two wanderers are what we’re here for. Our final moment between them, a nice dose of punny humor before bed, sees Joel finally break to Ellie’s puns; as her walls come down, so do his. Though there is still plenty more backstory to unfold, we are now starting to see real momentum in the development of the show’s central relationship. This is why, despite no real centerpiece moment, “Please Hold My Hand” is still a satisfying entry into the series.
New episodes of The Last of Us air 9 PM ET on Crave, HBO, and HBOMax.