This week’s episode of The Last of Us (“Kin”) begins on an odd beat: a brief flashback recalls Henry’s suicide shot-for-shot. We then cut to black, after which we change seasons with a three month time jump. This will feel all too familiar for fans of the original game, which also cuts to black after the suicide. However, the show has never felt the need to so plainly restate itself, so why now?
There are likely many answers, given showrunners Mazin and Druckmann’s thoroughness in their creative choices so far. However, it’s clear that the primary goal is to harken back to the source material. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time the series has paid homage to the game by recreating it.
However, this opening feels like a microcosm of the show reaching an impasse. Following a front half of excellent deviations that expanded the story world, the back half of The Last of Us feels very concerned with hitting all of the major beats in what remains of the game’s story. It is confirmed that Season 1 covers it from start to finish, even the DLC, but some of the show’s greatest achievements have been deviations from that beaten path. The choice to compress the game into just nine episodes has begun to hasten a, thus far, thoroughly lived-in television experience.
Exhibit A: For a series that is so beautifully granular in its pacing, a three month gap feels like an eternity of adventures, characters, and emotional beats that have now been glossed over. It begins to mess with the audience’s internal time clock regarding character and relationship development. For example, the episode begins with Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) traversing the snowy terrain of Wyoming. During a talk around the fire, Ellie and Joel share their aspirations for a future with the vaccine. It’s hard to believe that, in three months traversing the country on foot, this kind of conversation has never happened. It’s also difficult to believe that Joel has never taught Ellie how to hunt, something we also learn early in the episode, in an ecosystem where that is one of the only ways to procure food.
However, an even more important beat feels glossed over because of the opposite problem. Ellie admits to Joel that she attempted to save Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard) by rubbing her blood into his wound. This should feel like a vulnerable moment for Ellie, revealing a guilt she has kept inside of her for three months. However, because it is happening fifteen minutes later in the series’ collective runtime, the weight of the moment doesn’t translate. It isn’t for lack of trying; Bella Ramsey’s performance continues to show growth as she becomes more and more traumatized by her survivor’s guilt. However, it simply isn’t enough for a moment like this to resonate as much as it should.
This isn’t to say the show has suddenly become unriveting, far from it. When we finally reach the Jackson settlement, Joel is finally reunited with Tommy (Gabriel Luna) in a beautiful embrace––an emotional beat that actually feels like months in the making. It’s exciting to see the character finally return to the series in a way that feels like an aesthetic expansion for the story world. Tommy’s community is something out of any Western fan’s dreams: cowboys riding on horseback, a main street of log cabins, and flannels as far as the eye can see, all against a cool, mountainous winter backdrop. It’s John Ford with a modern, post-apocalyptic edge, and it’s glorious.
Sadly, the family reunion is cut short all too quickly. In a complex and subversive sibling dynamic, Joel almost immediately begins to brew resentment over Tommy and his idyllic life without him. Tommy, on the other hand, is not particularly appreciative of Joel’s quest to “save” him. In fact, he has expeditiously moved on from his former life and has found peace with never seeing Joel again.
Maria (Rutina Wesley), Tommy’s partner, further complicates things. She does not trust Joel given his history as a smuggler and warns Ellie that she could suffer from Tommy’s fate (“The only ones who can betray us are the ones we trust.”). All of this is the kind of complexity we have come to expect from Mazin’s expert writing; his ability to get to the heart of our differences and complexities in such few words is what makes The Last of Us such damn good television.
And it only gets more heartbreaking from there! Joel reveals to Tommy that Ellie is immune and wants him to escort her to the firefly base in Colorado. Ellie, however, overhears the conversation and is heartbroken that yet another person she cares for is leaving her. These two back-to-back monologues are some of Pascal and Ramsey’s best work in the series. Their bedroom confrontation puts Joel and Ellie’s traumas into the kind of direct, elucidative combat that feels like the culmination of, say, three months. We just didn’t get to see them. It all comes to a remarkable head, just too swiftly.
Unsurprisingly, Joel has a change of heart and escorts Ellie to the base, but an encounter with random raiders leaves Joel with a nasty stab wound. He eventually becomes unconscious from blood loss, leaving Ellie to fend for them both in another series cliffhanger. It’s hard to make sense of the timespan between these two tacked-on final sequences in yet another emotional moment in this episode that falls victim to the season’s predetermined endpoint. Still, it leaves the series in a precocious new place for Ellie. As Joel warned in his monologue to Tommy, he is no longer in a place where he can protect her, so now, she must protect him. Oh, how the tables have turned.
The Last of Us airs Sunday nights at 9 PM EST on Crave, HBO, and HBOMax.