Episode Analysis The Last of Us: Endure and Survive
The fifth episode of HBO's The Last of Us brings an amazingly well done action sequence and reminds us why organizers make good leaders.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us through episode five as well as references to the same story points in the game. Read at your own risk.
Episode Five of HBO’s The Last Of Us: Endure and Survive, is an interesting one to try to talk about. Reason being there is a lot going on here regarding the overarching story and how well they are handling it. But this fits so well into the overarching story - even dropping some clear foreshadowing for season two (if you know, you know) - that I’m finding it hard to talk about without spoiling things. Put another way by totally making up an example, I can’t talk about how an extra eating a banana in one scene is brilliantly handled because it sets up the moment in a later season where someone wearing a yellow shirt has a significant role, you know?
Of course the flip side is that episodes do need to stand on their own. And to a large extent Endure and Survive does. I’m just explaining why you’re about to see me laser focus on things only contained in the episode while skimming past some of the larger and more long term aspects. As always, we’ll get to these once the finale comes around.
To that end I want to talk about the cul-de-sac sequence as a story, the many things that had to go right for that sequence to work that can easily be overlooked by the audience, the character of Kathleen and specifically people’s reactions to her, and a bit about portraying deaf characters on TV and why HBO’s The Last of Us did well.
Why Endure and Survive’s Cul-de-Sac Sequence Was Totally Unnecessary
How’s that for some clickbait titling?
Here’s the thing. The cul-de-sac sequence was amazing and I will talk about the work that went into it. However, I do want to take a second to move past the sequence as a sequence and focus for a second on the sequence as a story.
I have talked and talked and talked and talked about how at no point in its life, be it as a game or a TV show, is The Last of Us a story about zombies. It is a story about love. Endure and Survive continues the tradition of that by giving us further information about Kathleen and Henry. Both of these characters are motivated by love for their brothers. Kathleen leading a revolution against FEDRA is an act of love for her brother. Henry becoming the most wanted man in Kansas City was also motivated by his love for Sam. And, as always, we continue to see Joel’s developing love for Ellie.
So when you take a step back and look at the episode, how does the cul-de-sac sequence, especially the emergence of the infected, feel? Is that a story about love? I mean there’s bits and pieces, yeah. Kathleen still wants to kill Henry out of her love for her brother. Henry wants to surrender because he loves Sam and wants to keep him safe. Joel watches over everything and keeps Elie safe because he loves her. But did we need infected for this? Couldn’t this have also been established in a human on human shoot out like the one after the truck crash last week?
Spoiler: it could.
The emergence of the infected isn’t a story beat. It’s an action set piece and it is, again I cannot stress enough, amazingly done. But where are we at the start of the cul-de-sac sequence and where are we at the end? What character beats were established that we didn’t know already? Yes, moments happen in this sequence which reinforce these what we already know but if you removed the sequence entirely nobody would be confused about anyone’s character motivations.
In fact, the only thing that does change because of the cul-de-sac sequence is that Kathleen and the Kansas City hunters are taken care of by some incredibly convenient timing. It’s deus ex cordyceps. It’s an action set piece that exists for the sake of an action set piece.
Now don’t get me wrong! As a shout out to the game you absolutely need some action set pieces. Episode one, When You’re Lost in the Darkness, had some great action set pieces as Joel, Tommy, and Sarah tried to escape. But those set pieces had purpose and were baked into teaching us very important things about the characters.
Endure and Survive’s action set piece, on the other hand, exists because it exists. It pulls directly from a similar sequence in the game which is entirely about gameplay (including you, as Joel, stuck in that room as you work a sniper rifle) and, like earlier episodes, the focus on recreating something as close to how it was in the game made them forget how to bake that same thing into the story.
Know how I know? Hey, remember that thing about how cordyceps can create these communication networks that go on and on so if you step in one place you might alert infected to come running to get you from miles away? Quick question: if you know that where’s one place that maybe you, as an organization in charge of protecting a city from infected, would not drive infected to as a solution for keeping yourself and the city safe?
Would it maaaaaaaaaybe be, I don’t know, underground? You know, the place the infected build those networks to call for reinforcements?
Likewise if you’re Joel and you have the body of a recently deceased infected person, how would you safely handle taking care of that body while still being respectful? Would it, perhaps, not be burying it? Which is effectively planting the fungus to grow?
Don’t get me wrong, I get that burying Sam and Henry is a character beat for Joel (he’s doing it because Ellie needs it to happen) but plenty of shows have done respectful cremations - or attempted cremations - of dead characters to provide that closure. Joel buries Henry and Sam because in the game burial is the repeatedly used method of showing respect to those who have died for whatever reason. And, in the game, worrying about fungus growing through miles of dirt isn’t a thing.
To be clear, I’m not here like “Uhh, Joel didn’t put Sam’s body on a funeral pyre so FAIL” about it. I’m just pointing out that, like in episode two, you can see when an action set piece was put in motion very early on where someone didn’t circle back to the script to go oh wait, did we make sure how we finally presented this this actually gels with the rest of the story? Not a fail, not a making fun, just pointing out where you can notice how things sometimes shake out in production.
If anything, I point it out to show it’s not a fail so much as something that could happen to anybody. The harshest criticism that could be made is that it’s effectively a continuity error. But as you know I don’t hold things against shows when it’s people doing their best and HBO’s The Last of Us continues to set examples on many levels of people doing their best. So if anything this serves as an example of how even with the greats some things do sometimes sneak in. Everyone is only human.
Except Ruth E Carter, of course. She’s a goddess.
Anyway, now let’s talk about why the cul-de-sac sequence was so brilliantly done.
Why Endure and Survive’s Cul-De-Sac Sequence Was Brilliantly Done
I will never fail to crack myself up with these subheaders. Never.
Anyway, other people have already covered some of the logistics of the infected fight and creating the bloater so I’ll point in that direction and not recreate the wheel. We will, though, again give shout outs to Barrie Gower and his team on prosthetics, Terry Notary on movement, and Alex Wang and his team on VFX.
What I do want to talk about, though, is even more about what’s going on to make this sequence work beyond the comparatively obvious question of did the infected look like infected.
To that end, understand the mind boggling amount of logistics this sequence required. Putting aside the prep work of teaching the movement to the performers and building the cul-de-sac from scratch (which brings with it the shout-out to John Paino and his team), during the sequence itself there is so much planning going on.
Here’s a snippet: They’re filming at night. So that’s everybody involved needing to flip their schedules to nocturnal in order to get this done.
No problem, right? Okay, here’s an extra layer of complication: some of these sets are being destroyed as part of the sequence so you better make sure you’ve got everything you need in the can involving the truck and the house before both of those go bye bye.
Here’s another: one of the people involved is an 8 year old kid. There are strict limits on where, how, and how long a child actor can work. You need the kid both before and after the truck and house are gone. Start doing the math on how to best get all the coverage you need while marrying his schedule to everybody else’s schedule and things like you can’t change the dates on certain things because, again, once the truck and house are gone they’re gone.
(If your eyes are starting to go wide at how much work was involved here purely on a scheduling level, try the even more advanced option of the dance sequences in the recent Matilda movie where you take the logistics of one kid only being able to work a set time per day and multiply that across hundreds of kids.)
Me being me, I actually watched and rewatched the sequence starting from when Joel and the gang walk out of the bank building until the end to try to figure out how much was condensed into tight bursts of filming to get as much use out of Keivonn Woodard when they had him. Walking down the street is an obvious one, probably paired up with hiding behind the car. Less obvious during the action sequences when you had things like a fire going on in the background, though I’m assuming during the long distance shots of Joel watching Henry, Sam, and Ellie flee in the crowd were probably helped by having a stunt double for Sam. But the planning needed also stands out in subtler things like when you see shots of Ellie firing a gun at the truck where she’s the only one in frame vs when they do wider shots so that you see Henry and Sam running with her.
(Bella Ramsey was 19 during filming, so child labor laws did not apply.)
So beyond the big, obvious stuff like the fire and the bloater, there’s the people who had to figure out the timing and schedules for everybody.
Let’s talk another unsung aspect here: editing.
I’ve talked before about how editing can undercut a sequence so I want to highlight how good the editing was in Endure and Survive because - mwah! - chef’s kiss. Seriously. Timothy A Good and Emily Mendez did such a good job. You would hate this sequence if not for what they did, trust me.
Take what’s going to seem obvious but isn’t really: Joel in that window.
That’s not special, right? It’s a guy firing from a window. The camera angle on him doesn’t even change that much. Show the guy, show the action, what’s so hard?
Okay but here’s the thing. Do you know how that scene is filmed? It’s Pedro Pascal on a set for a few hours while, yes, the camera doesn’t even move as it’s getting the shot of him looking out the window, and Pedro being told “Look right. Now look to your left. Now try reloading the gun but it’s jammed. Okay now you can fire. Now look center. Now look right. Give us twenty more of you looking right so we’ve got options. Okay now do that for looking left.”
Hours of that. That’s the footage that gets sent to editing. Can you make a story out of it? Remember, there’s not even any dialogue here. It’s Pedro firing a gun and looking in different directions.
Now this is not to disparage Jeremy Webb’s directing He may have very well added in things like “This is the moment when Ellie sees the SUV and is making a run for it. Show us Joel’s reaction.” And Pedro Pascal’s face acting is some of the best so I’m sure he was able to do things like convey that Joel is seeing Ellie do a specific thing and here’s how he feels about it.
But ultimately the only way any of that works is with the editing.
Rewatch the sequence and watch how beautiful that editing is. The simplicity of it is why it would similarly be so easy to screw up. It’s not just Joel in the window, it’s matching Joel to the action. Look at the shots cut together to tell the story of Ellie seeing the opening in the SUV for her escape. How’s it happen? Shot of Ellie knocked to the ground. Shot of Ellie looking to her left. Cut to a shot of the open window in the SUV: now we know what Ellie is looking at. Cut to Joel: he looks right then left. Because the editing clearly showed us the SUV’s position in relation to Ellie (she looked left), we now know that Joel saw where she was looking, also clocked the truck, and is now looking back at Ellie with the knowledge that getting to the truck is her plan and he’s going to help her. Timothy and Emily had hours of footage to go through and knew how to find the exact things to go 1-2-3 to give the information the audience needed in precisely the way they needed it.
This goes on throughout all of the action. Even the small character beats that the cul-de-sac sequence do have come about because of the editing. For example, when the truck explodes Henry runs out into the smoke and fire in order to grab Ellie to safety. How do we know this action had an impact? Because before it happens we see Joel in his window squinting and worried that Ellie is okay, and when Henry gets her we cut back to Joel to show he, too, saw that. Not just that Ellie is safe, but that Henry briefly risked himself to make her safe.
It goes on and on from there.
This sounds very simple but I can assure you editors screw stuff like this up all the time. Including, frankly, on another show which came out this weekend which I’m keeping very much nameless because of its rabid fanbase. Suffice it to say it also held an action sequence but its version was a hot mess because it couldn’t handle simple things like showing cause and effect.
But we don’t even need to go cross fandom in order to show an example, we can look back at the second episode, Infected. Notice how Endure and Survive has hundreds of bodies moving around in a giant open area but at no time are you confused about what’s happening. Conversely, Infected had five (Joel, Ellie, Tess, and two clickers) in an enclosed space and it was still hard to figure out what was going on. Joel smashes a mirror and then… is where? Who is hitting what? Where is Tess running to? And, the most obvious, the far too long pause before the clicker reacts to the sound of Ellie’s gasp.
(Again, very much not trying to throw Mark Hartzell under the bus here. I do genuinely think part of the problem was that Neil Druckmann didn’t have experience directing action scenes for live action which are a different animal entirely from directing them for games. But regardless of where the fault lies for why the action sequence in Infected wasn’t as good as it could have been, we can still point to “This shot was used, then this shot, then this” as why it doesn’t work when Endure and Survive shows us why it does.)
Also, let’s not forget one of the most important aspects of this: we can see everything. Yes, the sequence is happening at night but this isn’t Game of Thrones forgetting that TV is a visual medium. Sure, we all know that nighttime helps hide VFX usage better than a sunny day. However, you can’t deny that a nighttime anything fight is more atmospheric. Plus they didn’t give themselves an easy lighting challenge by having that flickering fire going in the background (which, in and of itself, had to be accurately rendered by the VFX on all the moving creatures which is a harder challenge than a steadier light like a streetlamp would have been).
So yeah, beautifully, beautifully done sequence. Utterly unnecessary from a story perspective but that has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of it. A+.
Now let’s talk what we can about character. Specifically Kathleen.
The Sexist Reaction to Kathleen on HBO’s The Last of Us
I said it last week and I’ll say it again the vitriol aimed at Kathleen, and Melanie Lynskey’s portrayal of her, is some straight up sexist bullshit. That sadly has not stopped with this episode.
The arguments I’ve seen are that she’s too soft spoken, she’s old, she’s out of shape, and she has no leadership experience. To which I’m going to say I wonder if people would make the same argument if Bill had been the one in charge of the Kansas City resistance, given that he’s got the exact same body type, manner of speaking, resume, and also Nick Offerman is seven years older than Melanie Lynskey. Gosh I do wonder.
I’ll admit to being pleased that last week I said that Kathleen strikes me as somebody who knows how to delegate, and who would even make sense as the person who would have told the hunters to keep detailed inventories of what they take off of tourists as we see in the game. Then sure enough Melanie Lynskey herself said that Kathleen was a logistics person who probably always kept a notepad on her.
I mean credit there to Melanie’s performance because Kathleen very much read that way to me and I know I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
I mean the arguments against Kathleen and Melanie's performance is all rooted in sexism but for instance I love the gymnastics to say that one of the problems with Kathleen is that she’s not violent, but also a problem with Kathleen is that she killed the doctor. Like either she’s not violent enough or she’s too violent, folks. Pick one.
I’ll also say that I dispute the argument that Kathleen made bad decisions, which proves she’s not a good leader and never should’ve had the job. Which, again, I’m just going to point out you never see these people make the same kind of argument about, say, Daemon Targaryen and his crackerjack ideas for smart leadership moves. Again gosh I wonder what the difference is?
But with Kathleen the examples of her supposed poor decision making were from last week: she killed the doctor and she didn’t do anything about the bubble in the floor that Perry showed her.
To which I say how do we know those are bad decisions? I didn’t think those were necessarily poor decisions last week and the further information we got this week only confirms it for me.
The argument with the doctor was you need doctors in the apocalypse. Which, true. But even last week how did you know Edelstein was the only doctor? For that matter, how did you know he was a good doctor? Sure he says he delivered Kathleen but maybe he’s a dumbass who convinces all his patients that the only thing you need is lavender essential oil and putting an onion in a sock to help when your kid is teething.
And even if he was the most skilled doctor in all the land, he’s clearly not on Kathleen’s side. Are they going to make him perform surgery at gunpoint for the rest of his natural life? Would they even trust him to do work on somebody important to Kathleen if it was needed? If I’m a doctor being held by my enemies I can guarantee you my scalpel’s going whoopsie near someone’s veins unless I get treated nicely.
So that was my thought process last week and this week only added in the information that the resistance only just got control over Kansas City. Kansas City FEDRA may have been horrific but what we didn’t hear is that they were stupid. There’s bound to have been more medical staff around. Sure, killing Edelstein was a cruel decision but that doesn’t make it a bad one.
As for the bubble in the basement - Kathleen never said she wasn’t getting around to it, just that in that moment she was focused on trying to get Henry while he trail was hot. She did say shut down the building to keep people from endangering themselves by going in. What else was she supposed to do in that five minute span?
Which, again, only gets reinforced by how she’s been in charge of all of Kansas City for ten days. You can’t tell me what construction and protection crews they had weren’t busy on higher priority items to secure the city as a whole and thus couldn’t be diverted for one single bubble that might pop sometime soon…ish? And in extra fairness to Kathleen, let’s point out the narrative screwup of Chekov’s bubble here which was that the infected didn’t come out in that building, they came out all the way outside of the walls and only then because a truck exploded over a sink hole. So if bubbles only pop when they’re disturbed closing off a building is exactly the solution she needed to employ. Not a bad one.
Now Kathleen’s obsession with Henry to the point where she’s blaming Henry for massive conspiracies in every corner up to and probably including how a button on her shirt had a loose thread that day isn’t a great feature in a leader, sure. Especially once we meet Henry and see that he’s basically barely more than a kid himself trying his best to survive in a world where he has zero skills with which to do it.
However, what does episode five teach us? That Kathleen’s brother wasn’t just important to her, he was the original leader of the resistance and basically Jesus. Henry getting Michael killed had a huge impact - you can see that with the guilt Henry carries over how horrific life in Kansas City has become now that it’s Kathleen in charge.
But the conversation with Kathleen and Perry in Kathleen’s childhood room tells us that Michael wasn’t just important to her, he was important to the movement. Which is part of why the other people in the resistance are okay with the Let’s Get Henry mission. Henry is responsible for the death of someone important to them too, and when it’s only been ten days of them being in charge heck yeah it’s a higher priority to grab Henry and punish him before he escapes.
Finally, in case we couldn’t guess it on our own, Perry gives us another key piece of the puzzle: Michael was the ideas and emotion guy regarding standing up to FEDRA, but Kathleen was the one who actually figured out how to make it happen.
So yeah. People who say Kathleen doesn’t look or sound like a leader can shove it. She makes perfect sense to me.
I mean I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side, but I totally get why she’s got the job.
Now let’s round this out with a brief discussion on deaf characters.
How Endure and Survive Handled Its Deaf Character
I, who am not deaf, am not the one to make the final call on how well HBO’s The Last of Us handled having Sam as a deaf character. However, based on things I do know, I can at the very least say they did a much better job than other shows did.
(Note: I’m not using the capital D version of Deaf, which is for someone who doesn’t just have hearing loss but who identifies as part of the Deaf community culturally. Given that this is twenty years into the apocalypse I have no idea if the term would still apply or if Sam would even know it’s an option to identify himself that way. Likewise other articles I’ve seen use the lower case d even when interviewing Keivonn Woodard himself. So I’m trying to err on the side of caution by not assuming the capital D. If someone knows better than I and can point me in the right direction, please do.)
I want to point out the first contrast which stood out to me, which was that in Endure and Survive we saw the signs. This was something that Hawkeye, with the character of Maya, repeatedly messed up on. As I said with Hawkeye, if you don’t show signs when someone is using them to speak it’s effectively the same thing as turning the microphone off for someone speaking verbally. You’re cutting off both the communication and the performance.
What also stood out to me in the behind the scenes bits after the show aired - and if you’re interested in how TV shows get made you can do a lot worse than spending the five minutes HBO uses for this after any of its flagship shows (I know they did it for Westworld as well as House of the Dragon.) But anyway, in the behind the scenes they include CJ Jones not just as ASL interpreter, but director.
Now as we mentioned before, Jeremy Webb was the credited director for the episode. But in the companion podcast for Endure and Survive Craig Mazin talks about how CJ Jones was not only there to help translate but also to step in during every scene when sign language was being used to make sure the actors were getting it both correct but authentic. Which makes me wonder if CJ Jones was also why Jeremy Webb and cinematographer Eben Bolter knew not to cut the signs off.
It’s a tough call. I checked the credits for Hawkeye and they don’t list an ASL director, but at the same time neither is CJ Jones credited at all on IMDB for Endure and Survive. At the very least I can tip my hat to Endure and Survive for getting it right, even if I don’t who who specifically is responsible.
Regarding the podcast, I liked how you could tell Craig Mazin had done his research. One of the things he mentions is being aware that Sam, as a Black character, was as likely to speak BASL as he was ASL (Black American Sign Language, which shares similarities with American Sign Language but is its own distinct dialect). He also talked about how the casting call for a Black child who could play an 8 year old, be smaller than Bella Ramsey, be able to act, and know either ASL or BASL was a small pool but also acknowledges that part of the problem there is that the Hollywood casting machine is biased against keeping minority and disabled actors in its pipeline. So the solution he went for was not throwing up his hands when the traditional casting process didn’t work, but by casting as wide a net as possible to find somebody, even to the point of putting a request out on his Twitter for anyone who was interested. (I’d link to the tweet but Craig’s twitter is locked. But he put the call out on Feb 16, 2022.)
Something I also liked about Sam was that, like with Ellie, he is portrayed as a kid. At eight years old he’s still very much a child (compared to 14 year old Ellie at the stage of “fuck you, tuck me in” stage where she is straddling the line of being a kid and being a teenager). Sam likes to play, he likes to read comic books, he likes to draw on the walls. But at the same time Sam is not a MacGuffin for Henry to carry around. Sam is shown having his own thoughts and agency about things. He’s included in conversations about the plans to escape the city. Like Ellie, Sam contributes to his and Henry’s safety in age appropriate ways, like holding a gun to Joel as though he’ll fire even though his gun, like Henry’s, has no bullets in it. Or later on in the cul-de-sac sequence where Henry’s deafness gives him an advantage because he’s not distracted like Ellie and Henry are as they try to figure out what Joel is yelling, thus leaving Sam free to see the trucks coming right for them.
It’s also interesting how Sam’s story, and why Henry was motivated to collaborate with FEDRA help him, is because Sam had leukemia. I feel like a lesser show would’ve done something like suggest FEDRA offered cochlear implants for Sam to “fix” him instead of it being a life or death illness which any child could have gotten. Instead there was nothing about Sam’s deafness which was suggested as being “wrong.” Sam was just deaf. Nothing at all wrong with it.
As always, things which don’t fit anywhere else:
- Shout out to the beautiful cinematography this week, which could be an article in and of itself. But for example that shot of Kathleen in her childhood bedroom which looked like a painting. Guh. Gorgeous.
- Some framing things I loved both for how they existed but were subtle: The way the burning truck was kept in the frame when Kathleen spoke, letting you know to expect something was going to happen there. The shot of Sam at the office table where branches from the decorative plant behind him looked like tendrils coming out of his head. And the reflection of a storefront on the window that Henry looked out of which put a splash of color across his eyes, same as the one he’d painted on Sam to make him a superhero.
- Related: heavy fucking eye roll to the reporter I saw - but who I will not give the page clicks of linking to - who, when recapping last week’s episode, said that the reveal of Sam at the end was of him in a “bandit mask.” Gee, my dude, I wonder what about Sam made you think “bandit” and not superhero as you saw in his god damn drawings earlier in the episode? Hmm, such a mystery.
- Given that Kathleen was in charge of Kansas City for only about ten days I’m even more impressed that she was able to arrange that blockade that funneled Joel and Ellie into the streets of the city last week. Admittedly I think this is another thing where they put it in the show directly from the game without realizing the translation doesn’t work anymore. But personally I love the mental image that Kathleen had her shit together enough to realize a blockade would be worthwhile since FEDRA sure as heck wouldn’t have been the one to stop up the highways. They need them to transport goods from one Quarantine Zone to another.
- The short amount of time FEDRA’s been out of power also answers the questions I had last week about why so many people were still in the city, and why there’d be provisions enough for Kathleen’s people to feed them. As horrible as FEDRA in Kansas City was, they did still have contact with other QZs and the goods produced there. Shame we’ll never found out about how the resistance was going to handle that need without the network.
- Related, the drawing of Ish spotted in the show is a reference to a story you can discover in the game if you make sure to read all the letters and other written material you find. It’s a fan favorite and could easily be a show all its own. I think they handled it well by having the picture - which is also something you can find in the game - so those who know know the reference but it’s not beating you over the head if you don’t.
- I say “related” because in the game you can explore more than just that classroom area and the whole underground settlement is really well made. I recognized tons of sustainable things for food, water, cleanliness, and so on that were spot on from real world items. So yeah, I’d also watch an entire series about Ish and the folks living in that underground area. I love anything that focuses on the practicalities of daily life.
- Props to Lamar Johnson for doing such a great job of conveying Henry as someone with heart who was in way over his head. Also for real how you could tell Henry was carrying that guilt not just for Michael’s death, but for how that had an effect on what life in Kansas City was like now under Kathleen.
- As I said before, there is just so much going on with this ep that’s about laying groundwork for future so I’ll zip it now. However, I’ll sign off with a tip of the hat to a moment that immediately helps ground you in the past: What’s one of the first things we see Henry say to Sam? “Look at me, not that.” Gosh who have we heard say something like that before?
And that’s all for this week! See you next time, and thanks for reading.