Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us through episode six as well as references to the same story points in the game. Read at your own risk.
HBO’s The Last of Us episode six, Kin, puts us into some interesting territory, story-wise. Specifically in terms of what story is being told?
No, really, what story is being told?
Now this may sound bad. I’ve certainly raised this question before when I meant it as a critique. But in the case of The Last of Us - game and show - the question of what story is being told is actually part of the point. It’s something that’s been in the background of the series from the very first episode. Now that we’re in the back half of the season they’re bringing it directly into the forefront.
Which is great, because that means now I can talk about it!
How The Last of Us Questions What Story is Being Told
Kin was a great episode, by the way. I don’t mean to scoot past all the beautiful work that was done behind the scenes (Jasmila Žbanić in the director’s chair, the aptly named Timothy A Good and Emily Mendez in editing, Christine A Maier as director of photography, Cynthia Ann Summers on costumes, and once again John Paino and his entire team creating an entire city from scratch like it ain’t no thing.) But we’re focusing on the writing this week so trust me.
One of the critiques of HBO’s The Last of Us, more than the game, is the idea that gosh it’s amazing that everywhere Joel and Ellie go they run into people who somehow mirror their story. And on the surface this is true. As we’ve repeatedly talked about here, the first part of the show’s mission statement is that this is a love story. People motivated by some form of love is a constant. The show’s been great about not wavering in that.
Now while yes, Joel and Ellie have found plenty of mirrors of themselves, a thing to notice is that they are not the only ones being mirrored. Mirrors are, in fact, everywhere. And what the show has slowly and quietly been doing is ramping this up as the story goes on because it’s actually part of the point.
For example, everybody got that the story of Kathleen and her brother Michael was a mirror to Joel and Ellie. Now not everybody got exactly how Joel and Ellie were being mirrored there, but they at least got the idea that the reflection was there.
But Kathleen and Michael are also mirrors to Henry and Sam, and this is where it gets interesting.
It’s not a coincidence that Kathleen and Michael and Henry and Sam are pairs of siblings. Likewise it’s not a coincidence that they are stories about Kathleen and Henry both being affected by the idea of their sibling dying. Actually dying in Michael’s case, the possibility of death in Henry’s case.
So let’s ask ourselves this, as I get into full English teacher mode here: out of Kathleen and Henry, who is the good guy?
Do you have an answer for that? Are you sure?
On the surface it seems like Kathleen is the villain. She’s motivated by revenge to a ridiculous degree. She dismisses the importance of kid’s lives. Her obsessive tunnel vision on Henry gets her and many of her people killed, if not everyone in Kansas City.
But taking a step back… the person responsible for putting Kathleen in charge is Henry. If he hadn’t betrayed Michael to FEDRA, Michael would still be alive. If Michael was alive he would still be in charge of the resistance. Henry was motivated by prioritizing his brother's life over that of everyone else's. Moreover, Henry even acknowledges and accepts his responsibility in things. He tells Joel he is a bad person for having done bad things. So is he the bad guy?
However, taking yet another step back, Kansas City FEDRA was horrible. That’s something that both Kathleen and Henry agree on. Kansas City FEDRA wasn’t simply authoritarian, it abused its power to be cruel to the people supposedly under their protection. It’s also agreed by everyone that Michael could’ve never overthrown FEDRA, it had to be Kathleen.
So again: is Kathleen the bad guy? Or is Henry the bad guy for paving the way for Kathleen to be in power?
Another thing to consider is that at the end of episode five Kansas City has those infected heading right for it. But it was FEDRAs job to keep the infected in check. And yet another thing everyone could agree on was that Kansas City FEDRA did, in fact, keep the infected at bay. So is anyone who wants to overthrow FEDRA good?
We can go on and on. But you get the idea. What story is being told? It’s not an easy answer.
Kin moves this question from subtext to text by having Ellie point it out: Maria argues that the Jackson settlement is great and everyone there is wonderful. Ellie counters with how Marlon and Florence thought they were terrifying. Maria counters back that Marlon and Florence deserved the pushback they got.
We weren’t there so we don’t know, but we do have enough clues to guess that yet again it’s not an easy answer. The Jackson settlement is a place where young children laugh and people of all ages and abilities seem to be welcome. Yet at the same time the people in charge of Jackson terrified a sweet little couple who were just trying to live their lives.
But on the other hand do we doubt for a second that Marlon would’ve put an arrow through Joel’s head if he’d seen Joel entering the cabin? And Marlon and Florence have survived on their own for a while now. Sweet as they seem, are they perhaps more akin to Bill and Frank than they are the kindly neighbors who remind you of your favorite grandparents?
Kin also shows us how important the concept of being told stories within the show is. Maria has strong feelings about Joel. Surprisingly strong given that she’s never met him. Strong enough that she believes she’s not only informed enough to warn Ellie but that she feels it’s her responsibility to warn Ellie. Except the only person who could have told Maria about Joel is Tommy.
So what has Tommy been saying? Has he been truthful about Joel and the truth is awful? Has he been skewing the truth and painting Joel in a bad light? Has he been as fair about Joel as he can be but Maria is interpreting the worst in much the same way Joel interprets the worst about Maria with no real cause? After all, Joel immediately assumes it’s Maria’s fault that Tommy went literally radio silent. It’s not a huge stretch to think Maria might similarly assume that Joel was a horrible influence on Tommy, with it being ironic that something Maria and Joel share in common is the idea that Tommy is someone without agency capable of making up his own mind about things.
We do know that Joel thinks of Tommy as a joiner, hopping on to any group that will have him for the sake of being somewhere he belongs And having lived through the post 9/11 world I will say that if Joel was like those of us who called bullshit on Dubya’s handling of the war on terror that’s a point in Joel’s favor for the argument that Tommy joins things without questioning if he should.
But another point of view is that Tommy’s not a joiner, he’s someone trying to do good in the world. He joined the military because he thought that was a way to do it. He joined the Fireflies and then Jacksonville for the same reasons. Sure he made mistakes in his choices but he seems to have learned from them.
Or has he? Maybe Tommy is flighty. He did change his opinion on taking Ellie off of Joel’s hands in less than a day. Is that a sign that Tommy is wise enough to change his mind when given new information or is it a sign that Tommy goes wherever the strongest wind blows?
We don’t know the answers to these questions. Maybe we’ll learn them between now and episode 9. Maybe we won’t. But as of this moment in time that lack of knowledge is the point.
There are a lot of stories going on here. Are any of them the right one?
And if we aren’t sure which stories to believe, how the heck are the characters themselves supposed to know?
Three episodes left for all of us to find out.
As always, things that don’t fit anywhere else:
- Pedro Pascal’s ability to convey entire stories with his face alone continues to be unmatched. I know the low hanging fruit here is pointing out the irony that over in the Mandalorian you barely see his face (and, in fact, that it’s often rarely him under the mask compared to being in a VO booth with a Grogu doll) so instead I’ll say I’d love to see something where Pedro acts out an entire episode or movie with no dialogue at all. I bet it’d be freaking amazing.
- Seriously, the amount of times I put things in my notes like “BABY!!!” when Joel broke my heart.. suffice it to say it’s a lot.
- The coy insistence that absolutely nobody knew that a season two was a possibility is a little bit cute given, well - gestures at everything in this episode. I won’t get more specific for those avoiding spoilers but for those of us familiar with both games and some key differences in how the show presented this part of the story vs how the first game did…. dudes. C’mon. Adorable that you were acting like it was a question.
- (Okay in fairness in a David Zaslav run world nothing is a guarantee but still.)
- I appreciated that Joel explained he was double checking Florence’s answer at the same time that I wondered why Joel waited for Marlon to come home to ask where they were on the map.
- We’ve had two references now to the needs of people who menstruate and I am all for it.
- I love how people try to argue that either version of The Last of Us is a story that insists that only strong! tough! violent! people can survive in this apocalyptic world - this being one of the arguments for how it was supposedly unrealistic that Kathleen could be the leader of the Kansas City resistance - when what we are actually shown is that the people who survive best are those who can plan ahead and/or work well with those who do. Yeah, characters like Bill and everyone in Jacksonville will do violent things to keep themselves safe, but it’s just as important to be mindful of your food stores, how to keep your electricity running, and so on.
- As Ellie starts to wonder about what creating a vaccine will be like, it’s worthwhile to remember that when the game came out the idea that everyone would eagerly line up to take a vaccine that saved them from a worldwide pandemic was accepted as a given. Woo boy have things changed with time.
- Sometimes I am easy to please. Bringing in the game detail of Ellie trying to learn how to whistle is one of those things that pleases me.
- As I say I’m glossing over a lot of the other, very well done things in this episode, but to give an idea of how good things are all the way down to the tiny details, peep how the leather strap on the gun Joel borrows from Tommy is nicer and better quality than the one on the gun Maria took off Joel when he arrived.
- “I’m failing in my sleep” - BABY
- I know “Everybody loved contractors” is a favorite line of pretty much everyone who saw the ep, but let’s not ignore how Joel’s little smile after he says it sells the moment perfectly.
- There’s another line of dialogue I’d love to highlight but, well, let’s wait for episode 9, shall we?
And that’s all for this week. See you next week, same infected time, same infected channel!