Episode Analysis The Last of Us: Please Hold to My Hand
The fourth episode of HBO's The Last of Us demonstrates how well the show continues to tell a story that is not about an apocalypse.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us through episode four as well as references to the same story points in the game. Read at your own risk.
Episode Four of HBO’s The Last of Us: Please Hold to My Hand, in addition to being an episode which resulted in many people on the internet, yours truly included, having to rewrite graphics and headlines to get the title correct (”Please Hold My Hand”? “Please Hold On To My Hand”? Oh god damn it, it’s from the song lyric, FINE.), continues the trend of showing how well served a show is by a strong mission statement and a producer/head writer (in this case Craig Mazin) who can make sure that statement is followed.
To that end, let’s just get right into it.
The Strength of HBO’s The Last of Us Mission Statement
As we talked about last week, HBO’s The Last of Us has a two part mission statement. You can hear the full statement from Craig Mazin himself if you want, but for the purposes of these recaps I’m holding off on the second part because it could be considered spoilery. We will absolutely talk about it when we get to episode nine, I promise.
In the meanwhile, we have the first part of the statement: “This is a love story.” And again as we talked about last week, each episode has born that out.
The vibe on the internet regarding Hold to My Hand seems to be that it was an okay episode but not much happened. And sure, compared to episode one in which we saw the start of the apocalypse, event-wise episode four didn’t do much. But what it did do is continue to show that this series isn’t about zombies, it’s not about the apocalypse, it’s about love.
Case in point, what we learn about characters we are introduced to: Kathleen and Henry (played by Melanie Lynskey and Lamar Johnson respectively).
Another take I’ve seen is that ugh, god, why do we need to know Kathleen’s motivations? Yes, yes, antagonists think they are the heroes of their own stories. We get it.
To which I reply: people who say that are again missing that this is not a story about the apocalypse. It’s not the eyeroll of finding out that in the zombie/fungal/whatever apocalypse the greatest danger is - dun dun DUNNNN - humans!! No. It’s a story about love.
What do we know about Kathleen? She loves. She had a brother, she loved him, she lost him.
How about Henry? We haven’t even fully met him yet to know his story but what’s a fact we can say about him? He’s with someone named Sam who he won’t let starve. We may not know who Sam is to Henry yet, but we do know that Henry loves him.
And Joel and Ellie? Over the course of the episode we can see that the two of them are growing to love each other too.
Three separate factions in Kansas City and they are all being led and motivated by love. That’s not an accident. That’s the story.
You can tell it’s the story as well by our pals the previouslies. What did we get shown? Frank and Bill’s life together. And it’s interesting to me how people think that Frank and Bill’s story was a side thing that doesn’t affect Joel at all. First and foremost because, let’s be real here, there’s a fucking letter that spells it out. Like the audience is not being asked to do any deep dives into symbolism or anything. It’s flat out said in plain speech.
But also the thing that people seem to be overlooking is that this is not just a story for the audience. It’s a story Joel is aware of. Yeah, Joel wasn’t there for every day of Frank and Bill’s life but he knew them. Bill and Joel had enough of a relationship going that when Bill thought he was dying he told Frank to call Joel. Bill’s letter at the end isn’t just the words on the page. It’s the summation of a life Joel knew about and it has impact on him because he knew about it. Bill’s letter would’ve been meaningless to some random traveler who stopped by. It has deep meaning for Joel who understands what it’s about.
And if we want to talk about things which are symbolic but not exactly subtle, we have how during the first face to face meeting it’s Frank and Tess who hit it off, but when we get to episode four it’s Ellie who is sleeping in Frank’s sleeping bag and carrying Frank’s gun.
It’s a love story. It’s Bill and Frank over and over and over again. Maybe not the exact way Bill and Frank played out, or the same kind of love Bill and Frank had, but the same dynamic. People love other people, and all of their actions are motivated by that love.
Keep your focus on that. It’s important.
Great Moments in Hold to My Hand
I wasn’t sure how to group these together so there ya go. Basically I wanted to talk about things that went well in the episode that I want to tip my hat to.
First up, they continue to do a great job of showing Ellie as a 14 year old girl. In the episode four podcast Craig Mazin talks about how this stage in a kid’s life can be summed up as “Fuck you, tuck me in.” They’re testing boundaries but they still want a protective and loving parent. There are so many examples of that in this episode, but one in particular I liked was the push-pull of how ready Ellie was to follow “What you say goes” during the shoot out after the truck crashed. Joel tells her to hide, which she does, but she gets her weapons out even though she was told to stay put. She shoots the guy, but this is now a boundary too far so she immediately obeys when Joel tells her to leave again. But as soon as that’s done, she once more does a boundary push. Perfect, perfect, perfect.
(And, as always, I’m not talking about Bella Ramsey’s performance because I do not do that for child actors, so don’t read anything into my lack of comments about it other than that it’s an acknowledgement of her age during filming.)
Pedro Pascal continues to do amazing work. I loved his physicality in particular: you can tell that Joel has a bad knee even in subtle movements. Plus there’s the episode long face journey Joel goes on in his reactions to Ellie’s puns. You know exactly what Joel is feeling each and every time, regardless of whether he says anything.
On the topic of Joel’s health, I also like how the show has been consistent across episodes in that Joel will at least try to fall asleep on his right side, thus keeping his good ear free.
I’ve seen mixed reactions to Melanie Lynskey’s performance as Kathleen. Which I’ll be honest feels sexist to me. Basically the argument is that she’s too sweetly spoken to make anyone believe that she could be the leader of this group. To which I’ll say first up, the sweet voice is a great contrast to how violent she gets. And second it’s a false assumption that the only way someone can become a leader is by being the strongest of the strong. Kathleen strikes me as someone who is able to keep track of many things at once and know how to delegate. Now her decisions may blow back on her - ignoring that thing in the basement seems like a bad idea - but you’d be amazed at how much of leading a group, be it at an office job, a D&D table, or elsewhere, is taken care of by being the one person who will actually make a decision.
Also, not to get into video game of The Last of Us too much, but one thing that amused me about this section in it is that you discover these are really well organized hunters. Like they’ve got written up inventories of what they take off of tourists and have schedules for who works when and everything. I’ve joked that it’s kind of hilarious to imagine these brutal killers having meetings like “Kyle, you did not update Form 87-B on your last shift, we’ve talked about this!” but honestly I can 100% see Kathleen being the one to insist that no, really, you have to write down what you take so they know what supplies they have.
Plus, as far as Melanie Lynskey’s performance goes, let’s notice her physicality as well. She can come off sweet but she can turn on a badass Do Not Fuck With Me walk that’s so amazing it can be put into the trailer and we instantly know what this woman is about.
Shout out to Jeremy Webb and Timothy A Good for a great directing and editing combo. Compare Joel’s fight scene after the crash - or, heck, the crash itself - and how easy it was to follow what was going on with the clicker encounter in episode two where action/reaction timing was off and it was difficult to follow who was doing what during fighting moments. It says a lot that the one good moment of the clicker encounter in episode two was the long uncut shot of Joel reloading his gun. Meanwhile here in episode four we have a lot of things happening but we can track where the truck is, what’s going on with it, how did it end up crashing, and how did the subsequent fight unfold.
I also loved how Jeremy Webb kept a consistent feeling of tension and being watched throughout the episode. It put you in the position where, like Joel and Ellie, you couldn’t be sure if any moment was truly safe. Shout out to Eben Bolter for the cinematography there too.
So yeah. Maybe not the most apocalyptic episode, but one in which important things were established and done well.
As always, things that don’t fit anywhere else:
- I was amused at how many reviewers last week, myself included, had hit our saturation point of “OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE THEY ARE EFFECTIVELY ZOMBIES. CALM DOWN.”
- The joke book, the Hank Williams song, Joel boosting Ellie so she can open a door for him, and more - the show continues to be able to include shout outs to the game while making them feel natural and not like Leo pointing meme delivery devices.
- The scene in the truck with Ellie and the porno mag was the one I talked about last week when I said that in the game they needed to bring Troy and Ashley back to re-record dialogue once W Earl Brown decided that the reference to Bill’s partner was both romantic and about a man. Originally Ellie had found a girly magazine.
- I appreciate that the show mentioned how gas breaks down over time. That’s one of my pet peeves about apocalypse stories.
- I’m not sure how much I buy that Kansas City had that much of a population in it. That was urban. There’s no FEDRA. Where are they getting the food and supplies for all those people? In the game the implication was that it was only the hunters in the city. Also the city was Pittsburgh. So between the location and the smaller population it was easier to believe they could survive purely by attacking anyone foolish enough to try to make it through town.
- Speaking of FEDRA and my pet peeves: you can tell they ran a shitty school because at no point did they teach Ellie that you can always figure out compass directions thanks to the giant burning thing in the sky. Rises in the east, sets in the west. Do you know if it’s morning or afternoon? Cool, now you know what direction you’re facing.
- I did like that they addressed that FEDRA school taught Ellie how to handle a gun, given that it’s supposed to have been a military school. Sure, taught her poorly, but did still teach her.
- I also liked that there was an explanation for why Joel was trying to avoid Ellie having a gun even though having gone to a military school meant she should know how to at least avoid shooting herself with it.
- Henry and Sam are characters in the game who do come up in this part of the story. That being said, I still had my own oh shit moment when it took me a sec to realize that the Henry Kathleen kept referring to was that Henry. Not sure if that was purposefully done by Craig and Neil but I liked it all the same.
- I genuinely have no stake in whether the whole “Step here, alert infected there” thing ever comes up again. However, I will point out that it wasn’t mentioned in the previouslies even though we saw a danger lurking below ground. Also Joel ran his truck over a nice long stretch of grass without a second thought. I know Joel said they were too far out for there to be infected but the premise is that the fungus could alert infected miles away. If this was truly baked into the world, it would’ve come up. Just saying.
- The character of Perry was played by Jeffrey Pierce, who did the voice of Tommy in the game.
- Finally, episode five is going to air on HBO Max on Friday night because of the Super Bowl. However, I already have plans for Friday and Saturdays are booked for me too so the next article may go up at the usual time anyway. We’ll see. But for your own benefit: hey, next ep up early! Cool!
And that’s all for now. See you next time!