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Hell is other humans in HBO’s The Last of Us episode 4

Not the most efficient way to read the news, but at least he's reading...

Enlarge / Not the most efficient way to read the news, but at least he’s reading…

New episodes of The Last of Us are premiering on HBO every Sunday night, and Ars’ Kyle Orland (who has played the games) and Andrew Cunningham (who hasn’t) will be talking about them here every Monday morning. While these recaps don’t delve into every single plot point of the episodes, there are obviously heavy spoilers contained within, so go watch the episode first if you want to go in fresh.

Andrew: I will start by saying this episode was closer to what I expected a typical The Last of Us episode would be. A few action sequences, a couple montages, time for some bonding moments for Joel and Ellie in between shootouts. Not that I minded last week’s episode at all, it just gave me a little whiplash because it was so far from what the first two episodes had set up.
Kyle: Yeah, I’ll say this episode is the closest we’ve yet gotten to the pacing of the games themselves: (1) Ellie cracks a few jokes; (2) Ellie and Joel shoot a few bad guys; (3) Joel talks to Ellie about Hard-Earned Lessons from the ruined world; rinse and repeat.
Andrew: Which is fine! It’s the story I was pretty sure I was signing up for. Though now I’m curious to see if the show has any other curveball episodes to throw our way.

Kyle: There are at least one or two more plot and/or format curves, even if they just stick to the games. (and that’s all the cryptic clues I’m giving)

Speaking of episode whiplash, I think this was the first episode where we really got a good look at Ellie’s constant transitions between young teen goofball and potty-mouthed action-hero sidekick. It was an incredibly effective combination in the games and so far I think it’s working in this new context as well.

Andrew: And in between those two Ellies, you get tiny hints of “vulnerable kid growing up too fast.” I’m glad to know that dad-joke books survived the apocalypse.

Kyle: I was not a dad when I played the first game, and now that I am, I’ll just say that the obvious attempts to bring out Joel’s paternal instincts work very well.

I was also a little tickled by the show’s attempts to mirror the game’s constant situations where Ellie is small enough to squeeze through somewhere to safety to unblock a door with a heavy thing in front of it (or climb up to lower a ladder down or something, which we haven’t really seen in the show yet).

In the game, these moments really strengthen the player’s bond with what could otherwise just be an annoying, quippy escort mission objective. Here, these moments fell a little flatter.

But yes, the jokebook puns are just as effective as ever!

Andrew: By the time she squeezes through her second or third convenient window or hole in the wall, yes, it does start to strain credulity a bit. Absent a gameplay reason to bond with Ellie, the show has to lean harder on the emotional beats, which, thankfully, it does pretty well.

The “bad jokes” running gag is inspired; the “bonding over past and present trauma” bits are more predictable but still serviceable. You can see the turning point of their relationship coming from 10 miles away—Joel will tell Ellie about his daughter, Ellie will share whatever she’s hiding about the first time she had to kill someone, and after that, they will be bonded for life—but it doesn’t mean I’m not eager to see these actors play out that conversation.

In fact, at this point, if I did try to play the game I would probably be frustrated that Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey weren’t in it.

Kyle: All I’ll say is I wouldn’t be so quick to assume you can predict all the major plot beats of this relationship from this point…

Andrew: So when Joel and Ellie find unfriendly humans instead of a shortcut in Kansas City, I liked the very game-like way the people there had helpfully spray-painted things like “We The People” and “RUN” in two-foot-high letters on their trucks to tell the audience what to think about them.

The woman leading these people, Kathleen, seems like what you would get if you put “Woman Who Wants to Speak to Your Manager” in charge of your vigilante band. You said that we’re following the emotional arc of the game pretty closely in this one, how close are we to the game’s actual events?

Kyle: Yeah, I actually checked to see if I had forgotten some key plot points from the games, but the Kansas City detour seems to be a complete plot creation of the show. It fits pretty well thematically—and I’m pretty sure I played that exact shootout in an abandoned store in some other context—but the show obviously felt the need to introduce a new group/antagonist for this part, at least.
Andrew: Yes. The show has set us up to expect just as much trouble from other humans as from mushroom people at this point, and it’s making good on that foreshadowing now. If you’re just as in the dark as I am, what’s your read on these new adversaries?
Kyle: As far as “FEDRA isn’t the problem, humans are the problem” delivery device, I think they work pretty well (and replace a slightly different version of the same basic idea in the games). As far as Kathleen herself, the monomaniacal focus on the one person she’s convinced is responsible for her misery is a bit annoying at the moment. We’ll have to see how that plays out.
Andrew: I don’t know which I am hoping for more: that the “Henry” character she is blaming everything on is some kind of invented, Emmanuel Goldstein-esque scapegoat meant to keep all of Kathleen’s followers scared and in line, or that he’s real and he’s the person we meet right before the end credits of this episode.

Kyle: I can’t say too much, both because there actually is a Henry in the games and because, after episode 3 and the introduction of new characters here, I really don’t know if my knowledge of him means much of anything.

That’s one thing that I think makes the show work so well: it’s committed to the feel of the games but not so committed to the structure that it becomes just dull and predictable if you’ve played them…

Andrew: And as a non-game-player who does have a pretty firm grasp on narrative tropes, the show has surprised me already and it seems likely to surprise me again, based on your subtle-ish hints. It does seem like it’s a little more fun at this point to have no idea what happens, though, because I don’t know anything about who named characters are “supposed” to be.

For Kathleen’s part, I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that ignoring the cordyceps zombies in that basement hole (that’s what that was, right?) in favor of chasing down humans seems pretty likely to backfire.

Kyle: I couldn’t tell if that pulsing floor was a mass of infected or just a mass of fungus ready to blow some spores or what, but it does definitely seem like a Chekov’s Cement Floor situation.

Andrew: Definitely. Since otherwise, I think this is our first (possibly only? who can say!) totally Infected-free episode.

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