Intentionally, "The Last of Us" episodes 4-5 might form the series' saddest storyline yet.

Joel and Ellie’s visit to Kansas City, Missouri provided some firsts for the Last of Us TV show.  After the sacrifices of Tess, Bill, and Frank, their deaths result in the first time that Joel and Ellie travel to another state by themselves. (Contrary to my review of “Long Long Time” claiming that Bill and Frank lived in Nebraska, before I corrected it) Thanks to interactions both harmful and helpful with the townspeople, it also becomes the first locale where they stay for multiple episodes.  Intentionally, they might form this series’ unhappiest story yet.

Author’s Notes

I apologize if my coverage seems more glossy than expected. Due to taking a personal holiday in another state, I didn’t write down my thoughts on either episode until a few days after #5 aired.  Following the holiday, my jet lag necessitated a tight deadline in order to finish this post before the sixth episode’s release.

Please Hold to My Hand

Airdate: February 5, 2023
Director: Jeremy Webb
Writer: Craig Mazin

I’m just sayin’… it isn’t fair, your age… havin’ to deal with all of this.

Joel Miller

Joel assigns Ellie as his navigator for their drive to Tommy, a former Firefly.  When they take a shortcut through Kansas City, Missouri, they both defensively kill some members of the Hunters, bandits powerful enough to overthrow their local FEDRA branch.  Their leader, Kathleen Coghlan (Melanie Lynskey), orders a vengeful hunt against Joel and Ellie, allowing the hiding travelers additional time to detail their similarities.

Building on previous episodes’ strengths of performances and action, this one benefits from a tasteful balance between humor and drama.  Ellie’s puns genuinely amuse, and provide believable ice-breakers considering her situation.  Craig Mazin and Bella Ramsey have the good sense not to undercut any tension of the fight or stealth sequences with these jokes, not that they present opportunities for any.  Joel remains endearing when he teaches Ellie about his past and some lessons in survival, during sequences that lesser casting and directing could’ve reduced to dull exposition.  The camaraderie that Joel and Ellie share throughout this installment believably escalates into key moments of Joel starting to tone down his gruffness towards Ellie.

This episode only feels partially successful at introducing a new villain.  Even though I admire this show’s efforts to humanize the Hunters – whose leader never appeared in the video game – Kathleen didn’t frighten me much during the first viewing.  However, when she orders around the Hunters onscreen, her understated presence still exudes enough authority for me to buy her as a commander.  Even though “Please Hold to My Hand” runs shorter than any of the preceding Last of Us episodes, it manages to engage the viewer into Joel and Ellie’s strengthening sentimental bond.

Endure and Survive

Airdate: February 10, 2023
Director: Jeremy Webb
Writer: Craig Mazin

I show the way, you clear the way.

-Henry Burrell

Joel and Ellie befriend Henry Burrell (Lamar Johnson), the most wanted man in Kansas City, and his younger brother, Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard). Henry and Joel agree that the four of them should escape the city together, via underground tunnels. When they resurface, they must contend with Hunters and some long-buried Infected.

Impressively, Johnson and hearing-impaired Woodard sell the chemistry between Henry and Sam through only body language and facial expressions.  When Ellie befriends Sam, their scenes have both spoken and signed dialogue, but still adorably contrast with the series’ usual gloomy tone.  Pedro Pascal and Johnson also convincingly convey their characters’ empathy for each other, even when Henry seems to deliver the bulk of the dialogue.

During the trek through the suburbs, Joel, Ellie, and Henry all plausibly contribute to the action.  As Kathleen directly confronts Henry, Melanie Lynskey pulls off a more threatening side to her character.  Successfully tense efforts to give this instance of fighting Infected even higher stakes than the second episode’s include both introducing new breeds, and separating Joel and Ellie beforehand.  Thanks to the aforementioned efforts to humanize the Hunters, some of their demises actually feel kind of sad, especially that of second-in-command Perry (Jeffrey Pierce, who voices Tommy in the Last of Us video games).  The outdoors environment adds a chaotic tone to the large invasion, yet Mazin and Webb maintain focus on this story’s most prominent humans.

This storyline demonstrates some harm behind obsessive familial love.  Henry turning in Kathleen’s brother to FEDRA, in exchange for Sam’s medicine, results in Henry becoming the Hunters’ prime target.  Kathleen’s determination to avenge her brother’s execution distracts her from taking precautions against the Infected invasion, leading to her demise. When Henry decides that he can’t live without Sam, their ultimate fates devastate the viewer as well as their friends, although they go out with more dignity than in the game.

Despite that cautious theme, these episodes argue for Joel embracing his paternal instinct over Ellie. Both bring levity to each other’s lives, while Joel also reawakens his selflessness while protecting her. Ellie’s failure to cure Sam’s infections adds some agitation to her journey, by introducing the chance that her immunity wouldn’t guarantee an effective vaccine. The Hunters’ unstable control of the city also casts some doubt on the longevity of whatever plans the Fireflies have to overpower FEDRA.  Only time will tell if the viewer approves of Joel’s ultimate decision.  “Endure and Survive” possibly succeeds too well at tenderness, excitement, and gloom.

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