A Heartbreaking Journey of Loss


The Last of Us lingers with every episode as a heartbreaking journey of loss. It arrives at the mid-season mark carrying the burden of sacrifice. The Cordyceps fungal infection transformed mankind into monsters and worse. Desperation breeds villainy as humanity’s remnants resort to whatever means necessary for survival. Those who share compassion become casualties of a cruel new reality. Joel’s (Pedro Pascal) mission of taking the immune Ellie (Bella Ramsey) cross-country has left further devastation with each step. The series has sublimely captured every gripping tenet of the blockbuster video game, and continues to do so mid-season.

This article contains spoilers up til episode five of The Last of Us.The pilot episode of The Last of Us, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” packed an emotional wallop. In Austin, Texas circa 2003, Joel’s beloved teenage daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), is shot and killed in his arms. Twenty years later, he’s a lethal smuggler in the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA) – controlled Boston Quarantine Zone. Joel and his girlfriend, Tess (Anna Torv), are planning to search for his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna) in Wyoming. They encounter Marlene (Merle Dandridge), leader of the regional Fireflies freedom movement. She offers them vital car parts to transport Ellie, a cursing, wisecracking fourteen-year-old, outside the wall. Joel and Tess quickly discover Ellie’s secret — she’s immune to the infection.


The Only Hope for a Cure

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Episode two, “Infected,” explains the source of the virus and its outbreak in 2003 Indonesia. The show continually goes back in time to frame current events. Joel, Tess, and Ellie get their first taste of mutated hordes. Touching any part of the Cordyceps fungus alerts them to your presence. Tess gets bitten as they flee through the destroyed city. She sacrifices herself in a massive explosion to save Joel and Ellie. Her dying wish is that he transport Ellie safely to the Fireflies in Colorado. She’s the only hope for a cure.

Secondary characters take center stage in a masterful third episode. “Long, Long Time” tells the queer love story of Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett). Bill, a doomsday prepper and anti-government conspiracy theorist, was ready for the end of the world. Frank stumbles into his compound four years later. The men begin an intimate relationship that completes their lives. Frank’s warmth and sophistication gives the wary Bill a perfect partner. They communicate with Joel and Tess via shortwave radio. Thus becoming clandestine traders and suppliers to the Boston QZ. Frank suffers a terminal illness that incapacitates him. He begs Bill to help him commit suicide. A sorrowful Bill obliges one last dinner, but also poisons himself. The lovers die together with a note for Tess and Joel. Shortly thereafter, Joel arrives with Ellie at the compound. They drive toward the Midwest fully supplied in Bill’s pickup truck.

Related: The Last of Us: What Was Changed from the Video Game?

“Please Hold My Hand” and “Endure and Survive” take place in Kansas City, Missouri. Joel and Ellie are forced through the city because of a blocked highway. They are ambushed by fighters from a rebel group that has defeated FEDRA. Joel kills most of the attackers, but is saved by Ellie who had secretly taken a gun from Bill’s house. They proceed on foot as the rebels hunt for another valuable target.

The Merciless Kathleen

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Kathleen Coghlan, portrayed by surefire Emmy winner Melanie Lynskey, is looking for Henry (Lamar Johnson). The rebel leader has enacted savage reprisals in the bloody streets. FEDRA officers and their collaborators are rounded up for execution. Henry sold out her brother, their original leader, who was then beaten to death by FEDRA. The merciless Kathleen kills everyone she considers a betrayer. Her men follow every order without fail. A trusted lieutenant comments her brother could never have delivered victory.

Flashback scenes show Henry and his deaf little brother, Sam (Keivonn Woodard), hiding from Kathleen’s wrath. Henry sees Joel’s ability. The pair sneak up on a sleeping Joel and Ellie in a high-rise building. Help them escape, and they will show a way out of the city. Henry spied for FEDRA to save Sam’s life. He was dying from leukemia and needed medicine. Henry gave them Kathleen’s brother as payment. He learned that the tunnels under the city were cleared out years ago.

The group make it to the suburban outskirts but are stopped by a sniper. Joel races to the sniper’s position while the others are pinned down. This gives Kathleen’s forces time to reach them. Joel kills the sniper and grabs his rifle. He shoots the lead armored truck which crashes into a house and explodes. Kathleen has Henry, Sam, and Ellie surrounded. She will show the children no mercy. The ground rumbles as a horde pours out of a hole the explosion created. Joel shoots the mutated and rebels to clear a path. A huge monster wreaks havoc. Henry escapes but is caught by Kathleen. She’s then ripped to shreds by an infected child.


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They make it out of Kansas City and stop in a motel to rest. Joel invites the brothers with them to Wyoming. In their room, a fearful Sam shows Ellie that he’s been bitten on the ankle. Ellie believes her blood can cure him. She slices her hand and places it over his wound. She screams the next morning when a mutated Sam attacks her. Henry grabs a gun but also points it at Joel. As Sam tries to kill Ellie, Henry shoots his brother in the head. His eyes widen as he sees Sam’s blood pouring unto the floor. Henry puts the gun to his temple and pulls the trigger. A grieving Joel and Ellie bury the brothers. Ellie writes “I’m sorry” on Sam’s sketch board then places it on his grave. They continue together on foot.

The harrowing final moments of episode five encapsulates an awful truth. Henry had done everything possible to ensure Sam’s survival. He couldn’t live without him. The brothers, Sarah, Tess, Bill, and Frank represent loyalty and good. But they did whatever was needed to save their loved ones. Kathleen’s ruthlessness was also born from this choice. A powerful monologue has Kathleen admitting her brother forgave Henry’s betrayal. He understood that Henry’s motivation was Sam’s health. Kathleen could never forgive or forget. She defeated FEDRA and conquered Kansas City, but died from an unquenchable thirst for revenge.

The Last of Us eschews the traditional zombie narrative. The infected are an omnipresent threat, though they can be avoided; humans are the unpredictable factor. Ellie has no knowledge of Sarah. Joel hardened into steel but is haunted by her always. Ellie, a completely different personality, represents another chance for Joel to be a father. The series hasn’t yet solidified their bond. It’s still forming but grows stronger with every gut-wrenching step.

Fantastic Nuance

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Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal bring fantastic nuance to their characters. Ellie isn’t cute or sweet. She curses like a drunken sailor, says whatever’s on her mind, and doesn’t take orders like a puppy. Ellie watched Joel punch a man lifeless to save her. She’s smart, clever, and keenly aware of Joel’s importance. She can’t survive without him. Joel has lost Sarah, Tess, and doesn’t know if Tommy’s alive. Ellie gives him more than purpose. The fire inside that died with Sarah is being rekindled.

Related: The Last of Us Premiere Review: A Faithful & Visceral Adaptation of the Blockbuster Video Game

Showrunners Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann have taken the best elements of the game and wisely avoided missteps in the genre. They benefit from seeing where The Walking Dead faltered. Granted, it’s been just five episodes, but they’re not letting the infected run amok. We don’t see chunks of flesh being eaten, skin tearing like paper, or any excessive gore. The violence is frighteningly real. Scenes of bodies dragged through city streets, mass shootings, and vigilante mobs reflects what actually happens when chaos reigns.

Depth that Resonates

The cast, storyline, and impressive production design have surpassed my high expectations so far. Every death feels consequential. We saw Sarah for literally twenty minutes, but know that Joel sees her every time he looks at Ellie. Bill and Frank, Henry and Sam, your heart aches for them. The Last of Us succeeds in making you care for the characters. They have a depth that resonates when their gone. Plus the infected are pretty cool as well.

The Last of Us is a production of Sony Pictures Television, PlayStation Productions, Word Games, The Mighty Mint, and Naughty Dog. Four episodes remain, airing Sunday nights on HBO and able to stream on HBO Max.


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