‘The Last of Us’ Episode 5: These Deaths Will Tear Your Heart Out
THIS POST CONTAINS spoilers for this week’s episode of The Last of Us, “Endure and Survive.”
“Endure and Survive” takes its title from the catchphrase of a comic book that Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and her new friend Sam (Keivonn Woodard) find while traveling out of Kansas City with Joel (Pedro Pascal), plus Sam’s older brother Henry (Lamar Johnson). Like a lot of comics language(*), it sounds more dramatic than it actually is, since “endure” and “survive” have roughly similar meanings. But it also speaks to the larger question of the series, and of many post-apocalyptic dramas(**), which is whether mere survival, even in the face of the apocalypse, is enough to make life worth living. Of our two main characters, Joel has clearly settled on this as his motto, but Ellie wants more. She wants to have fun, wants to explore all the artifacts of the before times, wants to live a life.
(*) Or, for that matter, HBO drama language. Remember when Rust Cohle on True Detective explained that time is a flat circle?
(**) Station Eleven, with which Last of Us has a surprising amount in common, was entirely about this theme.
There’s a similar split between Henry and Sam — and, for that matter, between their pursuers, Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) and Perry (Jeffrey Pierce). Sam is sweet and curious and creative, even as he is keenly aware of all the danger that surrounds him and Henry. Henry, on the other hand, just wants to keep Sam alive at all costs, even if it meant selling out Kathleen’s brother and FEDRA’s other subjects, even if it now means they have to leave the only home Sam has ever known. With Kathleen and Perry, it’s a bit different: he seems content to bask in the victory they won over FEDRA and enjoy life as best they can in a city that’s largely free of infected. She needs more, though, even if that more is vengeance for her brother at all costs.
And boy, does it cost her, as well as all of her followers, Henry, Sam, and even Joel and Ellie.
This is just a masterful episode — not as lovely or focused as the Bill and Frank spotlight, but a great example of how strong an on-format Last of Us can be. It takes all the dominoes that were set up last week and knocks them over, one by one, in devastating fashion. It efficiently sets up the brothers and Kathleen as three-dimensional characters whose deaths matter. It’s so potent in its human conflicts, in fact, that it’s easy to forget about the infected at all(*), until Kathleen’s revenge mission inadvertently releases all of them from the underground places they’d been trapped by FEDRA for the last 15 years. (When Joel and company were so hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned by Kathleen’s forces, it did not even occur to me that the infected would prove to be their salvation.)
(*) Because the monsters don’t turn up until the end, the show fortunately doesn’t have to overplay the idea that Sam’s deafness, and how he and Henry communicate inaudibly, is extra valuable in a world where the most deadly creatures can trace you only through sound. It’s also a nice touch that we get subtitles whenever the brothers are talking in a scene from their point of view, but when the perspective shifts back to Joel and Ellie, the captions go away, because they don’t know sign language.
But my lord, when the zombies do emerge from below the earth, it leads to a crackerjack, terrifying action set piece that still manages to feel character-driven, rather than empty spectacle. There’s that moment, for instance, where Ellie emerges from the car where she’d been trapped with an infected little girl. She knows where Joel and his sniper rifle are, and she trusts him by this point to keep her safe while she tries to get Henry and Sam out of danger. She and her protector have become a team in a very short period of time, and the looks on their faces provides something surprisingly upbeat in the middle of all this deadly mayhem. The big-and-tall monster, meanwhile, whose body has been entirely covered in fungus, is a triumph of design and special effects, even as the episode cleverly has Kathleen instead die at the hands of the little girl. She couldn’t let go of her hatred of Henry, and it kills her, Perry, and everyone who trusted her, while returning the city to a condition somehow even worse than when it was under FEDRA’s totalitarian rule.
And yet, the worst in the episode is still to come. Joel, Ellie, Henry, and Sam make it to a motel away from the hell that Kathleen accidentally unleashed. They are all shaken by what happened, but they have endured and survived — or so it seems. While Ellie and Sam are reading the comic again, Sam writes a question that makes Ellie’s stomach lurch, and likely did the same to anyone watching: “If you turn into a monster, is it still you inside.” Sam got bitten during the siege. Rather than tell the adults in the other room what’s happened, Ellie decides to see if putting some of her seemingly magic blood into Sam’s wound will prevent the inevitable.
Narrator: it does not prevent the inevitable.
Instead, Ellie wakes up in the morning to find that Sam has turned. The monster that he has become tries to kill her, and for a moment, Henry holds a gun on Joel to prevent what’s left of his brother from being shot and killed. Or perhaps he just feels like he needs to do it himself, as he fires the fatal bullet a moment later. He has betrayed so many people, has set in motion the events that led to all these deaths, and to the city being overrun again after 15 years of relative safety, all to keep Sam alive. And now, not only has he failed at this, but he has to face the notion that he technically put his brother down. Perhaps Joel could shoulder this burden and move on, given the terrible things in his past that he’s hinted at with Ellie. Henry is not built that way. He has survived, but he cannot endure what he has seen and done, and so he shoots himself to avoid having to live with it all.
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This could easily play as sadistic toward not only the characters, but the audience. (Plenty of other dramas — whether about zombies or about, say, running a funeral home — have been known to decide that suffering is interesting in and of itself.) While it’s a brutal ending to a brutal hour, though, it does not feel unfair or manipulative. It’s sad because this is a sad world. But it’s also a human one, and Sam and the others all feel like people rather than canon fodder. It’s terrible, but it works, down to the concluding beats where we see that Ellie is able to better put this behind her than Joel, who has some unfortunate experience with seeing a beloved child die in front of you.
“Long, Long Time” was, is, and will continue to be the creative peak of this show, at least until Season Two manages to top it. But for Last of Us to work long-term, it has to also be capable of greatness in episodes focusing on Ellie and/or Joel. “Endure and Survive” is more than up to that task.