The last of us aired two days early this weekend, instead of being delayed a week to avoid conflict with the Super Bowl next Sunday. That’s probably a wise move on HBO’s part, and it’s certainly good for fans. Sadly, the episode fell a bit short of what came before it this season, and I can’t help but think that’s partly because what works in a video game doesn’t always translate to a TV show or movie adaptation, especially when the adaptation has a rather serious tone and (mostly) feels like a television premiere.
I mentioned this quite a bit last week, but ultimately I found the ‘game’ video of this episode endearing rather than off-putting. When bad guys attack our heroes in Kansas City, the ensuing firefight features NPC dialogue that was basically lifted from the video game and was pretty cheesy. That felt like a good nod to Naughty Dog’s game. This week, while there were some strong moments, felt much weaker than previous ones.
The video game part in episode 5 I’m referring to is the Bloater. Bloaters are a mutant-zombie-monster type of Cordyceps that is not only more disfigured and sound-sensitive like the Clickers we’ve known before, it’s practically covered from head to toe in fungal growth, and has somehow become a giant. These are the most dangerous enemy types in The last of us, a rare fourth-stage evolution of the infected that are powerful, aggressive, and deadly, but also slow and clumsy.
Even in games I didn’t like Bloaters very much. They felt the most out of place of all the infected, like something you’d add to a game just to make the enemies more varied. At the show, Bloater looked super goofy to me. This is a show that’s been pretty gritty and realistic so far (thankfully not just dark as there are plenty of funny and tender moments too), but in this episode the realism came crashing down the moment the Bloater showed up. And I knew it was coming. I just hoped it worked better than it did. Of course, it’s kind of an “oh shit!” moment but. . . so it seems kind of corny.
What worked in this scene was the rest of the infected coming out of the hole in the earth and crushing Kathleen and her henchmen. Little Clicker girl was super terrifying and scary and definitely overshadowed Bloater for me. She gets Kathleen in the end which was a nice touch. I was getting M3GAN vibes big time.
As for Kathleen and her henchmen. . . I must say I feel a little disappointed. I was excited about this character last week because I love Melanie Lynskey in yellow jackets, but we really can’t get enough of her or her people to really justify her existence. A smaller group of bad guys hunting Henry and Sam – perhaps even a group of scary white supremacist types – would have been much scarier and narratively effective. Instead we get all these vague details about Kathleen’s brother who Henry betrayed to PHEDRA to save Sam’s life and Kathleen and Henry talk about how good he was and then. . . infected come out of the ground, there’s a shootout, a bunch of people die, and Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) run away with Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard) and get the hell out of Dodge. Or, well, out of Kansas City (which was Pittsburgh in the game).
The best parts of the episode were between Sam and Ellie, who became friends right away. I loved all those moments – until the bitter end. We are reminded – as is Joel – that Ellie really is a child. She is 14 and Sam, who is deaf, is 8, but they get along so well and Ellie’s childlike side, without all her posturing and sarcasm, comes out in abundance. The two are adorable, which makes the ending all the more terrible and gruesome.
I think I wish the show had focused more on the relationships that developed between these four characters, rather than spending so much time with Kathleen and her people that, in the end, it almost felt unnecessary. We could have had some faceless hunters chasing Henry and Sam and it would have worked better, allowing more time for the four good guys to bond on screen. Eliminate the Bloater as well and have a similar confrontation with the Hunters, Hunted and Infected (albeit scaled down because we just don’t need 75 henchmen chasing our heroes in big zombie-proof trucks, that’s not Mad Max!) and I guarantee it would be more intimate and work better.
In the end, Sam is bitten and reveals this to Ellie, who cuts herself, telling him that her blood is medicine. She cleans up on her cut and he asks if she’s going to stay up with him. Of course, she should have told the adults, but she says she’s going to sit with him and then falls asleep. In the morning she wakes up to see Sam sitting on the edge of the bed and she must think her blood medicine has worked because she walks over to him and touches his shoulder. That’s when he turns, teeth bared, eyes red, snarling and ferocious, and lunges at her. She screams and runs into the other room where Joel and Henry watch in horror.
Joel goes after the kids, but Henry pulls out a gun and tells him to stop. Henry is in shock, he clearly doesn’t know what to do, but he doesn’t want Joel to do anything either. But when Sam jumps at Ellie and she screams, he acts on instinct and shoots his little brother in the head. Horrified, he says “What did I do? What did I do?” Joel tells him to give him the gun, but Henry points the gun at his own head and pulls the trigger. And just like that, his two new friends are dead.
They bury them outside the small motel and set off on foot towards Wyoming. When Joel finishes covering the bodies in dirt, he looks down at the small Etch-a-Sketch pad Sam was carrying and sees the words “I’m Sorry” written on it.
This is the darkest and most disheartening episode of the season so far and the one that moved me the least. Everything related to Sam, Henry, Ellie and Joel worked great, but everything else felt sloppy and stuck together, like pieces glued together that didn’t quite fit. Kathleen and her people seemed both too much and too little, too much added baggage for too little return. Unlike the wonderful story of Bill and Frank (which also didn’t sync with the main plot), this told a story that didn’t really move the needle all that much. Most of the emotional weight took place between the four heroes, with the Rebels serving primarily as NPC thugs with a lot of backstory.
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