As we past the halfway point for HBO’s critically lauded video game adaptation, you can’t claim that the show hasn’t been exploring its title to the fullest. After all, The Last Of Us suggests an exploration of what various examples of humanity chooses to do with itself in the face of near extinction at the moldy hands of marauding fungus covered ghouls. Past episodes have given us everything from a touching, twenty year love story at the end of civilisation to a cynical smuggler finding hope while facing her inevitable death, but with the fifth installment things get noticably (and tragically) more complicated.
Essentially the pay off for all the busy leg work achieved by the previous episode, it’s time to meet Henry and Sam, two brothers that have invoked the wrath of local resistance leader Kathleen and who provide the next harrowing pit stop for Joel and Ellie.
After their entrance into Kansas City caused them to wander into the middle of a manhunt led by a vengeful and brutal woman who has recently overseen a bloody takeover of a FEDRA quarantine zone, Joel and Ellie awake to find themselves held at gunpoint by the very people that are being hunted.
A handy flashback fills us in on the bitter history between Kathleen and brothers Henry and Sam and we join the action just as the last remaining FEDRA forces are brutally dispatched and executed for their 20 year rule that saw a regime of murder, rape and corruption finally become too much for the people of Kansas City. But while the people exercise their violent revolution in the streets, cold-as-ice leader Kathleen has more personal fish to fry as she gathers up known FEDRA informers and conspirators to first grill them of the whereabouts of Henry and then execute the crap out of them for their crimes. It seems that after discovering that the younger Sam had leukaemia, Henry offered up Kathleen’s heroic brother to FEDRA in order to obtain the medicine he so desperately needed to save his brother’s life.
Sparking up an uneasy truce, Joel and Henry pool their knowledge and smarts to cook up a way to escape from Kansas City while Ellie and Sam bond over comic books and general childish tomfoolery, but the plan doesn’t come without significant risk. You see the only way out that isn’t being watched is through the tunnels that run under the city, but the catch is that’s where FEDRA has been the infected contained for close to twenty years. Henry is confident that the spore-laden monsters are long gone but after a slight miscalculation that allows Kathleen to pinpoint their location, both our quartet of escapees and the vengeful resistance are going to discover the true enemy still lurks just below the surface.
So another week, another superlative episode for HBO’s runaway success – but it must be said that the main reason that Endure And Survive rates so highly is that its extremely well judged payoff for all the set up the precious instalment provided making both of them essentially an epic two-parter.
As I mentioned earlier, this time it’s time to dive into the more negative aspects of humanity that sprout to the surface in the event of an invasion of a mind-altering fungal infection which are richly highlighted by both Melanie Lynskey’s determined Kathleen and Lamar Johnson’s desperate Henry who both are responsible for doing awful things for the best of reasons and yet shoulder their justifications completely differently. At first glance (especially in the previous episode) Kathleen seems that she’s a more mumsy version of The Govenor, or Negan from The Walking Dead as she unleashes unimaginable cruelty on those who have wronged her as she aims her army of goons in what seems like a personal grudge. However, the more we find out about her and her almost Christ-like brother, the more it seems that Henry made a legitimately bad decision when playing Judas and even though her methods are somewhat heavy handed (fucking understatement of the year right there), we have to realise that the branch of FEDRA they overthrew was legendarily corrupt and in some ways feels like the overthrowing of the Nazi regime or even the French Revolution. Kathleen’s a monster, of that there is no doubt – but you could argue that she’s an understandable one.
However, Henry situation doesn’t come without a super-sized helping of empathy either thanks to the fact that the hearing-impaired Sam has become his whole world and he would do anything to protect him. However, matters are muddied even further by the fact that you could argue that it was Henry’s actions that finally galvanised the resistance into making their move against FEDRA in the first place.
The world of The Last Of Us is a particularly grey place to start with, but this tug-of-war of ethics makes this arguably greyer than they’ve ever been with Joel and Ellie caught between a brutal warlord who actually has a legitimate grudge and an underdog who is guilty of the crimes he’s being hunted for. But what makes things even more interesting is it turns out both actually know the other’s motives but don’t actually give two shits as things have gone way too far for forgiveness.
There’s a danger that the episode could have just had Joel and Ellie playing piggy in the middle with these two opposing forces, but thankfully, the episode doesn’t let them lapse into being mere bystanders thanks to the the banter they got to enjoy the previous episode and once again, Bella Ramsey comes into her own as Ellie’s allowed to be a kid for just a brief moment as she bonds with Sam before the brutally sobering ending kicks in.
However, before we get there, we get a timely reminder that while humans are undoubtedly a destructive force, there’s still the little matter of scores of ‘shroomy zombies roaming the earth and its here where the epidode truly pushes the bloat out.
That’s right, joining the Runners and Clickers as they stream out of that climatic hole in the ground are the super-sized, hulk-varients called Bloaters that prove to be every bit as intimidating as they are in the game, swatting victims like flies, twisting one poor sod’s head of like a bottle cap and going a good way towards making the ending to this episode legitimately scary.
Then there’s the ending to Henry and Sam’s arc, which is merciless when it comes to hollowing out your very soul like an incredibly raw canoe. But not only does it render everything that has transpired a horrific waste of lives due to the paths stubbonly stuck to by the main players, it also rocks Ellie’s belief in her ability to be a potential cure of humanity.
At the half-way point we find that The Last Of Us is as dark as ever – and yet by bringing back the infected and the scares, it’s still as exhilarating as ever.