The Last Of Us aired two days early this weekend rather than delay a week to avoid conflict with the Super Bowl this coming Sunday. That’s probably a wise move on HBO’s part, and it’s certainly nice for fans. Unfortunately, the episode fell a little short of what’s come before this season, and I can’t help but think it’s partly because what works in a video game just doesn’t always translate to a TV show or film adaptation, especially when the adaptation has a pretty serious tone and (mostly) feels like premiere television.
I mentioned this a bit last week, but ultimately found the video ‘gamey-ness’ of that episode endearing rather than off-putting. When bandits waylay our heroes in Kansas City, the ensuing shoot-out features NPC dialogue that was basically plucked from the video game, and it was pretty corny. That felt like a nice nod to Naughty Dog’s game. This week, while there were some strong moments, felt a lot weaker than what’s come before.
The video game bit in Episode 5 that I’m referring to is the Bloater. Bloaters are a type of Cordyceps mutant-zombie-monster that’s not just more disfigured and sensitive to sound like the Clickers we’ve met earlier, it’s pretty much covered head-to-toe with fungal growth, and somehow it’s grown into a giant. These are the most dangerous types of enemies 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 the games I didn’t really like the Bloaters. They felt the most out-of-place of all the infected, like something you’d add to a game just to make enemies more varied. In the show, the Bloater just seemed super goofy to me. This is a show that’s been pretty gritty and realistic so far (thankfully not just grim, as there are lots of funny and tender moments also) but in this episode that realism came toppling down the moment the Bloater appeared. And I knew it was coming. I just hoped it would work better than it did. Sure, it’s kind of an “oh shit!” moment but . . . then it just feels kinda cheesy.
What did work in this scene were the rest of the infected pouring out of the hole in the earth and overwhelming Kathleen and her thugs. The little girl Clicker was super terrifying and creepy and definitely overshadowed the 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 goons . . . I have to say I feel kind of letdown. I was excited about this character last week, because I love Melanie Lynskey in Yellowjackets, but we really didn’t get enough of her or her people to really justify their existence. A smaller group of bad guys hunting Henry and Sam—maybe even a group of scary white supremacist types—would have been a lot scarier and narratively effective. Instead we get all these vague details about Kathleen’s brother who Henry betrayed to FEDRA to save Sam’s life and Kathleen and Henry both talk about how great he was and then . . . infected come pouring out of the earth, there’s a gunfight, a bunch of people die and Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) escape 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 in the episode were between Sam and Ellie who become fast friends immediately. I loved all these moments—right up to the bitter end. We’re reminded—as is Joel—that Ellie really is a kid. She’s 14 and Sam, who is deaf, is 8, but they hit it off so well and the childlike side of Ellie, sans all her posturing and snark, comes out in spades. The two are adorable, which makes the ending even more awful and horrific.
I guess I wish the show had leaned more into the relationship developed between these four characters rather than spend so much time on Kathleen and her people who, in the end, felt almost unnecessary. We could have had some faceless hunters chasing down Henry and Sam and it would have worked better, allowing more time for the four good guys to bond on-screen. Take out the Bloater also and have a similar showdown with the hunters, hunted and infected (though scaled way down because we just don’t need 75 goons chasing down our heroes in big zombie-proof trucks, this isn’t Mad Max!) and I guarantee it would have felt more intimate and worked better.
In the end, Sam is bitten and reveals this to Ellie who cuts herself, telling him that her blood is medicine. She wipes it on his cut and he asks her if she’ll stay awake with him. Of course, she should have gone and told the adults, but she says she’ll sit with him and then she falls asleep. In the morning, she wakes up and sees Sam sitting on the edge of the bed and she must think that her blood medicine worked because she goes over to him and touches his shoulder. That’s when he turns around, teeth bared, eyes red, snarling and feral and lunges at her. She screams and races into the other room where Joel and Henry watch in horror.
Joel makes for the children but Henry pulls a gun, tells him to stop. Henry is in shock, clearly doesn’t know what to do, but doesn’t want Joel to do anything either. But when Sam leaps for Ellie and she screams, he acts on instinct and shoots his kid 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, their two new friends are dead.
They bury them outside of the little motel and head off, on foot, toward Wyoming. As Joel finishes covering the bodies with dirt, he looks down at the little Etch-a-Sketch pad that Sam carried around and sees the words “I’m Sorry” written on it.
This is both the darkest, most dispiriting episode of the season so far and the one that clicked with me the least. Everything to do with Sam and Henry and Ellie and Joel worked great, but everything else felt sloppy and tacked on, like pieces glued together that didn’t quite fit. Kathleen and her people felt at once like too much and too little, a lot of extra baggage added for very little payoff. Unlike the marvelous Bill and Frank story (which also didn’t really sync with the main plot) this told a story that really didn’t move the needle much. The bulk of the emotional weight took place between the four heroes, with the rebels serving mostly as NPC bad guys with too much backstory.
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