The Dramatic Core Of The Series19 min read
Last week’s episode of The Last of Us was perhaps the show at its most bleak and devastating. Thankfully, episode six, entitled “Kin,” offers us a bit of a tonal reprieve, with enough scenes of hope and possibility for life in the post-cordyceps world to remind us that it is still possible to carve out lives worth living. That’s not to say that it lacks for emotional impact, however. On the contrary, it contains the scene that arguably serves as the crux for the emotional journey that Joel and Ellie go on together, and it represents the show at its most faithful to the game that inspired it, recreating the scene beat for beat and almost word for word. It’s a good thing, too, as it’s one of those moments that works so well in the game that it’s best left alone. However, the episode also departs from the game in a number of key ways, making it a particularly interesting one to compare and contrast with Naughty Dog’s original version of the tale.
Marlon and Florence
The episode begins by briefly making us re-witness the horrible tragedy that ended episode five. From there, it’s THREE MONTHS LATER, and a landscape covered in snow. Interestingly, the events of this episode correspond to the game’s fall chapter, but the show transplants them to winter. A man is bringing white rabbits he’s killed back to a cabin, perhaps a nod to the scene that opens the game’s winter section, in which a white rabbit emerges from a mound of snow only to be pierced by one of Ellie’s arrows.
At first, I wondered if this might be Joel, thinking maybe he and Ellie had found a place to wait out the harshness of winter. But no, it’s someone else, a man named Marlon, and as he enters the cabin, we see his face: it’s the great actor Graham Greene. Perhaps best known for his performance in Dances with Wolves, Greene is one of those actors who I always felt deserved a more robust and prominent career. Sadly his role here is small, but he makes the most of his screen time.
Waiting for him in the cabin is a woman named Florence (played by the also-fantastic Elaine Miles of Northern Exposure), who tries to tell Marlon something with her eyes. (Neither Marlon nor Florence’s names are spoken in the show, but HBO has revealed them in casting announcements.) As he sets down his bow and takes off his coat, Joel makes his presence known, stepping out with a gun and telling the man to get rid of his. But what makes this scene a pleasure is the way that neither of the cabin’s residents seem all that shaken by Joel’s presence. It’s just one more thing for the two of them to bicker over.
It’s almost comedic, how unaffected they are by Joel’s efforts to be a fairly intimidating interrogator. When Joel says he’s looking for his brother, Marlon immediately says “Well, I ain’t seen him.” When Joel asks him to point out where they are on a map, he says “If you’ve got a map, why are you lost?” When Ellie, hiding out above, asks if she can come down, Joel says no but she does it anyway, prompting Florence to look at Marlon and laugh. Yep, Joel doesn’t exactly have great control of the situation, but these are decent people.
My favorite moment in this scene comes when Joel tells Marlon that he’s found a great place to hide. Marlon says he’s been there since before Joel was born, that he came there to “get the hell away from everybody,” to which Florence volunteers that she didn’t want to, and Marlon sighs and waves his hand dismissively at her. You get a sense of the understanding these two have of each other, having shared a lifetime together. They have great “old married couple” vibes, and after the bleakness of last week’s episode, it’s a welcome reminder that there are still people, here and there, living lives of love and meaning.
They leave Joel and Ellie with a sense of foreboding, however, painting a picture of nearby towns swarming with infected, and when asked for advice on the best way west, Marlon says “go east.” In particular, he warns Joel and Ellie not to go past a nearby river. “We never seen who’s out there, but we seen the bodies they leave behind,” Florence says. “If your brother’s west of the river, he’s gone.”
A more vulnerable Joel
As Joel and Ellie leave the cabin, something alarming happens: Joel has some kind of episode, perhaps a panic attack, that finds him leaning against a post and clutching his chest. Ellie seems concerned about him but in the moment, she may be more worried about herself. “Just a reminder that if you’re dead, I’m fucked,” she says. In the game, Joel doesn’t seem susceptible to issues like this, generally seeming far more physically capable than most people in their mid-50s and only ever appearing physically distressed when he’s seriously injured (more on that later).
This moment works to make Joel seem more human and vulnerable to viewers, and to set up a crisis of self-confidence that he tells his brother about later. It also reminds us of just how much Ellie is relying on him to remain alive and capable, as it crystallizes just how much is at stake for Ellie later when Joel does find himself in real peril. For now, though, Joel soon brushes it off, attributing the fleeting issue to “the cold air all of a sudden,” and Ellie urges them onward in their quest to find Tommy and the Fireflies. “All we have to do is cross the River of Death,” she says.
Ellie the dream astronaut
The corresponding section of the game is just bursting with natural beauty, as Joel and Ellie make their way through a rainy autumn landscape, following a rolling river. I missed that a bit in the more spare but still striking winter landscapes we see Joel and Ellie traverse here, soon passing above what Ellie says is the River of Death Marlon warned them about. They set up camp, where Joel wraps duct tape around his boots, a moment that made me imagine a game mechanic in which you had to do this every so often or Joel would start taking damage from walking around in shoes that were falling apart. It’s not exactly something that happens in the game, but it is one of the show’s rare images of Joel using scrounged supplies as a resource.
Screenshot: Naughty Dog
Ellie’s standing on a nearby rock gazing at the northern lights, leading Joel to say one of the most dad-like things he’s said to Ellie thus far: “Come down from there, you’re gonna break your neck.” And after they share a swig from Joel’s flask (I love Ellie’s little “cheers” gesture before she drinks), she poses a thought experiment: what are we gonna do if the cure works? He pushes back on “we” so fine, she asks what he would like to do. He says maybe get a ranch somewhere—some land, some sheep.
Ellie’s stated desire is one she also voices in the game, and it explains her fascination with the starry sky: if things were different, she would have wanted to be an astronaut. The show’s writers add a nice bit of specificity to it, though, as she names a bunch of famous astronauts she read about in school before asking Joel if he knows who her favorite is. “Sally Ride,” he guesses correctly. “Sally fuckin’ Ride,” she replies. “Best astronaut name ever.” Absolutely.
Here’s another contrast between the game and the show that highlights their different approaches to Joel, and by extension, the relationship between Joel and Ellie. Dreaming of a better world in which her blood has made cordyceps a thing of the past, her thoughts turn to Sam, who she couldn’t save. “I tried, with Sam,” she tells Joel, saying that she rubbed some of her blood into Sam’s bite, hoping it would save him. Joel gives space to her feelings and, wanting to say something supportive, tells Ellie that if Marlene says the Fireflies can make a cure, they can do it.
Screenshot: Naughty Dog
In the game, Ellie also brings up Sam, but Joel reacts very differently. You can stumble on a grave marked with a teddy bear, which prompts Ellie to mention that she forgot to leave a toy robot she’d picked up earlier on Sam’s grave. Joel shuts her down. Ellie protests that she wants to talk about it, which is the most understandable thing in the world. Joel forbids it, saying “Things happen and we move on.” Ellie relents, saying “You’re right, I’m sorry,” even though he’s not right at all. It’s just how Joel has coped with the suffering he’s endured, by not thinking or talking about it at all.
I think both dynamics work well for their respective mediums. In the game, we’re left aching for Joel’s facade to crack a bit, for him to finally start showing a little genuine compassion and tenderness to Ellie. In the show, Joel’s hardly warm, but he’s at least less quick to force her to deny her own feelings, which pulls us into their relationship in a different way: we’re starting to see the possibility for connection between them, which makes it that much more painful later in the episode when Joel does shun Ellie.
Welcome to Jackson
Joel and Ellie press on, at one point overlooking a dam, the show’s way of acknowledging the dam that plays prominently in this stretch of the game. Ellie says “Dam!” to which Joel responds that she’s no Will Livingston, the writer of her trusty book of puns.
Soon they walk past another river, at which point Ellie has an alarming thought: what if this is the River of Death? And sure enough, no sooner does she voice this thought than they find themselves surrounded by riders on horseback, holding them at gunpoint. There’s a harrowing moment in which a dog sniffs them both for signs of infection, and we don’t know if Ellie’s immunity also neutralizes any such signs or if the pup is about to sink his teeth into her neck, but the moment passes as the dog happily licks her face and she laughs. After Joel says that he’s looking for his brother, a woman asks Joel his name. It seems the name Joel means something to her, as they all promptly ride on horseback into the town of Jackson.
This is a significant departure from the game, in which the existence of Jackson is mentioned, but Joel and Ellie don’t actually enter the town. As players, we don’t get a good look at it until Part II. But here, we get to see the settlement now, a place where many families live a fairly normal life in the post-cordyceps world. It’s quite a sight, six episodes in, to see a street busy with foot traffic in a place where children frolic and people are working cooperatively. Among the people laboring on the street is Tommy, Joel’s brother, and the two share a heartfelt reunion. When Tommy asks what the fuck Joel is doing here, he says “I came here to save you,” before laughing at the absurdity of Tommy needing saving.
Joel and Ellie wolf down a meal while Tommy and the woman, whose name we learn is Maria, look on. At one moment, another girl furtively looks at Ellie, until Ellie loudly says “What?!” and scares her off. I imagine this was just a random Jackson resident, but I couldn’t help but think of Dina, a character who, in the second game, comes to play an important role in Ellie’s life. When Joel asks for a moment alone with family, Tommy tells him that Maria is family. The extremely unenthusiastic “congrats” that Joel eventually offers up is one of the funnier moments in the series.
Tommy and Maria give them a tour that covers the exposition bases, explaining how the town got started, how they stay safe from infected, and how it functions day in and day out. “Everything you see in our town—greenhouses, livestock—all shared. Collective ownership,” Tommy says. “So, uh, communism,” Joel says. “It ain’t like that,” Tommy refutes, but Maria corrects him. “It is that. Literally. This is a commune. We’re communists.” I appreciate the matter-of-factness of Maria’s statement, and the depiction of communism as a system that, when applied properly, can be beneficial to all. That’s not something you see in media very often.
Joel and Tommy, reunited
In both the show and the game, Joel and Tommy find themselves with some time to privately catch up as Maria and Ellie also spend a bit of time together. In both cases, tensions between the brothers run high, but there are some key differences as well.
Screenshot: Naughty Dog
In the game, Joel’s stated hope is that Tommy will take Ellie off his hands and deliver her to his former Firefly buddies. Joel’s loss of Sarah is front and center in the scene, as Tommy says he went back down to Texas some time ago and found a photo of Joel and Sarah, which he offers to Joel. “I’m good,” Joel says, refusing the photo. The two get heated when Joel suggests Tommy owes him this favor for the things he did to keep them alive after the pandemic started, and Tommy replies that the horrendous things they did weren’t worth it, that all he has from that time is nightmares. Their argument is interrupted by an attack of marauders before anything can be settled.
In the show, rather than saying he wants Tommy to take Ellie off his hands, Joel says he wants Tommy to accompany him in delivering Ellie to the Fireflies. He lies to Tommy on multiple counts, both telling him that Tess is fine and that Ellie is the daughter of a high-ranking Firefly who he’s trying to reunite with her family. Here, too, Joel tries to use the violence he committed years ago as leverage. Tommy’s more forgiving here than his video game counterpart, but still remains ashamed of what they did. And as in the game, the memory of Sarah is close at hand, but not because of a photograph. Rather, Tommy tells Joel that he can’t go with him to the Firefly base in Colorado because he’s going to be a father. When Tommy says “I feel like I’d be a good dad,” Joel, obviously deep in his own feelings about Sarah, responds with a cold “I guess we’ll find out.” Tommy doesn’t take it well, and says that just because life stopped for Joel, that’s no reason it has to stop for him.
As he heads out into the cold, Joel once again clutches his chest and leans against a pole for support. He sees a woman nearby who, from behind, bears a striking resemblance to Sarah, but of course it’s not her.
Ellie learns about Sarah
In the game, we don’t witness the time Ellie and Maria spend together while Joel and Tommy are talking, but we do later find out that Maria tells Ellie about Sarah. In the show, we see how this discovery takes place.
After taking a shower and emerging to find that Maria has left her new clothes and a menstrual cup (which she finds both gross and amusing), Ellie heads across the street in search of her. She enters Maria and Tommy’s house and sees names and dates written on a chalkboard marking the lives of two people who died young: someone named Kevin, who died at the age of three shortly after Outbreak Day, and someone named Sarah, who died on Outbreak Day at 14.
Maria insists on giving Ellie’s hair a trim, and tells her that she’s always liked cutting hair. “Maybe it was a mom thing,” she says, before mentioning “the little memorial Tommy made” in the living room. “I’m sorry about your kids,” Ellie says, and Maria says only Kevin was hers, Sarah was Joel’s daughter. The heavy silence that follows tells Maria that Ellie didn’t know that before.
“I guess that explains him a little,” Ellie says. Maria, with a sense of cool practicality and likely a wariness of Joel based on the stories Tommy’s told her, expresses concern about Ellie being with him, but the teen remains typically testy. “Tommy [killed people] too, are you worried about him?” she asks. Maria says that Tommy was following Joel, “the way you are now,” seemingly seeing Joel as a bad influence, someone who pulls people into his orbit and leaves harm in his wake. “Be careful who you put your faith in,” she warns Ellie. “The only people who can betray us are the ones we trust.” Ellie clearly resents the advice and Maria’s distrust of Joel, perhaps because she senses there’s good reason for it and doesn’t want to admit it to herself.
The Goodbye Girl
In the town hall, Ellie joins the other youngsters at a screening of the 1977 film The Goodbye Girl. (Jackson likely has a pretty limited selection of film reels on hand.) However, despite the novelty of seeing an actual movie projected on an actual screen, Ellie remains distracted, paying more attention to Tommy and Maria talking nearby than to the wit of Neil Simon’s screenplay.
The show’s writers clearly didn’t pick The Goodbye Girl at random. The plot involves an actor, played by Richard Dreyfuss, forming a connection with a dancer and her ten-year-old daughter. The woman has a history of being abandoned by the men in her life (hence the title), and fears that the actor will do the same. Ellie herself has a history of being left as we’ll soon learn, and her fears of being abandoned by Joel are at a peak in this episode.
Meanwhile, Joel is alone in a workshop, struggling to repair his boots and getting immensely frustrated. Tommy comes in with a peace offering of new boots and an apology for his earlier behavior, saying “I know you’re happy for me, it’s just…it’s complicated for you.” Joel asks Tommy for more details on whether the trip to the University of Eastern Colorado where the Firefly base is located is survivable, and finally offers him the truth: Ellie is immune.
As he tells the story of his journey with Ellie thus far, he appears much more vulnerable than the Joel of the game ever does. No action hero, he admits to being far less capable of recognizing and reacting to threats than he used to be, and to sometimes being paralyzed by fear. “I’m not who I was. I’m weak,” he says, describing those moments where “the fear comes up out of nowhere and my heart feels like it’s stopped.” He’s haunted by dreams he can’t remember but that leave him with the feeling that he’s lost something.
The Joel of the game also tries to pass Ellie off onto Tommy because he’s afraid of the pain of emotional involvement, of potentially losing someone again, but he’s much more guarded about it. This Joel is more overtly shaken, riddled with self-doubt and a crippling fear of failure. He seems to honestly believe, when he says “I have to leave her,” that it would be for Ellie’s own good, that he’s incapable of being the person she needs him to be. He presents it to Tommy as a chance to make up for the awful things they both did, “to bring your kid into a better world.” I think it’s definitely a more emotionally persuasive appeal than the one Joel makes in the game, where Tommy just seems to change his mind and decide that taking Ellie on to Colorado is something he has to do.
When Tommy returns to the town hall after speaking with Joel, the look he gives Maria tells her everything, and the look she gives in response tells us everything about how she feels: That bastard Joel has done it again.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
And now we come to the scene that may be the emotional heart of both the game and the show, a crucial turning point in the central relationship. In the game, Ellie senses that Joel is abandoning her, steals a horse, and rides off to a nearby ranch. Joel and Tommy pursue her, and within the faded normalcy of the old house, she and Joel have an argument that reflects the crisis point in their relationship.
There’s no ranch here in the show, but the house in Jackson they’re staying at offers a similar backdrop of pre-pandemic life, and the conversation between them starts the same way, with Ellie reading an old diary and saying, “Is this really all they had to worry about? Boys? Movies? Deciding which shirt goes with which skirt?”
“If you’re gonna ditch me, ditch me,” she says, telling him that she overheard some of his conversation with Tommy in the workshop. And soon, after asking him what he’s so afraid of, she says “I’m not her, you know,” another line straight from the game and in some ways the emotional excavation of past anguish that both the game and the show have been building up to all along. It’s a scene on which so much hinges in the development of their relationship, and so it’s little surprise that it’s recreated so faithfully here.
Screenshot: Naughty Dog
In both cases, Ellie tells Joel that she’s sorry about his daughter but that she has lost people too, and in both cases, he says “You have no idea what loss is,” a pretty awful (and incorrect) thing for him to say. And in both, she tells him that everyone she’s ever cared about has either died or left her, “everyone—fucking except for you. So don’t tell me that I would be safer with someone else because the truth is that I would just be more scared.” Joel’s painful response: “You’re right, you’re not my daughter, and I sure as hell ain’t your dad.” Both Joels say that soon, they’re going their separate ways. Ellie’s a goodbye girl, all right.
Ellie the human cargo
The next morning, Tommy comes to collect Ellie, who sits with no display of emotion, her things packed, waiting to be carried along on her journey. It made me recall Joel’s comment to her in an earlier episode, “You’re cargo.” The feeling I got here is that this is now how Ellie feels about herself: she’s a thing that needs to be taken to a place for the good of humanity, but as a person there is nobody to whom she means anything, nobody who cares about her for her sake, only for what she might mean for humanity.
Screenshot: Naughty Dog
But when they get to the stables, Joel is saddling up one of the horses. He says he got there 30 minutes ago with the intention of stealing the horse and being on his way, but now, he’s decided Ellie deserves a choice. “I still think you’d be better off with Tommy,” he starts to say before Ellie cuts him off, shoves her stuff into his arms and says “Let’s go.” In the game, Joel just decides he’s continuing on with Ellie. He says to Tommy that his wife kinda scares him and he doesn’t want her coming after him, but it’s obvious that that’s just something he’s saying, and that he’s decided that he belongs by Ellie’s side, for a little longer, at least.
Joel and Tommy share a hug, and as in the game, Tommy tells them that there’s a place in Jackson for them.
To the University of Eastern Colorado
An amusing interlude finds Joel trying to give Ellie a lesson in using a sniper rifle. All her shots miss and she’s convinced the gun doesn’t aim right. As he talks about proper technique, she asks him if he’s trying to shoot the target or get it pregnant. Of course, he hits the target dead on, to which she says “You dick!” as he shrugs and smiles.
Joel also talks a bit about being a contractor. “The Contractor,” Ellie says in a deep voice, as if she’s imagining some kind of construction-oriented superhero. “That’s pretty cool.” “Yeah, we were cool. Everybody loved contractors,” he says. And then, mirroring a conversation from the game, we hear Joel explaining some of the basic rules of football to Ellie.
As they explore the campus of the fictional University of Eastern Colorado, Joel volunteers that, more than running a sheep ranch, he wanted to be a singer, but of course he refuses Ellie’s request that he sing something. (He admits this in the game as well, and without going into specifics, I will say that it becomes more than just a throwaway detail later in the series.) In another moment straight from the game, a group of monkeys scurry away from them as they approach and Ellie confirms that it’s her “first time seeing a monkey.” Soon, though, the stillness of the campus starts to feel ominous, and it’s clear things aren’t quite right.
After finding a map indicating that the Fireflies packed up and headed for Salt Lake City, they see a group of men prowling the campus and attempt to make their escape. But before they can safely leave, a man attacks Joel with a baseball bat which breaks as he strikes a tree. Joel breaks the man’s neck, but in the struggle, the sharp wooden hilt of the bat gets stuck in his abdomen. In the game, Joel is severely injured when he and an attacker go toppling over a railing and he gets impaled on a bit of rebar, leading to a sequence in which Ellie must be Joel’s protector for a time, killing attackers as he limps weakly toward the horse. Even in his injured state, he’s still Joel, though. She says that if she gets him out of this, he really owes her a song and he responds with a dry “You wish.”
Soon they’re safely free of their attackers, but Joel falls off his horse and into the snow, and for the moment at least, Ellie’s worst fear is realized, a fear she admitted to Sam at the end of the previous episode. Just as the two seem to have come to some understanding about their importance to each other, he leaves her. “I can’t fucking do this without you,” she says. “I don’t know where the fuck I’m going or what the fuck I’m gonna do. Joel, please.” But she is alone, as a moody cover of Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” plays, the song that ended the show’s first episode. That choice, the moody cover callback, struck me as a bit cliche, the show going through the motions of doing what we expect prestige TV to do, but given that much of this episode rang emotionally true, I guess I’ll allow it.