Joel and Ellie accomplish one part of their quest, but find devastating complications when they try to fulfill the rest.
For the first time since the premiere, Joel was reunited with family as he and Ellie fulfilled his part of their joint quest on "The Last of Us." The other half, though, is not going nearly so well.
After last week's cordyceps-heavy episode, they were completely absent from this week's fare. In fact, there were very few real threats in this entire hour -- though just enough to possibly destroy every hope for a cure!
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Picking up three months later, it was clear right away that Ellie's incessant curiosity about the world and constant chatter were starting to wear down Joel's defenses about this little girl who reminds him a little too much of his daughter.
Sarah may have been gone nigh 20 years now, lost in the earliest moments of the outbreak, but it's clear that her life and memory are as fresh today for Joel as they were then. Like many who suffer trauma, Joel is fixated on that moment of loss, unable to fully move on.
That pain was so raw, it finally spilled over this week in an unexpected scene we have to cynically admit we were questioning its sincerity. It was an action-packed episode with very little action -- ironically enough -- across three distinct scenes.
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Inside the Cabin of Charm
Our favorite by far had to be the opening sequence, featuring the most charming and delightful guest stars we've seen yet. And we were so happy that they were the first guests we've met on the journey who were still alive when Joel and Ellie moved on.
We were also heartbroken that the scene had to be so short. Elaine Miles absolutely stole the whole thing as the wife of Graham Greene, both portraying Natives who forsake the world long before it became an infected hellscape -- much to her chagrin.
She was so sweet and charming throughout, while Greene's character took a little longer to warm up to these gun-toting intruders demanding to know where a guy named Tommy is. As always, Joel is brusque and unpleasant while Ellie is crude and charming, ultimately winning people over.
It was just a few moments, but these two were such a breath of fresh air and exactly the light-hearted palette cleanser we needed before the heavier stuff to come.
They did leave our intrepid duo with a warning about the "river of death" just across the way, from which no on had returned alive. They'd even found bodies along the way. Turns out there is some truth to those words.
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Across the "River of Death"
It turns out there was a reason that Tommy stopped responding to Joel via the radio way back at the beginning of the series. It just wasn't anything like what Joel had thought.
As he and Ellie approached the "River of Death," they found themselves surrounded by riders on horseback ... with a dog that could sniff out the infected. Joel, obviously, was sniffed clear. Ellie, on the other hand, was terrified of what the dog might smell.
Thankfully, after a tense few moments of growls during which Joel stood silently by, she and the dog became fast friends. It was after Joel told the woman in charge why they were there and who his brother was that things changed.
They were brought back to a walled-in shelter that looked like a cross between an Old West town and a modern small town's Main Street. They had electricity, running water, indoor plumbing and even schools and shops for the 300 or so residents, adults and children.
They also had Tommy.
The culture shock continued after Tommy revealed that the woman who brought them in was a member of the community's council and also his wife ... and also pregnant! A lot has changed since Joel lost touch.
As for why Tommy stopped responding, the remote mountain community keeps itself safe by staying off the radios and limiting all outside communication. They picked Tommy up after he left the Fireflies, and he chose to abide by their rules.
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Inside Joel's Tortured Mind
His and Joel's relationship has been fraught with complications from the jump, but definitely strained more so after the outbreak. As Joel descended into darkness, Tommy was right there by his side. But as Tommy clawed his way out, it was harder and harder to reconcile their shared past, and thus his relationship with his brother.
Even now, Joel is still in the throes of his own struggle to climb from that darkness. The problem is that the way to do that is to open his heart up again to people, and that's the hardest thing for him to do.
Ellie saw a memorial in Tommy and Maria's house for Maria's child and for Sarah, Joel's daughter. Joel had never told Ellie about his past, meaning this came as both a shock and a bit of insight into how he operates and the darkness he carries.
She also managed to overhear something she probably shouldn't have. Joel had wanted Tommy to join him and Ellie on the rest of their journey to bring her to the Fireflies, but Tommy shared that as a new father-to-be, he didn't want to take those kinds of risks.
Later, Joel broke down emotionally explaining some things that had been happening throughout the season and in this episode, in particular. Twice in this hour -- once outside the cabin and once in the community -- Joel had paused and clutched his heart as if suffering an episode.
He feared that he wasn't up to getting Ellie safely the rest of the way, even though he'd brought her this far. But it wasn't just those moments. He recalled how it was Ellie who saved him from getting killed by shooting someone. He explained how it was Henry who'd saved Ellie by shooting his own brother. And he explained how he just stood there while the dog sniffed Ellie, even after being told it would tear her apart if she was infected.
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Whatever badass he had been, Joel feared he was losing his edge. More likely, he was reclaiming his humanity and compassion for others, which was manifesting in fear. As he teared up, though, we found ourselves wondering if it was a ploy to trick Tommy into taking Ellie the rest of the way alone.
Turns out, though, he was totally sincere. It's just that Ellie heard the conversation, leading to their most brutal confrontation yet. Ellie lashed out at him for abandoning her, during which Joel was able to be stoic. When she apologized for his loss of Sarah, though, he switched to anger.
Anger, after all, is the best defense to being genuinely vulnerable and dealing with deeper emotions like sadness, regret and heartache. So he attacked her verbally, telling her she doesn't know anything about pain.
She shot back that everyone she had ever cared about had either died or left her; everyone except for him. He then made it everyone, period, by telling her she's not his daughter and he's not her dad and they'd be going their separate ways.
Whether he wanted to admit it or not, though, he was like a father figure. In that moment, he was teaching her to harden her heart. Maria had previously foreshadowed this moment by telling her the only ones who can betray you are those you trust, as this was a betrayal of the heart.
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Among the Monkeys
By the next morning, though, Joel had reconsidered. Actually, as he he was prepping to steal a horse, he reconsidered. Despite his efforts to be tough and cold and emotionless, he just can't do it. He cares about this kid.
He said he wanted to give Ellie the choice of which brother she'd feel safer with, and with zero hesitation she was ready to ride off with him. This time, he stopped resisting her desire for him to teach her how to shoot.
We got an adorable scene of her terrible shooting, as well as stunning vignettes of them riding toward where Tommy said the Fireflies were last at, the University of Eastern Colorado. Joel taught Ellie about the world that was, including what he used to do and even how football worked.
This was a huge change from previous travels that saw mostly Ellie talking and Joel grunting here or there. Now, it was Joel who seemed to be doing most of the talking, or at least giving as well as he was receiving. That blowup over Sarah, probably never talked about, was a turning point in their deepening relationship.
When they finally arrive at the university, they find it abandoned save for the lab monkeys that had escape their facilities and had the run of the campus. They made it as far as finding a map suggesting the Fireflies had relocated to Salt Lake City before things took a turn.
A peek out the window showed them four raiders walking by. An attempt to sneak back out and get on their horse before anyone caught them went awry when one of the raiders came upon them.
He and Joel grappled and Joel ultimately snapped his neck, but not before taking off a broken bat handle into the gut. He, perhaps foolishly, pulled it out. They managed to get on horseback and escape the other raiders (luckily without guns) but the damage had been done.
The episode ended with Joel finally slumping off of the horse and onto the ground. Ellie tries to get him to wake up, but he is fully unconscious and still losing a lot of blood. So there she is, alone in the cold with a horse and a dude twice her size unconscious and bleeding out.
Bella Ramsey sells the anguish and fear of the moment, looking down at this man she's come to see as a father and a caretaker and protector, helpless. She's never looked more alone as the camera pans out to show just how small they are in the vastness of winter.
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Casting and Characters
As always, "The Last of Us" succeeds on so many levels, but so much credit has to be given to the incredible casting and development of characters. Even short-term characters like Marlon and Florence (Green and Miles) are so fully realized, we believe them to exist out there somewhere.
Rutina Wesley brings that same fire and drive that made her a fan-favorite on "True Blood," mixed with some motherly affection and concern to great affect as Maria, and she and Tommy share a genuine chemistry.
Critics and fans will be analyzing why this show is being so well-received for years to come and we can see it becoming a template at other networks for how to craft genuinely quality programming. Truthfully, it's success is owed to so many disparate things, but the heart is these characters and the actors who bring them to life.
It would be nothing without the stunning cinematography and amazing set design work making this destroyed world look fully lived in. Add to that spectacular special effects as needed and there's a sense that this place is real and out there somewhere -- though we don't need to go live there.
The focus, though, has been on the humanity of these characters first brought to life (most of them) in the video game of the same name. Expanding the subtext into a full-blown love story between Bill and Frank (Nick Offerman and Murry Bartlett) is a testament to the care the writing team put into translating this to a new medium, and how much they considered each of these characters in the adaptation.
It's not just about taking what happened there and making that thing happen here. It's about pulling out each character, exploring their motivations and what it is that they care about, and then reinserting them into the story in a way that pushes those elements to the front.
Even Melanie Lynskey's Kathleen managed to avoid becoming a cartoon villain by peeling back the layers of her behavior to truly understand what is driving her to do such callous and horrific things -- and what it is inside her that's choosing to never stop.
A story of the road with guest stars coming and going, it's obviously the core relationship that matters so much. But seeing all of these other fully-realized individuals helps both to contextualize the world around Joel and Ellie as well as reflect back upon them all the disparate options in front of them in how to respond to it.
"The Last of Us" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.