[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Episode 4, “Please Hold My Hand.”]
Who knows if it continues for the entire season, but “The Last of Us” has worked “keeping at a remove” into the fabric of the show. Between some of the more vicious attacks in Outbreak Day, the swarm underneath the sunlight in the heart of Boston, and Bill and Frank during their first meal, “The Last of Us” has introduced crucial ideas and key moments from a distance, leaving room for things to get tenser as they get closer.
Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is a frequent exception, as evidenced from the very top of “Please Hold My Hand,” which finds her doing her best Travis Bickle (organically, since Scorsese movies probably aren’t a top curriculum choice at FEDRA schools). Away from home and freed from having to stick to any details about herself other than the one that makes her the most valuable human alive, she’s trying the gun from Bill and Frank’s house on for size.
For as much as death has loomed over these early episodes, “The Last of Us” has also found plenty of time for silence. That Ellie mirror sequence, Joel (Pedro Pascal) siphoning off gas, and much of their eventual night in the forest all play out calmly. As tough as their journey has been so far (and sure seems like it’s about to get even tougher going forward), there’s been a patience to how Joel and Ellie have gone from state to state. “The Last of Us” doesn’t just feature the interruptions and setbacks, while skipping over the smoother sailing. Writers and co-creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin recognize the need to have a balance between the two. There’s anxiety that comes from fighting for your life, but there’s also anxiety in having to get across all the territory to even have a chance to do it.
It’s no small feat to find both in an episode that’s a lean 45 minutes, especially after last week’s sweeping, feature-length “Long, Long Time.” As much as the outside world feels expansive, with all that Midwest space for them to get across, that distance does gets shrunk the closer the show gets to Joel and Ellie. It goes for their personal histories, too, with Joel letting more info about Tommy slip past his defenses. At this point, the show is radiating out from them.
As easy as it would be to paint Joel as the wizened expert who always succeeds unless there’s an obstacle in his path, “The Last of Us” is showing how he doesn’t always learn from his mistakes. Just like in the failed attempt to get out of Austin during Outbreak Day, here’s another off-the-freeway shortcut that doesn’t work out so well for him. Driving through the abandoned streets of Kansas City — presumably, Kauffman Stadium is somewhere just out of frame, with Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney, and Raul Ibanez banners still hanging on the outside — the Chevy is met with a giant hunk of debris through its windshield, sending the car careening through a storefront window.
During the shootout that comes after, as Ellie is scrambling to safety, director Jeremy Webb never really shows us the other side. “The Last of Us” is taking its cues from Joel’s worldview: Never get too close and don’t ask questions. Of course, that plan gets foiled when the last guy surviving from the ambush team is left to beg for his life. It’s another in a growing “The Last of Us” list of people facing almost certain death. Sarah and Tess stared down the end with wordless fear. Brian takes a different approach, bargaining with everything he has on hand and appealing to the parts of Joel and Ellie that would have a harder time killing someone who has a name.
As Ellie cries in the convenience store cutout, Joel ensures that no survivors are left to spread word around town. The sound team gets a moment to shine when Ellie can only hear what’s happening a room over. That stomach-churning stab echoes with a real purpose. Not only does it remind everyone involve that Joel is making an active decision to kill that young man, he’s saving a bullet they either don’t have or don’t want to waste.
Another round of downtime in their high-rise apartment hideout lets “The Last of Us” do something else it’s been effective at doing so far. None of these kills or these narrow escapes get left behind. As much as Joel wants to shut off any talk about the past, both he and Ellie have to shoulder the psychological weight of what they’ve each done to survive this long. They’re dancing around it for now, but more details start to drip into their conversation about the experiences that have become very un-hypothetical for them. The ultra-corny dad jokes start to be less of an affect or a cute nod to the game and more a necessary coping mechanism for getting through each new day.
Of course, they’re far from the only ones who have to do that. Cue Kathleen and Melanie Lynskey’s big entrance. As was made public when she was cast, Kathleen is an invention of the show (a second significant departure of the show from its source material in as many weeks). In her introduction, Kathleen is both good cop and bad cop, trying to get information out of someone with reasoned conversation before resorting to sheer force. It’s the same deep-end approach to painting a picture of urgency that the opening episode did with the Fireflies: Show some folks deeply invested in an outcome and leave the details of that mission to trickle out later.
That puts extra emphasis on Kathleen’s methods. Like Brian in the convenience store, the doctor is another example of someone trying to find the magic emotional nerve that will convince someone else to keep them alive. And like Brian, it doesn’t work. Kathleen responds to the deaths of the ambushers with a swift, callous execution of the doctor. With a symbol of her rashness as a leader, a sign that her vision of Kansas City’s future doesn’t have a need for one more delivery room expert, and an overall unfeeling threat to Joel and Ellie (not to mention the whispered-about Henry and Sam), Kathleen now enters as a significant force in this “The Last of Us” ecosystem. She’s not afraid to twist details to rally her people and it sure seems like a cordyceps-resistant teenage girl is the kind of bargaining chip she’d like to use to strengthen her standing on the former Kansas-Missouri border.
With all those clear indications of who Kathleen is as a leader, “Please Hold My Hand” is still coy about what precisely is fueling this animosity. With that as the hook, you could make an argument that this episode works as the fourth “The Last of Us” pilot so far, leaving behind yet another environment and jumping right into unfamiliar territory. Each of these four episodes have begun as a jumping-off point for a new phase of the show, only to leave that path closed off by chapter’s end. On the surface, that might not be a sustainable approach for the entire season, but a lot should hinge on what Henry and Sam bring to this quest in the weeks to come.
Sam’s last-second introduction here also comes with a fun little metatextual game from the show. That gentle, acoustic coffeehouse-seeming song that plays over the end credits is Lotte Kestner’s version of New Order’s “True Faith.” We know that ’80s songs mean trouble in “The Last of Us,” but what about covers? Are they fresh versions of older horrors, like whatever is causing the cement to vibrate the floor in that storage room that Kathleen has sealed up? Do they mean someone like Ellie, who can take the harrowing parts of the past and spin them into a glimmer of hope for the future? Or are our two main characters destined to look over their shoulder and spread hunks of glass on the floor near their beds for the rest of their lives? All questions that might just get a little clarification when we get past the season’s halfway point next week.
“The Last of Us” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max.
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