[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Season 1, Episode 5, “Endure and Survive.”]
“Kids die,” she says. “They die all the time. Do you think the whole world revolves around him? That he’s worth everything?”
Kathleen’s question is rhetorical, of course. By the time she finds Henry (Lamar Johnson) and confronts him, she’s made it abundantly clear how she would answer. But there’s hypocrisy in her accusation — a duplicity she can’t recognize through her rage.
Yes, Henry gave up her brother, Michael, the leader of the resistance movement in Kansas City, and Michael was killed by FEDRA soon after. Though we never see or hear from Michael, everyone agrees he was a “great man.” Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), her loyal No. 2, Perry (Jeffrey Pierce, who previously played Tommy in the “Last of Us” video games), and even Henry all sing Michael’s praises. He’s “the kind of man you’d follow anywhere,” and plainly, people did. Henry even goes so far as to claim, “I am the bad guy because I did a bad guy thing.” He knows what he did was wrong, similar to how Kathleen knows what she’s doing is wrong.
But on the outskirts of Killer City, as Kathleen points her gun at Henry and promises to kill Sam (Keivonn Woodard) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), too, the villain is unmistakable. Showing a complete disregard for innocent, young lives is a pretty major tip-off — “kids die, they die all the time” is an all-time cold-blooded bad guy quote, delivered with exhausted gravity by the great Melanie Lynskey — but let’s not forget that Kathleen is also contradicting herself. To her, the whole world revolved around Michael. To her, he is worth everything — not even him, really, but the memory of him. She’s willing to sacrifice the people she leads, herself, and Michael’s “great” name in order to seek vengeance he told her not to pursue.
When the ground sinks and the Infected rise, it’s both inevitable and shocking. The scene quickly descends into a nightmare reminiscent of the episode’s opening, when the Kansas City revolutionaries took their brutal revenge on the remaining FEDRA officers — only this time, they’re the naked prey overwhelmed by insatiable monsters. Violence begets violence, hate begets hate. But Kathleen still gets a second chance. Thanks to Perry’s short-lived protection, she’s lucky enough to escape the initial surge, catching up to Henry, Sam, Ellie, and Joel (Pedro Pascal), who are far enough from the melee to safely get away. But Kathleen can’t let Henry go. He is, after all, her No. 1 priority.
So it’s only fitting that her No. 7 priority eats her fucking face.
“The Last of Us” Episode 5, “Endure and Survive,” is an incredible episode of television, in part because its point shifts depending on your perspective. It’s an endurance test, as its title implies (and grueling losses substantiate), but it’s also a survival thriller. (Our protagonists sneak around the city, there’s a stunning action sequence, and multiple instances of heart-in-your-throat tension.) It’s a tragedy, compounded across an array of characters, while still illustrating Joel’s growth since meeting Ellie. (He does invite Henry and Sam to travel with them, after all.) It’s the second part to the series’ Kansas City duology, but it’s also in direct dialogue with Episode 3, “Long, Long Time.”
Let’s unpack their relationship a bit. The bittersweet third hour departs from Joel and Ellie’s journey to visit Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) — chronicling a life-changing romance. Here, love brings people together for the better. Loving Frank changes Bill from a stubborn, lonely curmudgeon into a slightly less stubborn, fulfilled caregiver. In his own words, love makes him hate the world less and like people more. But in Episode 5, love tears people apart. Kathleen’s love for her brother consumes her. It twists her soul and shatters her moral compass. The loss is simply too great for her to bear.
The same can be said for Henry, at least when it comes to loss. Losing Sam breaks his heart. His brother’s change is so sudden, his reaction so swift, that as soon as the pain of Sam’s death starts to dawn on him, Henry can’t stand it, and he takes his own life. Notably, Joel tries to stop him, and whether that’s instinctual or something deeper, we may never know. But we do know that Joel lost his daughter when she wasn’t much older than Henry’s brother. They are both men who lose the one person they loved most. It broke Henry before he had a chance to process anything beyond the hurt. Did it break Joel, too? Slowly, over decades of heartache? “You keep going for family,” Joel says in Episode 4, when Ellie wonders why he bothers to go on without any hope for a better future. “That’s about it.”
Beyond Episode 3 and Episode 5’s emotional duality, “Endure and Survive” is a potent examination of heroes and villains, one of the show’s favorite themes. (Perhaps some of you heard co-creator Neil Druckmann, during the fourth episode’s BTS featurette, discuss how much he loves humanizing villains.) What are we to make of Henry’s fate? Of Sam’s? Kathleen’s is somewhat straightforward, given her comeuppance, and Sam’s is, too, since nothing that happens is his fault. He had no say over attacking Ellie, just as he had no say over the Leukemia that first threatened his life and caused Henry to defend it.
But Henry’s role in all this is complicated. If he didn’t give up Michael to FEDRA, could the beloved leader have led a less-violent uprising? Might the scene that opened Episode 5 been a more peaceful surrender, where the abusive government forces surrendered and were provided fair trials instead of ruthless beatings? Is a leader who can save hundreds of lives not worth protecting, too? Of course, FEDRA may have never been defeated in the first place if not for Michael’s martyrdom. Perry tells Kathleen that they all loved Michael, but “he didn’t change anything — you did,” implying her vengeful leadership was needed for the rebels to take control of the city.
So… what’s the right choice? What should Henry have done? What should any of them have done? The simplest answer is the one Kathleen outright rejects: forgiveness. “What did [Michael] get from that?” she asks (again, rhetorically). “Where is the justice in that? What is the point of that?” Well, Kathleen, the point is that it allows you to move forward. It preserves your heart and protects others. There are literal health benefits, too, but for your immediate purposes, it saves lives. Just look at everyone who died in its absence.
Preaching forgiveness is easier than doling it out, and the messiness inherent to Episode 5 is intentional. Craig Mazin and Druckmann upend the simple labels often applied to action-adventures, if not stories at large, and acknowledge that life is full of difficult choices that don’t have clean answers — pre- or post-apocalypse. Audiences have been challenged with similar ideas throughout TV’s age of antiheroes, but rarely are the provocations this pointed, the decisions this drastic, and the resulting conclusions this open-ended.
But as Ellie forces herself to trudge onward and Joel dutifully follows, “The Last of Us” refocuses on its central duo. Joel’s mission — handed down by Tess (Anna Torv) in her last words and reinforced by Bill’s letter — is to save who he can save. Does that mean one kid? One life? Does he think the whole world revolves around her? That she’s worth everything?
“The Last of Us” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max.
• Keivonn Woodard, as Sam, and Lamar Johnson as his big brother Henry, are exceptional in small moments. I loved Woodard’s exasperated demands after spending 10 days in hiding; his big gestures perfectly illustrated just how dire their situation had become, mainly because his actions up until that point had been small, even reserved. Johnson, meanwhile, never goes too big, despite the extreme pressures put upon his character. Together, they keep us grounded in Henry and Sam’s plight, while drawing us into their relationship. (Look out for an interview with the two of them soon, right here at IndieWire.)
• “So you could get fucking apples?” Can I just say… “wow!” What a line! Melanie Lynskey’s initial interrogation scene — where she questions the FEDRA informants who betrayed her cause — is going to be recreated for years in acting classes across Hollywood, and I doubt anyone who attempts the pseudo-monologue will be able to capture the original performer’s level of barely checked contempt, casual urgency, or thoughtless cruelty. Lynskey is always her own best advocate — via her talent, first and foremost, but also via Twitter — and yet it still must be said: What an actor.
• Henry and Joel offer plenty of intriguing parallels (as outlined above), but it’s worth noting their differing styles as elder caretakers just trying to survive. Well, Joel is just trying to survive; Henry is trying to provide comfort to a scared kid. “He’s scared because you’re scared,” Henry is told, and rather than not give a shit (the Joel way), he takes time to talk to his little brother, listen, and engage. He encourages Sam to paint. He helps turn their hideout into a home. Together, they bring beauty into an ugly situation, and it’s all because Henry sets the tone. Joel’s tone is angry, hostile, and unsparing — which Ellie is learning to mimic, as seen repeatedly during their time in Kansas City. She wipes away tears after shooting Joel’s attacker, refusing to let herself feel for him. She does the same after burying Sam. Joel is instilling fear in Ellie to protect her. Henry did the same for Sam, but with hope. Just look at that superhero mask.