After last week’s searing departure from gameplay adaptation, The Last of Us returns with a pure Joel and Ellie episode that begins to soften the edges. At only 45 minutes, though, it’s hard not to feel slightly shortchanged given last week’s feature-length masterpiece. What the audience can be comforted by is that Mazin and Druckmann know this story inside out – where to take it and how to move it – so, if Episode 4 needs to be 45 minutes, then respectfully so be it. With its compact running time, it is able to progress the story to its next major checkpoint in the form of Kansas City. Where they would have liked to maintain the wide open spaces of the interstate, Joel is forced through the confines of the city, skirting just outside the KC QZ, as a result of a jackknifed Sara Lee truck blocking their passage. Whether or not this is a playful nod to the integral presence of comparable Hostess products in Zombieland is anyone’s guess, but it sure is fun to speculate.
Once in an urban setting, their vehicle is almost immediately set upon by undefined armed human forces (not Fedra, not Fireflies) who quickly render it useless. Joel manages to dispatch the attackers with Ellie’s stealthy assistance, and they are on foot to cross and escape the city to resume their cross-country voyage to Tommy’s last known Wyoming post. In gameplay terms, this would appear as a sudden blocker forcing a treacherous action-packed detour – A to B surviving by going the long way around. Mazin’s adaption, however, as is now known, is less about the physical progress and more about the relationships. While the game has humanity in droves and is largely the basis for its lasting appeal, the pacing dictated by the medium, though endlessly cinematic, just doesn’t allow for the time to be taken in the same way when it comes to developing characters, even if what it does achieve on that front is arguably more than any game ever has.
What really is at the core of this episode is the blossom of the bond between Joel and Ellie. Where there was still a distance and coldness in Joel prior to the story of Bill and Frank, on return from last week’s departure having had the opportunity to dwell in the beauty of connection, Joel himself starts to show warmth and care for Ellie in its wake. It cannot be understated how brilliant this level of storytelling is in the way that it takes the audience into account where its delivery is concerned. Bill and Frank engaged the heartstrings in an isolated fashion so that the relationship at the story’s core could be prepped for full deployment. Honestly, it’s unfathomably considered.
So far, Joel’s guard is only briefly down in places. He’s happy to share with her for the first time that he still has a sense of humour tucked away and, rather than being upset that she has kept a firearm from him since they left Bill’s, instead is sympathetic to the point that she was forced to exist in a situation that caused her to have to use it at all. Again, such layered consideration within the writing of the characters in regards to how compassion is able to be appropriately evidenced in a world so relentlessly uncompassionate.
Elsewhere, Melanie Lynskey makes her first appearance of the season as the apparent leader of the as yet unknown quantity of well-armed, well-organised, non-affiliated human folk who it would appear are on the hunt for the mysterious Henry and his son, Sam. Their exact value is yet untold, but it is suggested to be high given the resource they seem prepared to sacrifice to find them. Instead of a quiet night’s rest for Joel and Ellie though, it seems as if Henry and Sam have been doing some tracking of their own…
The Last Of Us is currently streaming on HBO Max, with Episode Five available this week from FRIDAY, February 10th.