The Last of Us Recap: Kansas City, Here We Come

The Last of Us

Please Hold to My Hand
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

The Last of Us

Please Hold to My Hand
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Vulture; Photo: HBO

“Please Hold My Hand,” the fourth episode of The Last of Us’s first season, opens with Ellie doing her best Travis Bickle impression. Standing in front of a mirror at a gas station somewhere in the middle of nowhere, she assumes tough-guy poses as she points the gun at herself in the mirror while making the classic “pew-pew” noise of playing kids everywhere. She looks like a kid while she does it, too. Nothing in Ellie’s routine makes it seem like she’s eager to use the gun, but she sure likes having it. By the episode’s end, that gun-toting fantasy will have given way to the reality of actual bloodshed.

For the first half of the episode, however, Joel and Ellie seem to have the whole world to themselves. When we last saw the two making a stop, it was part of a plan, a visit to a convenience store that Joel used to stash weaponry and other supplies. This, however, is different. It’s a stop made necessary by waterlike wasteland gasoline, and it doubles as a reminder they’re now in uncharted territory. While they stop, Joel reminisces about how in the pre-Infected times, people could go anywhere. When Ellie asks where he went, Joel replies, “Pretty much nowhere.”

“Pretty much nowhere” also aptly describes their surroundings. They have the whole of the Midwest’s highway system to themselves and plenty of time on their hands. Ellie decides to break the silence with some jokes from No Pun Intended Volume Too, which crack Ellie up and make Joel shake his head “no.” But it’s easy to see he’s softening toward his passenger.

He’s also loosening up in other ways, at least up to a point. As they drive, Joel tells her she’ll most likely see tanks and helicopters at some point, machines designed to “fight the wrong enemy,” and describes Hank Williams as a “winner” when Ellie finds a tape of his greatest hits. He’s less thrilled, however, when Ellie starts browsing a magazine filled with nude men, saying, “That’s not for kids.” Once a dad, always a dad. (He needn’t have bothered. Ellie tosses it out the window after getting a glimpse of “what the fuss is all about.”)

The montage that follows, set to Williams’s “Alone and Forsaken,” is both chilling and strangely beautiful, offering snapshots of the world that was: a rotting amusement park, rusting tanks, a collapsed train trestle, and an Arby’s. (That’s two episodes in a row with Arby’s references. Does that make it the official fast food of the Cordyceps apocalypse?) Their trip, even being in a car, is a journey previously beyond Ellie’s imagination. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be dull.

But just because there’s no one in sight doesn’t mean there’s no one around. While eating cold Chef Boyardee, Joel tells Ellie they can’t start a fire, but not because of the Infected. They’re not that smart — they are, after all, walking fungi — and it’s too remote for them anyway. But it’s not too remote for humans, who are the real threat, people with “way more in mind” than mere robbery. After delivering another pun, Ellie seeks comfort from Joel, who reassures her that no one will find them. But it sounds more like an attempt at reassurance than a statement of fact.

The Last of Us has previously made allusions to slavers, and we saw a group of raiders in action (if unsuccessfully) in the previous episode. The Infected can be blamed for the current state of the world, but much of the destruction and cruelty within it predates the Cordyceps making the leap to humans. The Cordyceps merely let it loose. Joel is not innocent of it himself. When Ellie tries to fill the time asking about his past — and with it, Tommy’s past — he doesn’t want to lie but provides as few details as possible. Tommy is a joiner driven by the need to save others, a need that took him to Desert Storm in Iraq, then postapocalypse led him first to become part of a group bound for Boston, then the Fireflies. Initially, Joel joined along with him, meeting Tess on the Texas-to-Massachusetts trek. It’s a journey they survived, we’ll later learn, at the expense of others, some of them innocent. “That whole crew, we, uh … For what it was, it worked,” Joel says. There’s a lot he’s not saying.

He is, however, blunt in describing his motivations for staying with Ellie. She’s “cargo.” He does what he does for family, a category to which, for all his fatherly behavior, he expressly tells her she does not belong. She’s the fulfillment of a last wish made by a woman he loved, and one who was with him through some hard times during which he did things he’d rather not remember.

If Ellie’s hurt by being described as cargo, she doesn’t show it. She falls asleep as Joel continues the drive, then wakes up to a crisis: an unplanned stop in Kansas City necessitated by a clogged underpass (one that may have been jammed up during the outbreak or may have been set up as a dead end to trap travelers). Joel decides to head through town, a place filled with piles of bones. But that’s not the only ominous detail. Like Boston, it has a Quarantine Zone. Unlike Boston, FEDRA is nowhere to be seen.

Instead, they meet a man feigning injury in order to get them to stop, a trick Joel doesn’t fall for because he’s pulled it himself. After Joel crashes the car into an abandoned laundromat, a firefight breaks out — one Joel hopes to spare Ellie from by telling her to hide in a hole in the wall. It works. She’s safe from harm while Joel takes out the attackers. She could even have stayed hidden while the fresh-faced Brian pins Joel to the ground and tells him he’s fucking dead. And he very well might have died if Ellie hadn’t emerged from the wall with her gun, shooting Brian before he could kill Joel.

What follows is one of the most disturbing scenes in the show to date. Sure, we’ve seen Tess fall victim to a fatal Cordyceps kiss and other gruesome images, but they’re awful in a different way from Brian trying to talk his way out of his doom. “It’s over. We’re not fighting anymore,” he tells her, then asks if they can take him to his mom. He’s older than Ellie but, at this moment at least, no less a kid. When Joel kills him after sending Ellie away, Brian ends his life calling out for his mother.

So who is Brian fighting for, and what’s going on in Kansas City? We’ll soon learn that the city has, to put it mildly, experienced a change in how its government is structured. Where it was once ruled by FEDRA, it’s now ruled by Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), the apparent leader of a recent insurgency. And Kathleen has made taking out FEDRA collaborators her first order of business, with no allowances made for information revealed under duress. She also, for that matter, makes no allowances for common sense: Enraged by what she considers his role in the death of Brian and his companions, she kills the community’s doctor, never mind that he delivered Kathleen and held her in his arms as a baby.

Kathleen’s leadership focuses on a single policy: Kill all the collaborators. Specifically someone named Henry, whom Kathleen views as an especially egregious traitor to the cause. However, she and her team have a couple of distractions to their pursuit. First, they must find the newcomers who killed Brian, who might be mercenaries. (The Kansas City habit of shooting first and asking questions later has its downsides.) Then there’s the rumbling and cracked floors caused by the Infected who appear to be literally undermining the city. All that, Kathleen decides, can wait, and there’s no need to tell the others about it yet. This seems like it might be a mistake.

Meanwhile, Joel and Ellie are hiding out at the Hi-Lo Bar, contemplating their next move and having a difficult conversation. Joel regrets that Ellie was forced into a position where she had to shoot someone to defend him. Asked if he’s ever killed innocent people, Joel has no answer. Maybe he knows he has, or maybe he finds the idea of an “innocent person” obsolete in this new world. Ellie, in turn, admits she’s hurt others but provides no further details, either then or later. Then, perhaps understanding there’s no going back for her, perhaps sensing she could be an asset in future conflicts, Joel shows her the proper way to hold a gun. Playtime is over.

Then it’s time to climb. Joel and Ellie decide the best course of action is to find higher ground — 45 stories higher, to be exact — and scope out an escape route. After setting up a trap of broken glass to alert them to any intruders, they hit the sack, but not before Ellie delivers another classic from No Pun Intended that gives Joel the giggles. (You can trace his changing attitude toward his “cargo” via his response to her horrible jokes.) And all seems well until Ellie awakens to an unnerving image. The episode ends as it began, with a kid hovering over Ellie with a gun.

Infectious Bites

• This episode was written by Craig Mazin and directed by Britain’s Jeremy Webb, a TV regular who’s worked on everything from The Punisher to Downton Abbey. Webb directs next week’s, too, and the eighth and ninth (and final) episodes are directed by Ali Abbasi, suggesting they, like this episode and next’s, will similarly work as a two-parter.

• Did you notice that this week’s episode contains no Infected? (Well, none we see but a few we hear.) They were sidelined for long stretches of “Long, Long Time,” too. The Infected remain a driving force, but they’re almost more like a force of nature than a traditional antagonist. They’re less a focus of the show than the characters and the human elements of the ruined world they inhabit. There’s precedent for this, which can also be said of The Walking Dead, but it’s still notable.

• This is a good place to note the passing of actress Annie Wersching, who originated the role of Tess in The Last of Us video game, at the age of 45. Wersching’s game work was otherwise limited, but she was a TV staple for two decades, most recently delivering a memorable performance as the Borg Queen on Star Trek: Picard.

• Hank Williams never recorded a finished studio version of “Alone and Forsaken.” The recording used in the episode — which was released as a single in 1955, two years after the singer’s death — is from a late-’40s radio performance. It is one of the most despairing songs in Williams’s catalogue, which says something. Here it serves as a semi-ironic counterpoint. Together, Joel and Ellie are neither alone nor forsaken. But how long can they keep that going?

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The Last of Us Recap: Kansas City, Here We Come