The Last of Us Recap: Beyond the River of Death

The Last of Us

Season 1 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

The Last of Us

Season 1 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Vulture; Photo: Warner Brothers

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As if to jolt us to attention, “Kin,” the sixth episode of the first season of The Last of Us, begins with a short flashback to the fifth episode’s most harrowing moment (though it certainly has competition): Henry shooting himself after shooting his infected brother, Sam. It’s a stark contrast to the largely hushed (until its final scene) episode that follows, but it also serves as a reminder that the series takes place in a world in which attachments can have horrifying consequences and loss can arrive at any moment.

For Joel and Ellie, all that was miles ago, back in Kansas City. As the proper episode opens, three months have passed, and they’re now in the middle of a snowy nowhere. It’s not an entirely uninhabited nowhere, however. After arriving at a remote cabin, they’ve taken Florence (Elaine Miles) hostage while she waits for her husband, Marlon (Graham Greene). It’s not that tense a hostage situation, however. Florence is quick to tell Marlon that their visitors haven’t hurt her. What’s more, she’s made soup. “It’s cold out.”

Joel describes himself as “just someone passin’ through.” And once Florence and Marlon figure out that he’s on the level and Joel and Ellie determine that their hostages are being straight with them, the guns go away and Joel compliments them on finding a great place to hide. “Hide?” Marlon replies. “We came here before you were born, sonny!” (Florence says she didn’t want to, but this seems to be part of an argument she lost long ago.)

It’s possible that the cordyceps apocalypse hasn’t changed Florence and Marlon’s lifestyle much at all. They probably weren’t hunting all of their own food before, but they were likely hunting some. And that cabin looks like the work of people who know how to put away stores for the winter, Infected or no Infected. They’re certainly cut off from the world to the point they’ve never even heard of the Fireflies. (“There are firefly people?”) They do know, however, not to pass the River of Death, a border they know by all the dead bodies that line it. “You’re not gonna scare us,” Ellie says. “Scared him,” Florence replies. She’s right, too. As they exit the cabin, Joel has a panic attack, and it won’t be the last. It also leads Ellie to take a break from the sarcasm and remind him that if he’s dead, she’s “fucked.”

The sarcasm returns as they make their journey west, however, and she mocks each river they pass as a potential River of Death. But Ellie’s letting her guard down more now, and so is Joel. Over the campfire, they trade thoughts about what they’d do in a post-cure world. Joel wants a sheep farm. (“They’re quiet. And do what they’re told.”) Spurred in part by her admiration for Sally Ride, Ellie talks about wanting to go to the moon. Joel ends the night telling her to dream of “sheep ranches on the moon.”

This is more than just a fanciful sentiment. It’s something like a promise. Ellie previously asked him “What do we do?” after a cure. Joel reflexively responds, “We?” But it’s almost like a defense mechanism. They are a “we” now, even if they haven’t admitted it out loud. But by the episode’s end, it will be tough to deny. This is, in some respects, the least eventful episode of the season so far. But it also feels like the heart of the series. It’s a depiction of Ellie and Joel truly coming together as a team — Ellie becomes a competent partner in keeping watch and they settle into a routine that works and keeps them alive — but also as a family.

That both makes them stronger and more vulnerable. Confronted by an armed band on horseback led by a woman they’ll soon learn is named Maria (Rutina Wesley), Joel learns that his “just passin’ through” excuse doesn’t work as well here on what turns out to be the River of Death. When a dog capable of sniffing out Infected approaches Ellie, he freezes in fear and can’t look. Only the sound of Ellie’s giggles lets him know everything is all right. After they pass the test and Joel tells their new acquaintances he’s looking for his brother, his name buys them entry to the fortified compound (or commune, if you will) of Jackson. Maria knows who Joel is.

There’s a good reason for this, Joel soon learns. Jackson’s where Tommy has taken up residence. A warm family reunion doesn’t bury the tensions raised by their recent confrontation. Her hackles still raised, Ellie snaps at Maria for the River of Death story, even after realizing it’s a cover story to keep Jackson safe. “A bad reputation doesn’t mean you’re bad,” Maria tells her, a line that has pointed meaning for Joel and Tommy. This doesn’t really assuage Ellie’s concerns, and Tommy’s big news only makes Joel more worried: He and Maria are married.

Still, Maria and Tommy are clearly growing further. Jackson’s a place of bustling streets (decorated for Christmas at the moment) and welcoming shops. What’s more, its residents seem happy, from the grown-ups going about their business to the kids playing in the streets. “This place actually fucking works,” Ellie says, and she’s right. But the Boston QZ worked, at least in the literal sense of the term. Jackson works without misery and subjugation. The Last of Us is at least partly a tour of different ways of post-apocalyptic living, from the totalitarianism of Boston to, well, the different flavor of totalitarianism of Kansas City. What sets Jackson apart? There’s a democratically elected council. Everyone does their share. It’s owned collectively. Maria doesn’t mince words: “We’re communists.”

Tommy knows he has it good, too. Over drinks, he talks about raising hogs because “once we’ve got bacon, what’s even left?” But there’s trouble in this L.L. Bean–catalogue communist paradise: Joel isn’t ready to tell Tommy the truth about Tess or about Ellie. And he doesn’t understand why Tommy won’t agree to come with them on the next step of the journey, to a Firefly base on a Colorado campus. To Joel, this seems to be a part of Tommy’s habit of joining others’ groups. He’s gone from the Fireflies to Jackson and, in the process, cut off contact with his own brother. This brings up some old wounds: Joel claims that the awful actions of his past were in the name of keeping Tommy alive.

Tommy’s not so quick to let Joel, or himself, off the hook, saying, “We did those things. And they weren’t things. We murdered people. And I don’t judge you for it. We survived the only way we knew how. But there were other ways. We just weren’t any good at ’em.” Then he plays his trump card: He’s going to be a dad. Joel understands this, maybe twice over. As his subsequent panic attack — prompted by a woman who looks a bit like Sarah grown up — reminds him, he’s lost Sarah, and he’s worried about losing the girl he sees as a daughter, even if he can’t yet say it.

Meanwhile, Ellie settles in, taking up residence in a teenage girl’s bedroom and getting familiar with the diva cup Maria left behind. (“Weirdest gift ever.”) When she visits Maria after cleaning up, they bond a bit more over a haircut and the revelation that Maria lost a child in the early days of the outbreak. Ellie learns something else, too: The other child memorialized in Maria and Tommy’s house is the daughter Joel’s never mentioned. “I guess that explains him a little,” Ellie says, prompting Maria to attempt to warn her about Joel’s past. Maria, by contrast, is willing to let her husband off the hook with the excuse that he was following Joel. She might have a point, though. Like Joel, she sees him as a born follower. Sensing she’s getting nowhere, Maria offers some advice: “Be careful who you put your faith in. The only people who can betray us are the ones we trust.”

Then they’re off to the movies, though Ellie finds she has a hard time concentrating on the show, watching Tommy talk to Maria, then following Tommy as he goes to meet Joel. The two brothers have a heart-to-heart. Joel tells Tommy about Tess and about Ellie’s immunity. He also confesses he’s not sure he can go on. He’s not as sharp as he used to be. He’s scared. He has horrible dreams. He knows he’s going to let Ellie down.

Visiting her room, Joel finds Ellie baffled by the lives of pre-Infected teens. “Is this really all they had to worry about,” she asks. “Boys. Movies. Deciding which shirt goes with which skirt. It’s bizarre.” But she’s more focused on having overheard Joel trying to leave her with Tommy. “Do you give a shit about me or not?” she asks. Joel doesn’t hesitate to reply, “Of course I do,” and though that’s the central question, he still can’t commit to staying with her. “Don’t tell me I’d be safer with somebody else because the truth is I would just be more scared,” she tells him. “You’re not my daughter,” he calmly replies, “and I sure as hell ain’t your dad. Come dawn, we’re goin’ our separate ways.”

It’s a lie, though, even if neither of them realizes it at the time. Come dawn, Joel’s making plans to take a horse and leave it all behind: Jackson, Tommy, and Ellie. But he doesn’t. Instead, he’s waiting to take Ellie to Colorado. Her response: “Let’s go.” And they’re off. But “Kin” doesn’t rush them to their next destination. Instead, we get a long, lovely sequence of Joel and Ellie traveling together. Ellie learns to shoot and the rules of football and asks whether Jackson is how it was pre-apocalypse. (Joel’s answer: “The country’s too big for that. Back then, there were two main ways of looking at things: Some people wanted to own everything, and some people didn’t want anyone to own anything at all.”) The question of whether or not they’re a “we” has been settled for good.

Even when they arrive on campus, the episode keeps a leisurely pace as they follow the clues to an abandoned lab. (It’s in sequences like these that it feels most like the game that inspired it.) They encounter some apes and learn the Fireflies have moved on. (And Joel kind of promises to sing for Ellie.) Then, in a rush, some hooligans show up. They escape to the wilderness, but only after Joel is stabbed and seriously wounded. Have his nightmares of failure come true? This is going to be a problem, and one only Ellie can solve.

Infectious Bites

• A bit more about Marlon and Florence: Graham Greene should need no introduction. The venerable character actor is familiar from his work in everything from Dances With Wolves to The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Elaine Miles has worked steadily for years, too, and her face and unmistakable voice will be instantly familiar to fans of Northern Exposure, where she played the tight-lipped receptionist Marilyn.

• Written by Craig Mazin, this episode was directed by Jasmila Žbanić, a Bosnian filmmaker best known for the highly acclaimed 2020 war drama Quo Vadis, Aida?

• The movie that has the Jackson kids’ rapt attention is The Goodbye Girl, a 1977 Herbert Ross adaptation of a Neil Simon script that won Richard Dreyfuss a Best Actor Oscar. It’s not exactly Iron Man, but that might be part of the point. Kids would probably be more fascinated by a comedy set in the times before the Infected than an action movie. (It’s reminiscent of the scene in the kind-of-underrated Kevin Costner film The Postman where a bunch of post-apocalyptic tough guys are shown really digging The Sound of Music on movie night, then get angry when the film switches to the violent Universal Soldier. )

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The Last of Us Recap: Beyond the River of Death