The Last of Us Doubles Down on Misery with “Endure and Survive”
The Last of Us goes big, in a tense, terrifying hour that can’t hide the show’s limited emotional palette.
The Last of Us, Season One, Episode 5:
“Endure and Survive” Review
As a morality play, The Last of Us‘ story really only has three rules: 1) do bad things and bad shit will happen to you; 2) do good things and bad shit will happen to you; and, of course, 3) repeat one and two ad nauseum until everyone is miserable. “Endure and Survive,” though a distinct reference to the comic book Sam and Ellie enjoy together, is also a bit of a challenge – or perhaps a promise – to the audience as it completes its Kansas City two-hander in violent fashion, a reminder that there will never be light at the end of this tunnel, and we can only run for so long before we are consumed by what we compromise.
Before “Endure and Survive” can get to the 1st and 7th priorities of Kathleen, however, The Last of Us‘ fifth episode backtracks ten days to fill everyone in on the events happening around Joel and Ellie during “Hold to My Hand”. In case you were confused by the opening scene of last week’s episode, “Endure and Survive” confirms that yes, the only Black and Jewish characters in Kansas City are co-conspirators with fascist FEDRA… who, ten days ago, were somehow taken out by Kathleen, who was just picking up the mantle of her (kinder and gentler?) revolutionary brother, who was just too goddamn forgiving and empathetic to survive in this world.
At its core, the dynamic between Kathleen and Henry is an interesting one: when society falls apart, which brother’s life becomes more important? If there’s one thing The Last of Us is effective at doing, it is painstakingly laying out the path from choice to consequence; Henry chooses to try and get his brother’s medicine by working with the people killing everyone around him, and Kathleen decided to dedicate every available resource to finding two children in an abandoned city (one that may or may not have a horde of mushroom zombies underneath it, a fact everyone is foreshadowing-ly casual about).
However, what “Endure and Survive”, in its horniness to get to the fucking depressing part (which cannot be considered surprising by anyone who watched the first four episodes), doesn’t want to color in the areas around those choices; while it is interested in the devastating ripple effects, it doesn’t want (or have time) to really engage with why Kathleen and Henry made their respective decisions – particularly Kathleen, whose characters gets a singular scene to make herself an empathetic character (it’s still very unclear why everyone is loyal to her – solidarity with her brother? Willingness to kill rats? Her iconic, muted stylistic choices?). They really only exist to make one point – the harder you love, the harder you try, the more you have to compromise until there’s nothing left, and you lose it all anyway. There is no nuance; nobody gets to be happy because that’s what makes a tragic story have meaning, right? (To which I say: no!!!).
In that sense, Henry makes for a perfectly tragic character: someone who may (?) have compromised their morals to work with FEDRA, Henry’s running around with an empty gun, desperately trying to get his deaf, sick brother to safety. While Kathleen’s real downfall is her hubris, Henry’s downfall is his heart: he loves his brother so much he immediately commits suicide after shooting his infected brother. For the act of suffering, compromise, and love, Henry is greeted with a sudden, brutal death, an instantaneous choice that cannot be undone – in that way, he’s the spiritual successor to Bill, who immediately kills himself after realizing his loved one is about to endure a similar fate.
The difference in tone, of course, is shocking: a sad romance replaced by a confusing, undercooked drama between a sociopathic leader and a scared teenager. There is no peace to be found in Sam and Henry’s death, and that is the point – a point The Last of Us has reinforced in three of its last four episodes, and one the only nuance it can seem to find is “how much more miserable can we make everyone.” Of course, some of this is baked into its road trip narrative – in these formats, characters our protagonists meet on the road have to be more thematically resonant than tangible. However, it doesn’t make the story of Sam and Henry any less predictable – and once The Last of Us is done with a character, it only knows of one way to dispose of them from the narrative, which is to use them as a device to enlengthen the shadows creeping across Ellie’s heart.
As it has all season, Ellie’s arc has been an effective one: her ability to find room in Joel’s heart has been a thematically rich undertone of this season – which plays out to great effect when Joel becomes a clumsy sniper to ensure Ellie doesn’t get eaten by the massive onslaught of mushroom zombies taking down the Kansas City rebellion. The slow build of their relationship has stood in contrast with the world around them, which is about as direly one-note as any world-building you’ve seen in fiction.
The zombie breakout sequence is a perfect example of the work done here; the tension and connection, between them are palpable, as director Jeremy Webb effectively communicates with the cuts back and forth between their wordless glances each other. Knowing it is dark, we know they can’t even see the looks they’re giving each other: but seeing those emotions, that investment, is what gives tension to that whole sequence.
(While the bloater looks cool, it is an unbelievably underwhelming reveal, as it romps around for a few seconds, tears off Perry’s head, then somberly stumbles off into the unknown.)
As devices, Kathleen and Henry are both effective: again, The Last of Us is not a story absent of moral reflections on the choices made in life-and-death moments and how that karma inadvertently follows us around. That’s a powerful concept – but the rigidness with which the series (and games) play this out is exhausting, and continues to be with Henry’s traumatic final moments. And I get it – this is the story of how Ellie’s worldview is formed, which informs the decisions she makes later in the series to great effect. But in translating video game stories to film, The Last of Us forgets it doesn’t have to be so binary with its decisions, so segmented and repetitive with its storytelling, to bake in rather simple ideas about cause and effect (and how nobody gets a happy ending, of course).
When it is time to make these side stories more engaging, The Last of Us doesn’t really know what to do – it’s why Kathleen, a wholly new invention for the TV show, feels like such a missed opportunity. Like Henry, she is a collection of ideas not really there to flesh out anything new or engaging; there’s nothing about these characters challenging anything established in the first four episodes: it is misery for misery’s sake, suffering designed only to be used as thematic material for its protagonists – which is why the half-hearted attempts to make them characters ultimately rings false. Had she even contended with her brother’s concepts of forgiveness regarding Henry, she could’ve been a more engaging presence; but alas, The Last of Us kills characters whether they accept nuance in their lives or not, so would it really have mattered?
The real lingering question, however, is what does this all mean, when a show insists its own world is not worth living in? To this point, Joel and the rest of the world’s survivors only exist because they lost what they loved in the old world – anyone that has found a bit of peace and happiness in the past twenty years peaces the fuck out the very second the one thing is gone. It’s a rather depressing, narrow take on the value of life; that we can only love one person, and once that is gone, there’s nothing left at all. The Last of Us has done this twice (and kind of a third time, if you consider how little Kathleen gives a shit about anything except killing Henry), and both times through suicide, in ways that seem contemplative in isolation, but feel self-defeating and meaningless as they aggregate.
Everything about “Endure and Survive” is well done; from its brief glimpse at an alternate, more peaceful attempts at survival (the Fallout-esque lair of survivors who held onto playing and learning as fundamental parts of life; quite obviously, they failed), to the chaos breaking out in the final third, The Last of Us‘ fifth hour is well-constructed and delivered exactly as prestige television is supposed to be. But as a tale of anti-fascist revolutionaries, of why life and love are really things worth fighting for… or really offering anything unique from the first four episodes, “Endure and Survive” is an abject disappointment, undone by its singular focus and limited, repetitive emotional palette.
February 12, 2023 at 12:26 am
I think at this point I should ban you for criticizing on Rottentomatoes.com. The only thing to do is go against it to see if by doing that they take you into account.
February 12, 2023 at 5:59 pm
Limited emotional palette? Hope they arn’t paying you for the reviews.
February 13, 2023 at 9:12 pm
You know they do (and they aren’t the only ones) – stay mad, baby!
February 12, 2023 at 4:21 am
February 12, 2023 at 4:15 pm
None of the author’s arguments hold up. Just a bunch of ranting, for the sake of it.
February 13, 2023 at 4:07 am
The game is allll about Joel & Ellie’s ‘road trip’ and any other character is just fodder to be killed or left behind. This episode of the tv series is emotional, scary and hopeful at the same time. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions and so close to a brilliant game adaptation while finding new avenues to the story.
On you. I’ve never heard of you. I’ve now read some of your articles of reviews in other things and have concluded your a bitter and deluded individual. Plainly speaking you are stealing a living. Congratulations on that
February 13, 2023 at 9:10 pm
Thank you! 🙂
February 16, 2023 at 10:13 pm
Apparently, you and I are the only people who feel this way, but thank you for articulating my frustration with this episode (and honestly the show in general). I thought the bloater looked and acted just like Hulk Hogan…