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The Last of Us Kin
Image: HBO

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The Last of Us Finds a Moment of Peace with “Kin”

Joel and Ellie head to Jackson, and The Last of Us pauses for a contemplative hour.

The Last of Us Season One, Episode 6
“Kin” Review

The Last of Us has made no qualms about its ethos; find someone to love, and cling to them with every single goddamn fiber of your being. Set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic world, it becomes a very bleak, unsubtle message, this idea of love being both a finite resource and the only thing really worth living for. Through the lens of its first five episodes, the results are decidedly depressing – which is what makes the snow globe of Jackson such a fascinating setting for “Kin,” an hour that’s hardly as low-key or quiet as I’d imagine most are describing it today.

Though the familiar explosions of anxious gunfire are absent from the episode’s first 55 minutes, “Kin” is as loud as any of the series’ first half-dozen hours, trading in bullets and gunpowder for feelings as Joel and Ellie step into a magical snow globe in the Colorado mountains. The setting alone is a massive shock; with the veneer of constant danger noticeably absent inside Jackson (one telling sign: there isn’t a group of people walking around in full body armor at all times), “Kin” immediately establishes a different audio/visual texture (directed by Jasmila Žbanić, in her American TV debut), one it uses to full advantage to look inward, which in turns makes it a very tonally unique hour of the series.

The Last of Us Kin
Image: HBO

And for the most part, it works really well – it helps having Pascal and Ramsay’s performances as their focal points, as it smooths some of the rougher edges found within the writing (for example – “We’re in a commune… we’re communists!”). This is Pascal’s hour, in particular: as we watch the shock roll over his face seeing a happy, thriving Tommy, Pascal’s performance continues to plumb the depths of Joel’s mortally damaged soul – from his restrained refusal to talk about Sarah, to the frustrated tears he sheds in front of Tommy, “Kin” really grounds The Last of Us in Joel’s emotions, in ways that add some much-needed depth to the series’ pathos and its observations on humanity.

Powerhouse performance aside, Joel’s 24 hours inside Jackson – after three months on the road following the events of “Endure and Survive” – give voice to the power of community, one thing The Last of Us convincingly portrays as something worth saving. From the ignorant bliss of Marlon and Florence, to the hopes and dreams of Jackson’s growing next generation (one where your shoes are al, and a Diva Cup is a free membership perk), The Last of Us sheds its nihilistic individualism for a moment, to show the benefits of a community invested in not only its own survival, but its own evolution: with electricity, movie nights, and a well-developed trading system, the 300 or so people who’ve been lucky enough to make it into Jackson have stopped looking over their shoulders, and have started to look forward – not quite as forward as Ellie’s dreams of becoming Sally Ride are, but aspirational all the same.

Despite delivering these ideas with the usual lack of nuance – besides the communist quote, we also get a “Joel sees the ghost of his dead kid projected on a child” sequence to really nail down the idea of Ellie becoming his surrogate daughter (if the kids watching The Goodbye Girl wasn’t subtle enough for you) – “Kin” is rather effective in how it compares Joel and Tommy’s perception of themselves and each other. Though they bear similar scars, Tommy’s tried his hardest to move on – making the difficult decision to leave Joel and all the family pain behind, a sacrifice that undoubtedly paid benefits for him, now that he’s married, expecting, and (mostly) no longer just trying to survive a world enacting its force on him.

That dichotomy makes Tommy and Joel’s scenes together some of the most interesting in the entire series; and though it is obvious The Last of Us doesn’t prescribe to Tommy’s idealistic view of the world, it provides a much-needed reprieve from the repetitive narrative functions the previous three episodes displayed. Jackson is not just a beacon of hope for its community – it serves a thematic purpose, in providing an example where the vicious cycles of the world can possibly be broken for the better, even if a true utopia is not a reality (don’t forget – they do still have the “you smell infected and our guard dog will rip you to shreds” welcome party, and a reputation for leaving bodies laying around). There’s not a lot of hope in The Last of Us that isn’t quickly resolved by violence; Jackson remains intact when Joel and Ellie depart, which makes it a holy place of sorts, one rightfully chosen as a place of reflection for our protagonists.

The Last of Us Kin
Image: HBO

Dreams can’t last forever, of course – and five days after they leave idyllic Jackson with new clothes and full bellies, a group of raiders jumps them while they’re discovering an abandoned Firefly base, and the episode ends with Joel bleeding out in the snow and Ellie nervously looking over him. This moment would work without the events of “Kin” – but after seeing Joel’s vulnerability and Ellie’s nihilism, and how they’ve discovered resolve and purpose in each other, gives such immense weight to the episode’s final shot, perhaps the single most frightening, anxiety-inducing moment of the entire series.

Despite a few small bumps along the way, “Kin” is easily my favorite episode of The Last of Us, an hour willing to challenge its own overwhelmingly depressing views on humans through Tommy’s conflicted motivation and how they contrast with Joel’s broken, battered soul. The good times may not last (no spoilers there, I think), but for a moment, “Kin” offered a glimpse of a more three-dimensional, contemplative series, one I hope it embraces as it heads into the home stretch of its freshman season.

Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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