Posted on February 19, 2023


The Last of Us takes a step back from its already well-established formula, gives Joel and Ellie a little breathing room, and still manages to advance the story a little more than we expected in its latest episode. Pedro Pascal is given a couple of scenes for his Emmy reel which he knocks out of the park, as Joel’s past comes back to haunt an already incredibly haunted man. Despite all of that, this was easily the most uneven episode of the series yet. Part of that could come down to how unsettling a place Jackson was and how almost nothing seemed resolved during their brief stay there. It’s good that the show is breaking from its formula already. Joel and Ellie arrive at not one but two different settings, meet two different groups of people, and leave all of them behind, alive and unbothered. Their record up to this point has been to leave a string of bodies behind them wherever they go, so it’s nice to see they’re not totally destructive forces. And it’s interesting to note how much the rest of the world seems to think they are.

It’s three months after the events of Kansas City and Joel and Ellie have been on the road the whole time. They’ve hit Wyoming during the cold weather months and the change in both setting and season acts as something of a visual balm after so many rusty, dark and dusty cramped spaces. Suddenly, the entire look of the series has changed. They come upon Graham Greene and Elaine Miles, who are wonderful together and criminally underused in this episode. “He didn’t hurt me, by the way.” “Yeah, I got eyes.” There’s a sense with this episode that Joel and Ellie have lived in and traveled through some of the most dire scenarios and settings available, but that there are parts of the country where people aren’t living such desperate lives. Think of Joel and Tess’s utterly depressing apartment in the Boston QZ and compare it to the charm of this cabin or later, to all of Jackson. It’s partially why so many of the people who meet them in this episode are either bemused by them, wary of them, or downright revolted by them. There’s a wonderful sense of economy to the cabin scene, which is really the only way to script a scene for Graham Greene and Elaine Miles, two actors who have raised “deadpan” to its highest levels as an acting technique. It’s clear they don’t consider Joel and Ellie to be all that much of a threat to them and Joel is equally as clear that he’s just going through the motions of pulling a gun on them and threatening them. “Anywhere people used to be, you can’t go there no more,” they tell him. When they ask what’s west of the river, the answer is “Death. We never see who’s out there, but we see the bodies they leave behind,” they’re warned. “If your brother’s west of the river, he’s gone,” she tells him. Ellie boasts that she can’t scare them, but she rightly notes that Joel looks terrified. Joel could be having heart problems – much has been made of his advanced age – but we think it’s probably panic attacks, which are becoming more acute the longer Ellie in his care and the closer he gets to his brother. “Just a reminder that if you’re dead, I’m fucked,” Ellie says, not helping the situation at all.  Life on the road is getting to him but Ellie is clearly loving it, having seen virtually nothing of the world before meeting Joel.

At camp that night, she asks him about his future. She’s clearly feeling very optimistic and paints a picture of her immediate soon-to-be circumstances that strikes us as tragically confident. Mythical Firefly scientists who will put her blood in a vaccine-making machine and then send her on her way. After that’s all done, she asks him, “What do we do?” “Oh, it’s ‘we?'” he counters archly, which is a little cruel of him, but she rolls with it probably because she’s used to his grumpiness by now. He imagines a life as a sheep rancher. As evidence of how much they’ve become bonded in the last few months, he asks her what she’d like for her future. Not only would he never have asked her that sort of thing back when they met, but he vehemently argued with Tess that Ellie had no future at all. Ellie indicates the moon and implies that she wants to become an astronaut, explaining that when you grow up in the Boston QZ, “Behind you there’s an ocean and ahead of you there’s a wall. Nowhere else to look but up.” When she asks him if he can guess who her favorite astronaut is, he doesn’t hesitate for a second in getting it right. “Sally Fucking Ride.” Their rapport with each other is as intimate as the one he had with Sarah in their few scenes together. Ellie asks him if he thinks the vaccine will work and reveals that she tried to cure Sam. He tells her that Marlene is no fool and if she says the Fireflies can render a vaccine, he believes her. He tells her to get some sleep and “dream of sheep ranches on the moon,” which is the kind of thing a father says affectionately to his daughter. Unfortunately, he falls asleep on his watch. It’s not always easy to remember because Pedro Pascal is a good ten years younger, but Joel is a 56-year-old man in bad shape (Seriously, how balanced do you think his diet has been in the last twenty years?) walking across the country and sleeping on the ground in cold weather, under the most intense and stressful of conditions. Like the show’s insistence on occasionally reminding you that Ellie is a young woman who has the same health and hygiene considerations that most young women have, we really appreciate that they take the time to point out that Joel’s knees suck, that his heart races and he has hearing loss, and that he’s physically exhausted, the way most men in his age cohort would be in this situation. It’s not necessary to remind us about Ellie’s periods or Joel’s failing body, but it adds so much more depth to the characters and makes the world they live in seem real and well-considered by its creators. Ellie kept watch while he slept and did it exactly like he taught her; checking her six, looking for tracks, scanning from high ground, etc. He’s upset, but clearly more at himself than at her. “I’m responsible for you.” “Then don’t fall asleep.”


One cute touch that wordlessly describes the closeness of their relationship: at camp the night before, Joel does a 2-finger whistle to signal to Ellie to come down from the rock. She spends the hike the next day trying to teach herself how to do it. She’s a sponge and Joel is an ocean to her. The gorgeousness of the surroundings during these scenes give the whole episode such a radically different feel from the previous ones. “Dam!” Ellie exclaims upon seeing her first one. “You’re no Will Livingston,” Joel replies dryly, referring to the author of No Pun Intended, Volume Too (and presumably Volume Won as well). They are set upon by a group in cowboy drag riding horses and pointing guns at them. They’re not friendly and make it clear that they’ll kill the two of them easily if they have to. They use an infection-sniffing dog to determine whether they’re a danger to the group and Joel nearly succumbs to another panic attack when it approaches Ellie. She passes the test (after some slightly cheesy editing to drag the scene out) and when Joel mentions that he’s looking for his brother, a woman in the group asks him his name. Next thing you know, the mighty gates of Jackson, Wyoming open to them as they enter Cowboy Christmastown, USA. Jackson is not only remarkably well-preserved, it’s also charming and very cutely maintained. All we could think was how much Frank would have approved of all of this (and how much Bill would have loathed it). The reunion with Tommy doesn’t pack the emotional weight that it probably should, although that could be because the previews for this episode spoiled it. “I came here to save you,” Joel says with no small amount of irony. Everything feels slightly off in Jackson, and while the episode never truly gives you a reason to dislike the place or mistrust the inhabitants, there’s a pervasive sense from the very beginning of their visit that Ellie and Joel are bad fits for this crowd. Ellie has terrible table manners and she cops an attitude almost immediately. When Joel reprimands her, she brings up the fact that they threatened to kill her and that they have a reputation for leaving dead bodies all over the area. Tommy counters that they have to protect their community and that having a bad reputation doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s bad. “Not always, at least,” the cowgirl says while giving Joel serious stinkeye. He asks the woman, Maria, if he could have alone time with his brother and they choose that moment to reveal that they’re married. They give a sulking and silent Joel a tour of the town, which Maria seemed to have helped found with a small group of other people only seven years ago. You can see how protective she is of her work and of course you can see why she’d be that way. The town is an oasis, but as Joel noted with some suspicion, it’s also a commune. A place like that would be anathema to someone who’s spent the last twenty years living on the margins and constantly making unethical choices, i.e., a smuggler and a killer. Tommy seems bothered by the revelation that he’s now a communist, but he’s really bothered by Joel pointing out the strangeness of where he wound up, given where he’s been. Joel is hurt by Ellie’s eagerness to have a house after sleeping on the ground for so long. “We’ve been doing fine,” he says in a wounded tone. Maria takes Ellie to her new house, but she panics briefly at being separated from Joel. The way they interact with each other makes the fierceness of their bond evident to seemingly everyone but themselves.

Joel and Tommy have a drink at the local bar and let it all out. Tommy asks after Tess and Joel lies and says she’s fine. He goes with the lie that Ellie is the daughter of a high-ranking Firefly out west and tries to convince Tommy to come with him to the Firefly base at the University of Eastern Colorado. He gets annoyed when Tommy says he can’t go. “Why, because your wife won’t let you? Is she the one that kept you off the radio?” Tommy says that Maria and her people took him in when he left the Fireflies and he had to abide by their rules because they’re very protective of their town. Joel gets to the heart of their disagreement by telling him that he did all of those things Tommy is judging him for in order to keep him alive. “We murdered people!” Tommy counters, then reveals that he’s going to be a father and he needs to stay behind for Maria, adding, “I feel like I’ll be a good dad.” “I guess we’ll find out,” Joel replies darkly. Tommy is understandably angry. “Just because life stopped for you doesn’t mean it has to stop for me.” All of Joel’s past is coming back to haunt him: Tess, Tommy, Sarah, the people he killed and the choices he made. In the middle of another panic attack, he thinks he spots Sarah in the town square.


Ellie is stuck in the detritus of a long-gone 2003 teen girl’s life and finds it even more puzzling than planes or seat belts or hotel lobbies. Maria leaves her a change of clothes and a menstrual cup, wisely surmising that Joel isn’t doing a thing to help this girl in these matters. Maria cuts her hair and the two women have it out with each other. Maria knows that Joel has killed people and tries to warn Ellie about it, but Ellie calls her out on her mistrust and notes that Tommy killed people too. She learns about Sarah, which puts the final puzzle piece in place for her. “Tommy was following Joel,” Maria says, as a way of defending her husband’s past misdeeds. Everyone in this world is morally compromised in some way, even if it’s just a woman turning a blind eye to her husband’s violent past. She warns Ellie that the only people that can betray her are the people she trusts.

Tommy brings Joel a new pair of boots and an apology. Joel drops the bomb shell on him: “She’s immune.” Tommy is as skeptical as Joel once was, which makes Joel’s earnest pleading all the more shocking to see. He’s not only bought all the way in on hope, but he’s clearly so deeply attached to this girl that it scares the shit out of him. He runs down the highlights of their trip, focusing on the fact that Ellie had to shoot someone to save him because “I was too slow and too fucking deaf to hear him coming.” It really eats away at him that he can’t protect her from the darkness of this world. It’s clear that the trip has taken a huge emotional toll on him, which goes to his point to Henry last episode that it’s harder to get over these things when you have someone to take care of. Ellie’s fine. Rude, but fine. Joel’s an absolute mess and he’s been holding that fact at bay all this time. “You think I can still handle things,” he tells his brother, “but I’m not who I was.” He’s haunted by dreams every night that he can’t remember, but when he wakes up he knows that he’s lost something. Pascal is wonderful in this scene, which really unpacks how much psychic damage an event like this causes to a person. “All I’ve ever done is fail,” he cries. “I’m just going to get her killed, I know it.” Tommy reluctantly agrees to take her to Colorado. Ellie overheard the conversation and she’s pissed. “I’m not her, you know,” she says to Joel, the big red button on his psyche that she shouldn’t have pushed. “You have no idea what loss is,” he says somewhat recklessly, knowing how much loss this girl has suffered already. She lays into him and tells him she’ll be scared without him to protect her. He reminds her coldly that she’s not his daughter and declares their journey together over. He brings up a memory that night of hanging Christmas ornaments with Sarah.


The next morning, it all happens very quickly. Joel clearly hung back in the hopes of seeing them before they left and he offers Ellie a choice. Before he can even finish saying so, she’s getting on his horse. And just like that (to coin a phrase), it seems like everything said in the previous forty minutes has been forgotten. We get that emotional breakthroughs happened and all, but it still feels not as resolved as it could have been and we can’t tell if it’s because the writing is lacking (which would be new) or if this episode was laying down a bunch of stuff that will be picked up on later. Either way, Joel and Ellie are now tighter than ever and he doesn’t seem too worried about his heart or his chances of getting her killed. Later, he gives her rifle shooting lessons after she spent most of the episode begging him to teach her to hunt.  He tells her about his work as a contractor and she thinks it sounds like a cool name for a job. “We were cool. Everybody loved contractors,” he tells her with amusement. He teaches her the fundamentals of football: moving in one direction, but violent. When they arrive at the University of Colorado, she wonders what it must have been like to go there as a student. Joel tells her that college was mostly just a place where people tried to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. “What they wanted to do with their lives,” she repeats with wonder, flabbergasted by the very concept. He reveals that he’s changed his mind about wanting to be a sheep rancher and that if he could do anything he wanted, he would return to his dream of being a singer, which she rightly laughs at. She tells him that he is now obligated to sing for her since she’s about to save the world. They’re so much more relaxed when it’s just the two of them. Think about how tense they were in every other scene this episode, with people who were largely not a threat to them.

They eventually find that the Fireflies have all left the facility for Salt Lake City. They’re attacked by some locals and Joel gets shanked by a broken bat handle, resulting in a nasty gut wound. They escape, but Joel eventually collapses in the snow. Ellie pleads with him not to leave her. “I can’t fucking do this without you,” Joel’s fear that he can’t keep her safe is coming true. We tend to think slowed-down versions of classic pop songs playing during closing credits is a prestige television cliche, but it was especially effective  hearing a melancholy version of Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again,” not just because the song title works so well as a coda, not just because the lyric “I’m taking a ride with my best friend,” has such poignancy playing over that closing scene, but because it was a callback to the ending of the first episode, when the original version of the song played on Joel’s radio at the very start of their journey together.

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