Family is the central theme in episode 6 of HBO’s The Last of Us, showing the complexities of familial bond whether it be blood related or found family. We have seen Joel and Ellie come across a plethora of suffering and different factions on their journey but this episode gives a much-needed reprieve and a sense of coming home as we encounter Jackson in all its normalcy and sense of community.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game and the series is the bond between the two lead characters, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey). Ellie has seen Joel fight for her in many ways and he has warmed up to her in his own way. The series and its leads have effectively allowed that relationship to build over the previous episodes, and we now see how much the two have bonded. Three months have passed since the deaths of Henry and Sam, but they are still in Joel’s thoughts, as is every other person he has lost since the infection changed the world. Joel is not superhuman like he can be in the game, and within the series, he is physically more vulnerable than his game counterpart, providing the series with a more realistic, human side. He is strong and he has shown his morally grey actions but he is not devoid of emotion, and a familial reunion forces all his trauma from Outbreak Day and the events of the series to come to the surface.
The cold opens have been a staple for setting up the events of the episode and giving and insight to the world and although this episode does not have a cold open flashback, it shows Joel and Ellie making their way to find Tommy (Gabriel Luna) and they encounter a couple who guide them in the right direction with a warning. The opening feels like it went on a bit too long, and, although sets up the journey of finding Tommy, feels out of place and could have spent that time on the ending.
Rutina Wesley makes her debut as Maria in this episode, delivering a fantastic and instantly likeable performance with a great balance of loyalty, caution, maternal and fierceness to the character as she is more developed and given more screen time with Ellie than in the game. She is a capable leader who is efficient, and Wesley makes for an excellent addition. As with every adaptation, there are changes, but what the series has done, for the most part, is not change but expand. Maria is a perfect example of that, and her scenes with Ellie add that expansion to the character to make her more human and feel like part of the story when she was a side character with little interaction. She is wary of Joel and protective of Ellie, as well as concerned at Joel’s influence on her, as she knew about his influence on Tommy, combined with the brothers’ shared and less than heroic past. A welcome addition that gives weight to Tommy’s character and to Jackson.
The Tommy we see in this episode is different from the pilot, which is understandable given what he has been through. He and Joel survived the only way he knew how and did not know any other way until he met Maria, and we see him thrive in Jackson with a life as close to his old one as possible. He has flourished in Jackson, has a stable and reputable life, but he knows Joel has not made the same choices. The dynamic between the brothers is complicated and delivers a nuanced and layered performance between Luna and Pascal. The love between them is there, as is the relief that each one is alive, but there is a hint of resentment, and judgement between them that adds to the complexity.
In this episode, Joel breaks. He opens up to Tommy in a heartfelt yet devastating performance that showcases Joel’s humanity and how weathered he is by his lived experiences and the magnitude of the losses he has accumulated over the years. Joel’s PTSD was shown in the first episode, but now, when he has a chance to breathe, it comes flooding back as he attempts to enlist Tommy’s help. Joel voices his perceived weaknesses as and discloses his PTSD without naming it. He has dreams that he does not remember, and when he wakes, he is left with a sense of loss. Pascal’s Joel has more emotional complexity than his game counterpart, making for a nuanced and outstanding performance to expand and strengthen the story of The Last of Us. Bella Ramsey delivers just as hard-hitting as Pascal in an emotional scene between the two that game fans have been eagerly awaiting. There is one line of dialog that game fans may miss, but the scene is a standout, matching the vulnerability of Joel but having Ellie’s fierceness, and fears added in. It is a powerhouse performance and should expel any remaining doubters of how perfect Bella Ramsey is for Ellie.
Up until the ending, this episode was as close to perfect as it can get, but there are moments that take away from the episode. Once Joel and Ellie leave Jackson, the pacing becomes rushed and races towards the next big moment in the game with another faction. The ending of the episode is underwhelming to an otherwise excellent addition to the series. It is rushed and crammed in too much of the game in a short six-minute spell. Time should have been taken from the opening and used in the ending scenes for more impact.
Joel takes the title of MVC for this episode, for a powerhouse performance in vulnerability and for showing how the world has affected him with an excellent performance of duty, grief and loyalty. Not only does Pascal deliver an astounding performance again, but Joel and his relationship to others is given more light as are his own sacrifices and loss. Joel puts Ellie first despite knowing the dangers, that is, and he does it for her forgoing any ego and giving her agency in her own life and stability despite the risks to himself.