Type keyword(s) to search


The Terrifying Normalcy of Melanie Lynskey in The Last of Us

In cordyceps-blasted America, the meek have become merciless.
  • Melanie Lynskey in The Last of Us (photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)
    Melanie Lynskey in The Last of Us (photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us Season 1, Episode 4, "Please Hold My Hand."]

    Last week, The Last of Us deviated from the course of the original video game narrative to tell a self-contained, pandemic-spanning love story between two survivors, to more or less huge acclaim. In this week's episode, the show departs some more, introducing a wholly original character into the mix. Melanie Lynskey makes her first appearance as Kathleen, the leader of a band of rebel citizens in Kansas City who are seemingly bent on a mission of vengeance for reasons that are only revealed in bits and pieces to the audience. Lynskey, an Emmy nominee for Yellowjackets who's riding one of the hottest streaks of her 30-year career, is a canny bit of casting for a role like this. She's an unlikely choice to lead a violent band of survivors, but that's exactly why she works so well.

    We first see Kathleen inside a mostly empty warehouse, as she steps into a makeshift holding cell to interrogate the old man inside. He's a doctor, and he's cowering in fear as Kathleen reads off a list of names, demanding to know their whereabouts. This scene communicates a lot with some really effective shorthand. The list of names, for one thing: "the Burquists, Carrie Schreicher, the Chans…" It sounds like she's rattling off the invitation list to a neighborhood barbecue.

    When the doctor pleads to Kathleen for mercy, he says he delivered her as a baby, held her in his hands. We realize he's not a doctor, he's her doctor. That list of names Kathleen read aren't military targets or probably even FEDRA officials; they're just… people they know. This operation isn't the Fireflies, a (however loosely) organized, tactical freedom-fighting operation. Kathleen's group are the once victimized who have now taken up arms and are seeking retribution wherever they can find it.

    The other clever bit of shorthand in that first scene is the casting of Lynskey herself. Since her breakthrough in the Peter Jackson movie Heavenly Creatures in 1994, Lynskey has become a consummate character actress. Her roles have been varied — a closeted teen in But I'm a Cheerleader, a troubled mom out of rehab in Win Win — but always retained an essential quality of familiarity and patience.

    It's what made her an ideal best friend (Coyote Ugly, Sweet Home Alabama) and accommodating wife (The Informant!!; Don't Look Up). “Unassuming” was her brand, whether the roles were in Duplass/Swanberg indies or Stephen King spooky fare like Rose Red or Castle Rock. When she played villains, it was the villainy of the kind of people who don't seem outwardly scary: the rigid housewife looking to impede women's progress in Mrs. America; the troubled and predatory aunt in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

    Two and a Half Men capitalized on these qualities when Lynskey was cast as a recurring, unhinged romantic stalker. The best example of Lynskey playing to and against type is probably her role in Yellowjackets as the adult survivor of a plane crash and whatever else happened up on that mountain. Shauna is haunted, damaged, and hardened by her past, and seeing Lynskey deviate from the mild-mannered characters she'd played up until that point only makes viewers more desperate to know what exactly that something was.

    So when it’s Lynskey who shows up in a bulky coat and pitiless expression in The Last of Us, that choice alone tells us a lot about Kathleen. She's not normally the kind of person who could intimidate someone into a confession, or be so cruel to an old man. We're left to imagine what pushed her to this point.

    Downtown Kansas City, where we meet Kathleen, is more desolate than even Joel and Ellie are expecting when they roll though. They've been making good progress heading west, Joel siphoning gas where he can, Ellie tormenting him with groaner puns from a book she picked up along the way. But when they detour off the highway through Kansas City, the vibes are off. Ellie spots the place where it seems like the Quarantine Zone should be, but it looks abandoned. Something's happened.

    That's when Joel and Ellie are ambushed by humans (as opposed to mushroom-zombies) and have to take shelter in a laundromat, where Joel is almost killed by one of the aggressors. With Ellie's help, Joel gets the jump on him, but this isn't some hardened commando; he looks like a college-aged kid, begging for Joel's mercy, sputtering promises to make a deal and be friends. He's terrified. Joel kills him anyway, because he pretty much has to, and he and Ellie find a place to hide. The dead body is eventually brought back to Kathleen, who immediately blames someone named "Henry," who is either the man responsible for all of their suffering or just the scapegoat they've all decided to heap their anger and vengeance on. It doesn't matter. Kathleen's heart hardens in front of our eyes, and she goes back to the holding cell, shoots the doctor who’d known her since birth, and instructs her followers to find every "collaborator" and kill them all.

    This is the aftermath of what the authoritarian regime in Kansas City did to these people. FEDRA turned neighbors into informants, set collaborators against holdouts, and when whatever happened that emptied the QZ zone and toppled FEDRA, this demand for vengeance disguised as justice was all that was left. Kathleen isn't some warlord or charismatic cult leader. She's every unassuming, relatable, decent character Melanie Lynskey has ever played, pushed to the point of a cold-blooded manhunt, capable of anything.

    New episodes of The Last of Us air every Sunday on HBO and stream on HBO Max. Join the discussion about The Last of Us in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Last of Us, Bella Ramsey, Craig Mazin, Melanie Lynskey, Neil Druckmann, Pedro Pascal