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The Last of Us Upends Our Expectations of Post-Apocalyptic TV

The HBO drama has so much more to say about finding community than series like The Walking Dead.
  • Rutina Wesley, Gabriel Luna, Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us (photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)
    Rutina Wesley, Gabriel Luna, Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us (photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

    The sixth episode of The Last of Us, titled "Kin," marks a significant downshift from the previous one in terms of intensity, but it also reveals a lot about what this show brings to the post-apocalyptic zombie TV ecosystem. We pick up three months after the terrifying events in Kansas City, with Joel and Ellie somewhere in Wyoming. They've crashed the cabin of Marlon and Florence (Graham Greene and Elaine Miles), essentially looking for directions westward to find Joel's brother, Tommy. They're warned of the perils across the nearby river — if Tommy went that way, he's dead by now.

    Tommy did go in that direction, and we know that because a group of masked people on horseback descend upon Joel and Ellie, and don't seem too keen on letting them pass. Once an infected-scenting dog gives Joel and Ellie the green light — after a tense moment where neither the audience nor Joel and Ellie are sure whether Ellie's bitten-but-not-sick status will register with this German shepherd — the group twigs that Joel is seeking out Tommy, and they bring him in.

    It turns out Tommy has been off the grid because he came across what appears to be a fully functioning community. Walled off from any clickers or raiders, this town has managed to more or less get back on its feet. There’s working electricity, plumbing, laundry, a school for the kids. Maria, one of the democratically elected leaders of the community (played by True Blood alum Rutina Wesley), points out the town's virtues to an initially skeptical Joel and Ellie.

    It does seem too good to be true. Safety? Comfort? A movie night where the whole community gathers to watch Neil Simon's The Goodbye Girl for some reason? (I guess Richard Dreyfuss' Oscar-winning performance just hits different 20 years into an apocalypse.) They have even managed to make communism work as a method of government. So what's the catch?

    Joel and Ellie are the series's protagonists, and so, as viewers, our guard is up. For better or for worse, zombie-apocalypse TV has been defined by The Walking Dead, and that show had a very clear point of view when it came to communities of survivors who seemed to have it all figured out. Such communities tended to fall under one of two categories: the ones that were hiding some horrifying rot underneath their façade of functionality (the cannibals of Terminus come to mind), or the ones that were too naive to understand that their utopia was no match for the horrors of the new world (R.I.P., Deanna Monroe’s idyllic version of Alexandria).

    Time and again, The Walking Dead made the case that to survive in the walkers' world, you had to be tough enough to make the violent, often dehumanizing choices necessary to stay alive. Sometimes, that meant tipping over entirely into full-blown madness, at which point you'd be taken out by the next group of survivors willing to do whatever it took. But the show was clear that failing to make those violent choices meant you were too delicate to remain alive in its world.

    Trained as we've been by The Walking Dead and its genre descendants, a community like the one Joel and Ellie encounter in "Kin" is suspicious as hell. Who is this Maria, first of all, and what is she up to? She's managed to ensnare Tommy in a romantic relationship (they're even expecting a child). But what's Ellie going to find when she snoops around her house? Why is she offering to cut Ellie's hair? Those are some stabbing scissors, Ellie! Head on a swivel!

    But while the audience is waiting for the other shoe to drop, The Last of Us is telling its own story. Maria isn't here to get the jump on Ellie and lock her up in a basement somewhere. She encourages Ellie to talk about how much she trusts Joel. Joel, meanwhile, struggles to reconnect with Tommy, who by this point has thoroughly renounced the things he and Joel had to do to survive in the early years — we still don't know specifics, except for the fact that they "killed people." Joel can't help but feel judged by his little brother for doing what he thinks was only necessary to keep them alive.

    And here's where the big difference between The Last of Us and The Walking Dead comes into play. The Walking Dead was about a group of survivors trying (and often failing) to find a way to live in a community. The Last of Us is ultimately a show about two people. No matter how many detours we’ve seen in in recent weeks, "Kin" pulls the focus back to the story of Joel and Ellie. The last three episodes have shown different visions of community in a world that has essentially died. Bill and Frank kept a community of two and rode it out for 20 years until they died in each other's arms. Kathleen and her group violently overthrew the FEDRA fascists in Kansas City and were, in the show's most Walking Dead moment to date, ultimately overrun by an enemy even more merciless: the underground Clickers (and, ugh, Bloaters). Tommy and Maria's Wyoming community seems to have gotten it right, and in "Kin," The Last of Us dares to let the audience (and Joel and Ellie) hope that there could be life after the apocalypse.

    But ultimately, the themes of this story center on Joel and Ellie. Maria leaves Ellie with the sobering warning that the only people who can betray us are the ones we trust. Maria only knows Joel from the stories Tommy has told her about what he and Joel have done. Meanwhile, Joel is having an existential meltdown with Tommy about whether he's even capable of getting Ellie safely to their destination. He wants Tommy to take her instead. He's so terrified at the prospect of losing another daughter (figure) that his body is in panic mode.

    The settlement in Wyoming doesn't need to be rotten beneath the surface or ultimately overrun by clickers in order for The Last of Us to preserve its conflict, because the conflict isn't about settlements or even clickers. It's about whether a grieving father who broke his humanity in the years that followed can trust himself to keep this new girl safe. On that basis, the series may be setting up an outcome even more brutally devastating than anything The Walking Dead routinely deployed. But when it's all over, there's the hope that there might be a community to welcome them back.

    New episodes of The Last of Us air Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO and stream on HBO Max. Join the discussion about the show 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, HBO, The Walking Dead, Bella Ramsey, Gabriel Luna, Pedro Pascal, Rutina Wesley