Down the road, if The Last of Us is lucky enough to get any acting award nominations, clips from this episode will explain why. The sixth episode of The Last of Us, titled “Kin,” saw Joel and Ellie’s trek across the United States reach a crossroads. The pair were forced to deal with things they’ve been hiding and make choices they’ve been avoiding, all in an attempt to finally get to someone who can help them. It wasn’t an episode with a lot of action, and there wasn’t a single infected to be seen, but the tension and fear were omnipresent thanks to series-best performances from Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey.
Last week’s The Last of Us ended with that devastating moment of Henry killing himself after killing his infected brother, Sam. It’s still fresh in our minds. It just happened. But, to hammer home how impactful that moment was on Joel and Ellie, episode six actually begins by showing a piece of that scene again. The moment hits hard and then three months pass. Three months during which Joel and Ellie have had to live with that image over and over.
Things pick back up with a very well-bundled man walking through the woods with pair of dead rabbits. He heads into his secluded cabin where his wife sits quietly and gestures with her eyes to the left. There’s a stranger inside, and he has a gun. It’s Joel, and he explains to the man (played by legendary actor Graham Greene) that he’s looking for his brother, Tommy. The man says he hasn’t seen him (or anyone who looks like Joel), and his wife (Elaine Miles) reveals this man has a girl with him. Ellie runs down the stairs and with her instant wisecracks, she seems to have a brand new “Don’t Give a Shit” attitude.
Joel asks the man to at least tell him where they are on a map, which leads to some fun banter between the couple, and a revelation that though they want to keep going west, they should turn back east. The couple explains that to their west there’s a “River of Death;” they don’t know what’s beyond it, but everything that crosses the river dies. Ellie finds this cute but Joel understands how serious it just may be.
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Joel and Ellie leave the house peacefully, but you can’t help but appreciate the cool, calm, demeanors of the man and woman, who lived in isolation long before the world ended. They’re happy. They’re laughing. And that’s why Joel is so scared about what this “River of Death” could be. If they’re scared of it, he knows they should be too.
On the way out, Joel seems to have some kind of episode or attack. Ellie freaks out that he might be dying and says “If you’re dead I’m fucked,” but Joel gets a grip and says he’s okay. At the time, it seems like a nothing moment, but later we’ll learn this is not just an important moment for Joel physically, but Ellie’s mentality in regards to Joel.
Before crossing the “River of Death,” they camp for the night. Ellie tries some booze and says it’s “still gross” (Apparently, she’s had it before? To be continued) and the pair play a game. Ellie asks Joel if this all works and they save the world, what will he do? Joel thinks about it and says he’s like to have a sheep ranch. Ellie laughs and implies that she’d like to go to the moon and has studied everything about it. She even mentions that Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into space, is her favorite astronaut. Again, this moment seems kind of superfluous, but for anyone who has played the video games, it’s seeding a few things way down the line and shows very acute attention to detail.
Joel says he’ll keep watch overnight, but falls asleep and wakes up to Ellie having taken over the duties. At first, he’s angry but she assures him she did everything he would have done. Ellie is learning. They set out and cross the “River of Death” without incident. On the other side, they find a dam that is providing electricity to someone (along with a great “damn” joke from Ellie) before they find another river. This one looks different and Ellie suggests maybe this is the “River of Death,” not the last one. Before he can pull out his map to check, about 10 people on horseback arrive and surround them. Yup. It’s this is the “River of Death” all right.
The people are all covering their faces with bandanas and have a dog that can smell infected. He sniffs Joel, who is clean, and turns his attention to Ellie. We’ve already seen that her condition triggers alerts like she’s infected, even though she isn’t anymore, so tensions rise and rise as the dog approaches. Joel stands there in shock, unsure of what to do with 10 guns aimed at him. Luckily for everyone, the dog doesn’t smell anything and instead licks Ellie. Now considered safe, Joel explains he’s looking for his brother. One of the women in the group breaks forward and asks Joel’s name. The answer works because Joel and Ellie hop on horseback and ride away. Crisis averted. For now.
The group approaches a huge gate and waves a specific flag to open the gates. Inside, it’s a working, normal-looking town. There are kids running around, stores selling goods and, on one specific scaffold, someone’s brother. “Tommy!” Joel screams. For the first time since the pilot, we get to see his younger brother Tommy, played by Gabriel Luna. The two embrace in a moment that really hits hard because Joel and Ellie haven’t had much good luck on this show. They’ve survived, which is good enough, but true success and happiness have been hard to come by. This is a win though. This is why they set off in this direction. To find Joel’s brother, Tommy, and now they have. I’m not ashamed to admit, I shed a few tears.
Joel and Ellie inhale some actual food as Tommy and Maria (Rutina Wesley), the woman who brought them in, explain a few things. Mainly, though it’s not outright stated, that whole “River of Blood” thing is just a myth that they’ve been perpetuating to keep people away—people who want to take what they have in the town. It’s a suitable payoff to the earlier mystery and Joel is ready to get into everything with Tommy. He says to Maria that he’d like some time just for family and Tommy explains that she is family. She’s his wife. Ellie gives a hearty congratulations but Joel only does so begrudgingly. Something is off with him.
Tommy and Maria give Joel and Ellie a tour of the town and fill them in on how long it’s been around, what they have, how it all works, etc. We learn that everyone in the town shares everything, making it a de facto communist government, but the connotation that once had isn’t the same here at the end of the world. The scene is mostly exposition but it also gives the audience an idea of just how difficult it was, and must be, for these people to create a safe haven like this town—as well as how keeping things that way is even harder.
That truth looms over Joel and Tommy’s first private conversation when Tommy hints at why he stopped communicating with Joel via radio. It’s because he couldn’t give away anything about the town. It’s a tense conversation. Joel doesn’t quite get Tommy’s mindset, and even lies to him about Tess’ well-being and why he’s traveling with Ellie. He tells Tommy that Tess is fine; Ellie is the daughter of a powerful Firefly and he’s been paid to get her to them. Last Tommy heard, the Fireflies were at the University of Eastern Colorado (not a real place, by the way), which is a week away from them. Tommy explains it’s a very rough trip though, with lots of infected and raiders in between, and so Joel asks if Tommy will come with them. He declines.
Joel is pissed and the pair argue about their past, which was more violent than either of them cares to admit. It’s then that Tommy reveals to Joel he’s going to be a father, which is why he can’t go on the trip. Joel does not seem happy about this and Tommy rightfully takes offense. “Just because life stopped for you doesn’t mean it has to stop for me,” he says, a reference to Joel losing his daughter, Sarah. Joel leaves and has another mysterious attack during which he thinks he sees Sarah. It’s pretty clear that while he really, really wanted to find Tommy, actually succeeding has not been what he expected, and maybe he didn’t actually expect to find him at all.
Ellie is back at the house Tommy and Maria have decided to give them (which seemed super easy and weird but I digress). She takes probably her first shower in months and sees that Maria left her a new change of clothes as well as the gift that keeps on giving, a menstrual cup. Maria is across the street, so Ellie heads over. Inside she sees the names and dates for two children on the mantle, Kevin and Sarah, who both died very young.
Maria returns with a brand new jacket for Ellie and she offers to give her a haircut. We learn that Kevin was her son and Sarah is Joel’s daughter, aka Tommy’s niece. This seems like news to Ellie, who knew Joel killed people his whole life but seems largely in the dark about Sarah. That’s a red flag for Maria who gives Ellie a very key piece of advice: be careful who you put your faith in. You can only be betrayed by people you trust, a statement video game fans know is dripping with foreshadowing.
Maria takes Ellie to the movies, where everyone is watching Richard Dreyfuss’ Oscar-winning performance in The Goodbye Girl. (It’s a movie about how a man enters the life of a woman and her daughter and throws everything for a loop. Its choice here is ripe with subtext.) Meanwhile, Joel is trying to fix his boots and Tommy enters with a new pair as a sort of olive branch. He apologizes about the things that were said earlier and Joel finally comes clean about everything. Ellie is immune, Tess is dead, and he has to get Ellie to the Fireflies to maybe save the world. He also breaks down because, with Tommy, he can finally be vulnerable. Joel admits that he’s constantly scared, physically slow, and doesn’t believe he can finish the task. He feels that he’s a failure.
For the first time here, we really get into Joel’s head. Up until now, he’s been the strong silent type. But those episodes he’s been having are fear catching up with him and resulting in panic attacks. Throughout it all, Pedro Pascal really flexes his acting muscles and makes us feel for Joel in several new ways. So when he ostensibly begs the younger, more capable Tommy to take Ellie to the Fireflies and says it’s the last thing he’ll ever ask him, Tommy agrees.
What we didn’t see as Joel bared his soul to his brother, is that Ellie snuck out of the movie and heard the whole thing. Back at the house, she’s furious because she feels like Joel is giving up on her. “Do you care about me or not?” she yells and Joel says of course. Ellie qualifies that she’s not Sarah and Joel immediately tenses up. “Don’t say another word.” But Ellie can’t help it. She knows Joel lost someone he loved, but Ellie says she’s literally lost everyone she’s ever loved, except Joel. Going on without him would be terrifying to her and he hits her with the fact they’re not related and will never be. She’s crushed, as is he.
Much like Pascal a few scenes earlier, here’s where Ramsey really gets their time to shine. For Ellie, the scene is almost a release valve on all the built-up tension and pain she has been living with, and it all comes across wonderfully in Ramsey’s raw, cutting performance.
Joel thinks about the fight all night. We see via a flashback of him and Sarah at Christmas one year, and suddenly it’s morning. Ellie is up and ready when Tommy comes to get her and they go to the horse stables where, surprisingly, Joel is waiting. He says he was going to steal a horse and leave but felt like Ellie deserved a choice of who she would go with. Without hesitation, she picks Joel. So Tommy gives them directions, a new gun, and a promise that when the deed is done, they can make this place their home.
Joel and Ellie set off for the university, a trip Tommy said would be seven days with many, many obstacles in between. Tommy was wrong. The trip takes only five days and along the way, Joel and Ellie are as bonded as they’ve been yet. He teaches her to shoot, tells her about his life before the world ended, and even explains the rules of football. Really, Ellie understanding the rules of American football without seeing it may be one of the most unrealistic things on a show with infected killer zombies.
The second Joel and Ellie mention that it was an easy trip you just knew things were going to go wrong. And boy do they go wrong. Upon arriving at the school, Joel and Ellie find it abandoned. There are random monkeys running around and some signs that the Fireflies were there, but they aren’t there anymore. It’s the second time on this trip they had a very specific Firefly destination and, when they arrived, the group had moved on. This time, according to a map they find, it might be Salt Lake City, which is much further than Boston is from the Wyoming/Michigan area. But they don’t seem to mind. The pair can tell something is odd about this place though and they find out why when a group of raiders arrive.
Joel and Ellie sneak out of the building and make a run for their horse when one of the raiders attacks. He and Joel get into it and Joel snaps his neck, but not before the man buries a knife deep in Joel’s stomach. The other raiders start running toward them, but Ellie somehow gets Joel on the horse and they make their escape, with Ellie shooting backward to try and give them cover. It’s not easy but they get away, and once they realize they aren’t being followed, Joel’s injury catches up with him. He falls off the horse and Ellie rightfully loses it. “I can’t fucking do this without you,” she says. “Please, Joel. Please” she whispers to him as he loses consciousness and the episode ends.
It’s a powerful, terrifying cliffhanger because what Ellie says might be true. Can she do this without Joel? Will she have to? We’ll have to wait until next week to find out. For now though, looking at “Kin,” as a whole, it’s the perfect example of why The Last of Us is so good. Everything in the episode is about survival. It’s about what different people may feel like in these unfathomable circumstances. And yet, there’s not a single infected in the entire thing. Just the threat of them is enough to simultaneously deepen the humanity of the characters as well as our understanding of the world. We not only saw Ellie and Joel’s relationship ebb and flow with incredible truth, but in Tommy, Maria, and their town, we saw all the possibilities of a vibrant, meaningful future. Something worth fighting for. And the fight is just beginning.
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