‘The Last of Us’ Season 1, Episode 4 Recap: Truck Stop

‘The Last of Us’ Season 1, Episode 4: ‘Please Hold My Hand’

For a long stretch of this week’s episode of “The Last of Us,” it looks as if not much is going to happen, and that maybe this week we’ll just have “The Chill Road-Trip Adventures of Joel and Ellie.” They listen to some Hank Williams. Joel teaches Ellie how to siphon gas from parked cars — though when he fumblingly tries to explain the physics behind it, she flashes a wicked smile and says, “You don’t know.”

They eat some 20-year-old Chef Boyardee ravioli. (It’s good!) Ellie finds a book of puns at a gas station and torments Joel with jokes like: “What did the mermaid wear to her math class? An algae bra.”

The fun can’t last, alas. About a third of the way through the episode, our heroes hit a blocked road in Kansas City, and while trying to find an alternative route through downtown, they are ambushed and then ultimately caught in the crossfire of a power struggle involving a local militia. In the initial melee, they crash Bill’s truck. All things considered, they probably should have driven through Des Moines.

By the time the closing credits roll, there is a lot we still don’t know about the predicament in which Joel and Ellie find themselves. We know that the K.C. militia — which has “WE THE PEOPLE” emblazoned on its armored vehicles — is headquartered in a Quarantine Zone that FEDRA abandoned. We know its leader, Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), is so ice-cold that she executes her old family doctor. We know Kathleen is on a rampage against FEDRA “collaborators,” and that as part of that mission she is looking for someone named Henry, who is with someone named Sam: a child, apparently, who draws pictures of himself and Henry as superheroes.

We know that Henry and Sam were recently hiding out in a building where the concrete foundation is breaking up and rippling, perhaps because of some cordyceps/infected activity going on underground. And we know that next week, Joel and Ellie are going to have do deal with the two guns pointing at the episode’s cliffhanger ending.

Inside the Dystopian World of ‘The Last of Us’

The post-apocalyptic video game that inspired the TV series “The Last of Us” won over players with its photorealistic animation and a morally complex story.

  • Game Review: “I found it hard to get past what it embraces with a depressing sameness, particularly its handling of its female characters,” our critic wrote of “The Last of Us” in 2013.
  • Left Behind: The Last of Us: Left Behind,” a prologue designed to be played in a single sitting, was an unexpected hit in 2014.
  • 2020 Sequel: The Last of Us Part II,” a tale of entrenched tribalism in a world undone by a pandemic, took a darker and unpredictable tone that left critics in awe.
  • Playing the Game: Two Times reporters spent weeks playing the sequel in the run-up to its release. These were their first impressions.

Assuming our heroes don’t immediately die next week — a pretty safe assumption with five episodes remaining — what mattered most to the story this episode was that the trouble in Kansas City deepened Joel and Ellie’s bond, forcing them to be more honest with each other.

After shooting his way out of immediate danger, Joel is surprised by an attacker who nearly chokes him to death. No longer able to keep her gun a secret, Ellie shoots and neutralizes the attacker but doesn’t kill him. That’s one cat out of the bag.

When the attacker hands over his knife and pleads for his life — his name is Brian, he tells Ellie in a clear attempt to humanize himself, adding: “We can trade with you! We can be friends!” — Ellie hesitates to finish him off. But Joel has been at this survival game for a while. He snatches Elle’s gun and tells her to hide behind a wall so she won’t see how vicious he has to be with that knife.

The moment forces more honesty to the surface. Joel, regretting the burden he assumes Ellie must feel for having shot someone for the first time, learns that she is not wide-eyed innocent he believed. She has, in fact, hurt somebody before. As for himself, he must be honest that he obviously needs her — and her willingness to pull a trigger — more than he wanted to.

Unfortunately for both of them, that guy Brian? His dying offer to take them to his mom was probably a pretty good indication that his mother was Kathleen. (Her restrained reaction to the sight of his dead body more or less confirms it.) No way that doesn’t come back to haunt them.

By the end of the episode, as they climb 33 flights of stairs in a skyscraper to find someplace safe to sleep, Joel and Ellie are exhibiting an increased level of trust that they can protect each other. So naturally, this is when they get awakened in the middle of the night by two new characters wielding guns, one who appears to be in his 20s, the other just a boy. They’re likely Henry and Sam, given that the younger one wears a painted-on superhero mask.

This kind of existential threat was always there, even as Joel and Ellie were just rambling down mostly empty roads, cracking jokes. Even then they couldn’t stop to rest without wondering who or what might be lurking, ready to terminate their adventure.

This is what makes Ellie — and Bella Ramsey’s multilayered performance — so pivotal to this story. She isn’t living in fear; she is embracing whatever life she has left. She is surprisingly aware of much of the pre-apocalyptic world — enough so that she can make knowing jokes about the gay porn magazine she finds in the back of Bill’s truck. But she over-romanticizes the past too. When Joel talks about how in the old days the gasoline supplies hadn’t broken down and people could drive for more than an hour on a full tank, Ellie eagerly asks, “Where did you go?” The answer: “Pretty much nowhere.”

At one point, Joel says that even though he doesn’t believe this fallen world will ever rise again, he keeps surviving “for family” — while also pointedly telling Ellie that she is just “cargo.” But his attitude is clearly changing; it’s awfully hard not to find Ellie charming. Partnering with her is becoming more than just an obligation.

Of course, the Kathleens of the world have family too. Things are likely to get more complicated.

Side Quests

  • A great example of how delightfully puckish Ellie can be: While bedding down for the night in the woods, her tone turns all grave and urgent as she says to Joel, “Can I ask you a serious question?” When he says she can, she asks, “Why did the scarecrow get an award?” (Joel knows that one: “Because he was out standing in his field.”)

  • Once again there is no pre-credits scene in this episode; and for the first time, there is no flashback. The closest we get to returning to the past is when Joel tells Ellie about Tommy, explaining that his brother — a “joiner” by nature — has spent the plague years connecting with anyone who claims to have a plan to fix the world, while sometimes dragging Joel along. Later in the episode, after Joel starts letting his guard down around Ellie, he admits that during his vagabond days with Tommy and Tess, he sometimes set up the kind of ambush traps that they met with in Kansas City.

  • I love the contrast between Bill’s well-preserved old truck and all the rusting junk that Joel and Ellie drive past. Two weeks ago, I praised the work of the show’s digital effects artists for filling the backgrounds of shots with astonishing-looking ruins. (Example this week: a collapsed train trestle on the horizon, with railroad cars dangling.) But I must also tip a cap to the production designer John Paino, whose team built the crumbling physical spaces that Joel and Ellie move through — from the trashed gas stations to the wreckage-strewn Kansas City streets.

  • When Ellie takes a whiff of Joel’s percolated campfire coffee, she recoils, then later asks, “That’s seriously what those Starbucks in the Q.Z. used to sell?” Good to know that even after society collapsed, Starbucks stuck around.

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