Another week, another reminder: The Last of Us is a love story, and sometimes, love can be destructive. Thus far on their journey, Pedro Pascal‘s Joel and Bella Ramsey‘s Ellie have seen devotion take many forms. They’ve witnessed Marlene and Tess’ reserved commitment to responsibility, Bill’s tender endearment to his beloved partner, and now, Henry’s brotherly protection of his vulnerable sibling, Sam. More importantly, however, they’ve seen the consequences that come with each of those stories, and the variable effects that pure love can have on a person and those around them. In Endure and Survive, the series’ stellar fifth episode, the protagonists are forced to explore the darker side of intimacy and learn that love doesn’t always have a happy ending.
To address the elephant in the room, the closing moments of Endure and Survive are incredibly difficult to watch. The episode does an extremely efficient job of introducing Lamar Johnson and Keivonn Woodard as their respective characters early, bringing the show back to the uniquely semi-anthological feel it’s crafted throughout the season, and making their ultimate demise hurt all the more. Not only that, but the duo excel in their roles, evoking exactly the same sense of innocence and optimism that Sam and Henry represented in the original 2013 video game. Much like the other pairs of survivors Joel and Ellie have met on their travels, they mean more than the physical function they serve. They are hope, compassion, and the dream of a better future. So, when they inevitably meet their end, it’s absolutely devastating.
As painful as it is, however, it’s also essential to Joel and Ellie’s own development. No matter what happens in The Last of Us, or who else is present, the story will always come back to Joel and Ellie. That is the singular, unwritten rule of the series. Sam and Henry, as wonderful as they are, exist almost purely to put the show’s protagonists through a certain level of trauma together. The chemistry between the four survivors is immaculate, and for a moment, it seems Joel and Ellie have found a scenario where they can be happy. The beginnings of an informal family. It’s enough for Ellie, and even Joel, to briefly let their emotional guard down, something that they won’t be as quick to do after Sam and Henry’s deaths. Ramsey is particularly excellent in the final scene of Endure and Survive, where Ellie’s freshly hardened exterior is on full display.
If Bill and Frank, in all their glory, were meant to show Joel the potential of a lasting relationship, then Sam and Henry are there to remind him what can happen on the other end of the spectrum. Love, for all its worth, is also the foundation behind some of life’s cruelest acts. There are consequences to letting people open your heart, both good and bad, and The Last of Us is hellbent on spelling this out at every turn. Luckily, it has a sublime cast and talented creatives bringing its heartbreaking spectacle to life. They make the worst of it all feel immensely human, which is also perhaps why fans are so compelled to watch in spite of all the hurt.
Also of note in this episode is the work done with Melanie Lynskey‘s Kathleen. The Last of Us operates best in a grey area and has always maintained this by pitting Joel and Ellie against enemies who aren’t exactly straightforward baddies. Yes, Kathleen is willing to perform acts of violence that would even give Joel pause, but showrunner Craig Mazin does his best to make it clear that doesn’t come from nowhere. Just like everything else in this episode, it emerges from the darkest corner of love. She is human, and her susceptibility to grief also makes her volatile. Joel and Ellie may not be there yet, but there’s nothing to say one or both of them couldn’t reach that point eventually. Not even Henry, who reveals he’s also committed ostensibly atrocious acts in the name of love, is safe from his own humanity. It all comes together so nicely and is simply genius storytelling.
Lastly, as a fan, there’s no way Endure and Survive can be discussed without mention of the Infected horde. Ever since Joel and Ellie survived that Clicker attack in the show’s second episode, the threat of Infected has been far and few between. Several locations of fan-favorite Infected encounters come and go in the series without a hint of the fungal monstrosities in sight. The reasoning behind this, that the heart of the story is about the people and not the creatures, makes total sense, but there has been a wanting desire to see the show’s heroes go up against the living undead again for a while now. With a stirring third act, HBO’s The Last of Us makes up for the intermediate absence of Infected with one fell swoop of chaos, carnage, and a big ole’ Bloater. The resulting exodus of characters is a glorious mix of pain and pleasure.
Endure and Survive is potentially the best episode the series has yet to offer. It contains nearly every aspect of The Last of Us that makes the story memorable. The desperate exhilaration of survival, antagonists both alive and unwell, the fear of fungus, and a deep dive into the intense complexity of emotion that only Neil Druckmann and Mazin could configure. Everything boiling down to a clipboard, asking Ellie, and everyone at home, to stay awake. It’s beautiful and draining all at the same time. At this point, there’s no doubt audiences will be back for more.