The Last of Us is shaping up to be something rather special. Kin, the brilliant sixth episode of HBO’s acclaimed video game adaptation, is carried on the back of an incredible performance from Pedro Pascal, who so effectively demonstrates the gripping intimacy with which the franchise has become synonymous. In a stroke of genius, the latest hour from showrunner Craig Mazin and director Jasmila Žbanić expands on an otherwise brief sequence from the game and turns it into one of the series’ best entries, taking full advantage of a talented cast and an immaculate atmosphere to flesh out characters in ways previously thought unimaginable. Kin is, for all intents and purposes, as close to perfect storytelling as one might find on television.
The true genius of Kin is hidden in its title. At first, it seems remarkably simple, or even more so, straightforward. This chapter of The Last of Us revolves around Joel finally reuniting with his brother, Gabriel Luna‘s Tommy, and meeting his unexpected sister-in-law, Rutina Wesley‘s Maria, for the first time. “Kin” is a rustic way of saying family, so the use of the word in a Wyoming-set episode about folks coming together makes a lot of sense. However, it quickly becomes apparent that “Kin” is referring to more than just the Millers. It’s an episode with a lot of layers, thematically speaking, outside of the many fantastic jackets worn by survivors in the middle-American flatlands, and its moniker is reflective of that in masking the real kinship developed over the course of the hour – Joel, and his begrudgingly paternal role in the life of Bella Ramsey‘s Ellie.
From the moment viewers are reintroduced to Joel and Ellie, in the midst of traversing gorgeous landscapes, the duo already seems more familiar with each other than in previous outings. There’s a decent time jump between the events of the prior episode and this one, and it’s a credit to Pascal and Ramsey for how naturally that shift takes place. There are plenty of entertaining moments between them early in the episode, but it’s not until the two ultimately arrive in Jackson that the extent of their relationship unfolds. Joel and Ellie are both fairly guarded individuals, so it’s with much resentment that they come to the realization they’ve grown to view each other as family, even if they don’t care to admit it. In the same way that Tommy introduces Joel to his wife, Joel finds himself ostensibly introducing Tommy to his daughter, and that unlocks something wildly profound inside of him.
Once this awareness comes into play, Pascal begins to shine. Everyone in the episode is doing wonders, including the woefully underrated Luna, but in a series of scenes between the brothers, Pascal delivers a masterclass in complexity. In the original game, Joel mostly confronts his feelings for Ellie in the form of indifference. A grizzled nonacceptance. Here, however, the choice is made to sprint headfirst in the opposite direction. Joel tries to pass Ellie off to Tommy, not because he’s afraid of bonding again, but because he knows he already has, and he cares too much to risk failure. Joel, the toughest man in the apocalypse, suffers from bouts of pearl-clutching anxiety, and his character is infinitely better for it. In a matter of seconds, Pascal and Mazin transform Joel into a frightened, emotional human being. Not a protector, not a machine, and not a monster. A father, and a broken one at that.
Like Kin itself, he’s given layers to work with. As is Ellie, who sees the potential of family and tribe for the first time through her interactions with Maria and the townsfolk of Jackson. Perhaps this is what loosens her to confront Joel later on, at last revealing that she too understands their dynamic as familial. The climactic argument between the two is heartbreaking and inevitable but results in a healthier connection going into the future. It’s necessary, at this point in the story, for Joel and Ellie to develop past the point of standoffishness. Kin is about their ability to move forward, and evolve. Otherwise, the shocking end of the episode, in which Ellie finds she may be forced to live without the one person who hasn’t given up on her, doesn’t hurt quite as bad.
The Last of Us continues to impress every week, and this episode is no exception. Aside from exploring the inner workings of Joel and Ellie’s relationship, it also offers plenty of goodies for diehard fans of the franchise, who will notice multiple hints at what’s to come throughout. The set design is stunning, even more than usual, and the sage-like execution of Wesley and Luna‘s roles is admirable. There’s just something so special about the way each installment of the series manages to build upon the last, and how each new episode becomes increasingly layered in the way it weaves plotlines together. With only a handful of entries left, fans can rest assured they’re in good hands as the finale approaches.