SPOILER ALERT: This column contains potential spoilers about the fourth episode of “The Last of Us.”
Episode four: “Please Hold to My Hand”
There are a lot of road stories in the Western canon: “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson. “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” by John Steinbeck. And — my personal least favorite — “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” by Robert M. Pirsig.
Then there’s the one that most closely resembles “The Last of Us” — 2006’s “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. So, the post-apocalyptic road trip isn’t new.
But I’m not sure it has ever been this good.
Americans love highways and cars and dire situations, roadside stops and country music and apocalypses, crashes and accidents and near-death experiences.
We just love the open road.
We love its highs and its lows. Its twists and its turns. There’s just nothing like a good high or low or twist or turn, you know? And when a plot twists as severely as the road its characters are on, you know you’re in for…something.
And we’re always in for something with Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), who are now on their way to Wyoming — but make an unexpected, and violent, stop in Kansas City.
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There are so many subtle moments in this show — often between Joel and Ellie — that make you remember this is just a good drama. It doesn’t matter that the obstacles are zombies; there wasn’t a single zombie in this episode. This episode really drove home the idea that this show can thrive with the sheer threat of zombies popping out. They don’t even have to make an appearance.
You do get the sense, though — kind of obviously, because a lot of horror does this — that humans are the real villains. Because, ultimately, the fungi can spread fairly peacefully if you let it. Humans never go peacefully though. I mean, we get worked up over the Grammys.
Humans just go bonkers any chance they get. So, when Joel told Ellie in the pickup truck, “You haven’t seen the world. So, you don’t know,” in response to Ellie asking, “If you don’t think there’s hope for the world, why bother going on? I mean, you gotta try, right?”
… Joel wasn’t talking about zombies. Joel knows how the zombies work. Humans, though?
Who knows how humans work?
They — we, I guess — make the weirdest, most vomit-inducing, cringey, conniving decisions of any species. Honestly, Joel himself is a tad of a villain. An anti-hero, at least. He has some evil qualities.
Like in that one scene.
The expected gunshot that doesn’t occur. The eerie realization that Joel didn’t shoot his victim to death but stabbed him in the chest — and, as a viewer, not knowing why he made that choice. The sound of writhing, human screams that screech to life when someone lacerates another person’s skin.
It’s awful. No way around it.
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But the villain who haunts me the most is Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), a leader of what seems to be a violent revolutionary group in Kansas City.
Her voice isn’t lithe, but it isn’t truly forceful. It’s unexpected; it’s too human. And it creeped and crawled all over me as it grew more familiar. Her voice rattled in my head for the longest time without knowing why.
But then I knew.
She sounds like the moms I used to hear screaming from the soccer sidelines when I was little. And it triggered that fight-or-flight response within me.
If it’s me, I almost always fight. I’ve told off more adults in my life than I care to admit. I hear more voices than just hers when she speaks. It makes my stomach hurt and my head throb and my throat achy with the desire to snap back at the next person who dares to snap at me. And that awful fear — god, are there soccer moms in Kansas City, too? Well, there must be, it’s a soccer capital. What if she’s from Overland Park? And she’s like all the rich, white suburban moms who gave me the chills my whole life?
What if all the soccer moms from Fishers, Indiana — my hometown — survived? Because they’re somehow the ultimate villain and ultimate savior of the human race? How can those two things exist?
And why am I so scared of this type of human?
I guess it’s like I said: it’s hard to understand how humans work. I don’t know why soccer moms are the way they are. I don’t know why I react to them the way I do. I just do.
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Funny to see reflections of people you know in depictions of the apocalypse. Isn’t it.
I’ll leave you with the wise words of my close friend, who was discussing the show with me the other day — he sums this up really well:
“‘The Last of Us’ is a drama that happens to have zombies in it,” he said. “It’s not a zombie show that happens to have dramatic elements.”
And with one little sentence — tacked on at the end, but impossible to forget — he drove the dagger in, twisting it in the spot that always hurts the most, reminding me for the last time the inevitable truth about us:
“The real monsters are the humans.”
I’m not even sure if that’s a twist anymore. But it sure is a low.