REVIEW: The Last of Us – “Endure and Survive”

Keivonn Woodard as ‘Sam’ and Bella Ramsey as ‘Ellie’ in HBO’s THE LAST OF US — PHOTO: HBO / Liane Hentscher.

The following is a recap and review of the fifth episode of HBO’s The Last of Us. Expect story spoilers.

In the fifth episode of the first season of the HBO adaptation of the masterful video game franchise known as The Last of Us — titled Endure and Survive — Joel (played by Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey) team up with two brothers, Henry (played by Lamar Johnson) and Sam (played by Keivonn Woodard), in an attempt to get out of Kansas City safely. Endure and Survive was directed by Jeremy Webb (The Last of Us: Please Hold to My Hand) and written by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl).

One pivotal thing about adaptations of powerful and popular source material is that you have to absolutely nail the iconic moments — the big moments that fans of the source material will have an instant recollection of when you even reference it slightly. The Last of Us has thus far done a good job of succeeding with iconic moments from the games and adding in some of its own changes to the source material (most of which have been good). Sam and Henry is one of those iconic storylines from the original video game that the showrunners just had to succeed with. It’s an incredibly sad storyline but also one with a great deal of weight for the further development of the central characters. And, really, the showrunners succeeded here. 

The episode opens without a cold open scene, opting instead with opening with the title sequence to open the episode. On the other side of it, we get glimpses of Sam and Henry. We see them on the run since the day that Kathleen’s resistance celebrated in the streets of Kansas City by pummeling, torturing, and killing members of FEDRA. Kathleen, played by the wonderful Melanie Lynskey, is adamant that they must find Henry and Sam because Henry is responsible for her brother’s death. We see her talk to a group of collaborators that they’ve caught, and she toys with them. She says they’ll get a fair trial, but that they’ve already been deemed guilty. She says that they don’t have to die, before later ordering Jeffrey Pierce’s Perry to burn them when he’s done with them. Kathleen is ruthless and she’s got tunnel vision. But the show does try to show us that she was someone else before the outbreak. We see her in her childhood home in a later scene, we hear how her mother was certain she’d be there, and we see how she knows that her trauma has turned her cold. We also get some understanding of why Perry and his men follow her, as he insists she was the one who managed to get things done, not her good-hearted brother, which indicates that her newfound steely determination is what dealt FEDRA the critical blow. She isn’t cartoonishly evil, as there is someone clearly broken and traumatized beneath the heartless, cruel, and inhumane lines of dialogue that she delivers toward the end of the episode. 

We spend a lot of time with Sam and Henry in the opening scenes of the episodes, even though they mostly just hide in that attic room that Perry and Kathleen found in the previous episode. Their relationship is built here, and you really see how Johnson’s Henry cares for Woodard’s Sam. Henry wants Sam to be able to keep going, and he, therefore, needs him to believe and have youthful hope. He encourages Sam to paint and draw. He even paints Sam’s face to calm him. You really feel the brotherly love here. As they wait for days with limited food, they eventually see Joel and Ellie’s car crash, as well as the way that Joel handles the resistance with confidence and experience. Henry needs him and Sam to get out of this alive, and therefore they need someone like Joel, so they follow in their footsteps and hold our protagonists at gunpoint, for the purpose of convincing them to team up with them. 

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, it should be said that there are some notable differences from the game when it comes to Sam and Henry. Although their storyline ends almost identically in the game (Henry says something different at the end, though), key differences should be mentioned. In the game, Sam is a little bit older and it is a show invention that Sam is deaf. I do think that all of the sign language here adds a lot to the building blocks of the two brothers’ relationship, as it highlights how they have an almost ‘secret language’ but also that it showcases what Henry would like to spare Sam from hearing. To add to this, their backstory is not as detailed in the video game as it is in the show. But, other than this, this episode is a really faithful adaptation of the subplot in the video game with some minor changes such as condensing the quartet’s time together, making a key scene take place at night rather than during the day, and omitting a really tense video gamey scene where the quartet gets separated in the sewers. Though this may sound significant, these changes make sense for a television adaptation. Some scenes just work better for gameplay than they do in audiovisual storytelling where you aren’t in control but where there is a time limit. 

Anyway, eventually, Joel and Henry agree that the quartet should move underground to get to the suburbs. And this is really where the easter egg party begins. Underground, the post-apocalyptic quartet finds an abandoned room that looks like a preschool. All of this is taken straight from the video game, and it even features a Savage Starlight comic book issue that was also found in the game, as well as a drawing of Ish (an identical drawing is found in the game). In the first video game, we learn about Ish’s story by finding various notes in homes, on a boat, and in the sewers. I really wanted an entire episode dedicated to this popular story from the game, but they didn’t find time for it in the show. In any case, I’m glad the drawing was in the episode. 

Just like in the game, on the other side of the underground tunnels, the quartet is shot at by a sniper from a building at the end of the street. This is taken straight from the level in the game, but, instead of having other raiders in nearby houses, Joel only really has to sneak up on the house and take out the sniper. It is interesting that they decided to make it an old guy that Joel opted to give an ‘out,’ and I like the choice. Anyhow, as Joel gets to the house, kills the sniper, and takes control of the weapon, the resistance raiders — led by Kathleen and Perry — reach the street. Henry, Sam, and Ellie hide, but Henry tries to bargain with Kathleen in an attempt to have Sam and Ellie make it out alive. Kathleen refuses to let anyone go and she scolds Henry for trying to save his brother. But before she is able to pull the trigger of her gun, a hole in the ground opens up. Up comes a swarm of wild and blinded infected (most of them very angry clickers but also a huge bloater who moves and kills in ways that reference the game). 

What follows is this intense sequence of horror, bloodshed, gunfire, and anxiety. And it is all pulled off so well. Ellie and Joel — though separated — have this way of communicating that they trust each other to understand, so Joel guides Ellie to a car, just as Ellie guides Joel towards Sam and Henry so that they can be saved. The creature details are top-notch and horrifying, but nothing made my skin crawl more than the child clicker that follows Ellie into the car and later jumps and kills Kathleen. We’ve never seen child clickers in the game, and it is pure nightmare fuel. It’s in the way it moves and the speed with which it attacks. It’s incredible. 

After the hell below rises from the underground tunnels to retake Kansas Coty, we are transported to an abandoned motel where our protagonist quartet is to spend the night before they are to go to Wyoming together. We see how Ellie is trying to calm down Sam by reading an issue of Savage Starlight with him. Sam clearly looks up to Ellie and has something else on his mind. He’s scared. He’s afraid to turn because he’s been infected. Ellie foolishly believes that she can save him by rubbing her blood into his wound. Naturally, it doesn’t work, and, so, the next morning all hell breaks loose and hearts break. Now, in the game, Sam isn’t deaf. In the game, Ellie doesn’t know Sam has been infected. These changes add to the scene in heartbreaking ways. Ellie now failed Sam. And an infected Sam was still deaf, which suggests to Ellie that it was still him on the inside. It’s genuinely distressing and it has a violent end, as Henry snaps and shoots Sam in the heat of the moment. It’s a snapshot decision that he decides that he cannot live with, and so he takes his own life. It hits you like a ton of bricks. 

At the end of the day, the third episode of The Last of UsLong Long Time — could very well end up being the critical zenith of the show — its peak when it comes to critical acclaim. It was an episode that contained all the relevant themes from the original game, but it also gave some hope to new viewers — that love could exist for years and years even in a world like this. It was a bittersweet romance episode, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful stories ever set in a post-apocalyptic world (it’s right up there with the best episodes of The Leftovers). But it was also somewhat of a spinoff episode. Although Joel and Ellie both feature in scenes that bookend that episode, that was mostly an episode about Bill and Frank. If you could criticize that episode for anything, it would be that it isn’t so much centered on the protagonists of the show. Because you could argue that in the third episode of any television show, you would need to focus on the characters you’re gonna be spending the rest of the show with. I think that the third episode is a masterpiece. But that is an acceptable critique of the episode. Well, if you felt that way about the third episode, then this, the fifth episode, is probably your favorite episode of the season thus far.

Endure and Survive is an explosive episode of the show. It has the most spine-chilling and gruesome action set piece since the series premiere, and it goes to great lengths to showcase the horror of both humanity and infection. It’s also an episode that is deeply about these main characters. Sure, it introduces ‘new characters’ in Sam and Henry, but their journey says a lot about Joel and Ellie’s journey. In Henry and Sam, Joel sees what he once had. Sam is essentially Sarah; a person he fought for with his life on the line. Henry is Joel; a person who is clinging onto that one thing that gets you through to the next day (Kathleen’s journey also reminded me of a character from the second game). Joel fell into a deep pit of despair back in the day. Realizing that this kind of tar-black despair was in his future is what ended it for the startled Henry.

Joel says to Henry, towards the end of the episode, that it’s easier for children to overcome this kind of thing because nobody relies on them. Well, Ellie sure felt responsible for what happened to Sam. He relied on her. She gave him false hope. Her magic blood, her messianic potential, is a gift and a curse. She can try to keep the people she loves alive, but it won’t matter much if they get as much as a scratch. Over the course of this and the last two episodes, we’ve seen Joel soften up when it comes to his relationship with Ellie. He may insist that she is cargo, but we all know that is not what she is. Ellie was getting closer to Joel too. But here she hardens. It’s a sad but understandable development for her character and an example of how quickly young people have to grow up in this post-apocalyptic world. In Sam, Ellie found an opportunity to reconnect with that youthful exuberance and excitement (it’s not a coincidence that they brought in the joke book in the previous episode). In Ellie, Henry found hope that Sam could get a friend to keep him young. In Sam’s demise, we find that blissful youthful ignorance cannot survive in that world. It is a world of despair, of heartbreak, and there isn’t really a good way out.

Endure and Survive is an excellent episode of The Last of Us. It is so, because of the excellent references, easter eggs, and the ways they’ve remixed certain elements from the game. But it is also terrific because of the action set piece, the attention to detail, and the rich exploration of side characters. At the end of the day, though, it’s mostly an excellent episode of the show because it says so much about Joel and Ellie. It focuses on the characters that we need to care about. And Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal shine (as do Lamar Johnson and Keivonn Woodard). This is a hugely important episode of the show and our involvement in their journey. Their shared trauma and journey bind them together, and Joel knows exactly how quickly a life can shatter in this world. After Henry and Sam, Ellie definitely knows it too. 


– Review written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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