REVIEW: The Last of Us – “Kin”

Gabriel Luna as ‘Tommy’ and Pedro Pascal as ‘Joel’ in HBO’s THE LAST OF US — PHOTO: HBO / Liane Hentscher.

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

In the sixth episode of the first season of the HBO adaptation of the masterful video game franchise known as The Last of Us — titled Kin — Joel (played by Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey) reach Wyoming and search for Joel’s brother, Tommy (played by Gabriel Luna), and Joel starts having panic attacks. Kin was directed by Jasmila Žbanić (Quo Vadis, Aida?) and written by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl).

Kin is a very interesting episode of The Last of Us not just because it is a mostly faithful adaptation of the chapter of the first game that reunites Tommy with Joel, but also because it gives new viewers a tour of a major location from the second game, which you only got a sneak peek of back in 2013 when the original game was released. This season, it has felt like the experience of the second game has influenced the way the showrunners have decided to tell the story of the first game. One of the major ways this is seen is in the episodes in Kansas City, where one of the attackers pleads for his life, but also through Kathleen, as a completely new character with a complex backstory that reflects our protagonists to a certain extent, who feels much more like a second game character. But with the location of Jackson, we get the most direct look at what a second season will probably look like partially (as it is a major location in the second game). But more on that in a moment. First, let’s have a closer look at the events of the episode. 

Once again, the episode kicks off without an opening scene prior to the title sequence. After the title pops up and Santaolalla’s iconic theme stops playing, we are given a quick reminder of the trauma experienced at the end of the previous episode. I’m not entirely sure it was necessary to include this glimpse of Henry about to shoot himself, though. I say this because there is a massive three-month time jump immediately after it. This is of course the winter section of the first game, which is the part of the game where we see a real development in Joel and Ellie’s bond (and this episode does an excellent job of highlighting that change).

It’s cold, it’s white, and it’s winter. Three months have passed. We see this older couple (played by Graham Greene and Elaine Miles) living in a little house surrounded by snow. When the husband returns home, he sees that Joel and Ellie have taken his sweet wife (who made them soup!) hostage. What gives? Well, Joel and Ellie are lost. They need directions. This scene is entirely new, but gamers will recognize Joel’s tactic of having two different individuals pointing out where they are on a map. Well, in the games, it’s often a much darker interrogation once Joel’s doing this, with very harsh outcomes. But here it’s a fun and cute little scene where the older couple shows a lot of personality. The wife is delightfully laid back and honest, disarmingly so, while the husband is stubborn but accepting. When Joel asks for advice on how to go west safely, the husband sternly insists to go east and that something harsh is west of the river. Supposedly, some group kills both infected and normal people viciously. It startles Joel. He is in desperate need of a respite for this journey that he once begrudgingly agreed to, but which has now seen him become attached to the person he once insisted was merely cargo. He trusts the couple, and it gives him a bit of a panic attack (though he insists it’s just the cold weather). Joel and Ellie leave, with the husband and wife presumably living safely for the rest of their lives — or, let’s hope so. 

They don’t have a choice, really. And so our duo trek towards the river of death. On their journey, they sleep under the night sky, admire the aurora borealis, and Ellie gets to have a sip of alcohol (it’s not for her, she is quick to discover). Ellie then quizzes Joel on what comes after their mission to extract a cure from Ellie. Joel claims that he wants a quiet farm life (but later admits to having once wanted to be a singer — a neat callback to the games). Ellie, conversely, is obsessed with the sky, astronauts, and Sally-fucking-Ride (gamers will also love this reference to a fan-favorite moment from the games). Ellie then confesses to Joel that she rubbed her blood into Sam’s wound, and since it failed to do anything, she is afraid that her being immune won’t ultimately mean much. Joel puts her at ease, though, and insists that Marlene knows what she’s talking about. This is certainly key character development for Joel, as he previously insisted it would never work. Now Joel wants to reassure her. He doesn’t want her to beat herself up over the failed attempt with Sam. It’s a kind move from the battle-hardened Joel. 

Eventually, Joel and Ellie carefully cross what they suspect is the aforementioned river of death, only to be confronted by another river (the actual river) on the other side of it. They look over at a dam, which is the location of a significant chunk of this chapter in the actual game, and they are then quickly ambushed by a rifle-toting group on horseback. A tense situation occurs when a dog is sent toward them to determine whether or not they’re infected. Joel essentially freezes in place fearing the worst, but a dog’s snout is apparently not accurate enough since Ellie isn’t found out. When Joel then reveals their objective and his name, they are escorted to their guarded community known as Jackson, i.e. the aforementioned pivotal location from the second game. 

Inside Jackson — this massive community that looks like paradise when compared to the quarantine zone in Boston and the disorder of Kansas City — Joel is finally reunited with Tommy, and it’s a touching scene. Joel spots him from afar and then they almost run up to each other hastily. Joel was there to rescue Tommy, who had gone radio silent, and meanwhile, Tommy was living his best life. During the sharing of a warm meal, it is revealed to Joel and Ellie that Tommy and Maria (played by Rutina Wesley), the leader of the group that ambushed them and recognized Joel’s name, are hitched. Tommy has built a life of his own, and while Joel should be happy for him, he’s concerned and grumpy. This is a change of plans that makes it more difficult for Joel to ask Tommy for help. Meanwhile, Ellie is very defensive. She senses that something isn’t quite right, and she even barks at a young woman looking at her from afar (gamers should have an idea of who that might be, and, if that is who we think it is, it’s an exciting little reference).

Eventually, Joel and Tommy are given a chance to talk privately, while Ellie is saddled with Maria, who offers her a shower, clean clothes (yep, that’s an outfit in the game), a haircut, a menstruation cup, and, while testing Ellie, Maria even spills the beans about Sarah. Like Ellie says, it’s a key piece of information that explains a lot about the man that Joel Miller has become. And Joel’s trust issues are also apparent in the first of two private conversations with Tommy. Tommy pokes and prods about what has happened to him and Tess, and he’s also deeply curious about who Ellie is. Joel tries to shrug it off with blatant lies, but, in a later scene, he confesses. But the actual key piece of information in their first real conversation is that Tommy is pregnant. Tommy is going to be able to lead the life that Joel once had and lost. Joel feels it is a slap in the face, but Tommy craves an honest and warm reaction from Joel.  He doesn’t get it. That encounter is harsh and awkward and sad, and once Joel leaves the bar, he is again struck by a panic attack. He sees a woman who resembles his late daughter.

Their second conversation is a vulnerable stunner with top-notch performances from Pedro Pascal and Gabriel Luna. Joel lays it all bare and both levels with and pleas with his brother. The news really hits Tommy hard because Joel’s plea is so raw and honest — he likely hasn’t seen him like this in forever. It’s a great show-invented scene delivery that helps to develop Joel as a character (just like the later interactions with Ellie do just by having him smile with her). There’s just one problem for Joel; Ellie heard enough of it to understand his intentions. And when she confronts him about his desire to leave her with Tommy, we are given a very faithful (but with key differences in line delivery and without a certain omitted line) adaptation of my favorite moment in the original game. Ellie tries to make Joel understand that he is all she has and that she is frightened of a world without him by her side. But the way she talks to Joel is in a direct way that makes Joel aware of the fact that she knows about Sarah, and the mere reference to her is enough to get him to tighten up and harden completely. She is set to go with Tommy, and they are going to go their separate ways. 

Well, you know, until that isn’t the case. Yes, Joel also changes his mind and leaves with Ellie in the game, but the last scenes of the episode feel a little bit rushed, as the showrunners want them to both make up and be jovial again, trek all the way to the University that the Fireflies should be at, and then have Joel be brutally injured in very little time. While I do think it works relatively well, it does go by fairly fast, which may lessen the impact of the aforementioned ‘most memorable scene’ in the game. I wouldn’t call it a false step but rather a necessary condensation. Fans of the game will know that plenty of shootout scenes have been cut from the chapters covered in this episode, just as they’ll know that Joel’s injury has been changed (an understandable change, as certain injuries are more realistic in video games than they are in film and television). Still, in spite of the rushed pace of the end of the episode, the cliffhanger still works wonderfully (with a great Depeche Mode cover from Craig Mazin’s daughter) because most of the changes that have been made are really smart (with Jackson and Joel’s vulnerability being at the top of the list). This show likes to give you hope and then take it away from you. This is another example of that. 

With Kin, The Last of Us continues to function at an amazingly high level. The episode remixes and condenses certain sections of the games for the purpose of making this chapter of the first game’s story a better fit for a television series. While it mostly but not entirely keeps the most iconic cutscene of the game intact, the showrunners continue to make smart changes that deepen our understanding of our main characters, with Pedro Pascal’s Joel getting the spotlight shone on him through note-perfect, vulnerable, and revealing conversations with Tommy, performed excellently by Gabriel Luna. It’s a dialogue-heavy episode, so there was a lot of pressure on Pascal, Ramsey, and Luna to nail character development establishing scenes, some of which are so iconic in the source material that a false move could prove disastrous. While there are certain omissions, remixes, and altered line deliveries, no false move is made. Instead, it’s another deeply felt stunner of an episode; one that ought to keep new audiences on the edge of their seats. 


– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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