The Last of Us might have the best writing on a television series of the past five years. That much is clear to me after five episodes, the latest of which premiered on HBO on Friday night, and it pretty much left me speechless.
Going into the series, I was expecting great television — while I didn’t know the game very well, I knew the potential that the story had and I had also seen Chernobyl, the show that landed Craig Mazin the gig. What I didn’t expect was a show that would push the art form forward in the way that it’s doing, and while I still give Succession the crown for the best series of the past few years, there is no question that Mazin and game creator Neil Druckmann know exactly what they are doing, and will give all the competition a run for their money.
Spoilers ahead for The Last of Us episode 5
GOING TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE LAST OF US EPISODE 4
Episode 5, “Endure and Survive,” acts as the second half of last week’s episode, both of which were written by Mazin and directed by Jeremy Webb, and kicks off with an explanation of what happened in Kansas City right before Joel and Ellie arrived. This already was the first sign this week of Mazin’s extraordinary sense of structure.
Episode 4 did a great job of building up the character dynamics and the relationship between Joel and Ellie but weaved in some interesting pieces of world-building, not the least of which were the introduction of Melanie Lynskey’s Kathleen as the leader of the resistance in Kansas City, an army of citizens that just took over the city from FEDRA.
RELATED: EPISODE RUNTIMES FOR THE LAST OF US’ FIRST 4 EPISODES REVEALED
Watching episode 4, we were given enough information to understand the major players, but some viewers, myself included, were slightly lost. Should I have played the game before this to know what was going on? No. Not only is Kathleen not part of the game, I later learned, but Mazin was deliberately setting everything up with surgeon-like precision and got us to ask just the right questions and nothing else. He’s not throwing curve balls at us, he’s telling a story with some gaps that will be filled later because they are not exactly important now.
But they are important to episode 5. After changing points of view over the first few minutes of the episode, and exploring the celebrations and the aftermath of the resistance’s win over FEDRA, we meet Henry and Sam, two brothers trying to escape from Kathleen’s relentless hunt.
I will admit, as excellent as I thought this episode was, I was a bit thrown off by the first half, especially once Joel and Ellie come back into the picture because I didn’t think it was really moving the story forward. We’ve been seeing them getting from point A to point B for a long time now, and for a moment it was looking like the episode was going to repeat some of the story beats from the previous episode.
CRAIG MAZIN AND THE SLOWER MOMENTS IN THE LAST OF US
Obviously, this didn’t turn out to be the case. However, the genius in Mazin’s writing is that, even during a 20-minute slower chunk that happens in the second act of the episode, The Last of Us continues to throw deep philosophical questions at the audience, showcasing the best and worst of humanity and how that can come to light under the worst of circumstances.
Henry’s dilemma of whether or not to give up someone else to save his own eight-year-old brother is just phenomenal writing, which later becomes a bigger gut punch when we realize that Kathleen knows about it and simply doesn’t care. Of course, there’s an even bigger gut punch coming down the line, but we’re not quite there yet. Moreover, besides presenting the audience with these dilemmas, The Last of Us also does a great job of using these walking sequences to also introduce more elements of world-building.
This is also the advantage of having a 20-year gap at the beginning of the series — the subsequent episodes can now retroactively go back to that and tell a complete story without spending too much time on it and deviating from the main plot. The apocalypse came and, trying to maintain some sense of normalcy for the younger kids, the survivors started constructing underground bunkers that they transformed into schools. Whatever happened to them later, the show doesn’t try to answer; in turn, it leaves the question to the viewer to make up their own mind, and maybe even conceptualize stories that may have happened there.
Mazin also uses these little moments to start building a relationship between Ellie and Sam. One of the most heartbreaking elements of the series has been watching Ellie be everything but a normal 13-year-old girl. Last episode we had one particular moment that practically made me cry when thinking about it when she reacted to Joel allowing her to keep the gun the same way a normal 13-year-old would react to their parents allowing them to play with his new toy after coming back from school. Now, she doesn’t even care about a five-year age difference with Sam — she just wants to play around with someone who’s not an adult.
THE THIRD ACT
We knew this sense of peace and calm was not going to last, and once they got out to the surface and started celebrating they were so close to making it out, we knew it was a matter of seconds before they ran into an infected, or triggered an alarm by the resistance, or someone started shooting at them. Had they encountered infected by themselves, the episode wouldn’t have felt as satisfying. We were building towards a confrontation between Henry and Kathleen, and anything short of an exchange between the two by the time the credits rolled would have felt extremely underwhelming.
The second half of this episode might be my favorite part of the entire season so far, excluding episode three. Everything, from the direction, camera movements, blocking, writing, and performances were handled simply to perfection. It is essentially a mini-movie within the episode, with a perfect three-act structure that kicks off with an inciting incident (the sniper shooting at our characters), a second act that builds on top of the tension of the first when the resistance arrives, and then, the crescendo doesn’t stop until we get to the third act where everything just blows up and we get the invasion from underground.
This also paid off last week’s intriguing moment where Kathleen and Perry were visiting the basement of a building and were concerned about an emerging threat. And even inside the madness of the third act, which was a masterclass in directing action setpieces in an open but limited space, we get more elements of world-building when we witness what seems to be the next evolution of the fungus, the equivalent to the North-of-the-Wall people having a giant in Game of Thrones.
RELATED: THE LAST OF US PREMIERE DRAWS 4.7 MILLION VIEWERS SUNDAY NIGHT
Of course, the episode doesn’t stop when they make it out alive. This is not that story. In this show, much like what happened with Tess, when it looks like you might have been bitten, you were actually bitten. Sam learns that the hard way, and after a poignant scene with Ellie, we get to the climax of the episode. Even if I knew this was coming, I was still not prepared to see Henry’s reaction after killing his brother. Endure and survive. That’s the lesson Ellie learned today.
After the credits rolled, I realized something. This was the perfect mid-season finale, and even though they may not have planned it this way, it is actually a good point to leave us hanging for a couple of extra days. We have left the first part of the story behind now, and we can now use this week to catch our breath and enjoy the fact that we’re living through one of the best seasons of television we’ve had in a long time. What a time to be a fan.
What did you think of episode five of The Last of Us? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? How hard will it be to wait two more days than usual for the next episode for you? Let us know by dropping us a tweet on our social media!
KEEP READING: THE LAST OF US PILOT REVIEW: A HORRIFYING, MUST-WATCH INTRODUCTION TO A FUNGAL ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE