Welcome back to our tag team recap of The Last of Us! This week Valerie Anne and I (Nic) are covering the jam-packed episode six, titled “Kin”, in which our favorite smol teen lesbian succeeds yet again in making us feel every single feel that exists. We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get started!
Valerie: Previously on The Last of Us, Ellie and Joel had a hell of a time in Kansas City, meeting up with fugitives Henry and Sam and eventually facing a woman named Kathleen and her army of rebels. Their final face-off got interrupted by a horrible horde of infected, including a Bloater and a tiny gymnast child clicker. Henry and Sam were going to join Ellie and Joel but Sam got bitten and even though Ellie tried to heal him by pressing her blood into his bite, he turned. Neither Sam nor Henry survived the morning, so Ellie and Joel headed west, alone together again.
THREE MONTHS LATER
Nic: In what is an incredibly cruel start to the episode, we see the final moments from the previous one yet again. But then it’s three months later and a whole lot snowier when we see a man approaching a secluded cabin whilst carrying the spoils from a hunt. That man is not Joel, however, he’s an older gentleman who lives out here with his wife; his wife who’s been entertaining some company while he was out hunting. Joel pops out from the shadows and asks the man to put down his gun. He’s annoyed with the woman for making Joel soup and treating him like a guest, but she explains he didn’t hurt her and also he’s got a girl with him.
Valerie: Me as a hostage. “Want some soup? It’s cold out!”
Nic: Ellie takes her cue and comes downstairs, telling Joel to calm down because this couple is so old that they couldn’t possibly be a threat to them. All Joel wants to know is where exactly they are and if they’ve seen Tommy. They haven’t seen or heard of the younger Miller brother, and they explain that they’re not hiding here; they’ve been in this house since way before Outbreak Day and their seclusion happened to serve them well when everything went to shit. I won’t lie, I’m kind of obsessed with this couple.
When Joel asks them the best way to get west, the man tells him to go east because nothing good is out beyond the “River of Death.” And as they explain the rumors about what’s out there, and the bodies they’ve found, Joel actually looks scared. When he and Ellie leave the cabin, she steals one of their rabbits since Joel refuses to teach her how to hunt. And while he’s inclined to believe the couple on account of them having more experience out here than they do, Ellie’s the one who tries to convince Joel that they can handle themselves and it’ll all be fine. What’s not fine though, is Joel’s heart?! He gets a faraway look on his face and uses the fence to hold himself up as we hear echoes of Ellie asking if he’s okay. Because you know, if he dies, then ya girl is fucked.
RIVER OF DEATH
Valerie: Ellie and Joel take off, the former significantly more confident than the latter. They walk all day and eventually reach a river and decide to camp out in a cave. Joel says they can hunt more rabbits and Ellie excitedly asks if he’ll teach her but he shuts her down. As they sit around the fire before bed, Ellie asks for some booze “to warm up” and Joel somehow relents, probably because he knows what will happen: she takes a sip and immediately declares it gross.
They have a cute little fireside chat about what they would do if they could do anything, if the cure works and they can follow their bliss. Joel says he would have a farmhouse, maybe a sheep ranch. When he turns the question back to Ellie, she just looks up. She loves Sally Ride (which Joel guesses…which I’m choosing to believe is a sign he knows she’s gay.)
Nic: Oh I’m right there with you on that one. I also love watching these two open up to each other little by little. Every time one of them shares, they seem almost relieved when the other doesn’t immediately revolt.
Valerie: After talking about how cool Sally Ride is for a minute, Ellie gets quiet and asks if Joel thinks the cure will really work. She confesses to how she tried to heal Sam, but he reassures her, saying it’s more complicated than that and that he trusts Marlene’s instincts on this one. He tells her to go to bed and she asks if he wants her to take first or second watch but he says he’ll do both. Then he tells her to dream of sheep ranches on the moon, which is such a classic dad thing to say and it made my heart so full.
Nic: Joel’s gentle reaction about it being more complicated rather than immediately chastising her got me all misty-eyed!
Valerie: The next morning, Joel snaps awake, realizing he fell asleep while on watch. Ellie quips that he still mumbles in his sleep, and recites all the things she learned from him about keeping watch. He nods in quiet approval but then tells her to just wake him up next time, which she agrees to with her words if not her tone.
Once they’re packed up, they head out again, trudging through the snowy landscape. They walk across a bridge, seeing no death near this river, just a white abyss. Ellie tries to teach herself how to whistle while they walk, and then asks again to learn how to hunt. For a while I was brushing off these questions as just an eager kid, and if there’s one thing I know about kids is that they love to ask questions. But after watching this episode it occurred to me, she doesn’t want to learn how to keep watch or shoot or hunt just because it sounds fun to a 14 year old, though I’m sure it does. Her biggest fear is that she’ll end up alone. Right now she’s reliant on other people to survive. She can’t do this alone. But she wants to be able to. Just in case.
Eventually they get to a dam that I seem to remember working very hard to turn back on in the game, but it seems to be running smoothly now. When Ellie sees it she says, “Dam(n),” and I immediately thought of Nic.
Nic: The way I WHEEZED!
Valerie: Ellie confirms with Joel that dams made electricity, but he tells her not to ask him how, because he couldn’t explain it. (Same. Dams, windmills, solar panels. Might as well be sorcery.) She says he could just make something up and she would have believed him.
They approach a second river, and Ellie points out that maybe THIS is the River of Death they were warned about. And sure enough, as they look at the map to try to reorient themselves, a group of people on horses descend upon them. Joel immediately pulls Ellie close and drops his gun when he’s told to. He tries to explain their situation, whispering to Ellie that it’ll be okay, and encouraging her to do as the strangers ask.
They let a dog loose and say he’ll rip apart anyone he smells the infection on, and Ellie looks scared, not knowing if she’ll fail this test like she fails on FEDRA equipment. Joel watches as the dog growls and approaches Ellie, and Joel’s ears start to ring as another panic attack threatens to rise, but suddenly he realizes he’s not hearing Ellie screaming, just giggling as she pets the goodest boy.
Joel says that he’s looking for his brother, and a woman pulls her horse forward and asks his name. When he says his name is Joel, she looks like perhaps she anticipated that answer.
Nic: They all ride into a settlement built around a town; Jackson, Wyoming. And it’s like going back in time in a way. The streets are filled with people of all ages, there are shops, lights, construction vehicles; it’s almost like Outbreak Day never happened. Ellie’s never seen anything like it and the awe is all over her face. Almost immediately after entering town, Joel spots a familiar figure supervising some construction and he calls out for his brother. They both look like they’ve seen a ghost, but they jog toward each other and embrace, and it’s so sweet and shut up no I’m not crying. As they reunite, Ellie gets a strange look on her face. (ALSO CAN WE TALK ABOUT RUTINA WESLEY AS MARIA BECAUSE MY GODDESS!)
Valerie: A) Joel SMILING and LAUGHING? I was emotional. B) I squealed a little when I realized it was Rutina Wesley, then squealed even more when I realized she was Maria.
Nic: Tommy and Maria take Joel and Ellie to some combination of a restaurant/community center/bar where the latter two scarf down a meal in a way only two people who’ve spent months on the road can. In a very cute moment, Joel reminds Ellie to mind her manners, and then she immediately yells at a girl who’s staring at her with interest. (I have a head canon on who this girl could be, but I won’t drop it here because SPOILERS for Part II of the game. But if you’ve played both, you can probably guess.) Maria explains that the kids in Jackson are just curious because they’re not used to foul-mouthed gun-toting teens. Weird, I guess.
When Ellie goes off about their people almost killing them, Tommy defends Maria and the rest of the group, because they were just trying to keep the community safe from outsiders who attempt to try them. Those bodies that the couple warned them about? People who have tried them. They’re well aware of the rumors, but Tommy says that having a bad reputation doesn’t necessarily make them bad. Joel thanks Maria for her hospitality and asks if they can have some private family time, but Tommy reveals that actually, Joel has a sister-in-law! Ellie immediately congratulates them, but Joel hesitates before following suit.
Valerie: I thought it was very cute the way Ellie told Joel to “say congrats” in the same tone he used to tell her to mind her manners. Buddies!
Nic: As they tour the town, Maria gives some super informative exposition about how Jackson came to be what it is today in just 7 short years. They built around an existing gated community, and because everything is so much more spread out, it’s been pretty easy to stave off groups of infected that have wandered over from cities. One of the ways they’ve been able to keep their location a secret is by staying off the radio, and whewwww the look that Joel gives Tommy when he hears that information? You just know he’s gonna hear about it later. Thanks to power from the dam, everything in Jackson actually works.
Even their essentially communist system of government works! They have a democratically-elected council, all of their resources are shared, and everyone pitches in. They get to the stables and meet an adorable horse named Shimmer that I definitely won’t fall in love with. Nope. While Maria takes Ellie to one of the empty houses across the street, the brothers head to the bar (?!) to catch up.
Joel can barely believe that he’s posted up at a real bar with real ice and real whiskey. Tommy asks about Tess, and Joel says that she’s fine, but he can’t look his brother in the eye as he lies to him. He uses Tess’ assumption about Ellie being some Firefly big wig’s to explain why he’s traveling with a random teenager, and when Tommy explains where the Fireflies were last stationed, Joel automatically assumes that his brother is going to join them on their journey. When Tommy declines, Joel immediately blames Maria, but Tommy isn’t having it; the crew in Jackson saved him when he left the Fireflies and if he has to follow their rules in order to make a life for himself, then so be it.
Joel takes this rejection hella personally and reminds Tommy that all of those awful things they did? He did them so they could survive. But what Tommy’s learned is that while that’s true, there were ways other than killing; they just weren’t good at any of them. And besides, Tommy’s about to be a father so he’s got to be more careful. It’s sweet, the way Tommy talks about being a good dad despite being scared to death. And in that moment, Joel is reminded of Sarah and the fact that he didn’t get to continue being a good dad to her. It stifles his excitement for his brother, and Tommy’s hurt causes him to tell Joel that everything doesn’t have to stop just because it did for him. It’s a low blow, and Joel leaves after saying he and Ellie will be gone in the morning. He doesn’t get very far before he appears to have another anxiety attack.
Valerie: I’m sure seeing someone with hair like Sarah’s in the crowd did nothing to help the death grip around his heart.
Next Page: SURPRISE! RUTINA WESLEY!
ACROSS THE STREET
Valerie: While Joel and Tommy were having their brother chat in the bar, Maria was setting Ellie up in a house down the street. Ellie gets out of the shower in a teen girl’s bedroom, and sees a note from Maria saying she’s across the street. (On what looks like homemade paper, which was a nice touch of flavor for this self-sufficient town.)
Side note: When I saw the window seat in this room, I got so stressed. This part of the show is slightly different than this part in the game but I knew exactly what conversation we’d be having at that window seat and I was not ready.
Along with the note, Maria also left Ellie a menstrual cup, which Ellie squeezes and says, “gross” with a fascinated smirk on her face. She heads across the street to find Maria, and on her way to her she finds a little memorial in Maria and Tommy’s living room with a chalkboard and two names: Kevin and Sarah, who both died in 2003, at 3 and 14 respectively. It made me sad to realize that Sarah would be around my and Nic’s age if she had survived.
Valerie: Maria comes in with a purple coat for Ellie and says she threw her iconic red shirt in the rag bin, which frankly is rude. She then gives Ellie a haircut, during which she lets slip that Sarah was Joel’s daughter, which brings some parts of the enigmatic man she’s been traveling with a little more into focus. Maria tries to warn Ellie about Joel, but Ellie defends him. Maria says you can only be betrayed by people you trust and that feels like weird advice to give a kid with no one else to turn to, but luckily Ellie was already following this advice and keeping Maria at arm’s length. (Well, emotionally. She did let this stranger get near her, out of her eyeline, with scissors. Nobody’s perfect.)
MOVIE NIGHT/THE FARMHOUSE
Valerie: Maria takes Ellie to movie night, where a lot of kids and some adults are gathered together watching an old movie on a projector. The girl who spied on Ellie earlier is sitting next to her, but Ellie isn’t paying attention to her, she’s too busy scanning the room, looking for Joel, uneasy being away from her comfort person this long. She’s been through too much too recently to relax and watch a movie like any other kid.
Nic: I imagine too that part of her is trying to process the fact that there are kids in this world who didn’t have to grow up like she did. They weren’t trained by the military, they got to have movie nights; it must seem so unfair that she’s had to be afraid for so long when in another life she could have been more carefree.
Valerie: Oh man, you’re so right.
Ellie looks and looks but Joel isn’t at movie night, he’s trying to quite literally cobble his shoe back together. Tommy shows up with a new pair of boots to save him the trouble, and they apologize for being so weird with each other. Joel asks Tommy if this trip is a suicide mission, and when Tommy assures him it’s not, he tells his brother that Ellie is immune. He confesses that he lied about Tess, that taking Ellie to these Pacific Northwest Fireflies was her dying wish, and that they were doing fine until they got to Kansas City and Ellie had to shoot a kid to save his life because he was too old and slow to save himself.
In a surprising moment of self-awareness and vulnerability, Joel tells Tommy about how he keeps freezing. That every time her life is in danger, he can’t move, he can’t breathe. He says that he’s weak, that he has nightmares every night, and he wakes up feeling a little emptier inside. He says he’s failing Sarah over and over. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when Dad cries, I cry.
Nic: SOBBING EMOJI
Valerie: Joel is sure he’s going to get Ellie killed and he can’t go through that again. He begs Tommy to take her, because he’s younger and stronger. He’s the only person Joel trusts with this mission, and he promises it’s the last thing he’ll ever ask of him. Seeing how desperate his big brother seems, Tommy agrees.
Tommy points Joel in the direction of the house they set up for him and Ellie, and they walk by a burning barrel, which is only notable because I was reminded about how embarrassed I was about how long it took me to realize that the game used burning barrels as signals of where to go next in particularly maze-like areas and buildings.
Joel finds Ellie in the teen girl’s room, reading her diary. She can’t believe that the most stressful things in this girl’s life were which boys were the cutest and which outfit she’d wear. “It’s bizarre.”
Her tone is lacking that signature spark, and sure enough she immediately pivots the conversation into admitting she overheard the part of his conversation with Tommy about him dumping her on some stranger. She asks if he gives a shit about her, and he doesn’t even hesitate before saying he does. She says she’s not his daughter, and he stops her before she says something he can’t unhear. Ellie says she’s lost people too, but Joel says she has no idea what loss is. Ellie can’t believe his audacity and reminds him that everyone she ever cared for has died or left her. Everyone except Joel. With anger in her eyes and pain in her voice she says she doesn’t care if he thinks she’d be safer with someone else. All she’d really be is more scared.
Nic: I knew this conversation was coming, but it still punched me in the gut to watch Bella give their take on a now infamous Ashley Johnson performance. I always loved that Ellie didn’t let Joel get away with assuming that just because she’s young doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand loss. I think her age gives her a unique perspective on loss, because kids are inherently vulnerable and rely on their support systems to survive; imagine everyone who’s supposed to take care of you getting ripped away. I’d say she gets it.
Valerie: I’d say so, too.
Joel steels himself and says he sure as hell isn’t her dad and that in the morning they’ll be going their separate ways. He storms out and goes to his own room, where he’s bombarded by memories; memories of a time when his watch was just stopped and not broken, memories of Christmases long long ago. Memories of Sarah.
Stop me if this is too heavy-handed, but you know I love a metaphor, and I can’t help but think of the watch as one. We don’t know for sure what happened to Sarah’s mom, but the watch stopping could be symbolic of her being gone. Emotionally, his life as he knew it stopped, but also literally; focusing on being a single father, Joel never took the time to get it fixed. But then as Sarah got older and more independent, his watch started again. They had their own groove, their own traditions and jokes. Their own life. And Sarah fixed his watch. Again, literally and figuratively. And then Sarah died, and his watch didn’t just stop, it shattered. Broken beyond repair. Over the years, Joel’s broken watch became a part of him, like a scar you sometimes forget is there but is a permanent part of you. A broken part, but a part nonetheless. He was able to ignore the watch on his wrist, or try to at least, until a scrappy teenage girl with the mouth of a sailor strolled into his life and pointed right at it, reminding him of his broken watch. Literally and figuratively.
Nic: No notes.
Nic: The next morning, Ellie is fully dressed and ready to head out. When the door opens, there’s a split second when she hopes that it’s Joel on the other side, and her face falls when she sees that it’s Tommy. They head over to the stables and are surprised to see Joel there getting a horse ready. He apologizes and tells Ellie that she deserves a choice in her journey, but she doesn’t even let him finish before tossing him her bag so they can get going. There are so many points in this episode where Joel’s emotional growth is on display, and this is one of my favorites because he knows he fucked up the night before. He thought he was making a decision for Ellie, but he hadn’t even talked to her about it. He recognized that even though she’s 14, she does have agency here, and she’s proven that she can survive in this hellish world.
Tommy gives them directions, a gun, and an offer to come back to Jackson whenever they want, and then they begin their journey to the University of Eastern Colorado. Joel even gives Ellie a shooting lesson on the way. As they ride, we’re treated to some of the most beautiful scenic shots on the show thus far. Canada, y’all.
I love that we get to hear the kinds of conversations Joel and Ellie have while they travel. When you’ve got a week on the road, what else are you going to do but explain America’s former two-party system to a girl who never experienced it? They hit other major topics like what Joel’s job was in the Before Times and the rules of American football which, when described like that, does seem pretty silly.
Valerie: I love that Joel took Ellie’s advice here. She said back at the dam that he could have lied to her about how it worked and she would have believed him. So when Ellie says that being a contractor sounds cool, Joel smirks and lies with his whole chest, saying that everyone loved contractors.
Nic: Hahaha his whole chest!!
When they arrived at the university, I had another one of those moments where I was in awe over the set design because it looked like they lifted it directly from this part of the game. Even down to the monkeys frolicking in the quad!
Nic: Joel explains college to Ellie who can’t understand the concept of mini adults deciding what to do with their lives; probably because all she’s done is try to survive.
I swear, Joel’s word count is increasing with each episode. He tells Ellie that he changed his mind about raising sheep. If he could truly do anything, then he would want to be a singer, like a tiny Joel once wished. Ellie can barely keep it together and Joel does that cute “how dare you laugh at me after I open up to you” thing, and I just care about these two a lot, okay?!
They eventually make their way to the building where the Fireflies are supposed to be, but it appears abandoned. Once inside, they find it torn apart, and assume they left to go to Salt Lake City according to a map they find. Before they can loot the building (okay, I just really want to see Joel pick up a brick, leave me alone), they see a group of raiders outside, so they sneak out the back to get the horse and leave before they get caught.
They’re not quite fast enough though, because one of the men approaches Joel from behind and attacks him with a bat. Joel stealth kills him and then discovers that he’s been impaled by a piece of the bat. And because he has seen zero episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, he just yanks that sucker out of his gut and immediately starts bleeding.
He manages to get up on the horse and they ride away while Ellie shoots at the raiders. Once they’re sure they’re not being followed, it becomes clear just how dire Joel’s injuries are. He falls off the horse and Ellie is distraught. She tries to put pressure on the wound, but she knows this is bad. All she can do is plead with Joel to open his eyes because she can’t do any of this without him.
Valerie: Hello please pardon me while I push my nerdy glasses up my nerdy nose and nerd out about the song that plays as the credits start to roll. The song is a haunting cover of Depeche Mode’s Never Let Me Down Again, which is devastating for two reasons. One is because the lyrics are, “I’m taking a ride with my best friend, I hope he never lets me down again.” Which is all that more impactful in this moment with a female voice singing it. Two is because this is the song Bill had set up to play as his failsafe when he didn’t press the button every
108 minutes two weeks. And 80s means trouble.
Nic: 1) I can’t believe you made a LOST reference before I did. 2) Next week: EMOTIONAL DAMAGE!