Sunday, February 19, 2023

REVIEW: 'The Last of Us' - An Idyllic Community Isn't Good Enough to Stop Joel and Ellie on Their Journey in 'Kin'

HBO's The Last of Us - Episode 1.06 "Kin"

After ignoring the advice of locals, Joel and Ellie descend deeper into dangerous territory in search of the Fireflies - and Tommy.

"Kin" was written by Craig Mazin and directed by Jasmila Žbanić

Three months have passed since Henry, Sam and Kathleen's deaths plus the fall of Kansas City. Joel and Ellie have finally arrived in Wyoming. Once there, they encounter people who have built little pockets of life for themselves. At first, it's just the solitary existence of a native couple. They moved to this humble lodge before the infection spread. They haven't heard of the Fireflies before. They simply understand the boundaries that don't need to be crossed. They have peace and happiness. They don't need anything more than that. Joel and Ellie are on a mission though. Joel has to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies who can use her immunity to create a vaccine. They've been promised a better world. One where so many possibilities exist for all of humanity. They have to believe in that hope. That gives them purpose. Of course, it's also them continually chasing after a dream in the future. It's not them living in the present and properly grieving the past. Joel suddenly finds himself caring about another teenage girl. He didn't want to get attached to Ellie. It's happened because of all they've endured on this journey. They've allowed themselves to believe in more. They see that coming and so they can't accept the grim despair of the present. That's the dangerous world they must navigate. It's miraculous that they find Tommy in Jackson, Wyoming. Moreover, he's not in any danger. Joel was concerned because his brother stopped communicating over the radio. That was simply a rule of this community. They wall themselves off to prevent any armed invaders from knowing where they are. They are ruthless in that way. However, an entire community has been set up that mirrors what was possible in the former world. It's still so strange and alienating to Ellie. She doesn't connect with most kids her age. Importance has been thrust upon her. Even without that, she doesn't behave like the other kids in this community. Nor does she care about the movie being projected onto the screen. She sees the peaceful and productive nature of this existence. It's actually quite comforting. This is a nice place to return to should the world not be saved through a vaccine. Joel and Ellie can't accept that right now. They must continue ahead with this adventure. Of course, that forces Joel to reckon with his limitations. He's afraid because he has something to lose. He can't properly explain his feelings to Ellie either. She doesn't quite understand because of her age. But he also refuses to open up about his past. Tommy's wife Maria is the one to reveal that Joel had a daughter. That puts things into better context for Ellie. She sees a glimpse into her guardian's past. That only forges a stronger bond between them.

For Joel, it would be much more practical to convince Tommy to lead Ellie on the remainder of the journey. He knows the terrain. He knows what danger to possibly expect. Joel no longer trusts himself. His instincts are damaged due to his age, emotions and PTSD. He makes this decision on Ellie's behalf without considering how she will react. He feels entitled to such decisions because he's the adult trusted to carry the responsibility. However, he only further commits to the narrative that has consumed Ellie's entire life. Every person she has ever cared about has either died or abandoned her. She has grown to accept that from every relationship. Nothing will ever change. She allowed herself to believe that Joel would never do that. He made a promise to Tess. He would never break that because he saw her as family. That matters to him. He only tells Tommy the truth once they are alone together. Maria is family now as well. Joel doesn't see things that way. Maria understands his reluctance too. She warns Ellie about how trusting people gives them the power to betray her. Ellie acknowledges that but doesn't believe Joel will ever abandon her. It's not something he wants to do. He simply must think about the mission above all else. That's more important. Tommy has so much to lose as well. Maria is pregnant. He's about to be a father. Joel isn't even happy for his brother. Instead, it only serves as a reminder of what he's lost. Again, he hasn't processed Sarah's death at all. He is forever trapped in that moment where she died and he couldn't bring her back to life. That's the defining tragedy of his life. Everything that happens afterwards mirrors that situation. He's not the only person who lost someone they cared about. Maria's son died early on in the apocalypse too. She still mourns that loss. However, she has found a way to engage with humanity once more. It was an active choice on her part. Her life in Jackson doesn't resemble her former career as a prosecutor in Omaha. And yet, it's meaningful and full of love. It's a community that Joel doesn't believe could prosper on a wider scale. It's good enough for the people who have made this place their home. It's peaceful. It's a refuge for those who need it. Moreover, the story doesn't reveal some darkness creeping under the surface. Instead, it's all about the emotional intensity and anxiety Joel and Ellie carry with them everywhere they go. That's not unique to some particular environment over another. That's life for them. They are bonded to one another whether they like it or not.

The worst still eventually happens. It's not the downfall of Jackson, Wyoming though. That community isn't destroyed like Kansas City was. Instead, Joel and Ellie leave. They have their mission. They choose one another. The danger Tommy warned them about turned out to be non-existent. They face no resistance on the road to the university. The campus is desolate though. No one is around to welcome them or point a gun in their faces. They push in but find nothing but monkeys. That's cool because it's an exotic animal in a place where they aren't typically seen. It's not what Joel and Ellie expected. They find a clue for where this group went. They see the road marked to another facility. Danger lurks below. All it takes is a small group of people to end this journey. The risk doesn't naturally come from the infected. Sometimes, humanity is dangerous enough. Joel and Ellie try to sneak out to the freedom of the open road on horseback. They don't make it. Joel has the skills to kill the one man who catches them. He's not unstoppable though. He's impaled by a dangerous weapon. He pulls it out and quickly gallops Ellie to safety. That simply creates the inevitable situation where they are in the middle of nowhere when he passes out and she pleads for him to stay alive. Again, it's the mirror of the defining tragedy of his life. Joel was incapable of saving Sarah. She died in front of him. And now, it seems like Ellie is watching Joel die. The roles are reversed. The tragedy is still the same. The pattern continues for Ellie's life. She's abandoned by the one person she cares about. This is the one situation Joel didn't want to create for her. He knew it was better for Tommy to replace him. He simply grew too attached to this teenager. He finally opened up on the road to the university. He enjoyed explaining the rules of football. He notes how the violence is the point. That's what makes the straightforward objective more difficult. That's a strong thesis for this show as well. The goalposts are continually moving for Joel and Ellie. They still have these outsized dreams of singing and traveling to the moon. It's good to have those goals because they express a desire to live. But the reality of their situation is much more dire than that. It's bleak. They may never get answers. They may never lead humanity to prosperity once more. They have a town where they are welcomed. That may be enough. It's not right now. Joel may die because of his commitment to the mission. It's too important not to try. It just leaves Ellie all alone in this incredibly vulnerable moment.