But in episode 6 of HBO’s “The Last of Us,” we see a new side of Joel. He is vulnerable. He feels immense guilt. He doubts his ability to protect the ones he loves. And he openly admits that he is scared of what might result from these emotions. In 10 years of this character’s existence, this is the rawest we’ve ever seen Joel Miller. It’s a side we never got to know in the games. It’s a side that only his brother Tommy sees.
Before we see the brothers reunite, Joel and Ellie finally arrive in Wyoming. They take a Native American couple hostage, and demand information. Ellie mirrors Joel more than ever here. It’s startling to see a 14-year-old girl hold up an older couple with her pistol, and that’s exactly what Ellie does, enthusiastically. The couple warn our heroes: People who pass through the area are killed by some unknown group west of the river, where Tommy lies. The performances for these two nameless characters are memorable, funny and charming, if short. “The Last of Us” on HBO can be criticized for not dwelling much on individual characters (especially since so many die in the same episode they’re introduced), but every performance still swings for the fences.
Joel and Ellie truck along, and we get a few more minutes of them bonding. Here’s one of the biggest differences between the game and the show: Compared to the game, we spend very little time with just Joel and Ellie in the show. The game was almost entirely 12 hours of the two interacting. We saw their relationship form as we played. The show, by contrast, has to contrive scenes for just the two of them to ensure that audiences form a similar bond with these characters.
Later, Joel stops to wrap his broken boots with duct tape. Here’s another thing we get to see in the show that we never did in the game: Joel and Ellie relaxing and camping. In the game, the player is constantly on the move. In the show, we get to see how the world really works. Of course Joel’s boots would split open. He’s walked across more than half the country by now.
Ellie confesses to Joel that she tried and failed to save Sam. The tragedy of Henry and Sam has transformed both of them. Ellie is traumatized and wants her immunity to mean something. As for Joel, we’ll understand the impact those events had on him later.
The two cross the river and a band of people on horseback approach and hold them at gunpoint. A dog is dispatched to determine whether Joel and Ellie are infected. Joel, of course, is clean. Ellie is the wild card, and Joel is powerless to do anything about it. Fortunately the dog takes a liking to Ellie; we hear her giggle. A woman recognizes Joel and escorts him and Ellie to Jackson.
Tommy and Joel finally reunite. We learn that the woman who recognized Joel is Maria, Tommy’s wife. Here, we see peace and order in world of “The Last of Us.” If the story has felt bleak and hopeless up to this point — that no matter what a community does, it’s doomed — this Wyoming community is the counter argument. An orderly life can be achieved. Tommy says it’s all done through collective ordership. Joel observes that that’s “communism.” Reflecting his old school American sensibilities, Tommy bristles at the suggestion, but Maria quickly corrects him: “This is a commune,” she says. “We’re communists.”
The brothers take some time at the bar. Joel isn’t forthcoming about why he’s there and who Ellie is, which makes Tommy suspicious. Joel asks Tommy to take Ellie to the Fireflies; Tommy refuses. He reveals to Joel that he’s about to be a father. Joel’s response is to grab the bottle and take a swig. Tommy feels insulted by that response and Joel leaves, believing he’s intruding on his brother’s life.
Outside, Joel seems to be having health problems. It’s unclear why, exactly — beyond him being a 56-year-old man who just walked across most of North America. He sees a girl with hair just like his late daughter’s, and needs to stop to get a hold of his emotions. Meanwhile, Ellie and Maria have a tense showdown over Joel’s checkered past as a murderer and smuggler. Ellie finally learns about Joel’s daughter, and Maria warns Ellie about following in Joel’s footsteps. Ellie defends Joel and insists maybe she’s “smarter” than Tommy, who actually followed in Joel’s murderous footsteps, and won’t do what he did. Maria is impressed by Ellie sticking to her guns and invites her to the movies. The commune has set up a projector with some old films. It’s yet another instance of getting to know what a peaceful existence looks like in this world.
Tommy finds Joel and immediately apologizes for his crassness in announcing his fatherhood. He realizes what he said to Joel, especially the good news of him being a father, would hurt his brother. Finally, Joel lets Tommy in on the true nature of his trip: to take Ellie to the Fireflies in the hopes of finding a vaccine. It’s here that we see Joel unlike we’ve ever seen him, looking like a lost old man. He recalls how Ellie had to shoot another man to save his slow, old self. He says he was powerless to save Ellie when Sam attacked her. And when that dog tried to sniff out Ellie earlier in the episode, Joel felt similarly helpless.
“All I did was stand there,” Joel admits. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think of anything except I was so afraid.” He recalls the nightmares he’s had over the past months, where he’s unable to save the ones he loves. “I’m failing in my sleep,” Joel says with a deep aching in his voice.
Tommy clearly hates seeing Joel this way and agrees to take Ellie to the University of Eastern Colorado, where the Fireflies might have a base. Ellie overhears all this, and confronts Joel: Does he care about her? Joel says of course he does. Ellie brings up Sarah and Joel tells her to stop. Of course, Ellie doesn’t listen and continues: Joel is the only person in her life who hasn’t abandoned her. Joel hardens back up and tells her she’s not his daughter, and he sure as hell ain’t her dad — a line lifted directly from the game.
The next morning, Joel decides to offer Ellie a choice: Go with him, or Tommy. To Ellie, it’s no choice at all. The two leave Tommy and the idyllic Jackson commune. Our two heroes mend their relationship and quietly reaffirm their commitment to one another. We get a nice, fun scene of Joel finally teaching Ellie how to use a rifle.
Eventually, the pair arrive at the university and find that the Fireflies have gone. But immediately, the two are attacked by strangers. Joel kills one of them, but not before suffering a critical injury to his gut. The two escape, but Joel passes out. He looks to be almost dead. Ellie is mortified, and whispers, “I can’t do this without you. Joel, please.” A cover of Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” ends our journey this week, the same song that closed out the first episode. The lyrics reflect on a journey with a “best friend” that may not necessarily be in your best interest, but that you take on anyway, in hopes of feeling complete.
Some notes and observations:
- Tommy and Joel share a similar past as they did in the games, where Joel led Tommy to do some inhumane, awful things that neither of them ever feel comfortable directly addressing. But at least in the show, their relationship is warmer and more emotionally intelligent. Tommy seems acutely aware of and sympathetic to his brother’s trauma. And Joel sees Tommy less as an equal and more as someone he needs to “save.”
- We see a hint of Joel’s past cruelty when he holds up the Native American couple at gunpoint. When he asks about a location on the map, he tells the husband that it’d better be the same answer as his wife’s. Viewers familiar with the game know the dark implications of this quip. If the answer was different, one of the two wouldn’t be telling the truth.
- Rutina Wesley plays Maria with a sharp tongue and a sharper mind. While she’s not exactly in charge of the Jackson commune, it’s clear she commands respect — and has worked hard to earn it. We learn that Maria used to be a district attorney, which explains her ability to speak with confidence and authority.
- The show completely removes the unnecessary action setpieces from the game, specifically the firefights at the hydroelectric dam and the house where Joel and Ellie argue when she overhears his request to Tommy. Both action sequences were demanded by the fact that “The Last of Us” is an action game. But HBO’s interpretation is a television drama, not an action show. Plus, neither action sequences really helped us learn anything new about any of the characters. Nothing is missed, and instead we get to know our characters more through some compelling performances.