In episode two, Tess sacrifices herself after being bitten, and in episode three, we find Joel and Ellie grieving over her death. This scene is another example of the actors overplaying the anger when the tone should be more somber. Joel is hesitant to talk to Ellie until Ellie insists that Tess’s death wasn’t her fault, and that Joel and Tess made their own choices. Now, there isn’t anything wrong with the scene necessarily, but in the first two episodes, it’s already apparent that the HBO adaptation is having a difficult time establishing the father-daughter dynamic between Ellie and Joel that the game is known for. This scene only adds to that problem. However, this might not be an issue for long because the game leaves plenty of opportunities for the nature of the relationship to change. As long as the adaptation will stay loyal to the source material, the actors will get the chance to establish that bond, but this episode serves as a bad omen when it comes to writers’ willingness to stick to the script.
Joel, for whatever reason, accepts this, and the two begin their trek to Bill and Frank’s place. Bill and Frank were friends with Joel and Tess. We don’t get many details regarding this relationship beyond that they were somehow connected to Tess and Joel’s work as smugglers— trading partners of a sort—and they were the ones responsible for a radio code Joel and Tess were using, which was briefly mentioned in the first episode.
Tough or Crazy?
Before reaching Bill and Frank’s, we get a rather strange scene at a gas station. Joel has stashed some supplies there, and he goes inside to look for them. Meanwhile, Ellie finds a hidden basement and begins looking for supplies herself. She has some luck scavenging, but she also discovers something else is in the room with her. It turns out to be a zombie, but luckily, or conveniently, this zombie is trapped under a giant pile of debris. How that debris got there or how the gas station is still standing after so much of its foundation has collapsed is never explained. Ellie approaches the zombie, cuts its forehead for some reason, then stabs its skull, killing it, all with an odd, bordering on maniacal, look on her face. As far as I can tell, the writers were trying to make Ellie look tough, but they only succeeded in making her look crazy.
With that pointless scene out of the way, we do get some useful exposition. Ellie and Joel come across an airplane, and Ellie marvels at how amazing it must’ve been to fly in the sky, but Joel complains about the seating and the overpriced sandwiches. The difference in perspectives was admittedly entertaining.
Joel also explains how the zombie outbreak started, or at least, how most people believe it started. Basically, a fungus tainted items like pancake mix, and those who were infected by the food began biting people. After that, the two come across some skeletons in a ditch, and Joel explains that the government mass executed people when they no longer had enough room in the quarantine zones.
So far, the episode has been relatively strong, aside from the odd gas station scene, but then, it goes completely off the rails. The writers use the explanation regarding how the government killed people in mass to transition to a flashback from Bill’s perspective.
The Bait and Switch
Now, I must address the elephant in the room at the outset. Bill and Frank are in a homosexual relationship, and HBO is congratulating themselves on how progressive and tolerant they are. This episode has been dedicated to the critics who are more interested in scoring political points than quality writing, and let’s not forget that writers and critics who usually devote themselves to such endeavors often get a vindictive pleasure out of rubbing their opposition’s noses in their opinions. So, some of the scenes within this episode are much more graphic than they need to be. But gratuitous scenes tend to be HBO’s stock and trade, so it’s hard to tell if HBO is using the gratuity in this case to make a political statement or if they’re simply remaining consistent with their brand. But the subject of homosexuality aside, there are other themes within this episode that aren’t so controversial as they are disturbing, and for our purposes, there are writing issues that must be addressed.
The first of which is that this entire setup is inconsistent with the game. In the original story, it remains ambiguous as to whether or not Bill and Frank are in a relationship, but regardless of how their relationship started, it ended with the two of them hating each other, and Frank trying to steal a car battery Bill had located. The man was so eager to leave town, he was willing to risk zombies to do it. However, during his attempt to escape, Frank is bitten and commits suicide. Not much of a love story.
The second problem is an issue regarding expectations and stakes, which is something we’ve discussed before. However, the difficulty is a little broader because it involves the expectations and stakes within a genre rather than the plot or characters. The Last of Us is a dystopian horror story that is seen through the eyes of a surrogate father and daughter. Whatever tropes and plot points are to be found within the story must keep in line with the genre in order for the viewer not to feel cheated. In other words, the people who are watching The Last of Us are expecting to see a horror story with elements of action and adventure. What they are treated to in this episode is, essentially, a romance and all the tropes and plot points therein. This is why the episode can be referred to as a bait and switch. People come expecting to see Joel and Ellie bond as a father and daughter while fighting monsters, and instead, watch two grown men fall in love. This sort of thing tends to get on people’s nerves. We’ll discuss these problems further in the next review.