Episode six starts out strong. We meet an elderly couple who has been living alone in Wyoming. Joel and Ellie break into their cabin and ask for directions in the rudest way possible—at gun point—which is a little over the top, and even the actors playing the couple seem to know it. As Joel sits beside the old pair, holding a gun and acting dour, the elderly man chats with him, sporting a bemused grin.
Joel and Ellie get the directions they need and soon come across a group of men and women on horseback who hold them at gunpoint and check to see if they’re infected. Once it becomes clear that Joel and Ellie are fine, the riders ask what the two are doing in their territory. Joel explains that he’s looking for his brother, and a woman recognizes him, so the riders take Joel and Ellie to their settlement.
The Long-Lost Brother
The woman who recognized Joel turns out to be Tommy’s wife, Maria. Tommy is Joel’s brother, and we last saw him in the first episode. Tommy is alive and well, and he also happens to know where the mysterious Firefly lab is located. Joel and Ellie are one step closer to saving humanity. But Joel and Ellie’s time in this small settlement isn’t pleasant. For one thing, Maria hates Joel, for reasons unknown. The implication seems to be that she blames Joel for Tommy’s rough past. But I think the real reason the writers gave her such hostility towards Joel was because they wanted to paint him as incompetent. She warns Ellie about Joel, and the idea seems to be that he is going to let Ellie down at some point. I took this to be a setup for when Joel is wounded at the end of the episode. During this last scene, the writers—through Ellie’s dialogue and their choice of outro music—seem to imply that it’s Joel’s fault that Ellie is now vulnerable and alone since he’s wounded. The writers seemed to have wanted Maria’s words to serve as some kind of omen, but the attempt was a poor one, and if you watched this episode and missed the message, I wouldn’t blame you. The reason for the poor setup was because the writers couldn’t just come out and say that Joel’s weakness makes everything his fault. Most people would consider such a message uncharitable.
Tommy and Maria begin to show Joel and Ellie around town and explain that everyone shares everything in the settlement, including the work. Joel says that this method of distribution is communism. Tommy says it isn’t, but Maria declares that that’s exactly what it is, and she’s very proud of the fact. She also took Joel and Ellie’s guns. Go figure.
The writers may think that communism would work just fine in a small community, but they’ve evidently never read a history book. The Pilgrims anyone? For those who don’t know, when the Pilgrims first arrived in the new world, they too divided up everything equally. It didn’t play out like they’d hoped because ultimately nobody had the proper motivation to work. So, William Bradford, the governor of the Pilgrim community, gave everyone a plot of land. He gave everyone property and the right to enjoy the fruits of their own labor. This incentivized the people to work harder for their own survival. Apparently, without something to call their own, people, generally, will not work as hard, even at the cost of their own lives. Bradford wrote,
“The failure of this experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times — that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”
Frankly, these survivors of the zombie apocalypse might’ve worked together for a while, but eventually, some would grow lazy. If Maria wanted to keep things moving, she’d have to grab all those guns she confiscated and make everyone do their jobs. Then you’d have a work camp . . . I mean, equity.
This lack of research on the part of the writers goes to show that it’s always best to study a political subject before delving into social commentary. Cocky grins and snarky remarks alone never make a good argument.
Tommy eventually takes Joel to a bar where the two can have a private chat. Now, in this episode’s defense, the next few scenes stick pretty close to the game, and I didn’t like those scenes in the source material either. They amount to contrived drama for the sake completing an arbitrary check list most publishers insist on. I’ll speak more on this point later.
The first of these scenes feels strange right out of the gate because there is no natural progression in the conversation. It’s as if the actors already know they’re going to fight and are bracing themselves for the exchange. And from a storytelling standpoint, this is plausible. Joel could be tense because he knows he’s going to ask Tommy for help, he could be mad that Tommy is now a communist, or he could be mad that Tommy married a rather pretentious woman. It could be all three, but the writers give us no indication as to why Joel and Tommy are anticipating a fight, so the scene feels like there are two men who despise each other sitting in a room together, rather than two brothers who haven’t seen each other in a long time.
They begin talking, and of course, start fighting. Joel wants Tommy to join him and Ellie. Tommy refuses because he’s going to be a dad. The fight ends with the two of them exchanging harsh words, then Joel storms out of the room in a huff. Frankly, this first fight is a waste of time because Tommy and Joel are going to have a second conversation a couple scenes later, and this second scene leads to the only fight in the story that’s actually relevant, the confrontation between Ellie and Joel.
But before we can get to either scene, we first have to listen to Maria tell Ellie that Joel is no good and he’s going to let her down somehow. As I mentioned before, the writers want to make it seem that Joel is to blame for his own injury, that when he’s wounded at the end of this episode, it’s his fault Ellie is now alone. Because it’s obviously the victim’s fault whenever they’re assaulted with a deadly weapon. Apparently, the pretentious, female communist is also a prophetess.
After we listen to that dribble, we get back to Joel and Tommy, and this time, we reach the real heart of the matter. Joel is scared of failing Ellie like he failed his daughter. He want’s Tommy to take Ellie because Tommy is younger and has a better chance of getting the girl to safety. Tommy, upon hearing the entire story, including the fact that Ellie is immune, agrees.
Then we get to the only relevant fight in this episode, the moment where Ellie confronts Joel about leaving her. This argument is needed in a way, but it’s also poorly done because the writers try to persuade the audience that Joel really is going to abandon Ellie, but in the very next scene, as Tommy is taking Ellie to the stables, Joel is there, saddling his horse. He says that Ellie deserves a choice, and of course, Ellie chooses him. Then they leave the settlement.
The fight between Tommy and Joel is a waste of time because the audience knows Tommy is going to eventually agree so Joel and Ellie can have their confrontation, and while this fight between Joel and Ellie is needed—after all, Joel is grieving for his daughter, so he and Ellie were going to have to have this conversation at some point—the problem is that the writers try to convince you the two are going their separate ways. But again, the audience knows what has to happen in order for the story to conclude—Ellie and Joel must complete their journey together, whether they live or die—so why waste everyone’s time with this pretense? Why waste so much time with arguments placed so closely together? What are the writers really attempting to do? I believe they’re trying to hit a check mark, that is to say, they are trying to fulfill a common trope publishers—and probably producers—insist on: the “all is lost” or the “Darkest Hour” moment.
The (Mis)Use of a Popular Trope
Toward the end of the second act, writers are told that they need to have a moment where the protagonist endures some kind of despair. This can happen in a variety of ways, but whoever decided these rules of storytelling insists that the audience must be convinced, or at least, very worried that the protagonist will not be able to complete their task. The trouble is two-fold. Number One: audiences have seen this moment so many times they instantly recognize it, and rather than feeling any anxiety over what comes next, they grow bored and wait for the rest of the story to happen. Therefore, the writer defeats the very purpose of including this trope in his or her story in the first place. Number Two: I’m convinced not every story lends itself to this trope, and that’s what’s happened in the case of The Last of Us. There are lots of ways for Joel and Ellie to have this conversation about Joel’s lost daughter that don’t end with Joel storming off. Again, audiences have a built-in story sense, so they know that Joel and Ellie are going to complete the journey together, regardless of whether they live or die. If the writers wanted to create intensity, they needed to separate Joel and Ellie closer to the end of the story. If they’d placed this moment closer to the end, it would’ve become a part of the climax in the third act. But the truth is, that this trope is added to most stories because it has become an established norm. Many genres are plagued with this problem, and I don’t expect the trope to go away any time soon.
The rest of the episode is straight forward. Eventually, Ellie and Joel reach the Firefly lab only to find it abandoned. The two come across a map which indicates that the Fireflies have moved to Salt Lake City. Then raiders show up, and Joel is attacked by one of them. He manages to kill the raider but is wounded in the process. Still, he and Ellie are able to ride away in one piece, but Joel collapses sometime later, and the last scene is of Ellie crouched beside Joel’s unconscious body. Again, the implication is that this whole situation is Joel’s failure for some incomprehensible reason, and it is now up to Ellie to keep them alive.