The Last of Us recap: Ellie's got a gun

"Pew-pew," Ellie (Bella Ramsey) mumbles while posing with her new gun in the mirror of some Midwestern gas station bathroom. Like cars and airplanes, guns are something she understands on a conceptual level, but not a personal one. She ejects a bullet, studies it. It's dangerous, she knows that much, but it's still just a thing — a thing that shoots bullets at bad guys. As Joel (Pedro Pascal) tries (and fails) to explain to her later, it's not that simple.

When she returns to the lot, Joel is siphoning gas from the scattered cars. Gas erodes over time, he explains, and a full tank of gas in this condition only lasts about an hour. That's a whole lot of pit stops. As he siphons, Ellie giddily regales him with puns from an ancient joke book. Joel acts annoyed, but he's quietly amused.

As they drive past eroded, abandoned amusement parks, truck stops, and fast food joints, he and Ellie share smiles over a Hank Williams tape and, in a nod to a memorable moment from the game, an old porno mag that once belonged to Bill. "Why are all these pages stuck together?" she asks, making Joel squirm before revealing she's not that oblivious and chucking it through the window.

They pull over to a remote stretch of woods and eat 20-year-old Chef Boyardee ravioli before slipping into Bill and Frank's sleeping bags. When Ellie asks why they can't light a fire, Joel reveals it's not Infected he's worried about, but other people. "What are they gonna do, rob us?" Ellie asks. He replies ominously, saying, "They got way more on their mind than that."

After more puns, Joel tries to comfort Ellie. "No one is gonna find us," he says as she drifts to sleep. But he's more worried than he lets on. When she wakes in the middle of the night, she sees he's standing watch over them.

The Last of Us
The Last of Us

Liane Hentscher/HBO Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey

They set off the next morning, Ellie navigating with map in hand. Joel says they're heading for Cody, Wyo., where Tommy (Gabriel Luna) was last seen. When Ellie asks about him, Joel describes Tommy as a "joiner," someone who "dreams of being a hero." It was Tommy, he explains, who urged Joel to join a group that was heading for Boston in the aftermath of the outbreak. After Tommy met Marlene (Merle Dandridge), he joined the Fireflies. "Wants to save the world," he says dismissively, calling the Fireflies' mission "delusional" and a "pipe dream." Tommy quit the Fireflies, last he heard, and "now he's on his own out there and I gotta go get him."

Ellie is put off by his nihilism. "If you don't think there's hope for the world, why bother going on?" she asks.

"I keep going for family, that's about it," he says. When she presses him further, he stonewalls, uncomfortable, perhaps, with how vulnerable he's made himself. He calls Ellie "cargo," says he's only still with her because he "made a promise to Tess and she was like family."

A highway pileup outside Kansas City blocks their path, so Joel drives into the city to try and get around it. The bombed-out downtown is as dire as the ruins of Boston, with burnt bodies piled beneath hollowed, plant-infested buildings. When they drive by what appears to be the city's QZ, it also looks abandoned. "Where's FEDRA?" Ellie asks.

Suddenly, a man stumbles into the road, begging for help. Joel instantly knows it's a trap and hits the gas. From above, a tossed cinder block shatters their windshield. Road spikes tear up their tires and armed interlopers cross their path, guns pointed. Joel loses control of the car, which crashes through the storefront of a laundromat. Bullets ring against the side of the car as Joel and Ellie take cover.

As gunshots pummel their ears, Joel demands Ellie climb through a small hole in the wall and take cover. She does so as Joel picks off the would-be thieves. He's not so lucky when a third man bursts through a door and takes him to the ground, choking him out with his rifle. Ellie, hiding in the back room, pulls out her knife, but quickly puts it away. She reaches for the gun.

Ellie sneaks up on the man choking Joel and shoots him in the back. Joel frees himself as the man, who says his name is Brian, begs them not to kill him. He's young, a teenager not that much older than Ellie. "My mom isn't far, if you can get me to her," he pleads. "We can trade with you guys." He even unsheathes his knife and offers it to Joel. Unfortunately for him, Joel takes it, then tells Ellie to get back behind the wall. There, she listens to Brian's final pleas for mercy before he's stabbed in the heart by Joel.

With enough of their gear in tow, Joel and Ellie sneak through a back alley, avoiding the trucks roaming the street. They look like FEDRA vehicles, but they're spray painted with phrases like "We the people." The men and women riding them wear tattered FEDRA gear, but don't look like any soldiers we've seen.

The Last of Us
The Last of Us

Liane Hentscher/HBO Bella Ramsey, Pedro Pascal

"They're not FEDRA and not Fireflies, so who are they?" Ellie asks.

"People," Joel replies.

One of those people is Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey). Kathleen is the leader of this Kansas City horde, which appears to have taken control of their QZ after toppling its FEDRA forces. When we meet Kathleen, she's interrogating a doctor in a makeshift cell. She's looking for someone named Henry, who she believes snitched on members of their revolutionary movement while FEDRA was still in control. One of them was her brother, who was beaten to death.

The man tries to reason with her. He's known Kathleen her whole life. He was the doctor who delivered her when she was born. And this movement? It's "gone too far," he says. When she remains cold, he reminds her that he's "your doctor," implying that, snitch or not, they need him. (That doesn't work, either; Kathleen shoots him just minutes later.)

Kathleen retreats outside, where a crowd gathers over the bodies of the men who ambushed Joel. Her soldiers believe "outsiders" are responsible, but she's convinced they were called in by Henry. "Find who did this," she orders, desperate to make Henry pay for what happened to her brother. "Find every collaborator and kill them all."

As Kathleen's men raid homes and apartments in search of them, Joel and Ellie take refuge in a bar. They'll hide out there until the trucks disappear, then head to the tallest building in sight. Once there, they can get a look at the whole city and plot their escape.

Joel feels awful about Ellie having to shoot Brian. He takes responsibility and apologizes. She tells him, "It wasn't my first time." He's struck, but doesn't ask her to elaborate. Not yet.

Instead, he gives the gun back to her, then shows her how to properly hold it. When she tries to put it in her pocket, he tells her it's safer in her bag. "You'll shoot your damn ass off," he grumbles. Moments later, he adopts a softer tone: "We'll get through this."

Meanwhile, Perry (Jeffrey Pierce, who played Tommy in The Last of Us game and its sequel) informs Kathleen that he's discovered one of Henry's hideouts. He leads her to the attic of an empty building. There, empty cans of soup are scattered beneath childish drawings of superheroes. We learn that Henry isn't alone — a boy, Sam, is with him. "They're out of food," Kathleen deducts, telling Perry to beef up the security around their provisions. "He's close, I can feel it," she says.

That's not all Perry wants to show her. He leads her to the basement of the same building. In one room, there's a concave impression in a patch of cracked concrete. Furthermore, there seems to be something moving beneath it. Kathleen is as scared as Perry, but tells him they'll deal with it after they find Henry. For now, she says, they'll seal off the building.

The Last of Us
The Last of Us

Liane Hentscher/HBO Melanie Lynskey in 'The Last of Us'

As the sun sets, Joel and Ellie find their way to the tall building. They climb 33 of the 45 flights before Joel collapses and reminds us his character is supposed to be 56, which, c'mon (Pascal is 47). Ellie asks him how he knew it was an ambush, and Joel admits he's "been on both sides." He and Tess and Tommy, they "did what we needed to survive."

"Did you kill innocent people?" she asks, the image of young, bloody, pleading Brian likely running through her head. But Joel doesn't answer, leaving her to ponder how deep his darkness goes. Later, when he asks her what she meant when she said it wasn't her "first time," she's tight-lipped, saying she doesn't want to talk about it. They both have secrets.

"I'm just saying," he replies, "it isn't fair, your age, having to deal with all of this."

"So it gets easier when you get older?" she asks.

"No, not really," he says. "But still."

After Joel spreads broken glass near the door and the pair prepare for bed, Ellie treats Joel to a diarrhea pun that, despite being "so goddamned stupid," makes him laugh out loud. It's the most joy we've seen from 2023 Joel so far, and it's lovely the way that, even in this most dire of circumstances, the two can't contain their giggles.

The episode ends when Ellie wakes Joel from his slumber. They're not alone in the room. It's Henry and Sam, who greets Joel with an ominous shush.

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