The Last of Us episode 4 review: Please Hold to My Hand is more excellent HBO TV, with Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) a great foil to Joel.

This discussion and review contains spoilers for The Last of Us episode 4, “Please Hold to My Hand.”

“Please Hold to My Hand” feels like something of a transitional episode, one that is largely dedicated to setting up elements and introducing characters that will pay off in the next episode.

There is a lot of groundwork laid here. Kansas City is established, a lawless community that has fallen to a local militia. Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) is introduced, her motivations clearly outlined and her pursuit of Henry (Lamar Johnson) foregrounded. There is also considerable backstory explained, with Joel (Pedro Pascal) revealing a bit more of his past to Ellie (Bella Ramsey), while also filling in the blanks on what Tommy (Gabriel Luna) is doing in Wyoming and why Joel is so concerned about him.

As with the first two episodes, there is a sense that writer Craig Mazin is clarifying all of this stuff up front so that The Last of Us can ease into a smoother rhythm in the second half of the season. “Please Hold to My Hand” is an appreciably slight episode of television. It is the second shortest episode of the season, running a full half-hour shorter than the previous episode “Long Long Time” and 35 minutes shorter than the premiere, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness.” There’s an admirable efficiency to the legwork being done in “Please Hold to My Hand”.

That said, the groundwork being laid in “Please Hold to My Hand” is also considerably smoother than the world-building in “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” or “Infected.” This is perhaps because it isn’t exposition about the rules of the post-apocalyptic landscape, but is instead largely built around deepening the show’s understanding of its characters and themes. Joel isn’t telling Ellie about Cordyceps or FEDRA. Instead, he’s telling her about himself, about Tommy, and about the lives they have lived.

In many ways, it feels like “Long Long Time” was something of a soft reset of the show. While The Last of Us is undoubtedly an expensive show that HBO expects to perform like a television blockbuster, it works best in its smaller and more intimate moments. Despite its brevity, “Please Hold to My Hand” gives Joel and Ellie room to breathe. A large portion of the episode is given over to the road trip from Boston to Kansas, a journey across a decaying America, rusting roller coasters and roaming buffalo.

The Last of Us episode 4 review: Please Hold My Hand is more excellent HBO TV, with Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) a great foil to Joel.

The Last of Us is not a show about the end of the world. It is not even a show about saving the world. It is a show about Joel and Ellie. “If you don’t think there’s hope for the world, why bother going on?” Ellie asks Joel at one point on their journey. Joel responds, “You haven’t seen the world, so you don’t know. You keep going for family, that’s about it.” Ellie clarifies that she isn’t family to Joel, and he agrees. Still, his journey to Wyoming is driven by his desire to reunite with Tommy.

The Last of Us is obviously a survival thriller populated by fungus-infected zombies. However, it is also a western. That’s obvious in any number of ways, from Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar-inflected score to the show’s fascination with the great American wilderness. It is apparent in Joel’s reliable old-fashioned rifle, which seems more like the tool of a frontiersman than the assault weapon favored by soldiers. It’s even present in the fields of buffalo at the side of the highway.

It’s also reflected in the fact that Joel and Ellie are literally pushing westward, from Boston to Wyoming. It plays out in the shootouts and ambushes, even in urban environments. It even filters through the very slight Texan drawl that Pascal gives Joel in key moments, as if to affirm that Joel is one of the last of the cowboys. Of course, the post-apocalyptic genre has always been drawn to western iconography, particularly in modern works like The Walking Dead and Westworld.

One of the central preoccupations of the western genre has always been masculinity — what it means to be a man. This is what made Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog so striking and effective and why it provoked such a strong response from traditionalists. The Last of Us is very much engaged with this aspect of the western, particularly as it relates to Joel and to the characters to whom the show contrasts and compares its protagonist.

The Last of Us episode 4 review: Please Hold My Hand is more excellent HBO TV, with Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) a great foil to Joel.

It’s a part of what made Bill (Nick Offerman) so compelling in “Long Long Time.” In many ways, Bill was a broadly drawn masculine archetype. He had a basement full of guns. He was prepared for the apocalypse. He rigged flamethrowers and electric fences at the edge of his property. As revealed at the start of “Please Hold to My Hand,” his pickup truck houses a Hank Williams cassette, playing “Alone and Forsaken,” a theme for the franchise that has been used in trailers for the game and the show.

However, Bill was also a subversion of that macho archetype. He was gay. He was “a man who (knew) to pair rabbit with a Beaujolais.” He could play piano and harbored a deep affinity for the music of Linda Ronstadt. His simple pleasures included enjoying sampling strawberries with his lover Frank (Murray Bartlett). As Ellie discovers at the start of “Please Hold to My Hand,” his pickup truck also stashed some gay porn. Bill offered a nuanced and compelling portrayal of masculinity.

In “Please Hold to My Hand,” Joel tells Ellie about his brother Tommy. Tommy seems like a similarly masculine archetype, one actively chasing the romantic fantasy of heroism. “Tommy’s what we used to call a joiner, dreams of becoming a hero,” Joel explains. “So he enlists in the army, right outta high school. Few months later, they shipped him off to Desert Storm. It’s what they called that war; it doesn’t matter. Point is, being in the army, it didn’t make him feel much like a hero.”

The Last of Us argues that force alone is not enough to save the world. After all, that is why FEDRA is monstrous. Ellie is fascinated by military hardware, and the episode opens with her playing with a gun. “I want to see a tank!” she tells Joel. “You will,” he responds, grimly. “Tanks. Choppers. All that stuff. Built to fight the wrong enemy. They’re scattered around now.” Violence and force are not the be-all and end-all when it comes to surviving the end of the world.

With characters like Bill and Tommy, there is a strong sense that masculinity is about more than a man’s capacity for violence in service of a higher goal. Tommy was looking for something he couldn’t find in the army. In contrast, Bill found his purpose in his love for Frank. It’s a vision of masculinity that is inherently wary of violence as an end of itself, as a tool in service to the state, and even as an expression of power. It is masculinity tied to protection, ahead of anything else.

This is obvious even with Kathleen, who serves as a foil to Joel in a number of very overt ways. Most obviously, there’s an obvious contrast in the character of Kathleen as the leader of this highly armed and overtly aggressive local paramilitary. As with Bill, the casting does a lot of the work here. Lynskey has spent years playing wives and maternal figures in movies like The Informant!, Flags of Our Fathers, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Don’t Look Up, and many others.

However, Lynskey’s best work has always juxtaposed this domestic archetype with something more primal and violent beneath it. She made her theatrical debut in Heavenly Creatures, in which she played a murderous schoolgirl. She has enjoyed a later career renaissance thanks to her ingenious casting on Yellowjackets, in which she plays a stay-at-home wife and mother who has a surprising capacity for violence. Lynskey is great at playing this inherent contrast.

Kathleen exists in this space. She plays as a counterpoint to that fascination with masculinity. She leads a local militia populated by men wearing military fatigues, sunglasses, and carrying assault rifles, but she sounds like the kind of person who always wants to speak to the manager. It puts an interesting spin on a common archetype in these sorts of post-apocalyptic narratives, but who would traditionally be presented more like her right-hand man, Perry (Jeffrey Pierce).

The Last of Us episode 4 review: Please Hold My Hand is more excellent HBO TV, with Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) a great foil to Joel.

“Please Hold to My Hand” neatly establishes Kathleen as a dark mirror to Joel. Joel is defined by the search for his brother Tommy and his desire to protect his surrogate daughter Ellie. That is what drives him. That is what justifies the violence that he does. In contrast, Kathleen has lost both her brother and her son (Juan Magana). She isn’t enacting violence to protect them. She is inflicting violence to avenge them. Of course, she’s really inflicting violence to satisfy herself. That’s what drives her.

Kathleen is so obsessed with hunting down Henry that she turns a blind eye to the literally rotting foundations of her community. When Perry draws the literal cracks to her attention, she instructs him, “Let’s just handle what we have to handle. We can deal with this after.” The irony is that Kathleen doesn’t “have to” handle anything. She isn’t using violence to keep people safe. In fact, she’s endangering the entire population in pursuit of her own violent ends.

“Please Hold to My Hand” returns time and again to the idea that violence exacts a toll on those who use it, as much as its actual victims. After all, in many cases, those who employ violence are the ones who have to live with it. This is obvious even in physical terms. When Ellie notes that Joel has weakened hearing in his right ear, she asks, “Is it ‘cause you were shot there?” He replies, honestly, “Probably more from shootin’. So if you want to keep your hearing, stick to that knife.”

More than anything else, Joel is ashamed that Ellie had to use the gun to protect him during the ambush. He tries to apologize, and she assumes that he’s acknowledging his difficulty talking about violence — but he clarifies that he sees the necessity of her violence as his personal failing. “I mean it’s my fault,” he tells her. “You shouldn’t have had to. And I’m sorry.” Jeremy Webb’s direction plays into this; when both Ellie and Kathleen fire their guns, the camera stays on them, not their victims.

“Please Hold to My Hand” is a lot of setup, but it’s already richer and more interesting than the show’s premiere episodes. With a firmer grasp on its core themes, The Last of Us has found a way to make the conventions of these post-apocalyptic stories seem interesting and compelling once again.

You may also like