The Last of Us episode 6 review Kin Joel Ellie Wyoming end of Wild West masculinity, confronting loss and failure HBO

This discussion and review contains spoilers for The Last of Us episode 6, “Kin.”

The first season of The Last of Us has an interesting structure — one befitting its post-apocalyptic setting.

At its core, the show is essentially a road trip across America. Joel (Pedro Pascal) has been tasked with escorting Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the continent. The two are traveling westward from Boston towards Wyoming. However, they are not wandering for the sake of wandering. There is a destination in mind. Eventually, Joel will get Ellie where she is supposed to be, and their journey together will come to an end. At some point, the pair will run out of west.

The first season of The Last of Us is mindful of the inevitability of endings. “Long Long Time” introduced Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), following them from their first meeting to their last supper. Indeed, the gigantic battle at the end of “Endure and Survive” seems like the sort of spectacle that a show like this would normally save for the season finale, as hordes of infected clash with a local paramilitary amid pyrotechnics and explosions.

It’s clear that the journey that Joel and Ellie embarked upon at the end of the premiere is coming to an end. “Kin” opens with a three-month time jump, as the pair stalk the snowy wastes of Wyoming. The two have settled into a routine together. They’ve even begun to contemplate life after their journey is complete. “Then what?” Ellie asks. “Like, what do we do?” She presses him, “You can do anything you want. Where are you going, what are you doing?”

Arriving two-thirds of the way through the season, “Kin” feels like something of a false ending for Ellie and Joel. Most obviously, Joel fulfills his initial goal in leaving Boston. He reunites with Tommy (Gabriel Luna). “What the fuck are you doing here?” Tommy demands, shocked to see his brother. Joel replies, “I came here to save you.” The irony, of course, is that Tommy doesn’t need saving. Still, this should be the end of the road for Joel — he’s done what he set out to do.

“Kin” also marks a geographical ending. The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic survival thriller, but it is also a western in terms of plot, theme, and iconography. Indeed, the closing shot of “Kin” is a horse standing on a railway track, fusing two iconic images associated with the western. Of course, that juxtaposition also suggests finality. The arrival of the railroad (and, with it, civilization) is often framed as the end of the western. At the very least, it’s the obsolescence of the horse.

“Kin” finds Joel and Ellie pushing as far west as they can. They’ve reached the boundaries of the genre, in both literal and metaphorical terms. The episode opens with the pair confronting two Native Americans, Marlon (Graham Greene) and Florence (Elaine Miles). In his own words, Joel is “just passin’ through.” In contrast, Marlon and Florence “came here before [he was] born.” Joel asks, “You got any advice on the best way west?” Marlon replies, simply, “Yeah. Go east.”

The Wyoming wilderness is not the wide-open sunny desert of classic westerns. Instead, it is the snowy tundra of the modern genre, the harsher and colder world of recent films like The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, and Wind River. The pair follow a river to find a dam, a symbol of encroaching civilization that marked the end of the classic Wild West era. Just last year, Westworld used the Hoover Dam to similar thematic effect, a physical boundary marking the end of the Wild West.

When Joel and Ellie make it to Jackson, it initially seems like they have stumbled across a community of rugged outlaws. The conventions of the survival horror genre suggest that Jackson must either be a hostile dictatorship or a seemingly idyllic community housing a dark secret. Instead, based on everything presented in “Kin,” Jackson is a bastion of civilization. It is as decent as it is possible for a community to be in a world that is openly hostile.

The Last of Us episode 6 review Kin Joel Ellie Wyoming end of Wild West masculinity, confronting loss and failure HBO

Maria (Rutina Wesley) offers a tour of the town. She points out the sights, “House of worship — multi-faith. School. Laundry. Old bank works as a jail, not we’ve needed it.” Joel asks, “You draw power from the dam?” She explains, “Got that working a couple of years ago. After that, sewage, plumbing, water heaters… lights.” Ellie seems as surprised as any viewer expecting the tropes of a western or a horror story, conceding, “This place actually fucking works.”

In some ways, Jackson represents the end of the idea of the Wild West. It is a community that rejects the rugged individualism and brutal anarchy of the classic cowboy myth, that cornerstone of American identity. Joel even acknowledges as much, suggesting the community is antagonistic to classic American ideals. “So, eh… communism?” Joel asks. Tommy self-consciously objects, “Nah. Nah, it ain’t like that.” Maria counters, “It is that, literally. This is a commune; we’re communists.”

It is a refreshing and clever take on post-apocalyptic horror. Jackson seems to have everything that it could need. The inhabitants seem happy. They screen movies. Tommy even boasts to Joel that they are planning to raise pigs. “Once we get bacon, what’s even left?” he ponders. It’s a good question. Jackson is a community that has pulled itself back from the end of the world. It has some capacity for violence, but it is fundamentally civilized. It rejects the archetypal western narrative.

This dovetails neatly into one of the big thematic preoccupations that simmers through The Last of Us, tied up in that western iconography. The western is tied to the idea of masculinity in the American consciousness, often in times of crisis and insecurity. It provides a framework for certain traditional models of masculinity, from rugged individualism and self-sufficiency to the capacity for violence and performance of strength. It creates an environment where those attributes are celebrated.

The Last of Us episode 6 review Kin Joel Ellie Wyoming end of Wild West masculinity, confronting loss and failure HBO

The post-apocalyptic survival horror genre does something similar, creating an imaginary space where an individual’s capacity for violence and brutality becomes a virtue. Joel has repeatedly treated his skill with weapons and his emotional detachment as a strength, but the existence of Jackson threatens that old-fashioned view of manliness. “We survived the only way we knew how,” Tommy tells his brother. “But there were other ways. We just weren’t any good at them.”

Much has been written about the original video game as a complex study of “postfeminist masculinity” or “the dadification of digital games.” J. Jesse Ramirez’s study of The Last of Us, marketed as “the first comprehensive scholarly analysis” of the video game, was subtitled Masculinity Among the Ruins of Neoliberalism. This fascination with the challenges of navigating performances of masculinity in a chaotic world has never been buried too far beneath the surface.

Of course, The Last of Us’s fascination with modern masculinity also exists in the larger context of a cultural shift that has, in the words of Hannah Hamad, seen fatherhood “become the dominant paradigm of masculinity across the spectrum of mainstream U.S. cinema.” Modern portrayals of masculinity increasingly suggest that real strength comes from nurturing and loving as much as from hunting and gathering. After all, Pedro Pascal is already one of television’s great gruff western adoptive dads.

In “Kin”, Joel has a breakdown tied to his insecurity about his ability to perform stereotypical masculine obligations to Ellie. He suffers from panic attacks. “I was so afraid,” he confesses to Tommy. “You think I can still handle things, but I’m not who I was. I’m weak.” He elaborates, “There are these moments where the fear comes up out of nowhere and my heart feels like it’s stopped. And I have dreams, every night.”

The Last of Us episode 6 review Kin Joel Ellie Wyoming end of Wild West masculinity, confronting loss and failure HBO

When Tommy presses him for the details of these dreams, Joel explains that they are just feelings that he doesn’t know how to process, “I don’t know, I can’t remember. I just know that when I wake up, I’ve lost something. I’m failing in my sleep. It’s all I do — it’s all I’ve ever done — is failing, again and again.” Joel measures his worth in his ability to physically protect Ellie, as well as the belief that everything he has done can be justified in service of that and that his self-worth is tied up in his ability to do that.

In failing to protect his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) and perhaps even Tess (Anna Torv), Joel feels emasculated. He feels like his worth as a man has been “lost.” It is certainly a timely theme. As Fargo writer Noah Hawley recently noted, so much modern violence and anger is tied up in the frustration of men who feel unable to conform to stereotypical and even outdated ideals of masculinity in a world that has moved past them. It is no longer the Wild West. The cowboy has had his day.

This interrogation of masculinity ripples through “Kin.” The cinema is screening The Goodbye Girl, a movie about a man (Richard Dreyfuss) who becomes an unlikely surrogate father. In a contemporary review in Time, Frank Rich praised Dreyfuss for playing against his tendency towards “masculine hysteria.” In hindsight, Dreyfuss has talked about his 1970s screen and celebrity persona embodying “the kind of performative masculine man [his] father had modeled for [him] to be.”

Ellie doesn’t need a bodyguard. Joel can’t tag himself out. Ellie needs a father. For that relationship to work, Joel needs to let himself be emotionally vulnerable. He needs to challenge his idea of rugged masculinity. He can no longer adhere to the archetype of the cowboy. “Kin” understands this. Tellingly, the episode ends with the pair heading “southeast” to the (fictional) University of Eastern Colorado. Joel and Ellie have reached the end of the west.

And yet, in another way, their journey is just beginning.

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