Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us episode 4 follow. If you haven't caught up, look away now!
It can’t all be sunshine and strawberries. If Bill and Frank’s story gave viewers a glimpse of the compassionate part of the apocalypse, ‘Please Hold My Hand’ is very much a case study in the harsher side of humanity. Feeling like equal parts The Road and The Walking Dead, The Last of Us’ fourth episode may not captivate as much as its previous hour, but it certainly adds more peril to proceedings.
To the episode’s credit, that harder edge arrives immediately. Ellie, now toting a gun in the style of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, joins Joel for a stop-start road trip towards Tommy that takes a couple of detours, first in a wooded area and then to a desolate Kansas City, where the pair must navigate roadblocks and a dangerous new group to survive.
It’s in the forest where the show wisely turns its attention away from the clickers and the Cordyceps, and towards the “bandits and slavers” that were first mentioned back in the premiere. It’s a frenzied jolt, then, when Joel tells Ellie not to start a fire because they don’t want to attract the attention of people – who have something “much worse” than robbing in mind.
The entire scene, despite the creeping threat, is mercifully packed with cute character beats that contain just the right amount of levity. Joel and Ellie bonding over the cringe-inducing No Pun Intended book and Frank’s sleeping bag smelling nicer than Bill’s are subtle moments that just aren’t present in similar post-apocalyptic dramas that too often choose to run a viewer down with its relentless bleakness.
Joel and Ellie enter Kansas City and it’s here where the episode’s biggest misstep arrives. After an ambush gone wrong in an action-packed and cinematic scene that feels ripped whole from the halls of Naughty Dog, the duo fights off a handful of crooks. In one final struggle, Ellie shoots a man named Brian as he tries to strangle Joel.
While Ellie has showcased some more sadistic tendencies already (think the clicker stabbing last week), all but condemning a man to death is something that, while similar to how it plays out in the games, robs a potential late moment from the PlayStation source material – and one we won’t spoil here – of much of its shattering and emotional catharsis. It also isn’t dwelled upon much, which only sets about hastening Ellie’s emotional spiral into something a little darker probably a touch too early in her journey.
Outstanding in his field
Then we meet the show’s first proper, meaty villain. Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) is a woman who has felt the full force of FEDRA’s fascist tactics and is now on the hunt for a man called Henry.
It’s a neat subversion that Kathleen – on the face of it, a mild-mannered middle-aged woman – rises to become ruler of the ashes instead of her battle-hardened lieutenant Perry (Jeffrey Pierce, who voices Tommy in the game series). Yet, there’s something a little off. Outside of a ruthless execution of a man – the doctor who delivered her no less – it’s a slightly unsteady performance from Melanie Lynskey which lacks much-needed intimidation, and pushes your suspension of belief to its limit as you start to wonder how she rose to the top in Kansas City in the first place.
Still, it’s a suffocating inclusion and welcome focal point that, when paired with Joel and Ellie both clamming up instead of discussing their violent pasts, ratchets up the tension. As the pair skulk through abandoned buildings and grim stairwells, it’s a neat reminder that though they may both enjoy their fair share of puns and trips down memory lane, these are still two strangers stumbling through a broken and brutal world.
As Kathleen hunts for Henry, the episode abruptly draws to a close just as it was getting going – but not without leaving us with a tantalizing pair of cliffhangers. Henry holding up Joel and Ellie at gunpoint is a perfect full stop on an episode that has exposed the apocalypse’s darker underbelly, while whatever is lurking under the cracked floor of the storage room is a ticking time bomb that could up the ante further next week.
The Last of Us was fighting an uphill battle after last week’s episode. A weaker show may have coasted towards the season’s midway point. But with a sprinkling of world building and some heartwarming – and heartbreaking – moments between Joel and Ellie, the series still manages to maintain its momentum in accomplished fashion.
The Last of Us streams Sundays on HBO and HBO Max and Mondays in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV. For more from the HBO series, check out our guide to the major Last of Us episode 3 changes from the games and a terrifying look at the Cordyceps fungus. Discover when the next episode is dropping with our Last of Us release schedule.