Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us episode 5 follow. If you haven't caught up, look away now!
The Last of Us immediately rights its wrongs from last week. Kathleen, previously all bluster and empty threats, is intimidating from the outset in 'Endure and Survive', an episode that acts as the second of a two-parter in Kansas City.
Melanie Lynskey's de facto leader is still on the hunt for Henry (Lamar Johnson). While sidestepping her lieutenant Perry's more strategic approach, a switch flicks inside her. Bodies are burned, despite "fair trials" being promised, as she becomes a terrifying blunt instrument who tears down all in her path to stop Henry who, as we discover, ratted out her brother to FEDRA. It all amounts to setting Kathleen up as a serious threat to Henry and his deaf younger brother Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard) – something that was achieved here in mere minutes and makes the previous episode's floundering all the more frustrating.
It's little wonder, then, that Henry and Sam are scared as they creep through hideouts and towards Joel and Ellie. After the foursome unite, Henry and Joel quickly formulate a plan to get out of the city. From there, they head underground, away from trouble – and towards something even worse.
"There's actually shit to do here," Ellie says as the episode – and its characters – take a rare moment to take in their surroundings under the city. It's here where, for Ellie and Sam, the mundane becomes magical. Makeshift soccer goals, toys, and comics become Holy Grails for the pair, each of whom suffered through grossly deprived childhoods.
Ellie and Sam's slow bonding throughout the hour undoubtedly serves as one of its highlights. She coaxes Sam out of his shell early and slowly settles into her pseudo-older sister role. Happy moments are few and far between in The Last of Us, and the two joking over superhero comics or Ellie learning sign language are welcome reprieves from all the doom and gloom.
It may not get the plaudits of Bill and Frank's episode, but some moments – such as Sam having his face painted by his brother to match his 'Super Sam' superhero persona – are just as powerful. Woodard, who is also deaf in real life, is a willing participant, bouncing off his acting partners with a tender naivety – an act which only intensifies the feelings of robbed adolescence and should leave any parents watching in floods of tears.
We're not in Kansas anymore
This is an episode not only elevated by its crushing character work, but also by the show's best set-piece to date. A remix of the game's sniper section – which sees Joel, Ellie, Henry and Sam pinned down in a suburb by a lone gunman – is a pulse-pounding reminder of just how scary The Last of Us can be. Not only does each shot ricocheting off cars inches from Joel's head form the bones of a breathless escape, but it also later draws from the well of Japanese horror to thunderous effect in an infected-filled scene.
After Kathleen's army descends on Joel at the foot of the neighborhood, Chekhov's Sinkhole finally comes into play. A swarm of infected escapes alongside a Bloater, a hulking variant that presents a welcome physical threat – as quickly evidenced by its swift beheading of Perry. The young infected who chases Ellie with all the jerky and erratic movements of J-horror icons from The Ring and The Grudge is especially terrifying. Both she and the Bloater's presence light a fuse not only under the sequence, but the show itself. Zombies and zombie-likes can become tired quickly; not so here, with the inventive use of the pair injecting a dose of terror where there hadn't been previously. It also showcases the malleability of The Last Of Us: character drama one week, intense horror the next.
It's a shame, then, that it all culminates in a weak death for Kathleen. After being confronted by Henry, the prospect of blood feuds and family tragedy comes spilling out – but none of it materializes. Instead, the Kansas City chief is leapt on by one of the infected and torn to pieces. It leaves a gaping plot unresolved, not least a lack of closure between her and Henry. If the message was 'not every story gets an ending in the apocalypse', then job done – but it's narratively unfulfilling all the same.
Still, the promise of a "new start" sees the episode out. But, in true Last of Us fashion, it peters out quickly. In the melee, Sam has been bitten and – despite Ellie's best efforts to use her blood to heal the festering wound – he turns and attacks Ellie in the morning, leading to one of the show's most unnerving moments so far as Henry is forced to kill his brother before turning the gun on himself.
This moment, as heartbreaking as it is, only lands with the required gravity thanks to the legwork Bella Ramsey puts in throughout 'Endure and Survive'. Ramsey, like Bill and Frank actors Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, deserves to be in the awards conversation. Their primal scream when Henry shoots himself is the cherry on top of an incredibly raw performance that runs the emotional gauntlet in what feels like a real coming-of-age turn.
The episode ends with two words written by Ellie on Sam's dry-erase board: "I'm sorry." It's a haunting message, signifying both the moment Ellie sheds her childlike nature and the sheer weight of the journey pressing down on both her and Joel. HBO had previously been worried about the premiere being too unrelentingly bleak for viewers to return. This episode passes that threshold but, thanks to stories as beautiful and brutal as Henry and Sam's, there's every reason for audiences to come back week after week and season after season.
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 4 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.