The Last of Us Episode 4 review: You’re not ready for what’s next

Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us Episode 4HBO

The Last of Us Episode 4 is a flawless in-between installment, embodying the game’s road-trip DNA with humor, brutal thrills, and setting up an arc that should be dreaded by the most hardened of viewers.

Nailing Joel and Ellie’s relationship is a delicate balancing act. They don’t have your ordinary father-daughter dynamic; she’s potty-mouthed, he’s often cold and uncaring, and socially, they’re polar opposites, a rift forged by experience and trauma.

Episode 3 was the first time we spent time with them alone, and with it, the beginnings of some semblance of comfort and normality. At the end, they drove off into the sunset, marking a new dawn for their journey.

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Episode 4 puts the pair on the road together; scavenging, driving, and fighting – all in a day’s work in the apocalypse. It’s the most the show has invested in their dynamic so far, and a welcome break from the pain – trust us, it’ll be brief.

Spoilers for The Last of Us Episode 4 to follow…

The Last of Us Episode 4: Alone & Forsaken – with puns

The episode opens with Ellie posing in the mirror with the gun she pocketed from Bill’s house. She’s young and a bit naive, but savvy enough to unload the weapon and check the chamber before pulling the trigger. It’s understandable that she’d be fascinated by guns, given she’s lived under a hardline military presence.

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Outside the rest stop, Joel is siphoning petrol into the truck. “Gas breaks down over time,” he explains to Ellie, so lots of cars are filled with “basically water.”

“Back in the day, we could go 10-12 hours on one tank… could go anywhere,” he says. When Ellie asks where he went, he replies: “Pretty much nowhere.” Small, poignant quotes like that are what helped the game connect in the first place; we live life by the motions, but if we knew the end was nigh, would we broaden our horizons, or find peace within them?

Ellie then whips out what we’ve all been waiting for: No Pun Intended by Will Livingston, her trusty joke book. “It doesn’t matter how far you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery,” she says, to which Joel can only mutter, “Jesus” and “No.”

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Joel struggled to talk to Ellie in the last episode, still rattled by the loss of Tess, and numbed by losing two people he cared deeply about (and likely didn’t express it as much as he should have). Here, he’s slowly but surely chatting more, even if he’s barking at Ellie, “Don’t do that… put that away.”

When they head off in the truck, they listen to Hank Williams’ Alone and Forsaken. “Does this make you all nostalgic?” Ellie asks. “This is actually before my time… it’s a winner, though,” he replies. It’s a scene lifted almost word-for-word from the game, right through to Ellie finding a male porno mag in the backseat – even the design of the magazine is the same.

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Of course, the song’s meaning to Joel and Ellie runs deeper than appearing in both the show and game: it has synonymity with their relationship. “We met in the springtime when blossoms unfold. The pastures were green and the meadows were gold. Our love was in flower as summer grew on,” Williams sings.

The Last of Us Episode 4: Ravioli and burnt sh*t

Riding through the desolate landscape towards Missouri, with untended buffalo roaming the fields and bridges overcome with weeds and rust, Joel notices the toll it’s taking on Ellie; each collapsed bridge and void of life makes her sadder, so he finds a place to stop. With Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar gentling plucking away, they camp up for the night and chow down on 20-year-old ravioli.

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Ellie asks if they can light a fire, but Joel says no – not because of the infected, but humans. “So what are they gonna do, rob us?” she asks. “Oh, they’ll have way more in mind than that,” he warns her. Ellie shrugs it off with an “Okay”, but as they try to go to sleep, it’s clearly playing on her mind.

Meanwhile, Joel’s face as he turns away from Ellie is so sad – despite their massive differences, everything with Ellie must be a reminder of Sarah. Loneliness, awkwardness, grief – it’s all over his expression, and Pascal makes it look effortless.

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“Joel… can I ask you a serious question? Why did the scarecrow get an award?” she asks. They stare at each other for a few seconds. “Because he was outstanding in his field?” he finally replies, rolling back over with a smirk on his face.

Then comes a tender moment between them: doing her best to seem calm, she asks Joel for a bit of paternal assurance everything will be okay, which he provides. While she sleeps, Joel stands watch for most of the night, armed with his rifle and only the sound of crickets to keep him company.

In the morning, Ellie is awoken by the bubbling, rattling lid of Joel’s coffee. She’s a teenager, so she’s entitled to be a bit stroppy – nor should she be expected to enjoy the whiff of years-old, stale coffee. “Is that seriously what those Starbucks in the QZ used to sell?” she asks. “It smells like burnt sh*t.”

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The Last of Us Episode 4: Joel reveals his past with Tommy

Remember, Joel isn’t trying to get Ellie to the Fireflies – he wants to find Tommy, and hopes his former life as a Firefly will come in handy for wherever Ellie needs to go.

Ellie asks Joel why Tommy isn’t with him. He says it’s a long story, but as Ellie points out, it’s a 25-hour drive to Wyoming, so they’ve got the time.

“Tommy’s what we used to call a joiner. Dreams of becoming a hero. So he enlisted in the army right outta high school,” he explains.

“A few months later, they ship him off to Desert Storm – that’s what they called that war, it doesn’t matter. The point is, being in the army didn’t make him feel much like a hero. Cut to 12 years later, outbreak happens. He convinces me to join a group making their way up to Boston, which I did… mostly to keep an eye on him, keep him alive.

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“That’s where we met Tess, and that whole crew… well for what it was, it worked. Then Tommy meets Marlene, she talks him in to joining the Fireflies – the same mistake he made when he was 18. He wants to save the world; pipe dream, him, Fireflies, all of them. Delusional.

“Of course, last I heard, he quit the Fireflies too, so now he’s on his own out there and I gotta go get him.”

Ellie asks: “If you don’t think there’s hope for the world, why bother going on? I mean you gotta try, right?” Joel replies: “You haven’t seen the world, so you don’t know… you keep going for family. You’re cargo. I made a promise to Tess, and she was like family.”

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Yes, it’s exposition, but it hugely enriches Joel as a character; this is a man with an inbuilt, inescapable protective instinct, whether it’s Tommy or Ellie. But he’s also cynical, skeptical of movements built on hope, and these are seeds being planted for what’s to come.

The Last of Us Episode 4: The game’s mechanics come into play

When they reach the outskirts of Kansas City, a lorry is blocking the bridge that would allow them to avoid venturing through the city. After some consideration, Joel gambles on a quick drive, but they’re almost immediately attacked by raiders.

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us Episode 4HBO

This set-piece unfolds with the same tension and physicality as the game; Ellie crawls through a hole in the wall, while Joel picks them off with his rifle. He ends up locked in a fistfight with one of the guys, forcing Ellie to use her gun to shoot him. Joel spares her with facing his death, so he tells her to go back through the wall while he finishes him off (with an audible slash of a knife, rather than wasting a bullet).

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The show’s creators spoke at length about how they handled violence. In the game, it borders on cathartic, especially if you’re dying over and over again. The Last of Us doesn’t have that twisted luxury, so each death has to have an impact – in this case, you hear the young man screaming for his mum before Joel kills him. They’re all pawns in the games they’ve made for themselves, so every killing is tragic; nobody is the villain of their own story.

The Last of Us Episode 4: Meet Kathleen

We cut to the stronghold once operated by FEDRA. It quickly becomes clear they weren’t attacked by some witless marauders – they’re attached to an organized outfit, most likely the Hunters, and they’re run by Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey).

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We meet her as she’s interrogating a doctor over the whereabouts of Henry Burrell. She ponders whether they’re in the same cell where her brother was beaten to death, and the doctor says: “You were wronged, and I’m sorry.”

None of this has been confirmed, so it’s open to speculation: did Henry Burrell give up the identity of her brother to FEDRA, knowing they’d execute him as a member of the Hunters? Was this doctor instrumental in his death? “This has gone too far,” he says. “It has to stop now, you mean? Now you’re in the cell. But before, people dying was okay, when you were protected and ratting on your neighbors to FEDRA,” she says.

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Melanie Lynskey as Kathleen in The Last of Us Episode 4HBO

His defense is that they put a gun to his head, so Kathleen responds in kind. “Have I satisfied the necessary conditions for you to talk?” she quips. Even with tears in her eyes, Lynskey is a formidable presence that makes a big impression straight away. Also, she confirms she’s looking for an important character from the game: Henry, of Henry and Sam, who was seemingly responsible for her brother’s death.

Overhearing commotion outside, she finds a crowd surrounding the bodies Joel and Ellie left on the street. “Will he live?” she asks, but even with a doctor, there’s “no chance” – so, she marches back inside and shoots her prisoner in the head.

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“This is Henry’s work, understand? And he won’t stop until we stop him. Find who did this, find every collaborator, and kill them all,” she orders. As the Hunters (again, we’re just presuming this, it hasn’t been detailed), look at the messaging on their vehicles: “RUN” and “We the People.” All of this matches up with Kathleen being the leader of a revolutionary group, and the only one that makes any sense is the Hunters.

The Hunters bash down doors in their search for Henry and Sam. In an abandoned building, Kathleen finds Sam’s superhero drawings and tens of empty tins. “They’re out of food, Henry won’t let Sam starve,” she says – but her officer’s face is tripping him, so there must be something else.

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In the basement, there’s a crater that starts rippling. Something is underneath there, but what? The likely answer: a Bloater, essentially a super-infected, but we’ll surely find out next week.

The Last of Us Episode 4: Are you alright?

Elsewhere, Joel and Ellie hide from Kathleen’s troops. Joel is racked with guilt over putting Ellie in a position where she had to use her gun. “I know what it’s like the first time you hurt someone like that… it’s my fault, and I’m sorry,” he tells her, as she wipes a tear from her face, and reveals it wasn’t her first time.

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After all her pestering, he now has a reason to trust her with a gun, so he teaches her how to shoot – but she’s only allowed to keep it if it stays in her bag at all times. “You’ll shoot your damn ass off,” he jokes.

A still from The Last of Us Episode 4HBO

As they quietly make their way through the city to a skyscraper, they subtly recreate the movements of the game; crawl spaces and leg-ups through small windows and such. As they climb to the top of the building, Ellie asks how Joel knew they were going to be ambushed by the raiders. “I’ve been on both sides,” he says. When she asks if he’s killed innocent people, he avoids answering and keeps moving.

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They find a room with some couch cushions and hunker down for the night, but Joel’s curiosity gets the better of him. “When we were talking about hurting people, what did you mean when you said it wasn’t your first time?” he asks, but Ellie doesn’t want to talk about it. “You don’t have to, I’m just saying… it isn’t fair at your age, having to deal with all of this,” he says.

She also points out that his hearing is weaker on his right side, likely as a result of all the shooting he’s done. “If you want to keep your hearing, stick to that knife,” he advises.

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“Joel… do you know diarrhea is hereditary? It runs in your genes,” she then jokes, and even Joel can’t help himself. “That’s so god damn stupid… I’m losing it,” he says, giggling away to himself. It is absolutely precious, and the perfect way to end the episode… until it’s not. They laugh themselves to sleep, but Joel and Ellie are awoken by guns in their face – it’s Henry and Sam, and we can expect this much: the next episode is gonna hurt a lot.

The Last of Us Episode 4 review score: 5/5

The Last of Us Episode 4 is the best we’ve seen from Joel and Ellie; bickerers, partners, and soon enough, family. Their laughs together mean so much already, but the show is steadily mounting a plan to break our hearts in more ways than one. You will scream when the credits roll.

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The Last of Us Episode 5 will be available to watch early on February 10 in the US and February 11 in the UK. You can check out the rest of our coverage here, and the trailer for the weeks ahead here.