The Last of Us Episode 5 review: A brutal, heartbreaking nightmare

Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us Episode 5HBO

The Last of Us Episode 5 is emotional and action-packed, speaking to the bluntness of mankind’s fury and desperation in the face of tragedy – even if you didn’t know what to expect, it’ll shatter you.

One of the great modern-day hypotheticals is how you’d react in a zombie apocalypse. Some say they’d bash heads left, right, and center, others say they’d just off themselves. Episode 5 gives just three options: submit, rise, or hide.

The last episode ended on a gulp-worthy cliffhanger: Joel (Pedro Pasca) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) being awoken by Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard), two brothers wanted by Kathleen, the leader of Kansas City’s merciless revolutionaries.

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Chaos theory reigns, and the hopelessness is almost overwhelming this time; revenge remains fruitless, and nobody is safe from the most punishing of fates. “What did I do?

Spoilers for The Last of Us Episode 5 to follow…

The Last of Us Episode 5: Viva la revolution

“When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.” This may be the slogan of the Fireflies, but the red flare that scorches the night sky in Episode 5’s opening frames is not something you should seek.

Ten days before Joel and Ellie’s run-in with Henry and Sam, Kathleen’s revolutionaries have staged a coup and taken control of the city away from FEDRA. Troops are hanged, shot, kneecapped, and battered in the streets, their corpses are dragged along roads, all while chants of “freedom” fill the air.

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They ask any collaborators to come forward so they can face a fair trial, or they’ll be found guilty of “counter-revolutionary activity.” Elsewhere, Kathleen talks to a cell full of former FEDRA informers. “Did it feel good betraying your neighbors?” she asks, and threatens to kill them all unless they tell her where Henry is.

One “rat” eventually breaks, but despite her assurances that they’d live, she orders her men to massacre them in a hail of bullets and burn the bodies. “It’s faster,” she says.

Meanwhile, Henry and Sam slink in and out of the shadows until they find an abandoned house. They meet the doctor (John Getz) in the loft, the same one Kathleen shot in the previous episode. Together, they come up with a plan to find more food and escape the city, and they have just 11 days before they starve.

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Here, the showrunners’ big change becomes apparent: Sam is deaf and communicates with Henry with sign language and writing things on his pad. If nothing else, it emphasizes how much he relies on his brother amid so much danger, while Henry is extra attentive. For example, he gives him a huge bag of crayons so he can draw all over the walls, because “this place is ugly.”

The Last of Us Episode 5: Henry and Sam meet Joel and Ellie

Ten days later, Henry and Sam are out of food. It’s okay, though, because he has a plan: he’s watched the patterns of the patrols, so he’s identified a window for them to flee – he just didn’t account for Joel and Ellie smashing into a storefront and getting into a gunfight.

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With revolutionaries closing in, he’s forced to improvise – not before painting Sam’s face so he looks like “Super Sam”, his superhero alter ego – and they end up in the exact same skyscraper as Joel and Ellie.

We cut back to Episode 4’s closing moments, but Henry admits he’s not experienced at holding someone at gunpoint. He wants guarantees from Joel that he won’t retaliate, but his “asshole voice” makes him nervous. “That’s just how he sounds,” Ellie stresses, in a rare moment of genuine comedy that doesn’t come from Will Livingston.

Henry and Sam in The Last of Us Episode 5HBO

“I’m the most wanted man in Kansas City, but I guess you’re a close second,” Henry tells him. Joel clearly has reservations, but they share their food; the atmosphere between the two men may be tense, but Ellie and Sam are smiley, relaxed by the presence of another kid without do much angst.

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The next morning, Henry explains to Joel that he’s a “collaborator”, to which Joel brands him a “rat.” However, as Henry says, they could help each other: he knows a way out of the city through underground tunnels, and if there’s any infected, Joel is equipped to deal with it.

“I show the way, you clear the way,” he says, while Sam chuckles with Ellie in the background. “Haven’t heard that in a long time,” he tells Joel. Johnson is terrific as Henry, and crucially, he’s not as formidable as his video game counterpart; he’s younger, peppier, and janglier. His Henry wants to look after Sam as best he can, but he’s upfront about needing help.

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The Last of Us Episode 5: Back to school

They agree, and in a wild stroke of luck, the tunnels are completely empty – though not of awkwardness. When Henry says to Ellie, “Your dad’s kind of a pessimist”, they both recoil. They may be bonding, but they’re nowhere near a father-daughter relationship.

They find an empty classroom, where Ellie and Sam bond over comics – specifically, Savage Starlight, issues of which are collectibles in the game – play football (or soccer, for the US readers), and get to know each other while they wait for evening time.

Joel apologizes for calling Henry a rat, given he’s looking after Sam – but Henry wasn’t entirely honest. Sam has leukemia, and he was forced to give up the leader of the resistance to get the drugs he needed to survive. FEDRA got their man, Sam got his meds, there’s just one small problem: that leader was Kathleen’s brother, and she won’t stop until she avenges him.

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Henry and Joel in The Last of Us Episode 5HBO

In the end times, the goalposts of one’s moral standards would shift. Primal needs come into play more than they would in a civilized society, and if you needed to kill someone in order for your family to survive, what would you do?

Henry believes it makes him “the bad guy… I am the bad guy because I did a bad guy thing.” All of the writing between Joel and Henry is impeccable; reflective, but not overwrought, and Pascal’s gruff performance is slowly eased by Johnson’s spirit.

We get a brief scene with Kathleen in her childhood bedroom, recalling how her brother Michael convinced her she’d always be safe from thunder and lightning, and how he’d want her to forgive Henry. She doesn’t care. “Where is the justice in that?” she asks.

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Grief is one of the most compelling through-lines in The Last of Us; in a time where the world has lost so much, the tides of sorrow turn differently for everyone. Joel’s despair bubbles under his taciturn demeanor, while Ellie leans on humor to ease the unbearable tension. Lynskey’s character could be one-note, but her villainy is compellingly unnatural; her only motive is anger, and it’s taken control over someone who appears to be good underneath the vengeance.

The Last of Us Episode 5: Be afraid, be very afraid

The quartet make a move and successfully get out of the city into the suburbs. Henry’s cocky, Ellie’s laughing, but a distant gunshot sees them all ducking for cover. At the other end of the street, there’s a sniper, so Joel sneaks his way there alone. “Do you trust me?” he asks Ellie, before zig-zagging along the street.

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When he goes into the house and up the stairs, he finds the shooter: an elderly man under Kathleen’s orders to keep watch. “Please don’t do it,” Joel says, asking him to slide the gun over and leave. “That’s all you have to do.” The camera cuts away as the man turns with his gun, and the shot that rings out isn’t that of a sniper.

Joel overhears Kathleen on the radio – she’s inbound with all of her troops, and all he can do is yell, “Run!” at the top of his lungs. The blinding lights of their trucks spring Ellie, Henry, and Sam into action, but despite Joel’s best efforts with the sniper, Kathleen has them pinned down.

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Just as Henry gives himself up, one of the trucks sinks into the ground. Do you remember in the last episode, when Kathleen and Perry found a crater in the basement? There was another one under one of the homes in this neighborhood, and it was home to hundreds of infected – including Clickers and a Bloater.

The Bloater in The Last of Us Episode 5HBO

For those who haven’t played the games, they’re essentially a breed of super-infected; massive, ridiculously strong, and covered in thick, protective fungus. They can kill you in one punch and twist your head off your shoulders like they’re picking a bramble.

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Let it be said, this situation would be un-winnable in the game. It’d be like the end of Red Dead Redemption: you may put up a fight, but the enemies surrounding you are insurmountable. Nevertheless, Ellie somehow weaves in and out of the Clickers and runners without a single scratch, managing to evade a Clicker inside a car, kill one with a shiv (finally!), and rescue Henry and Sam.

Episode 2 terrifyingly brought the Clickers to life, but this time, the show feels more interested in excitement and thrills over what makes sense; Joel is constantly firing his gun, but the Clickers – who use echo-location – never run in his direction.

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Yet, it finishes strong: just as Kathleen is about to shoot Henry, a Clicker leaps from a car and rips her to shreds viciously. The shot hangs on her just a little longer than normal, flailing as her flesh is stripped from her ribs. A gnarly send-off, but there’s worse to come – believe me.

The Last of Us Episode 5: The moment we dreaded

Joel, Ellie, Henry, and Sam hole up in a quiet house for the night. Joel says Henry is welcome to bring Sam along with them to Wyoming, and Henry says it’ll be nice for his little brother to have a friend. Upstairs, Ellie and Sam have a touching conversation via his pad, lifted straight from the game.

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“Are you even scared?” he asks. “Do I not look scared?” she replies, and after joking she’s afraid of scorpions, she allows herself to be honest. “I’m scared of ending up alone,” she writes.

Sam then writes: “If you turn into a monster, is it still you inside?” And then comes the head-in-your-hands reveal: Sam was bitten by one of the Clickers. Ellie, in a moment of true maturity, doesn’t panic. “My blood is medicine,” she tells him, cutting open her hand and applying the blood to his wound.

Henry and Sam in The Last of Us Episode 5HBO

“Stay awake with me,” he asks, and she gives him a hug. The tenderness of their friendship is unbearable, as Sam’s fate is already locked, but Ramsey and Woodard are both superb. At no time does their friendliness feel contrived; their rapport is easy and effortful, but it wasn’t made to last.

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The next morning, Ellie awakes to find Sam sitting at the side of his bed. She goes to make sure he’s okay, and he tries to attack her. Joel and Henry hear their screams, and they both burst through the door. Joel tries to shoot Henry, but Henry shoots the floor beside Joel’s feet.

For a scene so quick, the onslaught of emotions are clearly drawn on Johnson’s face: horror, fear, and eventually, guilt. He shoots Sam in the head and watches the blood spill from his skull. “What did I do?” he asks Joel. “Give me the gun, Henry,” he asks, but Henry can’t take the weight of what he had to do. Without much hesitation, he shoots himself in the head.

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It does down exactly like the game, but it feels so much rawer and more horrible in live-action. Henry’s panic alone is enough to warrant tears, but the jab-jab-hook of the gunshot, devastation, and suicide is the most harrowing scene in the show so far, even more so than its infamous opener.

There is one small mercy: instead of just burying their memory, we actually see Joel and Ellie lay them to rest, with Ellie putting Sam’s notepad in his grave with one last message: “I’m sorry.”

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

The Last of Us Episode 5 undercuts the threat of its horrors with spectacle, before delivering the crushing, cruel coda of Henry and Sam even more effectively than the game; a nightmare born anew and relived.

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The Last of Us Episode 6 will be available to stream on February 19 in the US and February 20 in the UK. You can check out the rest of our coverage here and check out the trailer for the weeks ahead here.