[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us, Season 1 Episode 5, “Endure and Survive.”]
Lest you were feeling like The Last of Us was taking it easy on viewers with its depiction of America 20 years into a zombie apocalypse, Episode 5 of the HBO drama proves to be a real gut punch. “Endure and Survive” properly introduces brothers Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard), two characters who originated in the first Last of Us game, and their story becomes central to the show’s most tragic and heartbreaking sequence to date.
Yet it’s also necessary, because every element involved speaks to a key theme of the series: how far would we go for the people we love? Co-creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have both spoken about how the series centers around how the worst atrocities people commit are often motivated by protecting those they love. “Endure and Survive” shows exactly that, laying out the consequences of what happens when people decide their family takes precedence over everyone else.
While Episode 4 ended with a dramatic cliffhanger, as Ellie (Bella Ramsey) wakes up to find herself being held at gunpoint, Episode 5 steps back in time to properly introduce Henry, a young man trying to take care of his brother in the chaos of the quarantine zone controlled by the organization known as FEDRA. While FEDRA serves as the last vestige of the American government in this world, it’s become controlling and fascist in the years since the outbreak, leading to multiple quarantine zones trying to revolt against its authority.
As we learn in Episode 5, one such revolt took place in Kansas City, with FEDRA attempting to crack down on the ringleaders to preserve its authority. That’s the situation which led Henry to rat out Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey)’s brother to FEDRA, knowing that it would lead to the man’s death — that’s how desperate he was to track down some necessary medicine for Sam.
The consequence for his choice, though, is that once Kathleen and her forces successfully overthrow FEDRA, Henry is now Public Enemy Number 1, as she becomes determined to hunt him down and get revenge for her brother’s death. Henry and Sam hide out for as long as they can before running out of food, encountering Ellie and Joel (Pedro Pascal) while trying to stay in hiding but also locate something to eat.
Unfortunately, they can’t stay safe forever. It’s Kathleen’s focus on revenge for her brother that leads her to bring out her entire posse on a manhunt that ends in disaster for pretty much everyone involved — she’s amongst the many killed during the climactic attack, and those aren’t the only deaths that make an impact. The two most brutal casualties occur the morning after the battle, as Ellie gets attacked by an infected Sam and Henry shoots him out of pure instinct, before dying by suicide a few moments afterward.(A change from the game to the series is that Sam originally wasn’t Deaf, a shift which doesn’t dramatically affect the action, but does make the ending feel all the more tragic.)
The sequence of events is heartbreaking for so many reasons, but one of them is how it reminds us what it means, to decide what we’re living for. It’s not necessarily a question we living in the real world have much time to consider, with work and family and taxes and sports and friends and HBO premium dramas to distract us on a daily basis, but societal collapse has a way of giving a person focus.
Those who have played the game know how far Joel will go to protect Ellie, and now people new to The Last of Us have gotten a glimpse at the type of heartbreaking violence that is deemed necessary for the sake of love. As terrifying as the Cordyceps zombies might be in The Last of Us, the show is always very clear on how the real source of terror is humanity at its worst — though, at times, it’s balanced out with humanity at its best.
“Endure and Survive” is a story of people making impossible-to-imagine decisions, and pushing the viewer to consider just how they themselves might face those choices. It’s the darkest installment of the show yet, but it’s one that’s impossible to forget.
The Last of Us typically airs Sundays on HBO. (Episode 5 premiered early this week, on account of the Super Bowl.)