The Last of Us episode 5 – a rollercoaster of emotions

5 mins read

The Last of Us wastes no time getting us into the action of episode 5, as we join Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard) making their way through a city engulfed in hate and violence. “Kansas City is free,” says Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), before she puts a cell full of FEDRA collaborators to death.

The show has been extremely intent on humanising its human villains, and this continues apace in episode 5. We get some insight into Kathleen and the relationship she had with her brother, and we learn the lengths that Henry went to for Sam.

The episode successfully chains an array of emotions, rollercoastering us through disgust, pity, fear, horror, dread, and profound sadness in 60 minutes. Pedro Pascal (who plays Joel) manages to do more acting in this one episode with just his face than many others will accomplish in their lifetimes.

Pedro Pascal as Joel
Pedro Pascal’s face puts in a lot of work in this episode. Image Credit: HBO

We also get the show’s biggest and most bombastic action scene to date, with nearly 100 extras decked out as infected, including multiple clickers and a bloater, played by 6″6′ stuntperson Adam Basil. Barrie Gower, a prosthetic make-up artist, estimated the bloater suit weighed over 40kg.

Episode 5 of The Last of Us raises some questions about representation in the media. By some standards, it does an exceptional job. Sam, a deaf character, is played by Keivonn Woodard, a deaf actor. This is hugely important: hopefully Hollywood is moving away from debacles of misrepresentation that started with Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.

The sign language in the show is also authentic, and Lamar Johnson (who plays Henry) took the time to learn enough sign language that the duo’s conversations on-screen look realistic – it was essential to them that anyone watching who speaks sign language would genuinely see themselves represented on screen. Bella Ramsey (who plays Ellie) learned some to communicate with Keivonn on set.

Questions have been raised, however, about the decision to make Sam deaf in the first place. In the game, he is hearing. There have been several well-considered pieces on the topic, written by deaf critics, which address their concerns. For instance, there are several occasions where Sam has to demand Henry keep him looped into spoken conversations. This isolation is known in the deaf community as “dinner table syndrome” and while it’s used in the show as a device for Henry to goad Joel, it’s hard to know whether this justifies its inclusion.

Sam and Henry
Henry and Super Sam. Image Credit: HBO

A primary criticism is that Sam is a character who exists purely so Henry can look after him, and so Joel can see this mirrored in his own actions and care for Ellie. The infantilization of disabled people is a problem beyond just the deaf community, and this frustration is palpable. It has been suggested that this would be somewhat alleviated by allowing Sam some agency, perhaps giving him his own scene where he achieves something alone. This is understandable but it’s hard to imagine any 8-year-old standing against that hoard of infected.

As a hearing person, I hesitate to critique a deaf person’s analysis of a character in a community they are part of and I am not. However, I think in this case looking at the source material helps – Sam’s deafness in the show does not make him any more vulnerable than he is in the game. It certainly emphasises the connection between the two brothers. All characters in stories serve specific purposes, and in this case, Sam and Henry need to show Joel how a person’s actions can be so completely centred around another person. Joel has to see himself in Henry, and Ellie also needs to experience the sorrow of this outcome.

It remains true that meeting Sam and Henry will have a long-lasting effect on Ellie and Joel, and how they see each other. The development of their relationship is at the heart of the story of The Last of Us, and HBO has brought it to life on the screen.

Watch the next episode on Sunday evening on HBO or NowTV.

Featured Image Credit: HBO

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