The Last of Us: Episode 4’s Pivotal Pistol & Joke Joinery
Famous for tight storytelling, impressive visuals, and terrifying supernatural creatures, The Last of Us video game has been adapted into a TV show. The HBO series shares the same aforementioned attributes while expanding the universe’s narrative. The fourth episode, titled “Please Hold to My Hand” (referencing a Hank Williams song), brings the two main characters together through unlikely means: a gun and a joke book. We’ll explore how a teenagers bid for adulthood and a begrudging father-figure’s awareness can be applied as we mentor those less experienced.
WARNING: the following spoilers may cause animalistic, zombie-like rage in some readers.
Zombie Writing: Not Just Groaning Through the Motions
As someone who has never played the game but is familiar with the post-apocalyptic protector and defenseless child trope, I was pleasantly surprised by The Last of Us. Both the game and show follow the same basic storyline: Joel (played by Pedro Pascal) must transport Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the country while fighting off zombies and whatever humanity has devolved into. I’ll attempt to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but be aware I discuss relevant details.
There have been some plot changes from the game, which hardcore fans may not like (but are absolutely crucial to an adaptation), yet there are some expanded storylines, which help explain character’s motivations or events from the game. This works well because the game’s creator Neil Druckmann is also the showrunner. I enjoy when a universe is interwoven between multiple platforms;[i] especially one with a plot this compelling.
The Last of Us relies on connecting with humanity’s desire to search for a savior. A person may attempt to find salvation in themselves or in the wrong person, god, or product, but everyone runs into problems where they need help. And although subject to cultural influences, most people tend to enjoy stories about powerful heroes mentoring and protecting the innocent. As I mentioned in my article “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin’s Guiding Voices and the Search for Peace,” there is a tradition of storytelling about disenfranchised lone warriors protecting small children.
This franchise adds to the apocalyptic protector/child legacy with more than just the inclusion of zombies - there is a narrative of relational growth. That maturing happens in two ways: Ellie’s bid for adulthood and Joel grappling with being the father-figure Ellie desperately needs.
A Rancher’s Joke Inventory: Catalyst for Bonding
Ellie is a believable fourteen-year-old girl living in a post-apocalypse. Jaded because of death and violence, yet self-conscious and quirky. One of her most endearing pastimes is her love for the joke book “No Pun Intended, Volume Too” by Will Livingston (unfortunately, it’s not real). She’s at the age where a person’s sense of humor is being defined while simultaneously understanding a majority of comedic punchlines (even if only a purely theoretical comprehension). She cares deeply about the book for at least four reasons.
At a foundational level, she has sentiment and memories tied to the first book (as we learn in Episode 7: “Left Behind”). Second, humor distracts from horror. And third, good jokes make us laugh, which is healthy for the soul. The fourth is far less universal but absolutely pivotal to Ellie and Joel’s relationship.
Having secretly tried out her recently stolen handgun as the episode begins, Ellie moves to annoy Joel by reading jokes. Several times throughout “Please Hold to My Hand” Ellie tells Joel one of the volume’s corny jokes, much to Joel’s confused irritation. There is a seriousness in Joel’s personality even if their situation didn’t demand it.
The audience can’t help but wish for the grizzled fifty-six-year-old Texan to show some personability to his young ward. And a shared appreciation for comedy is not a sappy or trivial addition but fits together like a puzzle piece for the episode and the series as a whole. And you know what they say about puzzle pieces…they’re just trying to fit in.
Independence Day: Making Adulthood Not So Alien
One of the main reasons Ellie uses the joke book is because it fits with her emerging identity. But Ellie learning to interact with society is supplementary to finding herself. Underpinning this episode’s criticality is Ellie’s coming-of-age. More than a MacGuffin, Ellie’s ability to have a gun is imperative for her self-preservation, Joel’s survival (endure and survive!), and Ellie becoming a woman.
Multiple episodes in the series show Ellie’s obsession with handling and having a gun. Part of this can be attributed to being a curious teenager, but a major element, whether she’s cognizant or not, is Ellie’s transition from adolescent to adult. The episode begins with her feeling out the gun, practicing in the mirror, and dreaming of autonomy where she’s in control.
Once she and Joel are ambushed, Ellie instinctively reaches for her switchblade and then quickly pulls the hidden handgun from her bag. Drawing the pistol and intentionally shooting the Hunter who attacks Joel is the first portion of asserting her independence. It is a major step toward adulthood while concurrently transforming herself from a burden of cargo into a partner and asset to Joel.
Yet this status change is not “official” unless Joel gives his endorsement. Stealing the gun broke Joel’s rules and confidence. He has every right to be angry (even if his rules and self-imposed distancing weren’t entirely healthy) so his strong emotions and reaction to taking the gun away were warranted.
Joel is rightfully shaken up: he was attacked (which came as a surprise because of the partial deafness he doesn’t want to admit), concerned for Ellie, and feeling guilty for inadvertently forcing Ellie to shoot someone. So Joel naturally takes the weapon away.
Love Born From a Laugh: A Cataclysmic Cordyceps Conclusion
In my opinion, the two most important scenes in the episode (and possibly in the top ten of Season 1) happen in quick succession at the end of “Please Hold to My Hand.” They are an important culmination in Joel and Ellie’s relationship up to this point, and foundational for their future actions and choices.
Having made it to safety in a boarded-up bar after the ambush, Joel takes stock of their losses and Ellie’s wellbeing. He’s had time to process the attack, Ellie having a gun, and his weaknesses. Stammering through an apology (growth in and of itself), Joel decides to give Ellie back her gun. If Joel had kept the gun, Ellie’s bid for independence would have been denied. This transaction is more than a physical exchange, there is a metaphorical right of passage and acknowledgment of Ellie as a trusted partner.
Yet Druckmann and writer Craig Mazin didn’t leave Joel and Ellie’s relationship as a zero-sum. Having left the bar, the pair climb as high as possible in the tallest building in town. As they fall asleep, Ellie asks, “Did you know diarrhea is hereditary?” Joel mutters, “What?” Chagrined, Ellie responds, “Yeah, it runs in your jeans.” Joel rolls over staring Ellie in the eye then turns back on his side and chuckles. That chuckle is the beginning of the end. Ellie calls him out for laughing and he says he’s losing it. She agrees, there is a pause and then they both start laughing again.
The scene is humorous and heartwarming. Exhaustion coupled with newfound respect forces Joel’s guard down and Ellie takes advantage. This connection is a realization of love and enjoyment in being with the other person. Joel needs Ellie as a friend and daughter as much as she needs him as a father.
Respect and love don’t happen quickly and can’t be forced. This “quick” culmination was born out of hours spent together. Likewise, when we spend time teaching someone, we must meet them where they are while deciphering the subtext in their messaging.
We may not be transporting human cargo through zombie-infested areas (although sometimes parenting is exactly that), but if we have opportunities to teach or mentor, we must be cognizant of mentee’s bids for recognition. If we’re not careful, we can deflate or arrest development. Not every wager for adulthood should be rewarded with acknowledgment but a mark of our maturity is recognizing maturity in those we guide.
We are doing our “pupils” a disservice if we don’t give them chances to prove themselves and assert their independence. In so doing we may develop a friendship like Joel and Ellie – one we weren’t looking for but truly cherish over time.
[i] A good example of a creator filling in universe gaps is found in Bob Gale’s graphic novel Back to the Future: Untold Tales and Alternate Timelines.