The following recap contains spoilers for The Last of Us S1E4, “Please Hold My Hand” (written by Neil Druckmann & Craig Mazin and directed by Jeremy Webb
After we wiped the collective tears from our eyes after Episode 3’s emotional Bill and Frank bottle story (“Long, Long Time”), we get back on the road with Joel and Ellie in Episode 4, “Please Hold My Hand.” After an instant classic like “Long, Long Time” the instant reaction typically is: What can Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann do to not only keep the positive momentum going, but also draw us back into Joel and Ellie’s journey after so much time away from them last week?
“Please Hold My Hand” is what often like to refer to as an Everest Expedition Episode, after the popular ride at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. Much of the first half of that ride is a wild, thrilling backward roller coaster that takes you through a makeshift Everest mountain. Riders then get a short, 20-second reprieve while the track resets and then everyone is propelled forward at a speed even faster than they knew before.
Considering what just happened in Episode 3, and what video game players likely know is ahead now that we’ve reached Kansas City, “Please Hold My Hand” is the 20-second reprieve while our track resets and we get mentally ready for the story to take some wild twists and turns ahead. “Please Hold My Hand” resets our playing field, introduces new and interesting players into the game, and grounds us in a new reality where Joel has to not only transport but also trust Ellie. And for as many strengths as Joel possesses in this fallen world, trust is not one of them.
That’s not to say that the pace of Episode 4 is slow or lethargic. Mazin and Druckmann manage to make a slow trip across an overgrown dystopia seem almost aspirational with the right mix of Ellie’s puns, 20-year-old Chef Boyardee ravioli, and road trip music that once again is the perfect needle drop to introduce a harrowing journey ahead. As Joel and Ellie hit the road to Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken,” it’s a harbinger of the lonely and troublesome road that lies ahead.
The first 18 minutes of the episode are designed to help build the relationship between Joel and Ellie, which is still troubled and transactional. Joel still refers to Ellie as “not family, just cargo” as they navigate west, stopping only to siphon gas and make camp each night. Google Maps tells me they would have 21 hours in the car together between Lincoln, Massachusetts and Kansas City, Missouri assuming normal conditions. They only have one Hank Williams tape and Ellie threw the porn magazine she found out the window, so the lone wolf and cub relationship between these two is about to get really good or really bad.
Things still seem to be status quo as the two approach Kansas City and face a roadblock to go through a tunnel that can quickly get them through the city. As Joel works his way around, being forced to drive through downtown Kansas City, what follows is almost a shot-for-shot, point-of-view race through town as a man who acts hurt tries to get them to stop and help. Their truck is immediately under attack by some unknown group of individuals and Joel and Ellie are eventually pinned down by three of these marauders.
As Ellie hides, Joel dispatches of two of them, but is attacked at close range by another. Cut to Ellie who is hiding in another room, and a devious smile creeps across her face. We’ve seen this smile before. At the end of Episode 1 when Joel beats a FEDRA officer to death, Ellie looks on with a mix of bewilderment and amusement. “Please Hold My Hand” opens with Ellie fidgeting with the gun she just stole from Bill and Frank’s house. She loads it, unloads it, points it at herself in the mirror, and we see this same mischievous smile again.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when Ellie only hesitates for a moment when Joel is attacked. She pulls out the very same gun and shoots Brian, the attacker, squarely in the back. Joel’s look to Ellie in the immediate aftermath is one of “how dare you, but God bless you!” Over the course of nine episodes this season and multiple seasons after this one, we might be able to look back at many, many times that the relationship between Joel and Ellie evolved, but if love is a ladder, then this moment where Ellie saves Joel’s life is the definitive first step.
Ellie and Joel through four episodes are still, however, walking in baby steps with each other. Mirroring how Joel dismissed Ellie’s get-to-know-you questions in Episode 2, Ellie will not talk about why she admits “it’s not my first time” when Joel questions whether or not she has harmed someone before in the way she just harmed Brian. Almost nothing is known of Ellie’s backstory at this point, other than the little crumbs she left for Tess and Joel. But somewhere in her years in “FEDRA school,” she has developed a dark side.
The death of Brian allows us a pathway to be introduced to Kathleen (played by Melanie Lynskey, who has much more authority and agency than her role in Yellowjackets!). Kathleen is the queen of a group of violent insurrectionists in Kansas City that are anti-FEDRA, anti-Fireflies, and anti-anyone who stands in their way. Our first exposure to her is interrogating a man who turns out to be her doctor and the man who delivered her when she was born. He won’t disclose information to Kathleen about the whereabouts of some of the group’s enemies, which earns him a cold-blooded bullet to the brain.
Mazin and Druckmann have said that Kathleen is an original character to the show, meant to be an amalgamation of some bad dudes Joel and Ellie encounter in Kansas City and also to provide some backstory to the group that ended up attacking them. She and her militaristic deputy, Perry (played by Jeffrey Pierce, who actually plays Tommy in the video game), are ruthless hunters, but also ruthless secret keepers.
Underneath one of the buildings downtown, something is growing. What it is, we do not know. How it will affect our characters, we can’t say. But in addition to a violent gang, something is percolating underneath the city, and I don’t think its Joel’s coffee that Ellie thinks smells like “burnt shit.”
As all that is happening on ground level, Joel and Ellie are hiding near the top of a 45-floor building, waiting until morning so they can scope out a path to leave the city. Before they drift off, the relationship between Joel and Ellie takes another step up the ladder as she finally gets him to laugh at one of her many puns. It’s the latest breakthrough between the two of them just as another break-in is happening. No Bill and Frank happy endings for Joel and Ellie on this night as they wake to the sight of a young man with a child pointing a gun at them.
Kansas City, also known as the “Heart of America,” is now beating at a rapid pace for every one of our characters. The next part of the roller coaster is just about to begin.
Questions After Episode 4:
- Game players are likely familiar with the characters introduced at the very end of Episode 4, but will they end up being friend or foe to Joel and Ellie?
- What exactly did Ellie do to harm someone violently before and what caused her to take that action?
- What is growing under the buildings in Kansas City and is it related to the fungal infection?
- Speaking of the infected, we have seen a single one in two episodes. Where are they? What role will they play in Joel and Ellie leaving Kansas City?