The Last of Us S1E5 Recap: “Endure and Survive” — Our Perfect Box

Henry and Sam hide from Kathleen and the Hunters in The Last of Us S1E5
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

The following recap contains spoilers for The Last of Us S1E5, “Endure and Survive” (written by Craig Mazin and directed by Jeremy Webb)

Ever since Bela Lugosi introduced the world to the “Z” word in White Zombie (1932) and George Romero popularized the undead with Night of the Living Dead (1968), the genre has had one consistent theme: survival. In a world that’s overrun by zombies, you don’t seek to thrive, you seek to survive. You do what you can to fight another day. The rest of the hierarchy of needs doesn’t matter when your life is at stake anytime you take a step outside.

But the more recent iterations of the post-apocalyptic genre, including The Last of Us, have begun to dive into the idea of what it means to survive. After you have figured out how to sustain your life, does that mean you are actually living? Episode 5, “Endure and Survive,” travels down that existential road once more as we look at what enduring and surviving means from the perspective of multiple characters, and how they all push Joel into a deeper understanding of the idea that merely surviving is insufficient. The people and purpose we hold onto are what help us truly live.

Ellie and Joel talk to Henry about a plan to escape
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

When we first see Joel after the gut-punch of the first act in Episode 1, he has survived for 20 years, but he is not alive. After losing his daughter, Sarah, he closed himself off from any connection, empathy, or relationships. He’s the man who volunteers to burn the dead bodies because he is so detached from the living. In “Infected,” Tess—the one person with whom Joel has a semi-functional relationship—begs him to save Ellie, who somehow represents hope and a future in a fallen world. Bill’s farewell letter to Joel in Episode 3 helps Joel to see how much he and Bill were alike and that even though Bill thought he was happy when everyone died, he eventually understood his purpose was to protect, even if it was just one man.

When Joel and Ellie open their eyes to guns drawn on them at the end of Episode 4 and the beginning of Episode 5, they wake up in a Kansas City world full of people trying to figure out what it means to survive in the midst of chaos. Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard), brothers on the run from Kathleen’s vicious revolutionaries, tracked Joel and Ellie into the office building after witnessing Joel kill several of Kathleen’s soldiers the day before. The brothers, in a way, are designed in the game and in the television show to be mirror of Joel and Ellie, but the brothers’ relationship is at a level of trust and love that Joel and Ellie have yet to unlock.

Sam and Henry hide from Kathleen in an attic
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Through a brief backstory, we see the desperation that Henry feels as he and Sam spend 10 days hiding in a musty attic, drawing superheroes, and waiting for the right time to escape the city before Joel and Ellie roll into town and throw things into even more disarray. Henry feels Joel and Ellie represent the muscle that can help “clear the way” for them to all escape via the only viable route Henry knows to safety. The trust and reliance on others that has been a foreign language to Joel for years now will have to be the one thing that will help them survive a violent group of insurrectionists out for Henry and Joel’s blood.

Henry, it turns out, is the right man to trust in these type of situations. He was a disciple of a “beautiful” and “forgiving” man who also turned out to be “a great leader.” That man also turned out to be Kathleen’s brother, Michael, and the former leader of the resistance against the raping, murdering, “Fascist” FEDRA that were apparently over-the-top brutal in Kansas City. But when eight-year-old Sam (who is deaf) was diagnosed with leukemia, FEDRA wanted Michael in exchange for the only drugs that would save Sam’s life. Henry, knowing he would survive if Sam were to die but would have no other purpose in life, made the trade, leading to Michael’s death. This lights the fire of rage under Kathleen as she sets her sights on the man who took away her purpose, her reason for surviving.

Henry confesses to Joel that he knows he is a “bad guy who did bad guy things.” But all Henry is guilty of is knowing Sam was his purpose and Henry’s own survival meant nothing if he had no purpose to live for. For as great a man as Michael was, protecting Sam’s life was worth whatever price Henry might eventually have to pay.

Perry and Kathleen discuss how they will find Henry
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

To help us better understand the type of person Michael was, we see Kathleen take a brief reprieve from killing captured collaborators and a door-to-door Henry manhunt. When she visits the room she and Michael grew up in, she confides in her number two, Perry, just how long Michael had been protecting her. When they were children growing up in the same room, he would comfort Kathleen during storms, telling her that their room was “our perfect box,” and nothing could get inside to hurt them. Michael, from the time they were both young, protected, nurtured, and guided Kathleen. He kept her safe inside that perfect box they built, so when he died and she was forced to break out of the box, there was no one left to help hide her violent tendencies.

Michael, who was Kathleen’s protector, also protected others from her. After FEDRA kills him, it unleashes a side of Kathleen that will not stop or rest until those that betrayed her and her brother are exterminated. She tracks Henry, along with Sam, Joel, and Ellie, to the edges of the city where she finally will have a moment to enact some vengeance on Henry and anyone who is a collaborator with him. She also tells Henry she will not let Sam and Ellie go free even though they are just kids. Knowing what Henry did by swapping Michael for medicine, she confronts Henry, asking, “you think the whole world revolves around Sam? That he is worth everything?”

The answer to this question—which we know without Henry even saying it—is a clear and resounding, “Yes!”

In a world stripped of meaning, beauty, and hope, those that we love and those that we must protect are worth everything. They are why we must survive. They are our purpose.

It’s no surprise then, that when the infected (who were the source of the mysterious percolating underground in Episode 4) show up, we see Joel seek out Ellie and protect her while a battle between the revolutionaries and the infected breaks out that makes the wall-scaling scene from World War Z look like a preschool play date. Ellie then seeks out Henry and Sam, surely with Tess’s words ringing in her ears (“Save who you can save”), and is able to protect them and get them to Joel and eventually to safety while Kathleen, Perry, and their army are ripped to shreds by clickers, bloaters, and the only force more brutal than Kathleen’s desire for revenge.

As the episode ends, a series that has thrown real emotional bombs at its audience delivers maybe the most devastating one yet. Sam was bitten. And he is afraid. After Ellie’s makeshift blood transfusion doesn’t work, Sam attacks her and Henry is forced to do the unthinkable. The weight of having to kill his younger brother instantly paralyzes Henry as he realizes his purpose, his meaning, and his reason to survive is gone. With Sam gone, Henry’s life was over even before he turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger.

The perfect box that Henry was trying to build for he and Sam was broken. There was no one left for Henry to protect, and no more reason to survive. But with each day that goes by, the box that Joel is building for he and Ellie gets a little stronger, and a little more complete. The remaining four episodes of this first season will surely be spent showing Joel continue his complete transformation from surviving to living. And allowing himself to feel something again after all that he lost 20 years ago.

Written by Ryan Kirksey

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