news ‘The Last of Us’ Episode 6 ‘Kin’ Gives the Show Something Else to Fight For

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Season 1, Episode 6, “Kin.”]

Time often gets lost in the apocalyptic soup. Either you lose track of the cultural and rhythmic markers of days and weeks and months or you start to adopt new ways to track them that match up with a changing world. Part of the appeal of “The Last of Us” is that it can have the infinite scroll of a neverending journey and the respites along the way that give the story shape. The wide mountains of Wyoming can stretch out beyond the horizon, but at an oasis, it’s Christmastime.

As this opening season reaches the two-thirds mark, “Kin” offers a glimpse of a potential future, one without state police forces or gunfights over scarce resources. So far, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) have had to make a choice between safety or human interaction. For a precious portion of this hour — directed by Jasmila Žbanić and written by series co-creator Craig Mazin — they get both.

Those come after the fulfillment of one of the season’s big objectives. Surviving a tense cordyceps-sniffing dog and a circle of horseback riders eager to snuff out wayward travelers, Joel and Ellie make it to Jackson, a tiny haven in the Wyoming wilderness where long-separated brothers are finally reunited. Joel and Tommy’s reunion moment is characteristically understated, not meant as a full counterbalance to all the death and sorrow that’s come before it. It’s two siblings with plenty to say to each other, enjoying a quick moment of happiness (and, to some extent, confusion) before they fill in the gaps later.

“The Last of Us” has had a restless season so far, hopping from place to place. You could argue it’s the closest thing the show has to hindrance so far, not being able to find purchase in any one location before things inevitably crumble. Either the truck gets totaled or the sinkhole opens up or the old friends have died. That unfamiliarity forces “The Last of Us” to have the same uneasiness that’s kept Joel alive, the resistance to staying in one location for too long. So far, it’s been easy to make that decision to move on.

The Last of Us Episode 6 Tommy Joel

“The Last of Us”

Liane Hentscher/HBO

Jackson represents a kind of cruel double-edged sword for Joel and Ellie. It’s the closest thing the two of them have had to something stable in their entire time together. It’s also the most viable point for the two of them to put down stakes and truly rest a while. But the whole purpose of them traveling together is to help find a cure and give plenty of other people a shot at the life the people of Jackson are already living. Joel and Ellie’s momentary happiness is coming at the expense of a potential theoretical happiness that could exist for so many others.

That dovetails nicely with a lot of what Ben Travers wrote about in his review of last week’s episode. “The Last of Us” is built on a foundation of priorities and sacrifices, one that affects everyone differently. Those value judgments don’t just extend to what people are willing to kill for in the present, but what of the past they’re willing to let through. Who are the people who try to keep it alive in the face of a new future and who are the people so haunted by it that they try to choke off every mention of it? Joel has spent 20 years trying to run from Outbreak Day. Tommy and his wife Maria (Rutina Wesley) make it so they can’t forget it.

I’ll leave it to more learned scholars of collective action to talk about the structure of Jackson and what that says about the show’s overall attitude about how and when certain kinds of societies are possible. The show does give Jackson its own unquantifiable currency. It’s the look on the faces of the children as they watch a Spielberg classic in a makeshift theater. (Crushed that those kids will never get to see his “West Side Story” remake.) It’s the trust in a rotating leadership that would put needs of the community over personal. And it’s hope itself, the idea that a global calamity doesn’t have to mean a series of new daily rock bottoms.

The matter-of-fact presentation of Jackson is where “Kin” benefits most from Žbanić’s steady hand. There’s some initial wonder when that door gets opened and Joel is at least a little happy to have some creature comforts back. But this isn’t the euphoria of Frank and Bill’s strawberries. If anything, Joel’s skeptical nature is keeping him from truly being at rest. The show’s ability to build out entire locations and live inside them is well-established at this point. It’s Žbanić’s eye that frames Jackson not as a utopia but a community of survivors. Her previous film “Quo Vadis, Aida?” — which details the 1995 massacre at Srebenica — is rooted firmly in the moments before, during, and after moments of horrific violence. By the end of the film, the past, present, and future all overlap, especially as the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina struggle with how exactly to move forward and how much to keep that tragedy present.

The Last of Us Episode 6 Maria

“The Last of Us”

Liane Hentscher/HBO

There’s an unspoken argument here in “Kin” that Jackson can only truly serve its people if people have a mutually understood relationship to the past. They honor it with living memorials and a promise to do right by the people still living (not to mention Maria and Tommy’s child still yet to come). Maria paints a portrait of Jackson as a community that thrives because everyone understands what they’re capable of. They know how many people they can accommodate. They know what they can handle, even in the brisk Rocky Mountain winters. Whether it’s the clarity from his travels or being around folks with that sharp sense of self-awareness, Joel senses his own limitations and offers up Tommy as Ellie’s travel partner for the last leg. Pascal plays that decision in a way that leaves room for Ellie to interpret it as giving up or embracing the comforts of Jackson.

The moment the two of them link back up in the stable, especially the timing of Ellie shoving the gear at Joel without a moment’s hesitation, is a reminder that the show does have a constant even if the scenery is always changing. Without that, the danger the two find on the abandoned Eastern Colorado campus is just a spooky haunted research lab and some guys lurking around outside. The idea that Joel is vulnerable after all (not many people walk away unscathed from a bout with a baseball bat handle dagger) is as much about the possibility of losing that partnership as it is losing Joel. There’s a shared expertise and a shared purpose that dies with Joel if he ends up bleeding out in the snow on I-25.

Until the answer arrives next week, it’s another end credits cover. This time, it’s an alternate version of the Depeche Mode song that closed out the premiere. If this other “Never Let Me Down Again” is a true bookend, the biggest question is what really ended on that Bighorns campus, even if Joel manages to pull through.

Grade: A-​

“The Last of Us” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max.