Our time in Kansas City has come to an end with the conclusion of what may be the season’s only two part story. Last week’s episode had disappointment by way of attempts at humanizing the raiders dubbed Hunters. We got more of that, which continued to fall flat, but not before we are introduced to the brother duo of Henry and Sam.
The boys get a twenty-ish minute flashback that gives their struggle some context. We see the aftermath of liberating the quarantine zone, which comes off far more like a party than pillaging. It actually disconnected me from the setting until we saw a body dragged through the streets with knifes jutting out of its chest. The whiplash I experienced here threw me off the Hunters even more.
Henry and Sam are tweaked. Both come are younger than their in-game counter parts, and Sam is also deaf, which isn’t from the source. Henry is less experienced, but swift, smart, and bold, if not rash. When the brothers’ supplies run low, Henry prepares to try and leave the city. He witnesses Joel’s laundry mat encounter and knows that he could be their savior.
We then get this melding of the sewers and Pittsburgh as the four fugitives skulk their way through the tunnels of Kansas City. Shifting to television, most gameplay chunks are stripped away (except for two choice moments later in the episode). One cut was the sewer encounters and Ish’s community. The underground threat is established by Henry, but the tunnels are clear for the crew. We get no separation of Joel and Ellie and learn little of the horrors that happened down below the surface. It’s a scene that is robbed – partially if you know what you are missing – but the foursome is robbed of any real time to grow.
They try with underground soccer and brooding side conversations, but there just isn’t enough time for the relationships to take root. Cutting Sam’s age down by five years (from 13 to 8) feels like a cheap method of nixing the need for growth. Ellie feels more like a caretaker than a friend to Sam. Henry only opens up about his failures and dedication to his brother. We don’t see the motorcycle daydreaming, barbecue loving man. With their fate sealed by the end of the episode, they are gone just as swiftly as they appeared. I wish they could have been introduced last week more fully. The cuts from the game are felt this week in a way I think impacts both players and newcomers. There just isn’t enough time to even mourn Sam and Henry.
On the Hunter side of things, Kathleen was introduced last week, but I feel like the show really struggled to give her humanity. They tried with the childhood bedroom (which was far more clean and intact than I would have expected), but the act of “tell don’t show” falls flat here.1 Her older brother, who led the resistance, is too ethereal. The audience is painting up pictures of an infallible leader as the characters reminisce, including Henry. These somber images fail to engage the audience emotionally though. The driving force behind Kathleen is dead and empty, presumably just like her brother is now.
The best part of the episode, turns out, was the most gamified part of the show to date. The house sniper and hoard are put on full display. This is the biggest set piece in the show so far and HBO went all out. We see Joel flank a sniper with deft observation and assertion. Joel asking the man to just walk away gives the audience a peek at the softness inside. His mask of firmness falls away revealing an exhausted man, tired of killing others.
The victory against the sniper is short lived as Kathleen and her goons roll up with the infamous “Run” truck from the game, which doesn’t last very long as Joel caps the driver. This gives Kathleen a moment for her obsession to evolve into full-blown evil as she intends to kill a deaf eight-year-old boy, a fourteen-year old girl, and Henry: Proof of just how far gone she is, how unwaveringly loyal her crew is, and establishes that the true horror is humanity.
Kathleen never gets to go for broke though, as the truck collapses into the earth and unleashes the hoard of Infected that were forced underground years ago, according to Henry. This is a great concept realized. The Bloater emerges like a mutated nightmare, leading waves of Clickers and Runners. The scariest creature of the bunch though was the child-Clicker that pursues Ellie inside a locked mini van. It’s a path the games have never gone down, and it pays off in spades here as tragic and horrifying. It’s this kid, likely between the ages of eight and fourteen, that ends up murdering Kathleen.
Safe in a motel, we are treated to a scene between Ellie and Sam. This is where Sam’s age difference is most effective. The fear of turning into a monster takes hold as he confides in his new friend. Ellie doesn’t go tell the others or act scared. She pivots into that caretaker mode and offers Sam hope. She reveals her immunity and promises her blood is a cure of sorts. She immediately cuts open her hand and presses the blood into Sam’s wound. She promises to stay up with Sam as he drifts off to sleep, fear combated with hope.
It’s a remarkable scene, one that shows how selfless Ellie can be. She is adamant about helping people. This is groundwork done right. I think even Ellie believes her own lie a bit, as she stays (somewhat) true to her word and stays with Sam all night. The hopeful relief on her face in the morning light followed by fear crashing down upon her is gripping.
The rest of the scene plays out like the game. We see the burial mentioned in the game, but more importantly, we see Ellie act a little bit like Joel. She’s quiet, hurt, and wants to leave immediately. She has no desire to talk about the morning. Best to get along and forget, at least for the time being. Are more seeds being planted here? If so, what fruit will they bare?
As we march off into the back half of the season, I wonder what payoffs we’ll see come to light. This entire season was written without season two being locked in. This had to stand alone, if the studios said no—not unlike the original game. The writers and directors have deviated bit by bit, week by week. As we enter the part of the season for harvest, I wonder what Joel will look like at the end. How will Ellie behave during the trials to come? There are only four more episodes left. It’s due time for HBO to reap what they have sown.
What an episode filled with and surrounded by contrast. Lots of highs and lows, which I hope I articulated above. I really enjoyed the action focus and haven’t stopped thinking about that kid Clicker all week. As the show goes in to the Fall and Winter seasons, I am curious to see what the reception will be to what’s on deck. It’s cultural moments like these that make me miss Twitter. C’est la vie. Before I go, here are a few observations from the episode that didn’t make the cut above.
- I mentioned Henry’s lack of experience above. It’s interesting to have him never kill before. It seems like he’s lived in KC the entire time too. I suppose that makes his betrayal sting all the more. My big takeaway though was the term they used for snitch—a collaborator. Joel knew this term immediately. It gives the QZs and world a more connected feeling. This term has risen up socially to mean a snitch to FEDRA. Subtle, linguistic world building.
- The Ish and Danny art is straight from the game. The story, not so much. That room is a spot-on recreation of the room with all the Stalkers in it. Ish was robbed in the show. Such a good side story, that I know could have never been fully explored in the TV show. I would have traded Kansas City for a Tunnels/Sewer two parter. Definitely would have given Sam and Henry more time to develop.
- Obviously, the best part of the episode was Perry (aka Tommy from the games) getting the iconic Bloater kill done to him. What a way to end a cameo. RIP. 😬
1. This little scene also implies that Kathleen and her family have lived in Kansas City since before the outbreak. They’ve somehow maintained living in their original home, or at least access to it. I like the concept of people that stayed put during the outbreak, especially in contrast to our heroes who are traveling across the country.