The Last of Us‘s fourth episode introduced an entirely new figure to the franchise, Melanie Lynskey’s Kathleen. The character’s first scene presented her as someone worth rooting for, a leader of free people interrogating a man who betrayed others to the fascist group Kathleen helped overthrow. By episode’s end, it wasn’t clear she’s any different from the coldblooded FEDRA she deposed. How should we feel about someone like that? That question is one of the biggest The Last of Us is asking. But the answer is not a matter of determining where the line between good and evil lies in a godforsaken world. It’s a matter of whether or not those concepts even exist when humanity doesn’t.
Kathleen didn’t get the information she wanted from her former doctor, but their conversation revealed a lot about what led both of them to that moment. FEDRA made people like him sell out friends and neighbors by giving them an unimaginable choice: their life or someone else’s. Some inevitably chose their own, even a doctor sworn to protect others from harm. That’s how Kathleen’s brother ended up beaten to death inside a FEDRA containment unit. A man named Henry gave him up.
The doctor wouldn’t tell her Henry’s location, even when Kathleen put a gun to his head. Unlike when FEDRA did the same thing, he didn’t believe Kathleen would kill him. He thought the woman he helped give birth to would never sink to FEDRA’s amoral depths. The doctor had faith in her as a good person. Minutes later, when he was of no immediate help, Kathleen shot him. She didn’t give him final chance to save himself or say goodbye to his loved ones. He died alone in that containment unit same as her brother.
Keeping a doctor around would have been wise, just as letting him live would have shown mercy. But in that moment of anger and sadness over her friends’ deaths it was possible to understand and possibly even forgive Kathleen for her ruthless vengeance. But everything else that followed showed just how wrong the doctor was about her. She’s no better than FEDRA. Kathleen used those deaths as an excuse to launch a massive manhunt for Henry. She lied to her people that Henry must have called in “outsiders” to hurt them. But we know it was her people who attacked Joel and Ellie without provocation. She leads a group that murders innocent victims for supplies while they drive around in armored trucks painted “We The People.”
If there was any remaining reason to sympathize with Kathleen and her cause that ended when we learned why Henry is hiding from her: he’s protecting a child named Sam. We don’t know their exact relationship (on the show) yet, but Sam’s drawings told us plenty. Sam needs Henry, his very own superhero. That might be why Henry sold out Kathleen’s brother in the first place. His purpose in this wasteland is to protect Sam, same as Bill’s purpose was to protect Frank and Joel’s new purpose is to protect Ellie. No one faulted Bill for burning people alive to keep Frank safe. Nor would anyone fault Joel for killing the men who ambushed him and Ellie. Can we fault Henry for handing someone over to FEDRA if it meant staying alive for Sam’s sake?
We know Joel wouldn’t. In this episode he told Ellie why he fights on in a world he thinks is hopeless. “You keep going for family. That’s about it,” he said. Joel is no different from Kathleen and her group when it comes to how you protect your own, either. “We did what we needed to survive,” Joel told Ellie about his past actions. It’s how he recognized the “I’m hurt” scam. He used to use it himself. And since he wouldn’t answer Ellie when she asked if that included killing innocent people, we truly know why Tess said her and Joel are not good people.
Learning about Joel’s prior actions probably won’t make many viewers stop liking him. Especially because we know what happened to him and his daughter. It’s easier to forgive and empathize with him because of what we know of his life. But anyone who has survived this world—from Kathleen and her doctor, to Henry and the soldiers of FEDRA—all lost people, too. No one survives the apocalypse without scars that fundamentally change them as people. Are they really any different from Joel? Is it fair to root for or against them when we can’t deny there’s no difference between perceived heroes and perceived villains?
What’s the ethical difference between FEDRA killing individuals to keep the QZ safe versus a group that murders innocent people for their food and supplies so they can live? Is their a distinction between a grieving sister who seeks vengeance and a man desperate to keep his vulnerable brother safe no matter what that takes? And what does morality matter when the world ensures all of our choices lead to someone’s death? The Last of Us isn’t asking us to answer these questions because no one can when right and wrong no longer exist. Instead the show is asking us to confront something much darker. It’s asking us to confront the fact that when humans face annihilation our humanity will die long before we do.
We’ll probably never face that truth because of a Cordyceps infection. But we might because we launch bombs powerful enough to wipe out most of mankind. Or because we won’t make sacrifices today to save our own planet’s future. Whatever the reason, The Last of Us is making clear people like Joel, Kathleen, and Henry that the only way to avoid living in a world without ethics or morals is to act with them when we still have the chance.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.