If you find yourself saying kids “die all the time” and saving them is “f***ing with fate” so you can justify murdering children you are no longer a person. At that point you’ve become a monster indistinguishable from The Last of Us‘ Infected. That’s a moniker Melanie Lynskey’s Kathleen certainly earned by the end of her time on the show. There’s no defending or equivocating any of her actions. But just because we can’t defend her doesn’t mean we can’t empathize with how she got to that point. Because Kathleen’s failings—which were also her greatest strengths—aren’t monstrous. They’re all too human.
Kathleen’s total loss of humanity began long before we met her. She lived in Kansas City’s Quarantine Zone, an area dubbed Killer City because of FEDRA’s brutal regime. The fascist group’s crimes were so notorious Joel had heard about them in Boston, a city also suffocating under FEDRA. But Kansas City’s sect was especially heinous. Henry said for 20 years that FEDRA outpost “raped and tortured and murdered people.” That inevitability led to an uprising spearheaded by Kathleen’s brother Michael, the man Henry and others once believed in.
We never met Michael, but we know Kathleen’s protector was everything she was not. “He was so beautiful,” Kathleen said. “I’m not. I never was. He would be horrified by the things I’ve done.” The things she did included merciless executions of friends and neighbors who collaborated with FEDRA. She also allowed the bloodbath her people exacted on soldiers. The crimes of Kathleen’s “free people” were as terrible and inexcusable as anything the military organization ever did.
Michael never saw FEDRA’s collapse because Henry betrayed him to save Sam. The cost of leukemia drugs was the resistance leader’s life. Henry paid it despite thinking his decision was indefensible. Unlike Kathleen’s insatiable desire to kill both Henry and Sam, we can not only understand what Henry did, we might even agree with his choice even if he couldn’t. Henry, a good man with a good heart, carried the guilt of his leader’s death with him for the rest of his short life. Michael didn’t want that. He didn’t even want his sister to seek revenge. His dying wish was for her to forgive Henry.
Joel, a man who has also done unforgivable things, is fulfilling Tess’s dying wish by taking Ellie to safety. The best of Tess is bringing out the best in Joel, who has a purpose bigger than himself. But Kathleen couldn’t fulfill her brother’s. She didn’t want to even if she could. “The last time I saw [Michael] alive, in jail, he told me to forgive,” she said. “And what did he get for that? Where is the justice in that? What is the point of that?”
Because she didn’t have the same good heart as her brother, Kathleen couldn’t understand what Michael did in his final moments. He knew Henry was put in an impossible spot. Michael also knew his life was no more valuable than Sam’s. And he knew forgiveness is one of the most humane things we can do, while seeking vengeance sends us down a dark path that rots the soul.
Michael was the type of person we should want to be. But his kind heart was also responsible for his failures. Sometimes you need a vengeful, hyper-focused asshole to get things done. When fighting a war against an amoral enemy—of which Kansas City’s FEDRA qualified—you need a general to lead the way. And everything that made Michael a good person stopped him from doing what needed to be done. As Perry said to Kathleen, “Your brother was a great man. We all loved him. But he didn’t change anything. You did. We’re with you.”
Kathleen freed her people, not Michael. She used her rage to organize them and lead their cause. As Orlando Jones’ Mr. Nancy said on American Gods, “Angry is good. Angry gets shit done.” But just like Michael couldn’t stop being kind, Kathleen couldn’t stop being angry even when she won. And without her brother, her guiding light and moral compass, she had no one to pull her back from the darkness. Her closest friend Perry took every step down that road with her. He, along with the rest of those “free people,” couldn’t overcome the scars and pain accrued over 20 unimaginably painful years.
Can we blame them? Especially when Kathleen showed them what embracing their anger could accomplish? How many of us would be willing to show our enemies mercy under those circumstances? And how many of us, even under the best of circumstances, could truly forgive a man responsible for the death of the person we loved most? Life conspired against Kathleen to make her a monster. It gave her and everyone around her too much grief and anger and sadness to handle. Then it took away the anchor that kept her moored to her humanity. That’s how you end up at the point of wanting to kill innocent children.
By the time Infected rose from the ground and that Cordyceps child attacked Kathleen, she was no longer a human. She was a monster, same as them, a monster who doomed the very people she saved. All the good she did died with her and caused so many more needless deaths. And that happened because she couldn’t forgive one single person, a man who loved his brother, too.
What could Kathleen and Michael have accomplished together if she had used her own skills while he was still alive? Once the general won the war what kind of world could a kind, merciful, beloved leader have created for the victors? They needed each other to do great things. Like everyone living in a shattered world they needed to find purpose in another. Once there was no one for Kathleen to find purpose in—and no one to find purpose in her and not just her cause—she lost her humanity. Once her brother died it seemed like she never had a chance to keep it.
No one can defend Kathleen or what she did. She’s no hero and no one who was “with her” is even left to mourn her death. But unlike the Infected, controlled by a fungus, she became a monster for a far scarier reason: she was all too human.
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.