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HBO’s The Last of Us brought in a fan-favorite game character in a different way

And why is he pointing a gun at Joel and Ellie?

Keivonn Woodard as Sam in The Last of Us on HBO Image: HBO
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

HBO’s The Last of Us ends its fourth episode with a cliffhanger — Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) waking up to guns in their face, one of which is being held by a child with a drawn-on, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-style eye mask.

It’s a continuation of a violent welcome to Kansas City: They’re only there for a few minutes and everyone’s immediately trying to kill them. The city is no longer controlled by the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA), instead overrun by a ruthless group of rebels called the Hunters, and they shoot on sight. But the Hunters aren’t only after Ellie and Joel — in fact, they don’t even know they’re there yet. The Hunters, led by Melanie Lynskey’s Kathleen, are desperately searching for a mysterious person named Henry (Lamar Johnson), someone she thinks got her brother killed.

The episode doesn’t give much context as to who this mysterious Henry is, and doesn’t even mention Sam (Keivonn Woodard), but The Last of Us players will immediately recognize the name.

[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for The Last of Us game and potentially the show.]

Henry and Sam are the beloved brother duo from The Last of Us, originally showing up in the Pittsburgh section for one of the most heartbreaking stories in the game. Ellie and Joel skip right over Pittsburgh in their journey west, heading instead to Kansas City, Missouri. The show’s creators have reimagined most of the Pittsburgh parts into the Kansas City episode, including Henry and Sam. Surely we’ll learn more about them in episode 5, but thanks to the game, we’ve already got context on what could happen.

In the game, Ellie and Joel are ambushed by Henry and Sam in an apartment building in Pittsburgh. Joel slides through a window and is grabbed by Henry. Henry attacks, thinking that Joel might be a Hunter. Joel gets quite a few punches (and Ellie tries to slash him with her knife) before they notice Sam pointing a gun at them. Henry quickly realizes that they’re not with the Hunters; the Hunters don’t keep kids around, because it’s the “survival of the fittest,” Henry says.

They quickly agree to join up and head toward Henry and Sam’s hideout, where we learn a lot more about their background. On the way to their hideout — an office building — the group of four have to hide inside a toy store. It’s a poignant moment; Ellie and Sam are kids, and they’ve been deprived of a normal childhood. It’s still novel for them to be in a toy store at all. There’s one particularly heartbreaking moment when Sam’s looking at a Transformer toy and Henry tells him to stop — they can only take what they need.

There’s a lot of action and fighting through the city, both with people and infected. But more important than that, we learn a lot about Henry and Sam — two characters who quickly became fan favorites. They’re from Hartford, Connecticut, and have been traveling since they left the Hartford quarantine zone after things collapsed there. Like Ellie and Joel, they were ambushed when they entered Pittsburgh. With their group scattered, Henry and Sam are alone and have been dodging the Hunters since, trying to get out of the city.

Back at the hideout, The Last of Us slows down and lets the group linger in conversation and levity. Henry and Joel talk about motorcycles. Ellie and Sam open up to each other about being afraid. Their relationships mirror each other. Ellie gives Sam that toy he was looking at, and his response is shocking: He throws it, and shows that he’s been bitten. The next morning, he’s turned — and attacks Ellie. When Joel tries to shoot him, Henry stops him and does it himself. He turns the gun on Joel, blaming him, before shooting himself.

It’s a shocking moment, coming so quickly after the lightness of the previous night. There is no arguing that the scene is heartbreaking, and developer Naughty Dog was criticized after The Last of Us’ release for using Black characters in this way, repeatedly. It happens multiple times in The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part 2, and the developer never considers how the story is reflected to the viewer, who lives in a world where Black lives are systemically devalued. Some argue that The Last of Us is a tragic story where a lot of people die, including marginalized people — that the representation is an overall win. But it comes back to the cruelty of how marginalized people, especially Black characters in the games, are killed off: Henry and Sam spend a significant amount of time as heroes, saving Ellie and Joel a few times over. But for Ellie and Joel to survive, Naughty Dog found that Henry and Sam had to die.

HBO’s The Last of Us may adjust this storyline, like it did with its Bill and Frank episode. We won’t know, however, until the fifth episode airs next week.

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