The Last of Us Podcast recap – Episode 5

The Last of Us creators discuss casting a deaf actor, the morality of the Kansas City militia, and the troubles with VFX and making TV.
HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast – Episode 5 Recap – ‘Endure and Survive’

Episode 5 of The Last of Us HBO centres on the heart-wrenching story and wider introduction of Henry and Sam – two brothers Joel and Ellie encounter in the first game, portrayed on screen by Lamar Johnson (Henry), and Keivonn Woodard (Sam). 

This episode also showcases the motivations of a new faction audiences met previously in Episode 4, the Kansas City Militia, delving into the backstory of the group’s resistance leader Kathleen (Melanie Lynksey), and exploring the dynamics and characterisation of her right-hand man, Perry (Jeffrey Pierce). 

In this recap of HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast Episode 5, we’ll recount some of the core behind-the-scenes efforts that went into producing the series, as well as this episode’s more emotional and impactful moments as discussed by Showrunners Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), Neil Druckmann (Creative Director on The Last of Us Part I & II), and host of the podcast Troy Baker (Joel’s original voice and motion capture actor on The Last of Us Part I & II), as well as compare and contrast the HBO adaptation to the base games. 

HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast – Episode 5 Recap – ‘Endure and Survive’ 

Representing Sam as a deaf character in the HBO adaptation

The Last of Us HBO portrays Sam (Keivonn Woodard) as a deaf character, and the team spoke to the efforts made in representing this correctly, as well as what inspired the decision to include this deviation for the series. 

HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast – Episode 5 Recap – ‘Endure and Survive’
Image: HBO / Binge

Mazin explained the change came from an initial worry he had that the mode of communication shown between Joel and Ellie would be repeated in other relationships, which led to conversations about what Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam’s conversations would look like in isolation – as in the first game, the player does not spend time with these characters outside of their interactions with Joel and Ellie.

The team wanted Henry and Sam’s mode of communication to distance itself from the theme of ‘exasperated father figure’ and ‘concerned child figure’, and also spoke to the importance of portraying Sam as slightly younger in the series, to convey that, ‘Ellie would have somebody that could look up to her… the way that she looked up to Joel.’

Mazin said he had been thinking about the themes presented in This Close (created by Shoshannah Stern and Joshua Feldman) – a series which centres on two best friends, who are both deaf, as they navigate love, family relationships, work life in Los Angeles, and approach situations as deaf people surrounded by hearing individuals.

The team went on to hire Shoshannah Stern to review scripts on HBO’s The Last of Us, as a way to make sure they ‘weren’t making mistakes’ regarding how Sam was represented. Mazin pointed out a similar ‘cultural review’ he had undertaken when creating Chernobyl, as he had shown episodes of the show to people who had grown up in Soviet Ukraine – the setting in which the series is based – for feedback.  

Mazin said that before casting Keivonn Woodard, they had found little luck with their initial casting call, as not everyone who responded met every requirement of being a black child between the ages of 8-11, shorter in height than Ellie (Bella Ramsay), deaf, fluent in ASL (American Sign Language), and able to act on screen. Mazin also explained that some actors were more fluent in BASL (Black American Sign Language), or lip reading, and mentioned the first casting call spoke to a ‘pipeline problem’ in finding young actors as opposed to children not knowing the skills. 

HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast – Episode 5 Recap – ‘Endure and Survive’
Image: HBO / Binge

They then decided to take the casting call to Twitter and received five auditions in response, which included the likes of Keivonn Woodard. Mazin said:

‘Keivonn wasn’t just the best of the five, he was astonishing… I have never been in a circumstance where a kid, who has never really acted on film before, shows up and is so naturally good at it and is a joy to have around. He was just a dream, still to this day I am kind of puzzled by it.’

Mazin spoke to Lamar Johnson’s efforts in learning sign language for the series, as he mentioned one of the opening moments in Episode 5 – where Henry and Sam are hiding out in an attic – was filmed on a Monday, and Johnson had learned sign language for those scenes over the weekend.

Mazin also explained that CJ Jones – who is a deaf actor and acting teacher the team had met through Shoshana Stern – was also hired as the ‘sort of head of ASL.’ Jones acted as both a communication liaison between the crew and Woodard, and an acting coach to both Woodard and Johnson, and after reviewing takes would direct Johnson on how to achieve the proper speed and fluidity to effectively communicate what was being signed. 

Mazin added, ‘It was really important to Lamar that anyone watching this who was deaf and fluent in ASL, or not deaf and fluent in ASL, would not point their finger and go “nope, fake”. And [Lamar] just was that smart and that good, it was almost scary.’

Deviations from gameplay sequences & The inclusion of Ish’s storyline

One of the more emotional deviations from the games depicted in Episode 5 was shown during a scene in which Joel, Ellie, Henry, and Sam are evading a sniper who is aiming through the window of a house in a cul-de-sac. 

Druckmann explained that when they had originally written this sequence in the first game, the sniper was written as a more antagonistic foe, and would yell at the player ‘riling’ them up, so that when Joel did eventually enter the house he would have no qualms with unleashing on him. 

HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast – Episode 5 Recap – ‘Endure and Survive’
Image: HBO / Binge

Mazin explained that changing this character to an elderly man with terrible aim due to his inability to see clearly wasn’t done to subvert expectations, but instead brought a sadness to the moment, and they understood they ‘weren’t going to get the same value from presenting the action the way that the gameplay did.’

They also spoke to the inclusion of an impactful side storyline told in the first game through environmental clues – the tale of Ish and his safehouse. 

Druckmann explained that while there are many moments within the series that expand on and enrich the game, this was an example ‘where the game enriches the show’. He said that whilst the adaptation couldn’t tell the story in the same way, ‘we wanted to honour that this place existed and it felt like this was a way to reflect back on these characters and the journey they’re going through now.’

Mazin also added that after playing the first game, ‘I remember being so surprised and delighted by discovering that… abandoned underground colony in the tunnels, so there was no question that we needed to see it, it was important.’

‘The fact that Ellie and Sam can play soccer and that Joel and Henry have a chance to have a “Dad Talk” in this weird, brief respite of safety and sanity was incredibly important to me. I needed to see it.’

‘We could absolutely do a standalone Ish episode, but I think where we landed was it’s better to tip our hats to Ish.’

Visual effects efforts and technical aspects 

The team also spoke to the extensive visual effects that were undertaken for the HBO adaptation, as the crew had built a large majority of practical, real life sets for the series. 

Mazin explained that there was a large, empty lot next to the main stages where they were filming at CFC Calgary Film Centre, and they knew that they would need ‘total control’ of the space in order to choreograph gunfire, burns, motor vehicle stunts, as well as extras in and around the scenes. 

They had shown rough images to members of the art and construction department – taken from both the video game and real life Kansas City neighbourhoods – as inspiration for the cul-de-sac they wanted to build, and Mazin explained the team worked at ‘light speed’ to construct this, onboarding actual home builders for the undertaking. 

HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast – Episode 5 Recap – ‘Endure and Survive’
Image: HBO / Binge

The team also spoke to the incredible efforts of New Zealand based digital effects company Wētā FX, and Mazin noted VFX Supervisor Alex Wong became a vital member of the team over the course of production. Druckmann added that Wong had left a previous project to commence work on The Last of Us HBO because of the love he had for the game. 

Mazin added: ‘Right now the world is kind of dealing with a visual effects shortage… everybody is using more and more visual effects to help produce and tell stories to the point where there aren’t enough artists on the planet to fulfil all the demand of content, especially as content has exploded on television.’

‘When you reach out to these companies you are not necessarily just haggling over price, at some point you’re just like “do you want to work on this?” Because they have their choice, and then there obviously are levels of expertise within companies.’

Mazin also spoke to the ‘phenomenal’ work Wētā FX produced in creating scenes depicting the infected, as well as the surrounding moments that centred on the creatures.

Mazin explained the team knew they wanted to include a massive set piece involving all of the infected in Episode 5, and this came to life in the form of every member of the infected – who were driven underground into tunnels by FEDRA – busting out of the ground in a climactic scene.

He added that Kathleen’s (Melanie Lynkey) faction were also part of the threat during this moment, as the audience had ‘come to understand that even though FEDRA was terrible, they were providing this one service’, and now that the Kansas City Militia had effectively eliminated them, it was a moment to communicate this threat even further.

Mazin took inspiration from ant colonies when thinking of the infected living in the tunnels, saying that it was a terrifying prospect that if one spot in the colony was popped open in one place, all of the ants would essentially start tunnelling through that new area. He also referenced a moment in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in which thousands of goblins come skittering down massive columns ‘like spiders’ in the Mines of Moria, and the idea of the infected ‘belching forth’ out of the earth was appealing to him.

HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast – Episode 5 Recap – ‘Endure and Survive’
Image: HBO / Binge

The team also spoke to the introduction of the ‘child clicker’, a new variant of infected presented in Episode 5. Druckmann added that one of the original designers who worked on creating the clickers at Naughty Dog was brought on to help design this new variant for the adaptation.

Mazin praised the work of the young contortionist actress Skye Cowton, stating it was a combination of her performance and Wētā FX drafting off of what was already presented with prosthetics that communicated this character so effectively. Mazin also suggested the ‘child clicker’ wear a Blues Clues shirt, as he loved ‘the contrast of innocence and horror’.

Mazin also pointed to an ‘overly ambitious’ visual effects idea he had in regards to Perry’s death, as he initially envisioned a bloater would rip Perry apart at the waist, as opposed to beheading him. He explained that the further the VFX team worked on this, they quickly realised it wasn’t physically possible to emulate, and that ‘Neil [Druckmann]… was correct in suggesting that something that felt more grounded anatomically would be more effective.’

Either way… gross! 

Kathleen death and her moral compass

Lastly, the team elaborated on the character of Kathleen, how her faction was represented, and the moral ambiguities behind her actions.

Mazin touched on the quiet terror Melanie Lynskey tapped into in her portrayal of Kathleen, and how this quality was her ultimate sense of power, saying:

‘What if a kindergarten teacher were in charge of the terror of the French revolution… Just because you’re sweet on the outside doesn’t mean you don’t have the capacity for terrible anger and vengeance in your heart.’

Image: HBO / Binge

The team also spoke to Kathleen’s success in freeing her faction, as despite her arguably dark motivations, she still managed to build trust within her community, with Mazin explaining:

‘[The Kansas City Militia] are free because somebody with darkness in her said, “we’re gonna do whatever it takes”, and when somebody frees you like that you tend to trust them and you tend to follow them all the way to the bitter end.’

Druckmann added: ‘It also kind of sets the rules for this world of like, these are the people that survive. These are the people that have the tools to survive in this world and this is why Joel lives.’

Mazin also spoke to the surrounding members of the Kansas City Militia, saying that ‘the notion of tribalism is always there’ but it was important for him and Druckmann not to ‘NPC-ise’ (referring to non playable characters in a video game) these people, as they wanted to avoid them being depicted as just ‘bad guys.’

Mazin added: ‘When you’re making television and there isn’t the gameplay aspect, we wanted as best we could to give these people a sense of justification.’

Druckmann also mentioned how the series explores the aftermath of FEDRA being overtaken by this new faction, and that by presenting these moments outside of Joel and Ellie’s perspective – as that’s the only one they were able to draw from in the video game – it elevated the motivations of other character’s within the world and storylines such as Henry and Sam’s.  

When speaking on Kathleen’s death and her justifications for hunting Henry and Sam, Mazin referenced the infamous Westworld quote – ‘these violent delights have violent ends’, adding: 

‘I think it’s important to show that when you are dead set on using violence to settle the score and win the day, you are going to probably get subsumed by that yourself. And the fact is Kathleen is a moral criminal, she’s done terrible things. Does she deserve to die? I don’t really get into that. I just know that the odds that you are going to die by the sword go up dramatically if you live by it.’

Image: HBO / Binge

Mazin also mentioned the poetic nature and importance of Kathleen’s demise being at the hand of a child clicker, as just moments before, she had shown little remorse in wanting to kill Sam after Henry was trying to protect him. Mazin said:

‘The thing is, a lot of what we talk about when we’re talking about the moral conundrum of The Last of Us is, why does my kid’s life matter more than yours?… And so the idea that she ultimately is killed by a kid felt sort of like a circular completion of that story. You’re not supposed to feel good, you’re not supposed to feel bad. If people struggle a little bit with how they feel about that moment then I think we probably did it correctly.’

Additional analysis and notable quotes 

  • The title of Episode 5 – ‘Endure and Survive’ – originates from a fictional comic book series entitled Savage Starlight, and copies of the comics can be found in Ellie’s inventory in the first game.  
  • Druckmann mentions the Savage Starlight comic books written for the games were inspired by Watchmen – as there is a fictional comic book within that series that reflects back on what is happening in that world. Naughty Dog wanted to create an in-game sci fi comic that spoke to the same themes of love and relationships that were presented in The Last of Us, and decided it should have a catchphrase that the main hero says. After typing the word ‘survival’ into a website, the word ‘endure’ then showed up amongst a shortlist, and ‘Endure and Survive’ was officially born. I guess this counts as their Childish Gambino Wu-Tang Name Generator moment.
  • Druckmann had previously made pacts while developing The Last of Us Part I & II to get a tattoo symbolising the game and had backed out of them previously. Mazin mentions in this episode of the podcast that he and Druckmann had made a similar pact to both get tattoos of Ellie’s switchblade early on in pre-production, promising to go through with it if the series was successful. With the evidential critical success the series has accumulated, audiences will have to wait and see if any permanent ink arises from this new deal.   
  • Craig Mazin – (Referencing Kathleen’s character) ‘What if a kindergarten teacher were in charge of the terror of the French revolution… Just because you’re sweet on the outside doesn’t mean you don’t have the capacity for terrible anger and vengeance in your heart.’
  • Craig Mazin – ‘[Sam’s] story, in our show, wasn’t about him being deaf. In fact, the biggest factor to his character was that he had, had leukaemia. That was a bigger deal for Sam. And I hope that people in Hollywood think about casting Keivonn again – and not in stories about being deaf, but just in stories about people, cause he’s, boy is he good.’
  • Craig Mazin – ‘I think we were always scared to either be too close to the game or too far away from the game and the only way to get around the fear was too ask, what would make the best story and the best scene.’
  • Craig Mazin – ‘We could absolutely do a standalone Ish episode, but I think where we landed was it’s better to tip our hats to Ish.’
  • Craig Mazin – (Referencing Kathleen’s death) ‘I think it’s important to show that when you are dead set on using violence to settle the score and win the day, you are going to probably get subsumed by that yourself… I just know that the odds that you are going to die by the sword go up dramatically if you live by it.’
  • Neil Druckmann – (Referencing Sam and Henry’s burial at the end of Episode 5) ‘Joel is such a pragmatic survivor, he wouldn’t spend time burying someone. He’s not doing it for himself, he’s doing it for Ellie… The father-daughter bond is now there.’

For further analysis and reading on the HBO adaptation of The Last of Us, you can check out the following articles: 

Episode recaps and analysis: 

Behind-the-scenes podcast recaps:

The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO Max in the US, and Binge in Australia.

Emily Shiel is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia who is passionate about all things accessibility, mental health and the indie games scene. You can find her on Twitter at @emi_shiel