Streaming selection 4: The Last of Us (S1, E 8-9) and Shrinking (S1, E7-8)

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The Last of Us (S1, E 8-9)

(courtesy IMP Awards)

What matters more – the needs of the one or the needs of the many?

It depends on which side of the ethical, and often emotional divide, you stand; in Star Trek: The Original Series‘s film The Wrath of Khan, Spock argues with a far more instinctive Captain Kirk that the many’s interests must outweigh the needs of the one.

This prophetic exchange early in the film sets up a key scene in the final act where the possible truism of that phrase is road-tested in the mother of all real-world situations, and it asks us which does matter more? Who has the greater right to life, to a destiny, to a future?

Various other groups including the Soviets have voiced the same sentiments but in the final two episodes of The Last of Us, easily the best series to emerge from 2023 so far, Joel (Pedro Pascal), having got Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to the hospital where her Cordyceps-immune blood might well save the world (hello, the many!) has to make an agonising decision right on the finish line of a mission he never wanted but whose emotional centre, Ellie, has healed him and who means the absolute world to him.

She is no longer something he has to deliver, and hasn’t been for quite some time, nor is he to her an annoying pun-hating adult who she’s saddled with because the Fireflies rebel group have so decreed it, and so the many vs. one debate can’t pivot on purely abstract ideas of doing what is best.

And what is the best, anyway?

On a purely logical level, if Ellie’s blood can fix everything – well, except the darkness of the human soul but you could well argue that was broken long before a particular fungi sent humanity to the zombie brink – then doing what needs to be done to her is not even up for debate.

But this is where things get tricky because — SPOILER ALERT!!! — to get the blood, they have to kill Ellie because the key part of her that can be synthesised into a cure is in her brain – how it got there is revealed at the start of episode 9, “Look For the Light” which carries a huge emotional punch of its own – and to get that, well, it’s goodbye to a young woman Joel now sees as his daughter.

When he encounters Marlene (Merle Dandridge) at the hospital, who it turns out has longstanding links to Ellie (essentially a second mum to her and not just a firefly commander), he finds out what is going to have to happen to Ellie to make the world safe for people again, and he simply can’t let it happen.

Reacting less from cold calculation than sheer protective, parental emotionalism, Joel kills EVERYONE including the doctor who holds the knowledge to make the cure (he spares the two nurses so that’s something?) – for the record, they have treated Ellie with utmost respect up to this point, save of course for telling her she will die to make the procedure a success which is a huge omission and a big consent red flag – and takes Ellie back to his brother Tommy’s (Gabriel Luna) community where she’ll safe.

Lied to but safe.

The thing is, and here’s where The Last of Us again underscores what a thoughtful, morally-centred show it is, Ellie wants to save the world, she wants their epic journey which has cost so many lives to mean something, and while she’s unaware and remains unaware that she will have to die to make it come to pass, it’s important to her to see it through.

Back at the start, Joel wouldn’t have thought twice about handing her over, no matter what was going to happen to Ellie, but now she matters to him as one man far more than what she can potentially accomplish for the many, and he doesn’t hesitate to kick logic to the curve, kill people, retrieve Ellie and then lie to her about what happened.

How much lying? Pinocchio nose-rowing levels of lying, and after the huge trauma of episode 8 (“When We Are in Need”) where a violent sociopathic cult leader traumatised Ellie to a shocking degree and where the many vs few/one argument got a gothically horrific run-through, you can imagine how betrayed Ellie is going to feel when she finds out the truth.

She’s gone through a lot, and while she’s proven she can more than look after herself – her scenes in ep. 8 underscore this but the cost to her is stratospherically high and she needs people like Joel in her corner but she also needs them to be honest and true to her – she wants to be loved and cared for and to have someone not abandon her.

She also needs to be straight with her, and the great tragedy of what should be a heartwarming ending to season 1 – Ellie lives! Joel saves her! Yay the world is back on its right and true axis! – is that Joel has not only killed people who matter to Ellie but he’s also robbed her of the one thing that gave her some meaning (well, besides him).

So, Ellie’s saved, and honestly who of us wouldn’t have wanted to do the exact same thing, world-saving be damned in that moment, and Joel has the young woman who’s brought him back from emotional oblivion, but at what cost?

The many have well and truly lost out, and you could argue the few and the one have too because what is the good of an emotional triumph, a victory of love over circumstances, if it costs so damn much?

We’ll have a chance to find out with The Last of Us season 2 already greenlit, a season which will not only have to deal with the fallout from the final of season one but which has some big issues of its own to settle.

Shrinking (S1, E7 & E8)

(courtesy IMP Awards)

If you’re a human being, and the odds are good you are if you’re reading this, you’ll be well aware that we (sociopaths and authoritarian monsters aside) all have to say “sorry” a lot.

It comes with the territory of being fallible, flawed humans who aim for the outer reaches of bright and shining stars only to find themselves neck deep in trenches full of muddy regret and the messiness of poor decision-making’s consequences.

In episodes seven and eight of Shrinking season 1 (“Apology Tour” and “Boop”), it’s apologies everywhere with Jimmy (Jason Segel) leading the way, all too aware that after a year of grieving-induced letting everyone down including, rather crucially teenage daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell), he’s stuffed things up again in one very messy party where vomiting, far-too-honest confessions and, OOPS!, sleeping his colleague and his late wife’s BFF, Gaby (Jessica Williams) were the rather unwise orders of the day, or rather, night.

He wants to set things right, and begins with his bestie Brian (Michael Urie) who, Jimmy worries, lost his big romantic night of proposing to Charlie (Devin Kawaoka) in a party that was less fairytale and more gothic horror story; Brian though is fine – he has a definitively affirmative “YES” in hand, a great proposal story that will no doubt be augmented for humourous and dramatic effect in succeeding years, and life is looking rather rosy.

Not so much for the next person on Jimmy’s list – daughter Alice.

Smarting from trying to kiss Sean (Luke Terrie) and having him reject her – kindly and gently but rejected nonetheless – she now has to deal with the fact that she’s made things between them super awkward, something that lingers through the episode until next door neighbour, and nosy surrogate mum to Alice, Liz (Christa Miller), encourages Sean to de-weird the vibe.

He does, and while it’s likely things won’t quite go back to where they are, everyone can breathe a little easier and laugh a whole lot more.

Well, everyone but Paul (Harrison Ford) whose daughter Meg (Lily Rabe), who claims to have forgiven and forgotten the wholly neglectful fathering of her childhood and youth, has flown into town to help her dad.

Well, she thinks she’s helping him and maybe she is but all Paul sees is the loss of his independence, something for which he fights which would be fine in any other circumstance but in the dynamic between him and Meg, is interpreted is interpreted as him pushing her away yet again.

That’s not what Paul is doing but understandably that’s how Meg sees it, and it leaves things between Paul and Meg, even into episode 9, feeling very frosty aside, and well beyond a simply apology.

Meanwhile, Jimmy and Alice come to a sorting out with the former belatedly stepping to dad shoes again after trying to be a pal and a friend and Alice not happy to be back to being a kid with boundaries again.

You can understand why things are fraught; the loss of her mum left Alice in a bad place, one in which her dad was absent and where she had to pick up much of the slack with Paul and Liz’s help; now Jimmy, encouraged by Paul, is being a dad again and Alice doesn’t know how to handle it.

It’s all related to the weird journey of grief all of them have gone, with Shrinking insightfully understanding that grief is not linear, that you don’t feel bad then good and all’s well again and that being fallible people, we often makes some poor decisions in an emotionally dark place that have lingering ramifications.

That’s the the primary joy of this smartly-written sitcom.

It uses absolutely sparkling dialogue, rich, full-drawn characterisation and heightened but wholly believable situations – exhibit A is Gaby coming rather messily, and amusingly, to grips with her divorce from Nico (Adam Foster Ballard) – to explore what grief really looks like, and how while we want to think it’s quick and easy to navigate that it’s really not, and we all head up having to navigate more than few obstacles on our way to some sort of healing, incomplete and apology-strewn as it is.

Shrinking continues with episode 9 (already out) and episode 10 (releases 24th March) on AppleTV+

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