There are plenty of terrors in The Last of Us TV series, and just like the horror game, it’s the people you need to be most wary of, rather than the infected. Clickers and bloaters are horrifying, yes, but they’re predictable, whereas The Last of Us characters simply are not.
Kathleen, played by Melanie Lynskey, is a perfect example. She oversees Kansas City, or the dwindling remains of the metropolitan outpost. Joel and Ellie become trapped on her turf, killing two of her hunters, placing themselves towards the top of the most wanted list. All of Kathleen’s attention is dedicated to their capture, alongside other escapees Sam and Henry.
The people of Kansas overthrew the fascistic FEDRA some years prior, but Kathleen’s regime is hardly easier. She has armed patrols, treats any infraction as rebellion to be quashed, and doesn’t hesitate to place a bullet in anyone that’s not needed. Part of what makes her so spine-chilling is how clearly she’s pushing to appear in control when she really isn’t, something captured to voice-cracking perfection in Lynskey’s performance that the drama series squanders.
Fans of horror series Yellowjackets will be familiar with the type of person Lynskey’s playing here; a woman who’s using maternal instincts to cover extreme trauma that she compartmentalises through occasional violent outbursts. In The Last of Us episode 5, Kathleen has a quiet moment in a childhood room, where she reminisces about a brother that used to guide her.
Through the sombre recollection, we understand that he was her north star, a beacon of morality and understanding, without whom she’s rudderless, unable to answer for everything her community needs. His passing is a void into which she’s staring, praying for some sort of answer that’ll make everything right.
In reality, they’re two decades into a zombie plague, and Kansas City is about to come to an end. Inhabitants are starting to crack under her intimidation and misery, fancying whatever’s out there over what’s in their homes. And then there’s the sinkhole Kathleen’s aware of but attempting to ignore.
She’s unmoored and emphatic, yet dedicated and ruthless. A new creation for this drama series, she adds a brilliant wrinkle by showing who Joel could have become. If Sarah had lived, only to pass later, perhaps he’d be murdering interrogation subjects because someone decided they’d had enough of him and legged it.
Or this could be why he always remained a gun-for-hire, never rising up Boston’s ranks, because he knows how easy power is to abuse when you have it. Sadism could be all too simple and gratifying when you are the law.
Kathleen’s just the right blend of cunning and desperate that you can’t trust what she’ll do next, and Lynskey finds the exact emotional temperature that you don’t hate her. You understand, on some level, why she is the way she is. I’d hoped that, despite being a fresh addition, she’d outlast what happens in the wake of Ellie and Joel’s exit, teasing a potential return.
Not so much, as her throat’s torn open by a creepy child zombie while infected pour out of the ground like everyone she’s had killed has come back for revenge. Glorious image though it all makes, there’s some disappointment she couldn’t have been brought further.
Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann wouldn’t need to disrupt the back half of the story, just have her existing in the world, roaming through the US, living as she must. If spin-offs are on the board, that’s one I’d have watched, not that it’s possible now.
Something The Last of Us has been praised for is closely adhering to the PS5 game. Whole sections, dialogue, and scenes are replicated verbatim, and Kathleen’s death comes across as a refusal to disrupt the status quo too much. New protagonists and antagonists are possible, but they don’t change anything too drastically.
That’s when adaptation becomes too beholden to the original work, at least to me. When something enters a different medium, I want rewrites and different perspectives, ways of approaching the story that weren’t feasible or weren’t thought of on the first go. Stuff like Kathleen that makes me lean forward because now the plot’s doing something I didn’t expect, but we’re still using the same narrative fabric.
Part of her short but sweet appearance might lie in Lynskey’s own popularity. She’s doing Yellowjackets season 2 at the moment, and probably couldn’t commit to The Last of Us all that much. Whatever the case, it’s a missed opportunity, and I’ll be thinking about what could’ve been right through to the credits on the last episode.
The Last of Us is available on NOW in the UK, and HBO Max in the US.