[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us, Season 1 Episode 4.]
The Last of Us is very much a show resting on the shoulders of stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, but that doesn’t mean it’s been lacking in exciting guest stars. From the appearances of Fringe and Mindhunter star Anna Torv to the extraordinary Episode 3 love story featuring Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, the world of the show gets larger each week, and the trend continues in Episode 4, with the first appearance of Melanie Lynskey.
Playing Kathleen, a character created specifically for the show, Lynskey enters The Last of Us as a mystery, but one we quickly learn to fear. As the leader of a resistance group based in Kansas City, Kathleen is a woman with a singular target on her mind — the mysterious “Henry,” who she considers to be a threat to her people — and no one, especially not the seemingly kindly doctor who oversaw her own birth, will get in her way.
Lynskey’s talent for playing complicated women in dark situations has already been showcased beautifully in recent years by the Showtime drama Yellowjackets (Season 2 set to premiere this March). But the thing is, she showed us what she was capable of in her very first film role, opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Based on the true story of two 1950s New Zealand girls who, caught up in their own fantasy world, murder one of their mothers, the film did a beautiful job of showcasing the talents of both actresses, who dug into the darkest elements of the story without fear.
Winslet, of course, was then launched as a global star in Titanic, after successful performances in highbrow classics like Sense and Sensibility and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet — meanwhile, Lynskey’s post-Heavenly Creatures career, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, included multiple roles as the main character’s best friend or similar supporting role, in films like Ever After, Sweet Home Alabama, Coyote Ugly, and But I’m a Cheerleader.
While her career has been in an upswing since that time, Lynskey has still struggled to find roles worthy of her as a performer. And she’s experienced no shortage of prejudice as someone who exists outside the absurd supermodel standards still imposed on female actors: In an interview with Indiewire in 2016, for her leading role in the HBO comedy Togetherness, Lynskey told me a story about how the script for a project changed after she was cast:
“I auditioned for a movie and the character description was, ‘The beautiful girl who sits next to him in class.’ And then I got the part, and I got to Toronto to do the movie and I got the rewritten scene. My character description: ‘Quirky, but cute.’ Like, they changed it once they cast me. From ‘beautiful’ to ‘quirky, but cute.’ There’s no need to downgrade the character description like once someone’s just like… You know.”
That hasn’t gone away in modern times — just last year, Lynskey revealed to Rolling Stone that she was body-shamed by a member of the show’s production. But things could be said to be better now: The Yellowjackets cast stood up for her after that incident, she has since received an Emmy nomination for her role on that show, and here she is on a massive HBO drama in a warm puffy jacket, taking no prisoners and showing no mercy.
Not only that, but she’ll be back next week for The Last of Us Episode 5, as the story continues following this week’s cliffhanger. What’s so striking so far about her performance as Kathleen is how well she fits into the world of this show, which spotlights ordinary people after 20 years of terror, depicting how the collapse of civilization might affect those left behind.
Kathleen isn’t a cartoon character or a trope — Lynskey plays the role like a woman who in another life would be worried about budget reports and/or soccer pick-up, whose soft voice doesn’t undercut the hardness she’s developed in order to survive. She might be the leader of men with guns, but it doesn’t feel like a position she sought out. Instead, it’s a duty she’s been forced to take on, one she doesn’t relish but does understand to be essential.
As The Last of Us continues, it’s characters like Kathleen that go a long way towards differentiating the show from other similar stories of the past — and it’s a thrill to see Lynskey get a worthy showcase for her talents. She’s been capable of roles like this her whole career. Hopefully, they keep on coming.
The Last of Us airs Sunday evenings on HBO and HBO Max.