**Warning: Spoilers for episode 5 of The Last of Us ahead.**


Hit HBO drama The Last of Us made an interesting breakaway from its original source material in episode 5.

It opted to have youngster Sam introduced as a Deaf character, played by Deaf child actor Keivonn Woodard (something which is still very much a rarity in the media at present).

Of course, it’s certainly not the first story to explore how a Deaf individual would navigate an apocalypse. Teenager Millicent Simmonds starred as Regan Abbott in A Quiet Place and its sequel (rather fittingly, surviving in a world where monsters attack based on sound), and actress Lauren Ridloff appeared in The Walking Dead as badass Connie.

Evidently, there’s a keen interest in how Deaf people navigate a dangerous environment where auditory clues are important and making as little noise as possible is vital - especially when you consider Sam isn’t Deaf in the original video game.

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So this begs two questions: why was the decision made to make the character Deaf, and given the Deaf survivors we've seen before, what can The Last of Us offer us that's different?

Lamar Johnson and Keivonn Woodard as Henry and Sam in The Last of Us
Lamar Johnson and Keivonn Woodard as Henry and Sam in The Last of Us Liane Hentscher/HBO

Regrettably, not a lot - and the crux of the problem comes down to Sam’s unfortunate demise at the very end of the episode, one which ultimately makes it look like they brought in a Deaf character for pity points, rather than an opportunity to boost Deaf representation.

Let me be clear: I’m not arguing that every Deaf character should be made immune from turning into a fungi-ridden zombie (that’s kind of Ellie’s whole schtick in this particular franchise), but at least centre them in their own stories.

The Walking Dead did this well by giving Connie solo scenes where she had to navigate the challenges of a hearing world on her own. The Last of Us, meanwhile, chose to spend the majority of episode 5 emphasising just how caring and selfless Henry is in looking after his Deaf younger brother. Hearing "saviourism" is a very real thing, and it’s about as sickening as mutated Cordyceps.

Keivonn Woodard as Sam in The Last of Us.
Keivonn Woodard as Sam in The Last of Us. Courtesy of HBO

If Henry genuinely cared, he would actively look to involve Sam in every conversation, not force him to ask constantly what other people are saying, which he does several times in the episode. In the Deaf community, the isolation experienced in an inaccessible social environment, where little Deaf awareness is taking place, is aptly known as "dinner table syndrome".

If Henry genuinely cared, he also would have provided full details of a spoken conversation had without Sam’s involvement, rather than telling him his own filtered or sugarcoated perspective of events.

What would have been great to see is Sam - what with his love of superheroes, after all - left to fend for himself at some point, perhaps when the horde of infected descend upon them in that epic final action scene with Joel (Pedro Pascal) watching on from the house. You’re telling me we couldn't have seen him whack one of the zombies on the head after getting bitten?

Lamar Johnson and Keivonn Woodard as Henry and Sam in The Last of Us
Lamar Johnson and Keivonn Woodard as Henry and Sam in The Last of Us HBO

Only framing Deaf people through the lens of hearing people, rather than as individuals in their own right, implies that we are always dependent on the majority to get by in life. That’s a ridiculous and dangerous falsehood. There may be times - say, in an end-of-the-world scenario - where we may need a bit more of a helping hand, but that does not make us completely co-dependent.

We see a little bit of Sam’s character in his pleasant relationship with Ellie, sharing a love of fun and comics together. Her genuine enthusiasm to learn the odd sign here and there - “endure and survive” and “promise” - are as sweet as they are refreshing. I’d like to think that the end of the world kind of makes you rethink your priorities.

Yet the conversations between him and Ellie border on "inspiration porn" - an idea coined by the late, great Stella Young to describe the narrative whereby disabled people are seen as thriving or persevering "despite" their disability: “Bless, Sam is scared of the world and the monster, but look how brave he’s being despite his Deafness..."

The fact that Sam being Deaf is never once mentioned in the episode might seem like a good thing (representation where you don’t have to make a big song and dance about it to get people to notice is great, no?), but in actuality, it’s a missed opportunity.

We could have gained more of an understanding about Sam’s character and his feelings around his Deaf identity had this been acknowledged head-on. By failing to be explicit, there is a risk of viewers assuming that his Deafness is lumped in with the general apocalypse as a subject matter which he’d rather not talk about.

Ellie and Sam having a kickabout in the tunnels looks sweet enough as a distraction from the destruction outside, but when Henry has already enforced a pity narrative around Sam, anything which stands in immediate and direct opposite to that as a happier scene is seen as “inspirational”.

Proper Deaf representation doesn’t occur when you paint Deaf people as either individuals to be pitied, or to be upheld as inspirations. Unfortunately, The Last of Us jolts between the two in the space of an hour.

So, when Henry shoots Sam and then turns the gun on himself, and Ellie writes "I’m sorry" on his pad to place on his grave, we go back to this being a tragedy - the loss of an inspiration for Ellie, and Henry’s shame at not doing enough to protect Sam from danger.

Ask yourself: did you really connect with Sam, or just how he was perceived by hearing people? Deaf people are not plot devices to develop hearing characters; we have our own stories to tell. The Last of Us just didn’t share Sam’s fully.

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