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‘The Last of Us’ Episode 6 Proves that Cowboy and Western Themes Make Everything Cooler

Yeehaw, my dudes.

Pedro Pascal and Gabriel Luna looking at each other in The Last of Us as Tommy and Joel Miller

Cowboys. Saddles. Chaps. Riding jeans. Boots. Western hats. There’s very little that a good dose of cowboy-ism can’t improve. From Pride Parade apparel to the sheer swag of walking into a meeting after going for a ride, sweat rolling down your brow and the stink of fine leather goods on your clothes, cowboy-ism is truly the salt of life.

And no, I don’t mean the classic ‘merican ideal of the cowboy, with its terrible “Manifest Destiny” adjacent history. I mean the basic premise of ranching, a staple of all kinds of people the world over, from the gauchos of the pampas to the vaqueros of California. The soul of it comes down to the core lifestyle of tending to one’s community—rearing animals, upkeeping chores and the like—while having the endurance and strength to protect such precious things. That shit bangs. It’s raw, it’s real, and it’s grounded in the natural world around you. What’s more, it involves the power that comes from riding a beast that could easily kill you, while wearing jeans that fit ever so nicely. Tell me, is there anything sexier than living an honest life on the range and looking good while doing it?

Episode 6 of The Last of Us answered that question with a resounding: “No, there is nothing sexier Madeline, and fortunately, we have Cowboy Tommy for you to think about for the next few days.”

We get a little taste of the range life when Joel and Ellie meet a Native couple who’ve been surviving on their own for years, hunting and keeping to themselves. We then see them set off to wander the great out yonder in the peace that Winter brings. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, an entire posse of horsemen in Western saddles emerges, immediately bringing the duo to a halt. Yes, I know, it was supposed to be a tense scene, but I was grinning with the same enthusiasm I had the first time I rode barrels. Hell yeah, I thought, this show’s becoming a Western.

It’s a difficult thing to ultimately pin down, why Westerns are so damn cool. I think it could be analogous to why silly movements like the whole ‘cottagecore’ thing took off: we tend to romanticize lifestyles that are fairly divorced from our own, and bring us a very simple, yet fulfilling sense of satisfaction. I’ve worked on ranches and ridden on them, and I can vouch for how great I feel at the end of a good day’s work. You have to be present and in the moment. You have to be engaged with your natural environment because any little slip-up results in a job poorly done. This is especially true when working with animals, who can sense your hesitation and will absolutely NOT listen to you if you don’t show you’ve got a spine. That’s where the empowerment comes from: prove you can hack it, and you’ve essentially cut a deal with the elements.

Bearing this all in mind, I’ve always hoped for more pieces of media with these kinds of themes. I don’t think people realize that these themes can be divorced from traditional American historical narratives, since again, these themes are present all over the world, and there are all kinds of histories with “cowboy-ism” attached. For instance, I loved Nope in large part because it showcased Black American range life, which often goes unexamined (this is a great article on the subject, for reference). And yes, it was largely a silly spooky alien movie, but it was also incredibly badass because of the themes it used. Those scenes when OJ would ride out into the danger zone? Poetic cinema. Loved it.

So, it not only made a lot of sense for a world like The Last of Us to incorporate these themes, but it also made the world even more compelling for us to explore as viewers. Yes, the hypotheticals of the fungal apocalypse are thrilling to explore on their own, but adding a Western touch makes them feel a lot more grounded. Realer. Cooler. We trade in some “zombie-isms” for a taste of Buster Scruggs. Never a bad move, in my honest opinion.

I can’t wait to see more of Jackson and to see whether or not these themes are expanded upon in future episodes. Especially now that they have a horse of their own. A horse with no name. My god, this shit writes itself.

(featured image: HBO)

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Madeline (she/her) is a writer, dog mom, and casual insomniac. Her prior experiences with media have taken her down many different roads, from local history podcasts to music coverage & production. Niche interests include folk music, elves/wizards, and why horses are cool actually.