REVIEW: The Last of Us – “Left Behind”

Bella Ramsey as ‘Ellie’ and Storm Reid as ‘Riley’ in HBO’s THE LAST OF US — PHOTO: HBO / Liane Hentscher.

The following is a recap and review of the seventh episode of HBO’s The Last of Us. Expect story spoilers.

In the seventh episode of the first season of the HBO adaptation of the masterful video game franchise known as The Last of Us — titled Left Behind — we flash back to Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey) in FEDRA school. She gets into fights in school and may be headed down the wrong path in life, but then an old friend, Riley (played by Storm Reid), stops by and gives her an adventure in a nearby mall. Left Behind was directed by Liza Johnson and written by Neil Druckmann (co-creator of The Last of Us video game franchise).

Here is something that non-gamers may find it difficult to understand: this episode technically isn’t an adaptation of the original game or its sequel. For this episode, the showrunners are specifically adapting the story expansion pack (or downloadable content, also known as ‘DLC’) that came out after the release of the first game. Like the episode is, it was titled Left Behind and saw us play as Ellie before she got infected, up until her infection, and then also with a present-day B-plot showing how Ellie searched for medicine (and the like) for Joel after the gruesome injury he was victim to at the university. In the DLC, we just see Ellie and Riley inside of the abandoned mall, in addition to the B-plot with Ellie finding supplies in a similarly abandoned mall in the present day. The story DLC fits neatly into a section between the cliffhanger at the end of the previous episode and the very next scene in the game, in which gamers are suddenly in control of Ellie who is hunting in the snowy forest, which we’ll presumably see in next week’s episode. 

In the show, it’s extremely similar to the DLC with regards to the A-plot but not quite as much with the B-plot. Though there are certain unmistakable similarities to that B-plot (with Joel being severely injured inside of an abandoned home and without any hope unless Ellie finds something to help him). The first scene we see is of Joel thinking this is over for him and pleading with Ellie to try to make her realize that she should just leave him behind (hence the name of the episode, you might say). His pleading is very similar to the way that Bill tried to get Frank to ‘call Joel’ after he was shot. Like Frank, Ellie doesn’t leave the person she cares for behind. 

Now, unlike the games, the show gets to show Ellie’s day-to-day activities at the military school. In the game, we only really see Ellie and Riley ever so briefly in her room before she breaks out to go to the mall, but, in the show’s early scenes at the FEDRA school, we see Ellie during gym class, it is implied that she gets into a fight with another girl, and we see her get sent to the principal’s office. We hear how she would usually get sent to ‘the hole’ as punishment, which seems harsh. Nevertheless, the ‘captain,’ who is her principal, seems like a nice guy who genuinely cares, in spite of him being a FEDRA officer. Afterward, we cut to Ellie’s room, which has another Savage Starlight comic book, one of her pun books, her knife, music tapes from bands like a-ha (a fun easter egg), and a lot of personality expressed through various posters (such as a Mortal Kombat 2 poster). 

During the night, Riley, her best friend, breaks in. They’ve been apart for three weeks. Ellie is upset she’s been gone, and Riley is concerned about Ellie’s black eye. Riley is now a Firefly, which Ellie struggles to immediately accept. But she does agree to sneak out with Riley. In her conversation with Riley in the streets of FEDRA’s school campus, we learn that Ellie’s always been a bit of a fighter. Again, a lot of the scenes between the mall in the flashback and Ellie’s FEDRA school bedroom feel completely new, and they are some rather solid scenes where Ellie and Riley’s friendship is established for all to see, with them trying the liquor they find, and both struggling to walk about seven flights of stairs (remember when Ellie complained to Joel that he was lazy for being tired after so many additional floors in a previous episode?). They also tease each other about being affiliated with the fascist ‘dickbags’ that are FEDRA and the Fireflies who are either terrorists or freedom fighters depending on who you ask. 

Eventually, they get to the abandoned mall, which, for Ellie, is like getting to be a kid in a candy store. All of the bright lights and the empty stores, the escalator, and the supposed four wonders of the mall (as described by Riley) are so well-realized. The lighting and production design is worthy of admiration, they’ve done a lot of top-notch work to really sell that coming-of-age teenage romance adventure, and they’ve absolutely nailed it. These early scenes are paired with a-ha’s “Take On Me,” which is a track that is very special to those of us who love the games, specifically because of the way it is used in the second game. 

They discuss how uncomfortable lingerie would be to wear, and Riley even says she imagined Ellie wearing it as a joke, and then Ellie looks longingly at the lingerie. It could be that she is trying to imagine herself wearing it, but I think she’s also thinking about whether or not Riley shares her romantic feelings. Ellie is asked to close her eyes, and she is then guided to a gorgeous merry-go-round, then they goof around in a photo booth (exactly like in the game), and then the fourth wonder of the mall is Raja’s Arcade where they get to play a fighting game (just like in the game — but in the show, it is actually Mortal Kombat 2 and not just some made up video game). Riley also gifts Ellie with ‘Volume Too’ of the pun book, which is the very book that Ellie later reads to Joel. There are longing stares at each other from both Riley and Ellie, whose actors do a fantastic job of communicating their romantic feelings and chemistry. It is all incredibly sweet and it strikes a similar note as the game does. These are best friends who have romantic feelings for each other, and the warmth of that blossoming relationship development is felt through the screen. 

We hear that Riley has been assigned to be sewage detail (what an awful duty), as they all get their assignments when they are about to reach 17. Riley doesn’t see a way back for her at the FEDRA school, even though Ellie wants her to go back there with her. But Riley does admit that she misses Ellie. After Ellie finds bombs that Riley had made, they get into an argument. Right as Ellie storms out, Riley reveals that she’s also been assigned to a mission by Marlene of the Fireflies to go to Atlanta, i.e. leaving Ellie behind for good. This would be their last night together. Riley wants to say goodbye with, quite possibly, the best night of their lives, and Ellie is left upset and heartbroken by the news. Moments after storming off, though, Ellie goes back and goofs around further with Riley inside of a Halloween costuming store (again, a really nice reference to the story DLC, where they also wear Halloween masks), where they dance and kiss. 

Earlier, while they were playing Mortal Kombat 2, we saw how they weren’t really alone in the mall. Infected are hearing them goof around — or, in actuality, just one (it’s different in the story DLC). The infected individual has woken up, and Ellie only finds that out momenta after kissing her best friend, at which point they are attacked. Ellie kills it, but she also got bit. So, yeah, this is where she got her wound. Unfortunately, Riley also got bit. That’s right, folks. It’s another heartbreaking romance in a The Last of Us episode.

Interestingly, the show finally cuts back to Joel right after Riley and Ellie are revealed to have been bitten. This is of course because he is now the only person she cares about. The show juxtaposes Ellie’s frustration and sadness over her and Riley being bitten with Ellie scrambling to find something to fix Joel. In the flashback, Riley and Joel agree to stay up and lose their minds together, as the infection will take them. It’s almost like a Romeo and Juliet-esque ending for them (they even consider offing themselves but opt against it). But, of course, we know that’s not going to happen to Ellie. Ellie won’t turn like Riley ultimately will. She’ll witness her best friend turn and then be left behind as the infection has overtaken Riley. Ellie’s messianic immunity is a gift because it can maybe help save the world, but it’s more pressingly a curse because she won’t be able to save the people she loves in the here and now. And yet she is going to try to save Joel in spite of how difficult or unlikely it may be to accomplish such a feat. Because that is all she has to hold onto. And so she finds a needle and thread with which she closes up Joel’s wound. This is presumably something she learned at the military school, and she uses it to try to do what she could not do for Sam and Riley. She clings on to the hope that she may finally be able to save a person she loves just as the music swells and we cut to credits on another beautiful episode of the show. As for Joel and Ellie, this is Ellie choosing Joel for good and disregarding Joel’s heartbroken and angry plea to leave him behind, and Pascal is also quite good here, as he shows how much it means to him for her to show that she cares for him as much as he is starting to care for her (as was so well-established in the previous episode). In a way, they’ve now accepted that they’ve chosen each other, to a certain extent. He isn’t just a guide and smuggler. She isn’t just cargo. They’re not exactly father and child, but their relationship is becoming remarkably similar.

I think this is an episode that smartly acts upon some of the criticism that the expansion pack — or DLC — got when it was first released. Back then, its B-plot, which again saw Ellie work her way through a mall to find medicine for Joel, was criticized for featuring unnecessary combat scenes, and, in the episode that adapts said expansion pack, they’ve done away with almost the entirety of that B-plot. Here Ellie just finds a needle and thread in a cabinet and that’s how they have opted to communicate that she is sticking with Joel through the hardships, in an effort to save the bedridden protagonist from the game. Personally, I’ve also always found the combat in the DLC to feel out of place, and it feels like a logical omission or effort to condense the story. It is yet another example of how to smartly adapt popular source material. 

It is also an episode that wonderfully puts the spotlight on Bella Ramsey, who excels here by delivering a sweet, vulnerable, frustrated, and loving performance as Ellie. Bella Ramsey has been excellent in this pivotal role, and this is her finest hour thus far, as she is paired with Storm Reid who gives a performance that is in tune with the aforementioned series regular. Reid perfectly slides into a beloved role and absolutely nails it. They also, again, have excellent chemistry here. 

On the whole, it is a wonderful, beautiful, and faithful adaptation (except for a missing water gun fight) of the story DLC with regards to the A-plot (right down to the masks Ellie and Riley wear), but it’s also an episode that smartly changes up the B-plot to omit the combat scenes that were widely regarded as unnecessary in the DLC. Thus you could even suggest that this is an improvement on the DLC, though, theoretically, they could still have that aforementioned B-plot mall combat scene in the next episode (though I doubt it). In my mind, it’s one of the show’s best episodes. 


– Recap and Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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