The following is a recap and review of the ninth episode and season finale of HBO’s The Last of Us. Expect story spoilers.
In the ninth and final episode of the first season of the HBO adaptation of the critically acclaimed video game franchise known as The Last of Us — titled Look for the Light — Joel (played by Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey) finally reach the hospital that they’ve been moving towards. But how will the Fireflies greet them? Look for the Light was directed by Ali Abbasi (Holy Spider and The Last of Us: When We Are In Need) and written by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann.
The episode opens with something completely new. Something even we gamers have never seen before. We get to meet Ellie’s mother, Anna, played here by Ashley Johnson, who played Ellie herself in the games. She’s running through a forest while very pregnant and she’s being chased by infected. She runs into a house exclaiming that “it’s her.” But no one’s there. We hear infected from the outside as her water breaks and she barricades the door. To defend herself, Anna pulls out a switchblade, which is the very knife that Ellie walks around and defends herself with later in the present day. As the infected woman runs through the door while Ellie’s mother is giving birth, Anna scrambles for the knife. The infected woman jumps her, but Anna grabs the knife and incapacitates the infected woman. And just as the infected woman has been pushed off, we hear the crying baby. She has given birth to little Ellie. An intense birth to say the least. As she welcomes her wonderful little daughter to the world, she says “you fucking tell them, Ellie.” A statement that reveals exactly that Ellie is as tough as her mother was. We don’t find out what then happened to her mother here, but instead, we cut to the title sequence.
On the other side of it, we see Marlene of the Fireflies walk up to the house Ellie’s mother ran into. She is guarded by two armed men, and they are presumably the people Ellie’s mother was asking for as she ran into the house. As they walk up the stairs, Marlene calls for Anna, Ellie’s mother, who we faintly hear sing a song to her little daughter. Anna is sitting there with a knife to her own throat — ready to end herself should she be about to turn — because, unfortunately, she was bitten on her inner right thigh. The Fireflies should’ve been there to protect her, but they weren’t. Still, Anna is quick to say that it isn’t their fault. Anna has been wise not to nurse her hungry daughter for fear of possibly passing the infection to the newborn. Anna insists that she cut the umbilical cord before she was bitten, but that is, as we know, a lie. “Before,” Anna insists, as she asks Marlene to take Ellie to Boston and keep her safe (and to give her the knife). Marlene says that she can’t. Anna insists again, this time by calling out that they’ve known each other their entire lives, which Marlene confirms. “So you pick her up right now, and then you kill me,” Anna orders. Marlene says she’ll only do the first thing, but then she reluctantly also puts Anna out of her misery. A bleak start to a fiercely important and intense episode.
We then cut from a close-up of baby Ellie to present-day Ellie. The former was crying out while the latter is silently sitting with her trauma and is unprepared to respond to Joel’s interest in Boggle. They’re close to the hospital that they’re looking for, and this is indeed much more familiar fare for gamers, who will know this sequence intimately. Us gamers will also perk up at the mere mention of Joel talking about teaching Ellie how to play the guitar, which is directly related to the second game’s most iconic moments. Joel jokes with Ellie, but he isn’t really able to get through to her or lift her spirits. What happened in winter is still on her mind, and the many failed attempts to find the Fireflies probably aren’t helping. Like in the game, Ellie doesn’t immediately respond to the boost Joel is offering but is then amazed by something once she is boosted. This startles Joel, just like in the game, but everything is safe. It’s an iconic moment from the game, as there are wild giraffes, one of which they get to interact with. It’s great visual effects for a television show, but it is still noticeable effects-work. The moment didn’t land as effectively for me as it did in the game. It felt slightly rushed to me, but that may be different for those who are experiencing the moment for the first time. Still, it’s a nice moment that reminds Ellie that there is still kindness and beauty in the world. Afterward, Ellie insists “it can’t be for nothing,” in a conversation that feels pretty close to the game, as Joel offers Ellie to just go back to Tommy’s with him and forget about this whole Firefly ordeal. She kindly turns him down by assuring him that they can go wherever he wants to once it’s all done. “I’ll follow you anywhere you go,” she offers.
Again, I must commend the creators of the show for insisting on recreating locations from the game. I say this because Joel tells Ellie about Sarah’s death (and his own suicide attempt) in a location that is taken directly from the game. “Time heals all wounds,” Ellie says, with Joel responding that it wasn’t time that healed his wounds, which to me suggests that he is stressing to her that meeting and connecting with her is what helped him love again. It is a very sweet moment of bonding where the hardened Joel opens up. As Joel rates the various jokes from the pun book, they are ambushed. Someone throws a grenade without them noticing it, armed men take Ellie away, and Joel is knocked out. This is very different from the game, where you have to cross this underground section with a lot of infected (and Joel and Ellie struggle with a water section as well), but it’s an understandable change, as those moments are very video gamey and wouldn’t add all that much to the narrative at this point.
Joel wakes up in the very hospital they’ve been searching for. They found the Fireflies. Their mission is complete. Even Marlene is there, and she is impressed. Though Joel is quick to mention how hard Ellie fought to get there. He never mentions his compensation or anything. He’s there for her. For Ellie. And he wants to see her. Marlene says he cannot because of immediate surgery. Joel’s about to get the wind knocked out of him because Ellie can’t get out of this — it’s either her alive or the possibility of a cure, not both. This is all taken directly from the game, but Marlene says something completely new. She says that their doctor (gamers will know exactly who she’s talking about, but my lips are sealed) believes she’s been infected since birth, i.e. remember how Anna lied about the umbilical cord? It’s an interesting theory. Joel picks up on the problem immediately. Cordyceps grows in the brain, so removing it will kill her. That’s a dealbreaker for Joel, who screams that he wants to be taken to her immediately. The Fireflies won’t let him, but Joel has a mind of his own. Marlene knows what he’s capable of, so she orders her men to escort him out of the building and to kill him if he objects. This is all straight from the game. As is what happens next. Joel overwhelms one of the soldiers, takes their weapon, and makes his way to Ellie — killing all of the Fireflies that get in his way, including the doctor (I’ve also learned one of the nurses is played by Laura Bailey, who played a key character in the second game).
At this ending, I know some gamers erupted “I’m playing the bad guy?!” And, well, that’s a matter of perspective. Joel is doing this for himself and out of the love he has for the girl who gave him something to live for. He simply cannot lose her. The show emphasizes the problematic nature of this with the intense and brooding score that plays over Joel’s actions (a less menacing of the same theme plays in the game when Joel leaves with Ellie in his arms). This is the Joel of the past — this is the Joel people have heard stories of. This is the Joel who will do absolutely anything for the ones he loves because the one he loved most was once taken from him in the cruelest way. And so, now, he gets to walk out of there with a kind of daughter in his arms — this time alive. Marlene tries to stop him, but she doesn’t manage to. He shoots her dead moments after she pleads with him to consider what Ellie would want. He is unable to live without her. It’s a controversial action and one that will taint his character forever. But he doesn’t care. She is too important to him. The show, and indeed the game, has a thesis statement that is not too dissimilar from the iconic quote of another popular HBO show: “the things we do for love,” which is what Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jaime Lannister said as he pushed a very important little boy out of a window in Game of Thrones. Indeed, love can make us do many things; both good and bad. Whether that makes Joel a monster is up to you to decide, but it is something a father (or, well, any parent) would be tempted to do, and it makes him a complex, intensely rich, and flawed character — and that’s exactly what the best characters are.
Was it the right thing to do? Well, most if not all parents would say they would do anything for their kid. So, I think parents will sympathize with Joel’s actions even though they are brutal and may have wiped out all hope for the rest of the globe. Just because parents might choose to do the same thing as Joel that obviously doesn’t mean it is a rational decision that he makes. It isn’t. Ellie probably wouldn’t want to be saved. But Joel can’t bear losing her, and the Fireflies didn’t give her the decision. Let’s talk about Anna. She lied about when she was bitten to protect her daughter, even though she knew Ellie could turn and infect others because of that lie. Anna was willing to lie to keep her daughter safe regardless of what it meant for others. I can’t say if Anna would do the same thing that Joel does if she were given the choice, but what I can say is that what Joel did was in line with Anna’s action in the opening flashback. She saved the person that mattered most to her, in spite of what it meant for others. Love made them both do something unjust or brutal. Our actions make us, and the same is true for how we show love. Love was all Anna had left. Joel’s love — and the potential despair of losing it again — blinded him to rationality and he only saw red. All he saw was what was being taken away. To him, ethics really didn’t matter then and there. He acted on his emotions in the rawest way possible.
Joel lies and tells Ellie that there were other immune people like her and that they’ve stopped looking for a cure. He wants her to move on. When she asks about her missing clothes, he says the hospital was attacked. That’s not exactly a lie, except he was the one who attacked the hospital. Joel telling her about an attack is a show invention, and it makes a lot of sense since Ellie would be asking a lot of questions that he wouldn’t otherwise know how to answer without this explanation. Like in the game, we then cut to Wyoming and Joel and Ellie walking toward Tommy’s city. On top of a hill overlooking Jackson, Ellie confronts Joel — just like in the game — to tell him about Riley and also to once more ask him if he actually told her the truth about what happened at the hospital. He swears that he’s telling the truth. And, like in the game, we close out this chapter of the story by focusing on Ellie’s reaction which is a mixture of concern and acceptance. Is it disbelief? Will she find out the truth? You’ll have to tune in next season to find out (or play the second game, of course).
And thus the first season of The Last of Us comes to an end. Throughout the season, the series has kept an impressively high level of quality. It has been a truly excellent first season that beautifully and faithfully adapted the first The Last of Us game (and the story expansion pack titled Left Behind), and, at the same time, the show made smart changes that elevated the emotional impact of certain characters and storylines like the one spearheaded by Bill and Frank. This final episode is, like the rest of the season, absolutely terrific. The completely original flashback opening is enlightening and bleak and is a great show invention (and addition to the canon), and while parts of the ‘present day’ story felt slightly rushed to me, the major moments in the hospital were pretty perfectly communicated and sold. The season finale thus — like the entire season — completely lives up to that first game, which I think is a masterpiece. I am so impressed. A video game has never been adapted this well. A true masterwork of a season and a really strong season finale that hits hard and true on all the proper themes to which the show is deeply connected.
– Recap and Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.