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The Last of Us’s Merle Dandridge Doesn’t Know If Marlene Was Right

Photo: Amy Sussman/GA/The Hollywood Reporter via Getty Images

Spoilers follow for the season finale of The Last of Us, “Look for the Light.”

When Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin were casting the HBO drama The Last of Us, they brought on several voice actors from the original game. Most of those returning performers played minor roles, but one actress had the rare distinction of playing the same character she once portrayed via voice and motion capture: Merle Dandridge, who plays Marlene, the head of the Fireflies.

When Joel and Ellie arrive at Salt Lake City in the season finale, Marlene’s Firefly patrol is already there to capture them. When Joel wakes up in the hospital, Marlene presents him with world-shaking news: To reverse-engineer a vaccine from Ellie’s Cordyceps infection, the Fireflies will need to remove her brain, killing her in the process. Joel, who doesn’t accept that possibility, goes on a killing spree, finds the operating room, and ultimately rescues Ellie — an act that potentially dooms everyone else. Most upsetting is his final kill: Marlene, a woman who only ever wanted to protect Ellie since the day she was born.

The finale begins with the moment Anna gives birth to Ellie. What is gained by showing Ellie’s mom and depicting her connection to Marlene?
Marlene’s relationship with Anna is fundamental to who she was because Anna was the only person who understood what she had lost in the outbreak. At the time of the flashback, Marlene was in her fledgling stages of becoming the big Firefly leader. Losing Anna in this way is a severing of her life before, and of any evidence that she had loved, that she had family. The flashback is a snapshot of what Marlene sacrificed.

You previously acted opposite Ashley Johnson as Ellie in the game, and now she’s playing her mother.
Ashley and I have such history around this story. We get to see and experience together why Marlene is so protective of Ellie, why she is such a mother figure to her, and why she risks everything, really, to keep this child safe. And then, how hard it is to make the choices she does in the finale.

There’s a continuity for your performance of Marlene that isn’t there for any other character. What was it like shooting these same scenes from the game but in live action?
For the kid in me, it was like the difference between playing outside, using a stick for a gun, and actually being able to put on the uniform and hold real weapons. I can interact with the characters without having to add my imagination to it. The biggest adjustment is, obviously, using all of my faculties, my whole instrument rather than the mo-cap suit and the stages and relying on the animation afterwards. I think it offers a new layer of depth and connection for the audience. When you see her in real time and in the flesh, something spiritual, visceral happens.

How was it working with Neil again?
Neil and I wanted to honor the story and open ourselves to new understandings and different points of view from what you might’ve experienced in the game, being locked into playing first person and only playing Joel or sometimes Ellie. What was different about my experience here is I was never on set with Neil; I relied very heavily on Craig Mazin’s understanding and interpretation of things. Whenever he and I would come up against something, or make a crucial decision about costume or hair or a line, he immediately FaceTimed Neil and all three of us talked about it together. That tells you how much care and input he wanted from Neil, right down to how much gray is in Marlene’s hair. “Do we need to add a little bit more?”

Let’s talk about Marlene’s huge decision: to let scientists remove Ellie’s brain in the hopes of developing a vaccine.
Marlene always has had to make hard decisions; in a flashback in the second game, we see her push back against the doctor. She has to make sacrifice after sacrifice, but the decision to sacrifice Ellie is the one that breaks her and cleaves her spirit in two. When she says to Joel, “There is no other choice here,” it’s fraught with her own personal struggle, and the fact that she’s the leader of a resistance against a military regime, holding a beacon of hope to everyone that we can move past this horrible experience. We’ll never go back, but we can move forward into a new, healthy reality in which we are not at the mercy of Cordyceps. We will find a cure, we will find life after this, and we will be able to have love and family without this fear.

And then there’s the fact that she has to do this to someone whom she already has so much personal conflict with. I think Joel might partly blame Marlene for Tommy leaving the Boston QZ and for the rift between them. He already has a bone to pick with her, and now she is posing a moral conundrum that he cannot fathom giving any attention.

One of the things that struck me about this thorny, potentially polarizing ending from the series’ perspective is that this show has gone out of its way to depict the perspectives of characters who will become Joel and Ellie’s victims. The main characters, the people we care about the most, might be the villains from someone else’s perspective, which comes into play even more in the second game. How does Marlene fit into that? Does showing us her relationship with Anna early in the episode establish her as this selfless person who is clearly “in the right” in her conflict with Joel?
That is the question: Who is in the right, and for what reasons? I love what you said, “thorny and polarizing.” That’s exactly right. Keeping Ellie safe is actually one of Marlene’s top priorities — that and offering everyone around her the constant inspiration, beyond all tangible evidence, that FEDRA is not the endgame. She must consciously be that person, but there is this element she holds dear, holds sacred, that she keeps close to her chest. What does it take for her to choose good for all over what she desires for herself? That takes a certain kind of person. But with Joel, we got to see what kind of pain he’s struggling with, and we root for that father-daughter bond that he has resisted for so long. Why would he give it up? What Marlene and Joel share is that they both love this girl. The difference is, Marlene has protected her, her entire life. And now here is Joel wanting to protect her in a different way. The turning point in Ellie’s life, and arguably for the world, is in Joel’s decision.

One of my favorite lines in the episode is when Joel says, “You don’t understand,” and Marlene replies, “I’m the only one who understands.”
And you get to see why she understands. That will bring even more depth and weight and heaviness to the outcome and the decision — understanding why this is such a soul-crushing decision for her. And yet she chooses it anyway.

This final scene between Marlene and Joel is so brutal, and it plays out pretty much the way it did in the game. What was your experience like shooting that for the second time?
I had a really hard time on that day. I can’t put my finger on why, because I know the situation inside and out. I know what’s at stake. But it was difficult laying in Marlene’s blood. It was difficult to see Ellie in Joel’s arms and beg him to let me sacrifice her. I’m overwhelmed by her choices, and by the situation both of them are in. Perhaps it’s because it’s so fraught, and so emotional, but it is black and white to both of them. Marlene is losing every negotiation tool she has to change this outcome, even holding her hands up to this vicious man. He is unrelenting in what he’s capable of.

I had a hard time. And yet it is the crux. It is so simple. It is that point of no return. In this moment, we decide everyone’s fate, basically. And can you argue that Joel taking this choice off the table is wrong? He loves that child. If you are a parent, you know.

The game has one of my favorite endings in anything ever, so I watched this whole season thinking about how it would end. You can’t boil the conclusion down to just one theme, but something I think about a lot is this idea that love can be selfless, but it can also be selfish. It’s easy to root for Joel, but the choices he’s making are ultimately all about him — he had this awful experience losing somebody, and he’s not willing to let that happen again. Do you have an ending takeaway from Joel’s choices, or from the show in general?
My favorite thing this story has offered is empathy. Not every person who makes a bad choice is a bad person. They’re walking around with their own trauma and pain and loss and ways of reacting to love, whether it’s the absolute devastation of it or the joy. It shapes who they are. Even if someone is a perceived antagonist, we get to see what they loved, and what is deeply meaningful to them, and what they’ve sacrificed.

In this final confrontation between Joel and Marlene, fraught with decades of history, what she proposes could divide this little family he’s unwittingly created in the course of crossing the country. Marlene put this girl in his life, so is it wrong that she tries to take her away from him? As an audience member, I can’t tell Marlene she’s wrong, and I can’t tell Joel he’s wrong. I feel for both of them. What Merle hopes is that this will offer people fresh eyes with which they might look at other people and have a deeper understanding of one another. In our darkest days, how do you let your soul survive? How do you let your spirit rise above? And what would you do, or sacrifice, for love?

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TLOU’s Merle Dandridge Doesn’t Know If Marlene Was Right