The Last of Us
When we last saw our heroes, Joel and Ellie, things weren’t looking so great for Joel. As “Left Behind” opens, the situation remains dire. Sure, Ellie’s found what was once a cozy suburban home they can use as a hideout, one with a garage big enough to accommodate their horse, but Joel is in critical condition after suffering the stab wound that ended the previous episode. In fact, Joel’s pretty sure he’s dying, telling Ellie she needs to leave him, head north, and look for Tommy. And Ellie at least considers it. She gives a look that suggests she’s steeling herself for the decision, and though she hesitates before turning the doorknob, she walks through it.
Cue flashback. The episode’s action shifts back to the Boston QZ and Ellie’s life as a FEDRA soldier in training, a grind of schoolwork (with a heavy emphasis on physical fitness), and bullying at the hands of a much taller classmate named Bethany. Or at least attempted bullying. When Bethany taunts Ellie by saying she doesn’t fight and that the friend who does fight isn’t here, Ellie responds with a punch that, we’ll soon learn, sends Bethany to the infirmary in need of stitches.
That punch also lands Ellie in the principal’s office, where she talks to Captain Kwong (Terry Chen) about her behavioral issues. Rather than put her in the hole, again, Kwong lays out the two paths ahead of her: She can be a grunt all her life, doing “shit jobs” and taking orders from awful people like Bethany, or she can live the comparatively cozy life of an officer. And it’s obvious he’d like to have a smart kid like Ellie as an officer. Kwong’s a FEDRA true believer, telling Ellie, “No matter what anyone out there says or thinks, we’re the only ones holding this whole thing together.” Without FEDRA, the only other choice is chaos.
He’s not necessarily wrong, either, at least based on what we’ve witnessed over the course of the series. Except for Jackson — a tiny, self-contained, isolated commune — the series has depicted the choice between chaos and FEDRA’s fascism as the only options. Maybe Kansas City would have worked out better if Kathleen had not been so focused on revenge, but we’ll never know. At the same time, it presents the Fireflies’ cause as morally just but one that’s being fought for using reprehensible methods. That tension complicates the show, and it’s at the heart of this episode.
Ellie tells Kwong she’d prefer to follow the officer path, though that might just be a means to an end. It gets her Walkman back and returns her to a room filled with her stuff, including the first volume of No Pun Intended (subtitle: “This Otter be Good”), a stack of comics, some cassette tapes (that will figure in later in the episode), a map of the moon, and posters for Innerspace and Mortal Kombat II. It’s a very Ellie living space, apart from the empty bed and bare walls on its opposite end.
As she sleeps, the bed’s former owner returns: Ellie’s best friend, Riley (Storm Reid). This is the protector Bethany referenced earlier, and her return fills Ellie with a mix of delight and anger. Riley’s been gone for three weeks, and Ellie had started to think she was dead. Instead, Riley has a revelation. She’s joined the Fireflies. This is no small development. Sure, they’ve both talked about liberating the QZ and how much FEDRA sucks, but talk is one thing. Joining up with terrorists who kill soldiers — the job they’ve been training to take — is another.
As a kind of apology, Riley offers Ellie the chance to come with her and have “the best night of your life.” Ellie might be mad at her friend, but she can’t turn down an opportunity like that. Who could?
They head off into the Boston night, hopping across rooftops before happening upon the grim sight of a corpse of a man who’s decided to take his own life with a cocktail of sleeping pills and top-shelf liquor, which they surmise must have cost him a fortune. (Ellie, in typical fashion, is both fascinated and grossed out by the body.) After the floor collapses beneath them, they grab the booze and go. Back on the roof, Riley recounts how she was recruited by the Fireflies, a pretty simple process, really. After telling a woman (Marlene, it will turn out) that she doesn’t like FEDRA, Riley was in, simple as that. Whether out of the need to argue or as a result of Kwong’s speech, Ellie suggests that it’s FEDRA keeping the place together and keeps pushing the argument. But they can’t debate the issue all night. Next stop: the mall.
As A-ha’s “Take on Me,” a song from Ellie’s stack of tapes, plays, Riley introduces Ellie to the abandoned but largely intact shopping mall, promising to show her four wonders. (Ellie’s fascination with the “electric stairs” makes it five wonders, however.) As they explore, they find the mall stripped of postapocalyptic essentials like shoes but with more frivolous items that have been left behind, like the lingerie in the windows of Victoria’s Secret. When Riley says she’s trying to picture Ellie in a thong, they laugh it off. But then Ellie pauses to fix her hair in the shop’s windows, the comment not quite forgotten.
More wonders await, starting with a carousel that plays a dreamy calliope rendition of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” (The show’s taking a little poetic license here since a mall carousel is far more likely to play “Turkey in the Straw,” but it’s still a nice moment.) The two friends drink and razz each other, and, for the moment at least, any tension about Riley’s choice to join the Fireflies falls away. It doesn’t last, and Riley counters Ellie’s doubt with the information that the Fireflies have “set things right” in other cities. Is she just buying into Firefly propaganda, or does she know something Ellie doesn’t? Either way, Ellie’s suggestion that Riley return goes nowhere, in part because Riley already knows she’s been assigned sewage detail. There’s no changing the world when you’re supervising other people shoveling shit.
They press on, stopping first at a photo booth (another wonder) and then at an even more remarkable location: a fully functioning video arcade. What’s more, its selection includes Mortal Kombat II, a game Ellie knows all about even though she’s never played it before. But as they entertain themselves with gruesome fatalities, the camera starts to move ominously into what appears to be an American Girl store where a dormant Infected is starting to stir.
Though unaware of the looming danger, Ellie notes that it’s getting late and that she needs to return, but Riley’s not having it. Promising Ellie a gift, Riley brings her to where she’s been camping out in the back of a taco restaurant. It’s also where she’s stashed a treasure in the form of the second volume of No Pun Intended (the one with which Ellie’s tortured Joel during their trip). But the levity doesn’t last for long when Ellie spots a stash of bombs, a sobering reminder that Riley has thrown in with a group she regards as terrorists, however inclined she might be to sympathize with their point of view.
This reminder not only prompts her to leave but also makes her question Riley’s motives. Was all this just a long recruitment pitch? Riley quickly assures her it was not, but the reality is even worse. Riley has been transferred to Atlanta and will be leaving tomorrow. Even her attempt to get Marlene to let her bring Ellie with her has failed. This night, the one she told Ellie would be the best night of her life, will also be the last one they spend together.
Unless, that is, Ellie can get Riley to change her mind. Which, it turns out, she can. Or, more accurately, she doesn’t have to. After taking steps to leave the mall, Ellie returns, following the sound of screams to a Halloween store, the fifth wonder of the mall, where Riley awaits and explains herself. Ellie never had a family, but Riley did, and the Fireflies, whatever their flaws, want her. But Ellie wants her, too, and can’t imagine life without her, which would be a life without someone who appreciates bad puns and violent video games and dancing around in Halloween masks. When the masks come off, Ellie asks Riley to stay. She agrees without any hesitation, and they kiss. “What do we do now,” Ellie asks. “We’re gonna figure it out,” Riley replies.
If the credits started rolling and the story ended here, we’d have a happy ending. But The Last of Us is a heartbreaker, and the story keeps going. That awakened Infected has not gone away and emerges to fight them both until Ellie stabs him in the head. But only after both girls have been bitten. There goes the happy ending. Nonetheless, Ellie and Riley decide to write their own ending. Like Kwong, Riley offers Ellie two options. After considering taking their own lives, they vow to stick together until the infection takes them. They’ll stick together whether “it’s two minutes or two days.”
We know what happens to Ellie next and can assume Riley’s fate, even if the episode doesn’t depict it. It goes without saying that this is a formative moment for Ellie, a character who does not give up, no matter how overwhelming the threat. Back to the present: If Ellie thought for a moment about abandoning Joel, the thought didn’t last for long. She returns with a needle and a thread, determined to stitch up her guardian and do her best to keep him alive. As the episode ends, she’s sewing together his wound (shades of the stitches she once made Bethany get). It hurts Joel. It might not even work. But Ellie has to try.
• How terrific are Reid and Bella Ramsey in this episode? Ramsey’s been great all season, but we see aspects of Ellie here we’ve never seen before. Beyond Ellie’s feelings for Riley, we get a glimpse of who she was before hitting the road with Joel. And while FEDRA School Ellie very much squares with the Ellie we’ve gotten to know, the episode offers a look at a character who’s still figuring out who she is. And, for that matter, still a kid, as is Riley. They have to deal with adult matters like sexuality and postapocalyptic politics, but, like teens before the apocalypse, they really just want to goof around and fall in love and decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Ramsey and Reid play those feelings beautifully, putting up a lot of false bravado that can’t hide the fact that they’re scared and unsure and stuck in a world far crueler than the world they deserve.
• This episode is taken from the Left Behind DLC of the original The Last of Us game. Both, of course, owe a debt to Dawn of the Dead, the second of George Romero’s zombie movies, which largely takes place in a shopping mall that, briefly, becomes a civilized oasis from the apocalypse outside.
• Ellie’s musical taste is a reminder that pop culture has frozen and flattened. There are no new bands for her and the rest of her generation to be into, so they look to the past for cool stuff, not really caring when it’s from or what genre it belongs to. A-ha’s “Take on Me” was a big hit in 1985. Etta James’s 1968 recording of Sonny and Cher’s signature hit, “I Got You Babe,” was a non-album single that didn’t make much of a dent on the charts at the time. (It’s now usually included as a bonus track on James’s great album Tell Mama.) None of this matters to Ellie and Riley. They just like what they like (and what they can find).
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