The Last of Us
In 2007, game designer Clint Hocking coined the term ludonarrative dissonance to explain a common gap in the video-game experience between a game’s narrative elements and its gameplay. To use an oft-cited example, the Uncharted series depicts its hero Nathan Drake as a lovable, sensitive rogue in its narrative sequences but requires him to act as a cold-blooded mass murderer in the games’ many fight scenes. Whether ludonarrative dissonance is a problem is open for debate (and it’s inspired plenty). For some, it’s just a quirky part of gaming. But one thing’s for sure: Film and television have no ludonarrative dissonance.
It would be easy for this season-ending episode of The Last of Us to adapt the final chapter of the game that inspired it in ways that would make the story more palatable and allow Joel to emerge looking like a hero, or at least less morally gray (dark gray, it’s easy to argue) than he’s become by the final moments of the game. The Last of Us, in its original incarnation, climaxes with a seemingly endless shootout in a hospital in which Joel racks up a body count staggering enough — especially in light of its outcome — to make players question whether not they’ve been playing the hero or the villain the whole time. (And, in some respects, it’s not even a good example of ludonarrative dissonance since, slaughter and all, it’s consistent with the grim world the game has created.) The series didn’t have to do the same.
But it does, in the process creating a harrowing season finale that ends with our heroes returning to the safety of Jackson. It’s a happy ending, but at what cost? And can it really be called a happy ending at all?
First, however, “Look for the Light” opens with the moment that eventually leads to Joel and Ellie’s cross-country journey. It’s not clear where or when we are, or the identity of the heavily pregnant woman in distress as the episode begins, but all becomes clear before long. The where is a barren countryside with the Boston skyline in the distance. The when is approximately fourteen years ago. And the woman is Anna (Ashley Johnson), Ellie’s long-dead mother. This is Ellie’s birthday.
It doesn’t look like Ellie’s going to make it into the world alive at first, however. Retreating to an upstairs room in a dilapidated farmhouse — the former nursery, no less — Anna blocks the door with a chair and grasps her belly, and flicks out a switchblade as an unseen Infected bangs at the door. The barricade doesn’t last for long, and Anna gives birth as she’s successfully fighting off her attacker. Holding the crying baby she seems to grasp instantly her daughter’s character, saying, “You fucking tell ’em, Ellie.” But there’s a cloud hanging over the moment: Anna’s attacker has bitten her.
The flashback continues after the credits, where we learn a bit more about Ellie and her mother and, just as significantly, their relationship with Marlene, the Firefly leader we haven’t seen since the series’ earliest episodes. It’s a party led by Marlene that finds Anna upstairs, where she’s holding Ellie in one hand as she sings to her, and holding her knife to her own throat with the other, preparing to take her own life rather than turn. Anna knows it’s the end, and she hasn’t even nursed Ellie, fearing she’ll spread the Cordyceps infection.
Anna expresses two dying wishes to a reluctant Marlene after reminding her they’ve known each other their entire lives: (1) She wants Marlene to take Ellie somewhere safe (and make sure she gets the switchblade Anna’s carrying). (2) Anna wants Marlene to take her life before she becomes one of the Infected. After fearing she can’t fulfill either wish, Marlene performs both. The sound of the gun blast causes Ellie to cry.
From that moment the episode cuts to Ellie in the present, quiet and wearing a troubled expression. Maybe the horrific events of the previous episode are weighing on her. Maybe it’s some other incident from their journey, a memory of Riley, just the general state of the world, or the fact that the end of their journey is in sight. Ellie’s been through a lot and is about to go through even more.
So, too, is Joel, but his opening moments find him in relatively high spirits. He’s found a can of Beefaroni and a seemingly intact Boggle set. Ellie smiles and nods, but she can’t match Joel’s upbeat tone. Joel has turned his thoughts to what’s next. In his mind, they’re just one short step away from a future they’ll share together, one in which Joel can teach Ellie guitar as, ideally, the cure she helped create makes its way around the world. Ellie, however, seems unsure.
As they arrive in town, they work through a familiar routine of finding some high ground and plotting a route that will take them around the rubble. It’s in this process that Ellie finally finds something that lifts her mood: giraffes grazing in an open field in the middle of what was once a ballpark. The episode slows down as Joel and Ellie take in the sights. Ellie laughs like a kid as they feed the giraffe before heading to higher ground for a better view.
It’s a moment of reflection for Joel and Ellie, and it feels like one for the series, too. The grazing giraffes and the overgrown ruins of the city look less like the aftermath of a disaster than a fresh start. Nature has reclaimed the space, and it doesn’t look like a wasteland anymore. It looks like what comes after a wasteland. Joel takes the opportunity to caution Ellie, but she’s not having it. “Maybe there’s nothing bad out there, but, so far, there’s always been something bad out there,” Joel says, but she cuts him off. “We’re still here, though.”
It’s the next exchange that will haunt him. Suggesting they turn back, return to Jackson and live their lives. Ellie can’t even consider it, saying, “After all we’ve been through. Everything I’ve done. It can’t be for nothing.” She’ll stick with him after this is over. She wants nothing more than to stick with him, wherever he goes. But first, she has to see this through: “There’s no halfway with this. We finish what we started.”
Exiting to the field below, they start to make their way to the hospital through the remains of an army emergency camp. When Joel mentions he once spent time in a place like that, Ellie brings up Sarah and Joel offers none of the hostility he used to offer at the mention of his daughter’s name. Then Joel tells Ellie a story he’s never told her before. That scar on his face, the one he told her was from someone who shot and missed, is the result of a failed suicide attempt Joel made almost immediately after Sarah’s death. “The reason I’m telling you all this,” Joel says before Ellie cuts him off again, saying, “I know why you’re telling me all this.” “So time heals all wounds, I guess,” she continues. Joel’s reply: “It wasn’t time that did it.”
Stop the episode here, in this pastoral, post-apocalyptic scene as Joel wipes tears from his eyes with just over twenty minutes left in the episode, and the season has a lovely happy ending, and in some ways, a logical one, too. The Last of Us is the story of a father who’s lost a daughter and a girl who never had a family finding each other. You could even keep going and watch a lighthearted denouement as Ellie hits Joel with some more, in his words, “shitty puns.”
But it’s not the end of the episode, and what follows throws into question what kind of story we’ve been watching all season, which now seems bigger than a tale of two hurt people forming a surrogate family. As Joel rates the puns, they’re ambushed by an armored patrol and knocked out by a stun grenade. After a fade to white Joel wakes up to a familiar emblem and Marlene saying, “Welcome to the Fireflies.” They’ve reached their destination. Joel has only one question: “Where’s Ellie?”
On this topic, Marlene is evasive, at least at first, telling Joel she’s fine and mostly worried about him, then offering words of admiration for what the two have accomplished. Marlene eventually reveals the whole story: Ellie’s unusual biology truly does seem like it will provide a cure for the cordyceps infection. The Infected mistake her for one of their own and, after a surgical procedure, they should be able to create a cure. But that will only be possible with the removal of Ellie’s brain. She’ll die, but she’ll save everyone.
For Joel, this is not an acceptable solution, even after Marlene reveals her long history with Ellie. Marlene gambles that she can reason with Joel, and if that doesn’t work, she has the force to neutralize him. She doesn’t want to kill him — she won’t take his life for the greater good unless she has to — but she will have her forces take him to the highway with nothing but his pack and Ellie’s switchblade.
It’s a miscalculation. Marlene underestimates Joel’s will, his fighting skills, and his mercilessness. After killing the men charged with escorting him, Joel blazes his way through the hospital, taking out everyone he meets, whether they oppose him or try to surrender. He takes the weapons of those he kills while discarding the used-up ones he employed in killing them, just like his video game predecessor. And after making his way to a pediatric floor covered in whimsical murals of elephants, monkeys, and other creatures (but apparently no giraffes), he finds Ellie being prepped for surgery and kills the doctor trying to stand in his way. As a pair of nurses cower — the only survivors Joel leaves behind — he exits with Ellie in his arms.
In the hospital Marlene accosts him at gunpoint and tries her best to dissuade him, saying, “Can’t keep her safe forever. No matter how hard you try. No matter how many people you kill, she’s gonna grow up, Joel. And then you’ll die, or she’ll leave. Then what? How long until she’s torn apart by Infected or murdered by raiders because she lives in a broken world that you could have saved.” There is no lie in what she says. And little of what we’ve seen in The Last of Us so far goes against what she says next, that Ellie would sacrifice herself for a cure. And that Joel knows it.
Yet as troubled as Joel’s face looks as he stares back at Marlene, there’s no going back. The episode then cuts to Joel and Ellie on the road in the vehicle Joel was planning to take from the parking lot before Marlene intercepted him. When Ellie wakes up, the lies begin immediately. Ellie isn’t the only one who’s immune to the Cordyceps. There are dozens like her, but the scientists could do nothing with them and had given up on a cure. As to why she’s still wearing a dressing gown, well, raiders attacked the hospital, and Joel had to rush her to safety. And, yes, he tells her, people got hurt. But when she asks if Marlene is okay, Joel has no answer, saying only that he’s taking her home. But we know what Ellie only suspects: Marlene is not okay. Joel has killed her.
Some time passes, time enough for Ellie to find some proper clothes and for the pair to make it most of the way back to Jackson. And though they’ve been able to drive most of the way, they’re going to have to hike the last few miles, just like old times. We saw a brief glimpse of the old, girlish Ellie when she met the giraffes, but the more troubled, grown-up Ellie has returned as the episode draws to a close. Now talking openly about Sarah, Joel recalls how he and his daughter used to hike and talks about how the two would have gotten along even though Sarah was a lot girlier. (“I’m not saying that you’re not girly,” Joel says. Another interruption: “I’m not.”)
Sarah, he concludes, would have thought Ellie was funny. But there’s little lightness to Ellie as they approach Jackson. Just as Joel recounted his darkest moment, Ellie shares hers, telling him about the first time she killed someone, which she’d declined to discuss before. It was Riley who turned while Ellie did not, forcing Ellie to kill the best friend she’d loved for a long time. Ellie goes on: Riley was the first to die, and her life since then has been a trail of death. Was it all meaningless? Is it all her fault?
Joel does her best to talk her out of the darkness with some uplifting words about how you keep going and find something new to fight for, leading to a final instance of Ellie cutting him off before he can finish his thought. “Swear to me,” she says, “that everything you said about the Fireflies is true.” He does. Ellie takes a moment to process this, and Bella Ramsey lets us see there’s a lot she’s not saying in her moment of silence. She nods, says, “Okay,” and the episode ends.
Development on The Last of Us Part 2 began shortly after the first game’s successful release, and there’s a second season of the series in the works. Neither, however, was necessarily a sure thing, and it’s worth considering this final episode as the conclusion of a fully told story rather than a setup for what’s to come. It’s not a comforting story. Ellie may not know the full truth and, for all she’s been through, she might still be young enough to live in a kind of forcible denial to shield herself from the reality of what Joel has done. But it won’t last. In Marlene’s words, she is going to grow up in a world she might have saved if Joel didn’t think he couldn’t live without her. What’s worse, she’ll suspect she could have made a difference.
“Endings mean everything to me,” showrunner Craig Mazin told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of this show’s premiere. This is not the ending of The Last of Us, but it’s definitely an ending to a full and complete story. And though the sun is shining and safety awaits Joel and Ellie, it’s as dark in its own way as any moment this moving, disturbing series has provided.
• The question hanging over these final scenes: Would Ellie have sacrificed herself? Does “no halfway” mean she’ll give up her life to see this through? In a way, Marlene undid the group’s efforts herself by never offering Ellie the choice. Whether Ellie would have voluntarily sacrificed herself remains an open question. Marlene may very well have been right, and by not telling Ellie wanted to spare the agony of knowing her fate (though removing her choice is its own kind of cruelty). On the other hand, maybe David was right. Maybe Ellie is destined to become a pitiless Übermensch who believes herself beyond traditional notions of good and evil. (Or, at the very least, a second Joel.) The answer will have to wait until another season, if we get one at all.
• About season two: This first season covers the entirety of the first Last of Us game. In the same interview referenced above, Mazin and The Last of Us creator Neil Druckmann hint that the second season will move onto The Last of Us, Part 2. That involves a time leap and, as those familiar with the sequel know, some fundamental changes to the setup of the series. Though it might make sense to set a season in the time between the two games, another quote from Mazin suggests this won’t be the case: “I don’t like filler.”
• Ashley Johnson, who plays Ellie’s mother, Anna, originated the role of Ellie in the games. Looking at her, however, it would be easy to believe she was cast for her resemblance to Ramsey. That’s not to ignore the fact that she gives a terrifically intense performance in her scenes. Both she and Troy Baker, who appeared in the preceding episode, really deliver the good in parts that are far more than mere cameos.
• Remember the Infected? Apart from the flashback that opens the episode, it’s been a while since we’ve seen them, hasn’t it? It’s certainly been a while since we’ve seen them trouble Joel and Ellie. They’re memorable monsters, but by the end of this season, it’s become clear that The Last of Us isn’t really about them at all.
• Another element of the show that’s largely fallen away, at least in the discussion of it: the question of whether or not it would be the rare legitimately good video-game adaptation. Its game origins aren’t irrelevant. I certainly reference them in the preceding recap, and they’re evident in moments like Joel giving Ellie a boost so she can toss down a ladder that will allow them to climb to the next level. (You can practically sense the autosave kicking in when Joel climbs up.) But The Last of Us makes them easy to forget. That’s largely a testament to the strength of the source material’s narrative, given how closely the series sticks to the source material. Yet some of its best moments — the extraordinary third episode, the idyll in Jackson, which doesn’t appear until the sequel — diverge from or expand on it. It’s a smart adaptation, in other words, one that figures out how to translate a story from one medium to another without losing its essence. With luck, the sure-to-be-difficult second season will be able to do the same. Everything in this one certainly suggests it will.
Note: This recap has been updated to correct the name of Ellie’s mother.