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The Last Of Us season 1 finale.png

'The Last Of Us' Season Finale: Sins Of The Father-Figure

By Tori Preston | TV | March 13, 2023 |

By Tori Preston | TV | March 13, 2023 |

The Last Of Us season 1 finale.png

“What would I have done?” Over a decade ago, gamers finished their first play-throughs of The Last of Us with that question lingering in their minds. The secret of the game’s success wasn’t the fairly standard stealth mechanics or the limited inventory of supplies. It wasn’t the Infected or the Raiders or the side characters you met along the way, or the post-apocalyptic world filled with danger. It was the story the game told, sure — but more than that, it was how the story built toward two inescapable moral choices. Inescapable because you didn’t actually have a choice in them at all. You, the player, became complicit as Joel rampaged through the Firefly’s hospital, choosing the life of your surrogate daughter over the fate of humanity. There was no option not to proceed, short of turning the game off. If you wanted to see how the game ended, you needed to kill a building full of people, including perhaps the only medical personnel left in the world with the skills to find a cure for cordyceps. And in the end, you also had to sit by, controller in hand, as Joel chose to lie to Ellie about the whole thing in a cut-scene.

Of course, television viewers are used to sitting back and watching characters make decisions we don’t necessarily agree with. That’s, like, drama baby! So heading into this week’s final episode, I was curious if the show would manage to capture that same sense of frustration and discomfort. Would it be enough to directly translate the events of the game and hope they land the same way, and if not — would any changes to the material be received by fans of the game as anything other than a travesty?

Like the season premiere, episode nine — “Look For The Light” — chooses a fairly safe path right down the middle. The essential story beats hit the same, but there are flourishes that are entirely new creations for the series. Take, for example, the opening sequence: Another flashback, this time going all the way back to Ellie’s birth. A woman named Anna Williams attempts to outrun an Infected while simultaneously going into labor. She enters a house, calling out for someone only to find it empty. She’s on her own. So she heads upstairs and barricades herself in an abandoned nursery. She’s unable to stay silent as the contractions hit, and so the Infected finds her quickly, breaking down the door and pouncing on her. She stabs the Infected in the head — using the same knife we’ve seen Ellie use before — but it’s too late. The baby is born healthy, but Anna has been bitten. She’s going to turn.

Anna is played by Ashley Johnson, who voiced Ellie in the games — so there’s a sort of “Ellie birthing Ellie” symmetry to the whole affair. But even if that weren’t the case, the casting would still be spot on. Johnson not only looks like she could be related to Bella Ramsey but she carries the same determination and passion. Probably because she created it in the first place, but still! It works! The flashback itself has been added not simply to give Johnson a role in the adaptation but to explain what the games never did: How Ellie became immune. Hours later Marlene (Merle Dandridge, the actor who also originated the role in the game) arrives to find Anna holding a hungry Ellie. She explains that she was too scared to nurse the infant, not wanting her infection to spread to the child, but she insists that she cut the umbilical cord before she was bitten. We, the viewers, know that’s a lie. Anna cut the cord quickly, but only after she saw the bite. Apparently, enough cordyceps passed through to the baby Ellie that they sort of grew together — the fungus giving off signals that make her appear Infected to other cordyceps, but without actually taking her over completely (as Marlene later explains to Joel).

Anna asks Marlene, her close friend, to kill her and take her baby to safety, and that’s just what Marlene does. In fact, she was so serious about keeping her friend’s child safe that she allowed Ellie to be enrolled in FEDRA military school rather than keeping her with the revolutionary Fireflies, which says a whole lot about how she viewed her own group’s chances of survival. The point is, Marlene has always had a bond with Ellie, based on a deep sense of responsibility — a fact that this flashback also helps to establish, which makes the events to come all the more challenging.

Back in the present, Joel and Ellie are finally arriving in Salt Lake City. We can read Ellie’s uncharacteristic quiet as the inevitable aftermath of the brutal events of the previous episode, and Joel’s overly paternal response is the same. Now that he’s acknowledged the bond he feels toward Ellie (“baby girl”) he can’t help but act on it, trying to pull her out of her depression with promises of, uh, playing Boggle. Just some real Peak Dad sh*t. Unfortunately Joel never quite finds the right words to pull her back to reality. Instead, a surprise giraffe does the trick.

The Last Of Us Giraffe .png

This peaceful petting zoo interlude, followed by a reprisal of the same exchange we heard in episode two (Joel: “So, is it everything you hoped for?” Ellie: “It’s got its ups and downs, but you can’t deny that view.”), offers a strong reminder to the characters and the viewers that this world isn’t completely lost. There’s beauty even amidst the danger, which means there’s something worth fighting for. Joel offers Ellie a chance to back out, to return to Tommy’s camp and get on with her life, but she turns him down. When she asserts that “It can’t be for nothing,” she’s explaining how she’s found a purpose for all the tragedies that came before. After everything she’s done to get here, to survive when so many others didn’t, she doesn’t want to quit halfway. Of course, surviving is the purpose for everyone else in the world, because not everyone has the potential cure for the end of the world in their body. Those tragedies would have happened anyway. Her immunity hasn’t brought her luck, but she is lucky to be able to put it to some sort of use in the face of everything.

Ellie isn’t the only one to have found a purpose, though. When they enter an abandoned Army emergency camp, Joel tells the story of how he got the scar on his head: Not from missing someone else’s shot but from missing his own. After Sarah died he tried to end his own life, but he flinched at the last moment. Ellie assumes he’s telling her this story to prove that time heals all wounds, but Joel corrects her: “It wasn’t time that did it.” Cue meaningful glance at the surrogate daughter who healed his wounds! I’ve said before that I thought this season didn’t pace the development of Joel and Ellie’s relationship well. It focused too much on other characters in the front half of the season, and then sort of just jumped to a point where they are able to acknowledge how important they are to each other while in Jackson. However, after seeing Ellie struggle to save Joel and Joel fight to find her last week, I did actually think the final evolution of their relationship was well-earned. Ellie is willing to go anywhere with Joel, after she’s completed her mission, while Joel has found his inner-Daddy again and will do anything to protect Ellie… which is gonna be a problem. Because you see, last week Joel also finally revealed just how much of a monster he can be when it comes to finding Ellie. So it doesn’t bode well for anybody when the Fireflies find the pair first and capture them, knocking Joel out cold in the process.

Joel wakes up in the hospital they’d been searching for, with Marlene standing beside him. She explains that Ellie is being prepped for surgery because their doctor thinks he can isolate and recreate the signals her cordyceps produces, and use it to manufacture a cure. Joel, however, quickly realizes the flaw in this plan: Cordyceps travels to and grows in the brain. To get at Ellie’s, they have to perform brain surgery on her. And she’s not going to survive. Marlene assures Joel that Ellie isn’t scared, because they didn’t tell her the truth — she has no idea that the simple procedure she signed up for is a fatal one. For Marlene, it’s a necessary sacrifice, breaking her promise to protect the child of her long-gone best friend in order to save the world. Obviously, Joel thinks otherwise — so Marlene orders her soldiers to escort him out of the hospital. She should have killed him, but she also knows she owes him for bringing Ellie this far when Marlene herself barely made it across the country intact. But seriously. She should have just killed Joel, because it is the only thing that could have prevented the inevitable.

Joel breaks away from his escort, killing them and taking their weapons. Then he makes his way through the hospital shooting everyone that gets in his way (pulling guns and ammo off the bodies in a nod to the game). He makes it all the way to the surgery room where Ellie has just been put under anesthesia, and when the doctor tries to stop him Joel shoots him too. Zero hesitation.

There is a reason the camera lingers on the doctor’s body, his brains leaking out onto the linoleum, so hold onto that image for the next season — because yes, The Last Of Us is coming back for more, adapting the game’s sequel into at least two more seasons and maybe more. And speaking of the sequel, there was another cameo worth mentioning in the finale: Laura Bailey, who voiced Abby, one of the main characters in The Last of Us: Part II, appeared in that surgery room as one of the nurses.

Anyway, Joel carries an unconscious Ellie all the way to the parking garage, where Marlene intercepts him and tries one last time to convince him to give the girl back. We don’t see his response at first, because the show jumps to Joel speeding away in an SUV while Ellie awakens in the back seat. But when he lies to her about the events that transpired — how the Fireflies actually had found dozens of immune people, so they simply ran some tests on Ellie and let her go, and how some Raiders attacked the hospital which is why Joel had to escape with Ellie so abruptly — we see what really happened: Joel executed Marlene in cold blood, to keep her from coming after them. Ellie looks suspicious of Joel’s story, but drops it for the time being, not returning to the subject until they’re hiking the final miles back into Jackson.

While overlooking their new home, Ellie gathers herself for one more confrontation. After explaining to Joel how she got bitten, how the first person she ever killed was Riley, and how many deaths she’s felt responsible for since, she asks him point blank: “Swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true.” He tells her it is. And after moment’s thought, she nods and says “Okay.”

Does she really believe him? Probably not. But she doesn’t really have any choice. And that is, to me, the part of this story that hurts the most. At one point Marlene tried to justify her actions to Joel by claiming it’s what Ellie would have wanted to do, and yes — I absolutely think Ellie would have willingly sacrificed herself for that cure. For her purpose. But the fact is, Marlene didn’t give her a choice in the matter. She didn’t tell Ellie the truth, didn’t get her consent. And likewise Joel stormed in and took Ellie away without giving her a chance to decide her own fate, then continued to lie to her about it. He could have fought all the way to the surgery room and held them at gun point until Ellie woke up and at least given her the choice to leave or proceed, but he didn’t. He knew what she’d choose and didn’t want to accept it.

When I played the game, I wondered if I would have sacrificed the world to save Ellie — that was my “What would I have done?” But watching the show, I think the emphasis was correctly placed on Joel’s lies. That was his sin, just as it was Marlene’s. Turns out I can accept the extinction of the human race, but removing someone’s chance for consent is a bridge too far. Perhaps there was no happy ending to this story, but there was a right decision to make. Just as Bill and Frank found grace in the end by going out on their own terms, Ellie could have had that too. If she’d been given the chance.

I would have given her that chance, I think. Would you?

Assorted thoughts:

- Gee, I hope Ellie never learns the truth, amirite?!

- Seeing Joel boost Ellie up to the platform so she could drop a ladder made me so happy, because that’s just one of those dumb video game things that you had to do all the time. Glad they acknowledged it. Also glad they didn’t have the characters do it like twice an episode.

- I don’t want to go into detail about the game sequel, except to say that I’m glad they’re adapting it and I’m glad they’re open to playing it out over two or more seasons, because it’s a complex story that deserves room to unfold. I even think there’s a chance the show could improve on the game in certain ways.

- Likewise, I think The Last Of Us was about as good an adaptation of the game as I could have hoped for. I think it needed more Infected, and more combat in general, but I also appreciated the time spent on flashbacks and adding context to the story. The fact is that, for most of the runtime it’s little more than a well-done Zombie show, and we’ve seen those before. What made the game work was that ending, and the way it stuck with you long after the credits rolled. With this finale, I think the show managed to do that ending justice — and that’s really all I wanted the show to do.