By Tori Preston | TV | February 27, 2023 |
By Tori Preston | TV | February 27, 2023 |
In high school, I remember my boyfriend threw me my own prom because he wasn’t going to be around to take me that year. He cooked me dinner (pasta, slightly crunchy), bought me flowers (and forgot to give them to me), and even hung string lights in his backyard so we could slow dance. To 17-year-old me, that was my first taste of all-caps ROMANCE, baby! Sure, our relationship ended the way so many first loves do (emotional manipulation and cheating after failing the jump to long distance during college), but the night itself remained untarnished. It also probably helped that neither of us ended the evening with zombie bites.
Episode Seven, titled “Left Behind,” tells the story of Ellie’s own first taste of grand romance: A late-night adventure with her best friend that turns into her first date. When Riley (Storm Reid, A Wrinkle In Time) arrives to whisk Ellie away from her FEDRA military dorm, saying “Come with me for a few hours and have the best night of your life,” you didn’t need to have played the game to guess that the night might end in tragedy. This is The Last of Us you’re watching! It always hurts somehow! And sure enough, you could easily say that “Left Behind” tells the story of how Ellie got infected, though that would be insultingly reductive. What makes “Left Behind” an important chapter in Ellie’s history isn’t the bite, but the fact that Riley was absolutely right. This was still the best night of Ellie’s life, despite it all.
The proof has been there all along, in every tiny tidbit Ellie has revealed about herself during the past six episodes. Her knowledge of Mortal Kombat II, her ever-present pun book, her familiarity with the taste of whiskey and 80s music — everything leading up to the loaded argument with Joel in Jackson, when she vehemently proclaimed that she knew all about loss, too. “Left Behind” is largely a flashback episode, but unlike “Long, Long Time,” which told the entire story of Bill and Frank’s twenty-year romance, this flashback covers a mere handful of hours in Ellie’s past that still manage to be her whole life. This is everything that matters. This is what made Ellie the person we know now. And the reason it works is because the show has intentionally built to this episode from the start by seeding in all of those little details we saw reflected back in this hour — which makes this probably the first time I would unequivocally say that the show did something better than the game.
Yes, “Left Behind” is based on events from the game, but specifically from events covered in the game’s DLC. Ellie’s adventure with Riley is largely intact, and the springboard for the flashback is still Ellie trying to save Joel’s life after he was impaled at the University of Eastern Colorado, but the connective tissue is less about Ellie’s emotional state. Instead, Ellie goes to a mall to find a first-aid kit to help Joel, and that triggers her memory of the last time she was in a mall. With Riley. The night they were infected. It’s a less resonant comparison, obviously, but it also makes for a frustrating play-through because it intercuts the two mall-ventures. One minute you’re Ellie, trying on masks in a Halloween store with Riley, and the next you’re Ellie all alone, silently shooting infected with arrows. Because the DLC was released after the game, it’s all a flashback from the point of view of the player, but it’s one that is more focused on explaining how Ellie saved Joel — at the expense of following the emotional through-line of Ellie’s blossoming queer romance. Frankly, all the show had to do was present Ellie and Riley’s date without interruption and it would already be better than the DLC.
The show goes a bit farther, though, by fleshing out Ellie’s existence in military school, and it’s hardly a surprise when she’s hauled in before Captain Kwong (Terry Chen) for disobedience or insubordination or whatever you call it when you send a bully to the infirmary for 15 stitches (Ellie gonna Ellie). Instead of sending her to the hole once again for discipline, he tries a different tactic: He talks to her about her future. According to Kwong, Ellie has two paths ahead of her. She can keep being disobedient and wind up as nothing more than a low-level grunt, or she can swallow her pride and use her intelligence to end up on an officer track where she can live a comfortable life. There’s something to be said for the way Kwong frames FEDRA’s role in keeping society safe, and how that compares to what Riley hears from the Fireflies and how both girls are being fed propaganda while the reality of the situation is somewhere in between, but what matters more is that of the two paths she’s offered, we know Ellie goes a third way. She didn’t wind up with FEDRA at all. Ellie following her own path becomes something of a reoccurring theme of the episode, one that I’ll come back to, but it all starts here.
We’re left to infer that the reason Ellie’s been acting out more than usual lately is that her best friend and roommate, Riley, has disappeared — which is why Ellie’s so surprised to find Riley crawling through her window at 2 am, promising to show her the best night of her life. It’s a happy surprise but also a resentful one, as Ellie would really like some answers about what Riley’s been up to and why she didn’t think to let Ellie know she wasn’t dead all this time. Before she can get those answers, though, Ellie has to play along with the plan, and that’s how the girls wind up dodging FEDRA patrols, leaping rooftops and stealing whiskey from a corpse on their way to Riley’s mysterious destination: A mall. One that used to be closed off and full of infected, but has now been cleared and, better yet, hooked back to the power grid!
Riley promises to show Ellie the four wonders of the mall, though that number is almost immediately bumped up to five when Ellie is impressed by the escalator. Their big night out is a believable mix of post-apocalyptic hijinks and normal teenage mischief as their awe at the remnants of the before-times blends with their joy at breaking the rules and being together at all, but I’m curious when the penny dropped for you that this girl’s night out was actually a date. Was it when Riley held Ellie’s hand to guide her? Was it the long, lingering looks they each sneaked when the other wasn’t aware? Was it Riley laughing at the thought of Ellie in Victoria’s Secret lingerie, or Ellie’s self-conscious reaction to those bygone remains of feminine performance? For me it was all those things, but it really landed when Riley first produced the five-dollar bill needed for the photo booth, and then revealed that she’d spent an hour breaking the change machine so they’d have quarters to play in the arcade. Riley planned this night, in detail, not just as an apology for disappearing or as a final goodbye before shipping out with the Fireflies to Atlanta but because she wanted to make these special memories with Ellie. Their innocence and romantic inexperience, combined with the truth of Riley’s whereabouts and the reality that they’re on two sides of a political divide now, provide a tantalizing push and pull to the evening as their feelings rise closer to the surface. But like so many dates that start out as anything but, this one only became a date when someone took the first step to make it something more. They could have danced to Etta James with their little monster masks on, and then gone their separate ways. They could have woken up in the morning with nothing but a final memory shared with their best friend, their secret crushes locked away in their hearts forever.
Instead, Ellie took her mask off and told Riley, “Don’t go.” Riley said “OK.” And then they kissed. All those longing looks, all of Ellie’s frustration at being abandoned by Riley and Riley’s determination to make it up to her, all of it pays off in a first kiss that transforms the night into their first date. And then an infected comes in to ruin the moment.
Once again, I think the show plays this moment better than the game by only having this one infected attack. In the game, the girls flee a horde of them and almost make it to safety, until Ellie falls off some scaffolding by the exit and Riley comes to save her. It’s frustrating because, as a player, you did all this work to fight your way clear only to fail because the game dictated it. Ellie has to get bitten, and Riley has to die. It’s inevitable. In the show, we also know what needs to happen to this pair, but in keeping with the tight emotional focus of the episode the inevitable happens after the kiss, not after some near-escape. It only takes one zombie to derail their future — an infected that Ellie kills with a knife to the head, the same way she did in the basement of that Cumberland Farms in Episode Three. But not before it bites Ellie and Riley both.
Faced with their own turn toward the fungal, Riley poses two new paths to Ellie. Just like with Captain Kwong, one road is easy and one is hard. There’s taking the easy way out, ending their lives before they turn, or they can keep going, refusing to give up whatever time they have left. Riley wants to keep going, “Be all poetic and sh*t and lose our minds together,” and Ellie agrees — and we don’t have to see how it ends for them. We know. In a matter of hours, or days, Riley turns first, and Ellie? Ellie takes the third path. She survives. She’s immune.
The frame for the flashback is Ellie tending Joel in the present. She’s managed to drag him to an abandoned house and found safety in the basement. At the start of the episode, Joel tells her to leave him behind and head back to Tommy in Jackson. Unlike Kwong and Riley, he only offers Ellie one path forward, but when we come back to her after the flashback we find her once again taking her own path. She chooses to stay with Joel, for whatever time they have left. If last week’s episode was all about Joel’s fear of failure coming to fruition, then this week is about Ellie’s fear of being left behind. Not left behind to die, but left behind by the dead — by everyone she cares about. She goes upstairs, finds a needle and thread, and proceeds to stitch Joel’s wound. But not before they hold hands, admitting without words how far their feelings have evolved.
So that’s seven episodes down, with two more to go. As seen in the preview for next week, Troy Baker, who voiced Joel in the game, is going to finally make his appearance as a member of a new group of raiders who are divided about whether or not to take Ellie into their ranks (whether she likes it or not). And after that is the finale. Basically: Enjoy “Left Behind.” It’s probably the last nice thing we’re going to see all season.