Yes, that happened. Yes, that’s how the game ends. No, we are still not over it. Let’s sit down and talk about the season finale of The Last of Us.
These days everyone loves to judge media by its length. “Long is good” and “short is bad” is an accepted way of thinking. Well, with “Look for the Light,” the ninth and final episode of The Last of Us season one, that gets thrown out entirely. It’s the shortest episode of the season, and yet its 44-minute runtime is filled with game-changing substance. Case in point, the episode’s cold open, which starts mysterious and builds into maybe the most significant scene in the entire season. Until, well, the end of the episode.
A woman named Anna (Ashley Johnson) is running in the woods. She’s pregnant. Behind her, we hear the sounds of a clicker in pursuit. Anna finds an old farmhouse that she expects will have people in it but it’s empty. As she runs up the stairs, her water breaks. This baby is coming. She barricades herself in a room and takes out a knife. A knife that, by this point, should look rather familiar. Did you figure it out at this point?
The clicker makes its way into the house. It runs up the stairs and is now banging at the bedroom door. The door gives way and the clicker attacks Anna. There’s a struggle and almost simultaneously three things happen: Anna stabs the clicker in the head, she gets bitten, and her baby arrives. Anna cuts the umbilical cord and looks adoringly at her crying baby. “You fucking tell ‘em, Ellie,” she says. Yup. We just saw the moment of Ellie’s birth and a potential explanation of why she, out of everyone, is immune: infection happened at the time of birth. It’s a part of her.
It’s a lot to take in (especially when you realize Ashley Johnson plays Ellie in the video games, so she kind of gives birth to herself)—so thankfully we have a few minutes to sit with what’s just happened as the opening credits roll. When things pick back up, we’re still in the past. Marlene (Merle Dandridge) arrives with a few fellow Fireflies. They find the house locked but take the back way in and realize, because of the broken window, something bad happened here. Upstairs, they hear singing. It’s Anna holding Ellie, covered in blood. She explains to Marlene that the baby is hungry and needs to be fed but that she couldn’t feed her because she’s been bitten. Marlene’s mind immediately goes to if the baby is infected but Anna lies and says she cut the umbilical cord before she was bitten. It’s a huge risk that puts everyone in danger but they don’t know it yet.
Anna begs Marlene to take the baby with her to Boston and raise it, but Marlene doesn’t want to. After revealing that they’ve known each other their whole lives, Marlene agrees. Anna also wants Marlene to kill her, but Marlene doesn’t think she can. Again, Anna begs, and so against her best wishes, Marlene kills her.
Before moving on, it’s worth it to unpack this scene, which is a new addition to the mythology and not explicitly seen in the game (though it’s hinted at). Obviously, seeing how Ellie’s mom died and explaining how she’s immune are massive revelations. But the fact that Marlene not only knew Anna her whole life, but was tasked with protecting her, also really flips some things. In the series’ first episode, it seemed as if Ellie had never met Marlene before. That means Marlene specifically chose not to act as a mother figure to Ellie. Also, knowing their history together adds a whole other layer to what happens at the end of the episode. All of this is incredibly powerful and almost too much to digest, but the finale is just getting started.
The sound of Marlene’s gunshot killing her mom cuts back to Ellie in the present. She’s distant. Zoned out. As you might be if you’d recently stabbed a man 21 times after he tried to rape and murder you in a burning building. It’s unclear how much time has passed or how, specifically, she and Joel got from Colorado to Salt Lake City (remember in episode six when they realized the Firefly scientists had moved there?), but they have. They’re close to their final destination.
But Joel is keeping it light. He’s excited they found some Chef Boyardee and Boggle and mentions maybe when they get back to Wyoming, he can teach Ellie how to play the guitar. She’s only half listening though as she’s clearly not her old self. Who knows if she’ll ever be again?
Joel continues to be talkative as they enter the city looking for the hospital. As they begin to climb up a building for a better view, something distracts Ellie and she bolts off. She’s being loud, screaming, and Joel runs after her trying to keep her quiet. Then we see what distracted her. It’s a giraffe.
If Ellie, raised in a Boston Quarantine Zone, had never seen an escalator before, obviously she’d never seen a giraffe before. She’s beyond happy and seeing her smile again makes Joel smile. They feed the animal and see that there are a few roaming around the city. With the giraffes somewhat lifting the cloud that’s been hanging over Ellie, Joel tells her that, they don’t have to do this. They can just turn around and go back to Tommy in Wyoming.
That’s not what Ellie wants. After everything they’ve done and gone through, she needs it to be for something. For it to mean something. Then, after that? She doesn’t care. She’ll go or do whatever Joel wants. It’s an odd thing for Joel to say so close to the end, but in the next scene we find out why. They stumble into a medical area that’s been there for decades and Joel reveals to Ellie that in the past he tried, and failed, to commit suicide. After Sarah died, and with everything happening, he didn’t see a point in living anymore. He was ready to die. But, for some reason, he flinched and now, all these years later, he knows why. It was because of Ellie.
Some of this is implied between the lines of the show’s beautiful writing, but it’s really hammered home when Ellie says to Joel that time heals all wounds and he replies, with a loving look, that it wasn’t time. No, for Joel, everything they’ve been through, all the pain and death, it’s worth it because he has a daughter again. It’s arguably the most touching moment of the entire season, and it brings everything together for Joel. He’s succeeded here. He cares less about Ellie’s potential for a cure and more about not losing a person he loves again. He, is once again, whole.
After the emotional reflection, the pair break out the pun book and for a second, The Last of Us makes you forget about the world. It’s just two characters telling jokes. But in the background you notice a soldier sneaking up on them—and then throwing a grenade. The gas knocks them both out and, well. Here we go.
Before we get to the big event here, I do think it’s worth noting that, if you’ve played the game, the episode has a completely different energy. Knowing what’s about to happen adds a certain fear and tension that’s probably missing from the experience of someone who still doesn’t know what’s about to happen. That person is probably more worried and curious. Either way, Joel and Ellie’s capture here is a moment of extreme change on which the entire series pivots, and part of why this show has been such a success is it works whether you know what’s coming or not, just in slightly different ways.
Joel wakes up and sees Firefly symbols. They’ve made it to the hospital they needed to get to. In walks Marlene, who is stunned that the man she tasked with bringing Ellie to her people however many months ago has actually succeeded. She said she lost half the people who were assigned to get her from Boston to Salt Lake City but somehow, Joel and Ellie made it. Joel says it was all Ellie and that she fought like hell to be here. Which is true. Marlene says she’s in his debt.
Joel asks where Ellie is and Marlene says she’s prepping for surgery. That catches Joel’s attention. Why is she going into surgery? Turns out the doctor believes the virus has been in her since birth (which this episode made clear) and so anytime she’s “infected,” it doesn’t take because the virus already thinks she’s infected. He believes if he can harvest the cells that have that code, they can actually create a cure.
It’s fantastic news, and it’s everything Joel, Ellie, and Marlene have been working toward the entire season. Except Joel realizes that the virus grows in the brain. So the surgery Ellie is being prepped for is brain surgery. Brain surgery that will kill her. He begins to freak out because it’s like he’s losing a daughter again and yells to Marlene that she doesn’t understand. Except, with the revelations from earlier, we know she does understand. She’s been watching over Ellie her entire life. They’re not as close, but she too is letting some she loves be sacrificed.
For Marlene, there’s no other choice. It’s Ellie versus literally every other person on the planet and, she assures Joel, she’ll feel no pain. He wants to see her though and it starts to look like he’s going to be a problem. So Marlene tells her men to take him to the highway.
As Joel is being escorted out, he catches a glimpse of the hospital directory for an idea of where Ellie might be and then *deep breath* he jumps and kills the two men who were escorting them. He takes their guns and begins to make his way through the hospital, murdering every single person in sight. Even people who beg for mercy get none—and suddenly our hero, flawed as he might be, is something else. He’s a mass shooter and the visual of Joel sneaking around the hospital, killing every single person he sees, is incredibly hard to watch, especially because we’ve seen the good in him. This is beyond shocking.
Watching the episode I lost count of how many people Joel kills, but it’s around 15-20. Just so much death and destruction. Finally, and mercifully for the audience, he makes it to the operating room. He asks the doctor to unhook Ellie and when the lead doctor says he can’t let Joel take her, Joel shoots him in the head. The man who could save the world gets shot in the head. He lets the two nurses live (one of whom is played by Last of Us Part II voice actress Laura Bailey, in a nice wink for fans), they remove all the wires from Ellie, and he grabs her. The show is also sure to linger an extra second on that doctor for, you know, reasons.
Then, somehow, things get worse. Joel takes Ellie down to the garage to grab a car and runs into Marlene. She tells Joel that no matter what happens Ellie is going to die eventually and he’s not seeing the big picture. Together, they could save everyone—but instead, he’s just saving her. Joel yells that she wasn’t given the choice in the matter but he, Marlene, and most importantly the audience know that doesn’t matter. Ellie made it clear that this journey had to be about something and nothing would’ve been more important than a cure. Marlene tells Joel it’s not too late.
Before it’s revealed what happens next in the garage, we see Joel driving away. Ellie is laying in the back seat and wakes up confused about what happened. Joel tells her that the doctors were running tests on not just on her, but dozens of other people who were immune to the virus. However, the doctors couldn’t make it work and they stopped looking for a cure.
As we sit there stunned at Joel’s lies, we see the strength of his resolve. The show cuts back to him in the garage as he shoots Marlene. Back in the car, Joel’s gaslighting continues. He says that raiders attacked the hospital and he barely got Ellie out of there alive. Many people were hurt. When Ellie asks if Marlene is okay, Joel doesn’t answer. But the TV show does. After Joel shoots her, Marlene is crumpled up on the ground. She asks him to let her go to which Joel replies, with an ice-cold demeanor that’s scary for even him, “You’d just come after her.” And he fires another shot into her head.
Days later, Joel and Ellie’s car craps out a few hours away from Tommy’s. They start to hike and Joel talks to Ellie about Sarah: how they’re different, how they’re similar. Pedro Pascal’s performance here is incredible because he’s trying to be happy, but you see that this is all just justification. It’s Joel dealing with the guilt of what he just did to be with Ellie. What he just decided the world must be for them to be together.
When they reach the home stretch, Ellie stops Joel. For the first time she reveals to him that the first person she ever had to kill was her best friend Riley, and since then, so many people have died for her: Tess, Sam, etc. She makes Joel swear to her that what he said about the Fireflies was true. That their entire journey wasn’t for nothing and that a cure really wasn’t possible. He swears to her. And in the final shot, a skeptical Ellie says the only thing she can say. “Okay.”
So was this journey all for nothing? It depends on your point of view. For Joel, it seems he would have killed every person on the planet for a chance to recapture the love he lost on the first day of the outbreak. And, in the end, he kind of did just that. To do so though, he had to deprive Ellie of what she believed was her true purpose: to save people. For one of them to have what they wanted, the other couldn’t.
The fallout of the lies and destruction all come into play in season two; if you want to see what happens next, The Last of Us Part II is right there. But taking this as the end of a season of television, it’s just so incredibly complex. Every angle you look at it from offers new perspectives. Joel’s actions were deplorable, obviously, but does doing them in the name of love make them okay? If Ellie had given her life, are we really sure that the cure would have worked? Could it have gotten to everyone or would some have tried to profit from it? Greed is pretty prevalent in this world. Did skepticism about the cure weigh into Joel’s decision? And how much do you love someone if you lead them to believe not just a lie, but something that’s so far from the truth, it’s almost certainly unforgivable? These questions and many, many, many more will be discussed in the coming months, which is the mark of a truly great piece of art. Something that The Last of Us most certainly is.
Stream all episodes of The Last of Us now on HBO Max.
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