Each week, we’ll recap the biggest moments of HBO’s The Last of Us before placing bets on the odds of survival for our favorite characters – like the sick, twisted, soulless monsters we are.
There’s a trend happening when it comes to love stories on HBO’s The Last of Us, and we can’t say that we like it. While Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett got their happy ending earlier in the season, in episode seven’s “Left Behind,” we get Ellie’s until-now murky backstory, and let’s just say that it’s devastating.
There are doomed romances and then there’s the Queer post-apocalyptic version of Romeo and Juliet with fungal zombies added in.
All this to say, please prepare yourself before hitting play (on the episode and this recap).
As cruel as it was to leave fans on a cliffhanger last week, the show doesn’t keep them dangling there for long. In fact, episode seven opens with an answer to the question on everyone’s minds: “Did Joel survive?” He did, but he’s not doing so hot, something that becomes apparent when the camera focuses on the bloody trail left behind after Ellie dragged him to an abandoned house before trying to tend to his stomach wound. He’s bleeding and convulsing and begging her to leave him to die when bouts of consciousness strike, a directive she almost follows. It’s only when Ellie goes to actually leave her gruff and grizzled guardian do we get a glimpse of how she’s become so hardened, so tough, and so walled off from the people around her.
Growing up in the FEDRA foster care system is all military drills at dawn and firearms training and things no child should be exposed to so young. The kids under FEDRA’s care are raised to become soldiers and when a cow is meant for slaughter, you don’t go naming them and treating them like a pet. Even in this unforgiving juvenile detention facility, Ellie is an outlier. She’s bullied by her peers – girls named Bethany deserve stitches, tbh — and punished severely (and often) when she steps out of line. She’s told it’s because she’s too smart for her own good – and maybe that’s true. She’s certainly disillusioned by the life intended for her and she’s grown restless from her lack of options. Still, even if she isn’t a FEDRA acolyte, she can understand the need for law enforcement in a place like the Boston QZ, and having a higher-ranking mentor who earnestly believes that chaos would reign down if FEDRA were to fail puts a healthy amount of fear in her.
Maybe the officer is right. Maybe things would go to hell without law and order. Or maybe he just knows that hypothesizing doomsday scenarios is enough to scare a rebellious teenager into complying with his rules. Either way, one thing is clear, FEDRA’s way of governing isn’t working for the regular civilians of Boston or the young recruits meant to carry out its orders which is why Riley (Storm Reid), Ellie’s only real friend in this hellhole, spilt a few weeks prior.
The runaway sneaks back into her old barracks to surprise her friend with a night on the town, one Ellie’s initially hesitant to accept. But even in the post-apocalypse, teenagers are going to teenage and teenage girls are going to want to hit the mall.
A Night Out
If you’ve been wondering just how f*cked up childhood would be were you to grow up in a fungal dystopia, the early adventures of Riley and Ellie’s girls’ night escapades are a good meter to judge against. After Riley admits to joining the Fireflies and Ellie berates her for being so idyllically stupid as to believe she could actually make a difference, the pair squash any talk of revolution by running rooftops and avoiding FEDRA patrols and giggling like schoolgirls when they pilfer a liquor bottle from a corpse. It’s not the first dead body they’ve seen, but it’s still a macabre moment that illustrates the differences between someone like Riley – who had parents and watched them die – and Ellie, who’s only ever known the life FEDRA has given her.
Talk will inevitably return to those “fascist dickbags” but not before Riley introduces Ellie to the four five wonders of the Mall – a sealed-off underground mecca with enough working electricity to leave the girls rightfully in awe. Bella Ramsey has been terrific all season but she gives a masterclass in acting here, successfully convincing us that escalators are an invention of divine ingenuity and carousels aren’t creepy spinning wheels of death but instead, magical modes of romantic escapism. Even their disappointing photo booth shoot seems cute. The girls have what is possibly the most swoon-worthy time at a mall that we’ve ever seen. (It sure beats the awkward “hangouts” over shared greasy pretzels of our own youth.) But nothing this sweet and innocent lasts forever. Ellie eventually discovers that Riley has been posted here by the Fireflies to watch over their stash of homemade bombs – bombs that have been blowing up FEDRA officers which is what she’s training to become. Riley tries to make her understand why she made the choice to join the cause. Unlike Ellie, she was due to graduate from FEDRA’s program soon and her assignment was going to be sewer duty. She was trapped, doomed to do grunt work for the rest of her miserable life.
What’s worse, she wasn’t wanted. She had nowhere she belonged until Marlene saw value in her and invited her to join the Fireflies. For someone who had a family and remembers losing them, that recognition and acceptance are more important than any kind of liberation movement.
Ellie nearly abandons her friend, especially when Riley reveals she’s been assigned to the group leaving Boston for Atlanta, but eventually turns back, meeting Riley in a Halloween shop where things take a horrifying turn.
We Keep Going
Anytime a show like The Last of Us treats fans to moments of genuine happiness amidst the backdrop of terrible circumstances, don’t trust it. Be especially on guard if those moments include the following: dancing (of any kind), slow-mo shots of characters smiling, laughing, or generally enjoying themselves, music that evokes a sense of nostalgia, a spontaneous kiss between two characters who have been actively ignoring their chemistry over the course of the entire episode, a declaration of love, a feeling like maybe, just maybe, this one will have a happy ending.
Happy endings do not exist on shows like The Last of Us, and though Ellie and Riley eventually admit their feelings for each other with both girls promising to stay together and figure things out, their ride off into the sunset is quickly ruined by a clicker who’s been lurking in the background the entire episode. The girls try to fight him off with Ellie eventually lodging her picket knife in its skull, but not before it takes a chunk out of both her and Riley’s arms. Their realization that they’ve been marked for death is heartbreaking and completely different. Ellie rages against it while Riley tearfully and quietly resigns herself to it. Each performance is devastating and we dare anyone to say this love story isn’t as impactful or memorable as the one Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett gave us a few episodes back.
We never see what happens to Riley – though we can guess – because that final memory quickly fades back into the present where Ellie decides that she’s not going to leave Joel to die. She’s going to hold his hand just like she did Riley’s and fight for him in a way she couldn’t for the girl that she loved. Joel’s fate is still left in the air by the end of the episode but there’s a sense of determination and focus about Ellie that wasn’t there before, one that makes us think not saving him is an impossibility at this point.
Ellie (10 to 1 odds)
Ellie has evolved from a smart-mouth wayward runaway to a bonafide survivor over the course of this show and the skills she’s learned from Joel and the other adults in her life are finally paying off. Not only did she drag her guardian’s blood-drained carcass to safety, but she also managed to find something sharp to sew up the hole in his stomach with, and she kept her cool while doing it. She’s could’ve left Joel as he asked, but she toughed it out and made a choice to stand by her friend. No notes.
Joel (6 to 1 odds)
They’re gonna kill Pedro Pascal, aren’t they?
HBO’s ‘The Last Of Us’ airs Sundays at 9:00pm EST.