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.
After a season that consistently surprised audiences with its ability to top itself, episode after episode, the season finale of The Last of Us was … just okay. (One could argue that’s even worse than being labeled outright “bad.” At least, when something’s “bad” it’s a conversation starter, something worthy of being discussed and disseminated to determine why the thing failed.)
“Look for the Light,” had the impossible job of finishing an already excellent season on an even higher note while also teasing the explosive storylines set to fuel its already-greenlit season two. We don’t envy showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann that task, and we wouldn’t go so far as to say their attempt to deliver fell completely flat. The show’s season finale had some highlights — the performances of Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey among them — plus CGI giraffes, but its missteps left us wondering where this show is going, and what it really wants to be.
A young woman is running for her life through the wilderness but don’t panic, it’s not Ellie. Instead, it’s a flashback of her mom – played by Ashley Johnson, the voice actress for Ellie’s character in the original game. (It’s confusing, we know.) Other than a few sentimental tidbits from Marlene at the beginning of the season, we know next to nothing about who Anna was or how she got involved with the Fireflies, and we don’t really learn any answers here either. Instead, we’re treated to a vague theory on how Ellie developed her immunity.
In the midst of labor, Anna has to outrun a clicker, barricade herself in an abandoned farmhouse, and use her trusty pocketknife to skewer the Infected’s brains while her cervix dilates without the aid of an epidural. What a way to celebrate Women’s History Month!
She eventually gives birth to Ellie but discovers she’s been bitten in the process, a gut-wrenching observation she can’t afford to linger on for too long because she’s got to sever the umbilical cord and make sure the Cordyceps doesn’t reach her brand-new infant. (It does, but the show explains how that fortunate bit of timing creates Ellie’s resistance to the fungus later in the episode.) When Marlene and her group reach Anna, she’s cradling her newborn and holding a knife to her throat, begging Marlene to take the baby and give her to a good family after she puts a bullet in her best friend’s brain.
If you thought The Last of Us was going to give fans a break from the relentless marathon of emotional terrorism in its final episode, boy were you wrong.
On the Road (Again?)
That flashback morphs into a close-up of Bella Ramsey’s tortured, blank stare in the present. Some non-distinct amount of time has passed since the events of the previous episode – one we’ve affectionately nicknamed, “The White Lotus: Cult Edition” – but it hasn’t managed to heal her wounds thus far. She’s quiet and broody and contemplative in the way that someone who’s been through multiple life traumas — and is just now beginning to cope with the psychological fallout from them – can be. Joel on the other hand is uncharacteristically chipper. We’ll take whatever penicillin Ellie dosed him with the next time we need an antibiotic regimen because the man has done a complete 180 – physically and in terms of his stoic, unapproachable demeanor. He’s talking non-stop, he’s offering to teach Ellie to play the guitar, he’s smiling … Who the hell is this and what have they done with Pedro Pascal?
There’s a bit of intentional humor when we first witness this personality swap. Look at Joel actually wanting to hear some puns. Look at Ellie being quiet and annoyed at her walking companion for once. But the more it outlasts its initial shock value, the more it feels unearned … at the very least, confusing. Near-death experiences have the power to induce fundamental shifts in people, we get it, but to jump from the fiery reunion at the end of episode eight to this is just jarring – enough to completely remove one from the story the writers are trying to tell.
There’s an alternate version of how this season ends, one that takes its time – perhaps by allotting itself the same over-an-hour-long runtime that previous episodes have been gifted – sitting with Ellie and Joel after the mayhem at David’s compound. One that stills for them to recover from their wounds – mental and physical – before propelling them back on their fruitless quest. An extra 20 minutes of Ellie raging at the impossibility of her situation or Joel apologizing for failing her yet again would’ve felt more genuine than the identity crisis the two undergo in this episode. Would they have worked everything out? Would they have even talked about the trauma they suffered? Probably not, but even that silence would’ve been more gratifying than whatever this is.
The magical interludes with giraffes, the explosive confession from Joel about his suicide attempt, the equally vulnerable admission from Ellie about Riley’s death – it flows like water down the drain, barely leaving an impression because the clock is ticking and the need for more violence will not be denied.
The Things We Do For Sheep Farms
Why the pair is even still searching for the Fireflies at this point is a question we’re constantly asking in this episode. Joel seems content to pack it up and make a home with Tommy’s commune but Ellie insists all of the lives lost and bad memories can’t be for nothing. It’s a central crux of the story The Last of Us is trying to tell. Save just one, or save everyone? When the world goes to shit and humanity is all but extinct, when cities have crumbled and invasive fungi have toppled our very fragile ecosystem, isn’t every life precious? Isn’t saving one girl enough?
Joel thinks so and honestly, as the parental figure here, he should’ve recognized the post-traumatic stress-induced coping mechanisms Ellie is deploying to explain her reasoning for pushing on. That’s survivor’s guilt talking, not common sense. But because Joel is in overprotective dad mode to a debilitating degree he gives in and they make it to the Fireflies – who proceed to knock Joel unconscious, capture them both, and launch a nasty science experiment on a drugged-out Ellie. Marlene pops up again, explaining to a groggy Joel what the procedure to replicate Ellie’s immunity entails. The short version? Her, dead. The more complicated one: enough of the Cordyceps fungus traveled down the umbilical cord before Anna could sever it, growing with Ellie instead of from her, convincing the mature fungus in the Infected that she’s one of them. Essentially, she’s got an unbeatable form of camouflage that Marlene wants to mass manufacture but to do that they need to cut up her brain.
Joel’s clearly against this and we’re treated to a slo-mo montage of him gunning down the resistance, the only noise the blaring of the show’s theme song. It’s supposed to be a bloodbath that leaves us shocked, our stomachs queasy and our morality tested, but it just falls flat – perhaps because the vengeance on display in last week’s episode was much more gratifying. Ellie struggled to earn her freedom, she clawed her way out of a terrible situation and took some bruises and blows in the process. Joel, by comparison, seems to float through the building, easily dispatching gunmen with just one or two perfectly placed shots, never outmatched or in danger of harm. It’s the kind of badass machismo that inflates the male ego like a bad Viagra commercial – look at this alpha male murdering in the name of a young damsel in distress. That’s masculinity, people.
Joel kills nearly everyone, save for a couple of lucky nurses, executing Marlene on his way out. When Ellie wakes up on the car ride home she questions what happens. This is likely the “divisive” moment Ramsey warned fans about because Joel lies to her about the bloodshed and body count he left behind. Instead, he pacifies her with a story about dozens of immune individuals being tested, Ellie just one of many, and the results being disappointing. The doctors couldn’t replicate her immunity or any of the others, and raiders stormed the building soon after that fact was made clear. He saved Ellie and got the hell out of dodge. It’s a weak story, which is probably why Ellie makes him promise he’s telling her the truth before the episode ends. Instead of taking the out – coming clean about the whole affair, explaining it’s a moot point anyway since all the doctors are dead, and dealing with the blowback of taking that choice from her – he lies, again. And she accepts the lie, again. And so, we’re left to wait for the retribution to come in season two.
Was this the finale we hoped for? In comparison with how excellent the rest of the season has been, no. This episode felt like a hastily applied swath of duct tape on a leaking dam, just enough to wrap one storyline before the next bursts through in a year (or two, or three, knowing HBO). It doesn’t diminish the work done all season, or negate the fact that this is still the best video game adaptation we’ve seen in a long time, but it does make us wonder: Is the show’s method of delivering a play-by-play parallel of its source material so unyielding, it’s starting to cripple its potential to be something more than just an adaptation? It’s damning its chances to become its own thing?
We’ll take a break from ranking the likelihood of impending death for the show’s main characters to instead acknowledge the basic philosophical premise of this show. It’s not, could we survive the fungal apocalypse? It’s, would we even want to?