Note: My name is Gene Park. I’m a reporter covering gaming culture for The Washington Post. I’m following “The Last of Us” from the perspective of someone who has played all the games (more than once).
The seventh episode of “The Last of Us” immediately answers the question posed by the last episode’s cliffhanger: Yes, Joel is still alive — and Ellie is frantically trying to keep it that way. But this episode also starts with a cliffhanger: Will Ellie take Joel’s advice and return to the safety of the Jackson commune?
But first, we have to get to know Ellie on her own terms. This episode is an extended flashback to when Ellie was a student training to be a soldier under the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA), the fascistic military organization that struggles to maintain order in major cities. No surprise: She’s a kid who often gets into trouble, and doesn’t readily listen to authority figures. After a fight with a bully, Ellie is scolded by a FEDRA officer who says she’s throwing away a potential future of becoming an officer. The officer tries to tempt Ellie by praising her: “There’s a leader in you.”
Through Ellie’s eyes, we get the most in-depth look at the enigmatic and morally compromised FEDRA institution. It makes a show of being benevolent, but in truth, it’s an organization mostly made up of self-serving opportunists.
Later, Ellie is back in her room, surrounded by things that fascinate her: dinosaur stickers, comic books about space-faring adventurers, a “Mortal Kombat II” poster, cassette tapes of music by A-ha and Etta James, and her knife. It’s a military dormitory, complete with a “lights out” mandate for bedtime, and she’s alone in a room made for two. Someone sneaks into Ellie’s room while she’s sleeping, and places her hand over her mouth. Ellie understandably freaks out, kicks off the intruder and clicks open her knife.
It’s her best friend, a girl named Riley, who’s been missing for three weeks. Riley thought Ellie would appreciate being sneaked up on: “In my mind, you loved it,” Riley says.
Riley explains that she ran away to join the Fireflies, the rebellion group labeled terrorists by FEDRA. She invites Ellie to hang out with her for a few hours so she can explain everything — and promises to show Ellie “the best night of [her] life.” Ellie has done military drills where she’s been taught to kill Fireflies. Still, she ultimately goes with Riley.
Riley chides Ellie for fighting with her bully, advising her to pick her battles. Despite being called a potential “leader” by that one FEDRA official, it’s interesting to see Ellie defer to Riley much in the same way as she defers to Joel. Ellie chafes at taking advice, but you can tell she’s internalizing what she hears from people she either depends on or admires. The two playfully talk and wander through the quarantine zone (long time no see, Boston). The lighting in this sequence feels like stage lighting, and the two are obviously running across a staged rooftop. But this feels intentional; the colors pop and accentuate the lighter mood.
The two find a dead body on the way to Riley’s big surprise, reminding the audience that although this episode focuses on teen drama, it’s still set in a doomed world. They loot some booze off the body before a jump scare. Maybe a bit high off seeing a dead body, Ellie asks Riley to hold her gun. Throughout this series, Ellie leans in whenever violence happens around her. She can’t help but be fascinated with death and the things that cause it.
Throughout this whole trip to the mall, Ellie pokes and prods Riley over her supposed “betrayal” of FEDRA and defection to the Fireflies. Riley provides probably the most context of the show so far on how the Fireflies are organized and recruited, and how they do their business. Both characters defend their “side,” and it’s surprising to see how much Ellie defends FEDRA.
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They finally arrive at the mall, and Riley lights up the entire facility with a few switches. I’m not sure mall lights work quite like that, but hey, I’m just a journalist. Here, the episode bombards the viewer with modern brands like CVS, Panda Express, the ubiquitous Subway and even GameStop. Riley is here to show Ellie a great time at the mall. Ellie delights in seeing an escalator for the first time, and spends a minute or two charming the pants off Riley (and the audience) by playing with the seemingly impossible physics of escalators.
Riley asks why anyone would ever need a piece of Victoria’s Secret lingerie. Ellie replying “Do you need me to explain it to you?” is another one of Bella Ramsey’s standout line deliveries. Her Ellie can feel a bit too grown up, but so much of this episode emphasizes her youth; she giggles through most of its run time. The 19-year-old Ramsey convincingly plays a girl who’s still coming of age.
Riley says she wants to show Ellie the “four wonders of the mall.” The first is a carousel with a “magic horse,” as Ellie calls it; she delights in yet another piece of working machinery that causes things to move on their own. Here we get the first hints of romance as the two ride their magic horses among the lights. The cinematography is tight, as the two characters navigate their feelings. Ellie still can’t let go that Riley left her behind, and again questions the Fireflies — almost as if she feels jealous and jilted. Riley says she just didn’t feel appreciated with FEDRA.
The next wonder is a quick stop at a mall photo booth. The third is an arcade, or to Ellie, the “most beautiful thing” she’s ever seen. Miraculously, the “Mortal Kombat II” machine still works. This is the HBO and Warner Bros. Discovery brand universe at work; Warner also owns the Mortal Kombat franchise. Here we see Riley play as Mileena and successfully pull off her Fatality finishing move (which probably counts as yet another miracle). How the hell did a 17-year-old girl in a fungal post-apocalypse learn this move? Did she find a print strategy guide? GameFAQs.com, a game hint website, surely doesn’t work in this world either. She even teaches Ellie how to pull off a finishing move for another character, Baraka.
It’s here that the audience realizes there are zombie things afoot at the mall, as one wakes up nearby. Riley takes Ellie to a room she’s turned into a hideout to offer a gift (the pun book that Ellie obsesses over throughout the show) and Ellie discovers Riley’s been making bombs for the Fireflies. Ellie is upset at this: Those bombs could’ve been used to kill her. Ellie storms off, as Riley struggles to explain herself. She finally admits the truth: She brought Ellie to the mall to spend one last night with her. The Fireflies have assigned her to a post in Atlanta, and Marlene (the Boston Firefly leader from the first episode) has refused to let Riley take Ellie with her.
Ellie intends to leave Riley, but turns back to find Riley at a Halloween shop. She wants the pun book Riley was about to give her as a gift. The two make up, and Ellie seems to accept Riley’s decision. In an effort to save the night, Riley pops a tape into the store’s speaker system and the two dance. Ellie stops her awkward dancing to beg Riley to stay. Riley accepts. Ellie swoops in for a kiss, and we finally get confirmation that Riley was more than just a “best friend” to her. Ellie loved Riley.
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This is “The Last of Us,” though, and no tender moment lasts: The aforementioned zombie crashes the party. After a struggle, Ellie is able to kill it. Trembling and wide-eyed, Ellie is thrilled at her kill — before she realizes she and Riley were both bit. Ramsey’s scream here is startling and sad. Ellie smashes up the store in frustration as Riley sinks to the floor in disbelief. There are just two options left for the duo, Riley says: take the “easy way out” or “be all poetic and lose our minds together.” Riley says they should commit to keep going, no matter how long it takes. Although we don’t see it, we know as the audience that Ellie had to kill Riley before realizing her own immunity.
We cut back to the present. Ellie doesn’t leave Joel. Instead, she frantically searches the house they’re hiding out at for anything that could save him. She finds a needle and thread, and sews up Joel’s wound before we cut to black. Ellie isn’t going to leave Joel behind.
Some notes and observations:
- This entire episode is a retelling of a chapter that wasn’t in the original release; it was released later, as downloadable content. It’s an important one as it confirms Ellie as gay, and lays out her foundational trauma, much like the show did with the death of Joel’s daughter. This is probably also the episode that most mimics the video game version, as the “Left Behind” gameplay consisted mostly of walking and talking. It’s a style of gameplay sometimes referred to as a “prestige tour,” popularized by developer Naughty Dog in their efforts to tell video game stories beyond violence.
- The arcade game sequence underscores a huge difference in how effective video game storytelling can be. In the show, the machine just works and the two girls actually play the game. In the video game, the arcade machines are busted, and instead Riley asks Ellie to imagine the video game in her head. The game tries to re-create this experience for the player with button prompts while the camera is zoomed in on Ellie’s face, as she reacts to her electronic dreams. This was a lovely, heartwarming sequence that lifted up Ellie’s head space as the center of this universe. Sadly, it could not be re-created for the show.