By Sean Gallagher
While last week’s episode of The Last of Us was a poignant character study of Joel, this week’s episode gives Ellie her time in the spotlight with a flashback episode in the weeks before she meets Joel and Tess. While it doesn’t have the same oomph as episodes three or six, it’s still a great look at who Ellie was and a major event that would not only change her but dictates her rationale with Joel at death’s door.
The episode opens sometime after Joel collapses from his horse thanks to a gut wound after a run-in with some raiders. Badly injured, Ellie brings him to a basement for warmth, shelter and a desperate bid to find something to keep Joel alive. He tells her to leave him, to go back to Tommy but Ellie, always the stubborn one, opts to continue the search to preserve Joel’s life. Why is she so adamant to keep him alive? It’s largely thanks to a line from last week’s episode, where she reveals to Joel that she’s lost people too. We get to see that event play out for the remainder of the episode.
The episode jumps back in time from this point on and we catch up with Ellie back in the Boston QZ, an orphaned student and resident in FEDRA’s regime. Ellie remains very anti-authority, wanting to do things her way, which contrasts heavily with FEDRA’s more fascist way of doing things. But the episode paints FEDRA as necessary, as without them, everything falls apart and we’re kind of included to agree with them. But this more rule-heavy and dictator-focused philosophy is why her roommate Riley left FEDRA, leaving Ellie to fend for herself. We’ve actually heard Riley’s name get mentioned before, in episode two in passing, but now we get to meet her as she returns back to her old dorm room to give Ellie the best night ever as a token of apology. Played by Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), she captures the same youthful optimism that the character displayed in the DLC chapter of the original game.
Ellie reluctantly joins Riley at a shopping mall, which thanks to some FEDRA wiring, still has electricity. Lemme just say that this set is awesome, it feels like a real mall, not a set, complete with recognizable brand names that give it an air of authenticity. Top points for set design. It was pretty entertaining seeing Ellie act like a kid her own age for once, but who’s seeing all these sights and sounds for the first time. Her sense of awe and wonder is endearing, as she geeks out at seeing stuff we probably see as trivial, such as escalators and merry-go-rounds. Her reaction at seeing Mortal Kombat II in the flesh for the first time in her life was great. Before it was just a poster on her wall, something she could only imagine, but now she’s gotten hands-on with the game she dreamed about. It’s a slight change from the original Last of Us video game, as there were no coins to play the faux-Mortal Kombat game so the duo had to imagine the gameplay (which was interactive for the player), but I like that Ellie got hands-on with the game for real in the show, it feels earned and lends weight to when she saw the arcade game in the gas station back in episode three.
While Ellie is looking at the world with starry eyes, she’s also noticing her friend Riley as well. Episode writer and co-creator of The Last of Us Neil Druckmann decided to make Ellie queer later in the development of the original game and opted to make it a focal point of the DLC expansion and a companion comic book. The same plays out here, with the two teenagers skirting around the topic, obviously into each other but avoiding direct intervention until later in their outing. But this is The Last of Us and no one gets a happy ending thanks to an infected who was lurking in the mall.
After a scrappy fight with their infected party crasher, both Ellie and Riley reveal to each other that they have both been bitten, which results in a flurry of emotions. This is then crosscut with Ellie frantically looking for any means to save Joel’s life. I really like the implications of this scene. We don’t get to know for sure what happened to Riley, but we know she didn’t like the idea of committing suicide, preferring she lose her mind with Ellie by her side. But as we know, Ellie is fine, which suggests that she likely had to kill her friend herself, something that was implied when Ellie said in episode four that firing a gun at someone wasn’t the first time she’s had to do that. Ellie’s left not only with survivor’s guilt, but a sense of abandonment. She’s been left behind, with no one to love her and as soon as she finally found someone who she sees as a father figure, she risks losing him. Her story parallels nicely with Joel’s, who was prepared to pawn her off on his own brother for fear of losing another child. Both these characters care deeply about each other.
I do wish though that this season was perhaps a little bit longer, maybe twelve episodes instead of nine (it was originally ten but episode one is the first two episodes edited as one) as it would have allowed more time for Joel and Ellie to grow and bond. As it stands, a good chunk of that time growing was spent in the three-month time jump between episodes five and six, so I feel we’re missing a bit of the emotional weight and connectivity between the two. I buy into their growing relationship, thanks to character growth and interaction, but just barely. I think they could’ve used another episode of just the two of them on road before arriving in Jackson, to flesh out their time together. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the Kathleen story arc could have been cut and episodes four and five could’ve been cut into one episode, allowing for Joel and Ellie to get more screen time together, as I care more about those two than Kathleen’s motivations.
Left Behind was ultimately very true to the source material, but lacked the emotional punch of both Joel’s episode last week and Frank and Bill’s touching odyssey in the third episode. It was good, but I don’t think anyone will be traumatized or emotionally wrecked this week, at least not to the same extent. I can’t quite place my finger on why this is, but the episode did fill in some backstory that fills out Ellie as a character on numerous levels while offering a masterclass in visual wonder thanks to the set design.
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