By Sean Gallagher
And just like that, HBO’s The Last Us has come to an end. And what an end it is. This episode, titled Look For The Light, was very faithful to the source material, which means that there was a lot to take in and process. Bella Ramsey recently said that the finale will divide fans of the show and I think that’s a very valid statement, especially for those unfamiliar with the source material. But if the show didn’t have people debating and feeling conflicted, I don’t think the show would’ve done a good job of adapting the biggest moments of the game. Let’s dive in.
The episode opens with a flashback that chronicles the birth of Ellie. In an ironic twist of fate, Ellie’s mother Anna is played by Ashley Johnson, who played Ellie in the original video game. We learn that Anna was bitten right as she was giving birth to Ellie, which is the reason for her immunity. Marlene then finds Anna and takes in Ellie, but does not raise her as her own, opting to put her into FEDRA care until word got to her that a cure could be possible, which in turn put Ellie in Joel’s custody, who does see Ellie as a daughter as time goes on.
Joel has gone full dad mode when the episode reverts back to the present timeline. He’s being enthusiastic about things like Chef Boyardee and Boggle, in an attempt to raise Ellie’s spirits. But after savagely butchering David last week, Ellie is suffering from PTSD, opting for minimal engagement with Joel. But hope is able to restore much of Ellie’s mood when she comes face to face with a giraffe, a critical and pivotal scene in the game. Representing hope and purity, Ellie smiles and laughs as she feeds the gentle animal and Joel is happily watching her bask in her joy. He suggests that they just turn around and head back to Jackson, as danger and letdown seem to follow them on their adventures. But Ellie is adamant that they find the Fireflies, as the encounter with David would be for naught if they turn back. Maybe they should’ve though.
The two are quickly captured by the Fireflies and brought to the hospital, where Joel learns from Marlene that humanity has a shot of a cure thanks to Ellie’s immunity, but to save humanity, Ellie will die in surgery. A lot of things happen but on the surface, Joel’s kneejerk reaction is to kill everyone. Despite there being a cure for the apocalypse within reach, Joel can’t live without Ellie anymore. She’s Joel’s surrogate daughter now and he’ll do anything to keep her safe. In his very selfish pursuit of happiness and fulfillment, Joel decides to “save” Ellie by killing armed and unarmed Fireflies and even a surgeon (make note of that, people who haven’t played the games). The music makes all of this seem tragic as opposed to heroic and Pedro Pascal’s gaze seems vacant and even unhinged.
What’s more, is that Ellie has no agency at all in this sequence. She’s under an anesthetic and is unable to make the decision herself. Marlene and the fireflies know that Ellie could save humanity and the price of the one does not outweigh the many. Marlene even believes that Ellie would be content to make this sacrifice. Joel doesn’t think Marlene had the authority to make this call, but also doesn’t allow Ellie to decide herself, opting not only to kill everyone, including Marlene, but then lying to Ellie (twice!) about what happened just to keep Ellie on his side. We’re left feeling betrayed by Joel, but at the same time, we understand. This is what the unconditional love of a parent figure is to the biggest extreme. Joel will do anything to protect the one he loves after being unable to do so twenty years ago.
A criticism against the show overall though I’d say is that it’s probably two episodes too short. If it had that extra screen time, the show could’ve included a few additional scenes with the infected. They didn’t show up too much of the infected, so when Marlene is emphasizing the need for a cure, it doesn’t hit quite as hard because we don’t see the danger of the infected, who haven’t been seen since episode five. If they had shown up last week or at the campus at episode six, they would’ve felt a bit more present, but by being limited in terms of screen time, the sense of urgency feels a bit lessened. But this doesn’t take away from Joel’s actions and the emotional conflict that stemmed from those scenes. It’s more just the sense of a need for the cure.
Likewise, due to the runtime and two episodes being flashbacks, I feel like we could’ve had maybe an episode or two more with Joel and Ellie. I feel like the transition from Joel seeing her as cargo to a daughter largely happened off-screen, which did take away some of the emotional impact of Joel’s rampage. In the game, we get all the additional dialogue as the two are walking around between combat scenarios, adding to the cinematic sequences. So we spend a lot of time with them. But in the show, I feel like we only got snapshots of their relationship and while I buy it, it’s not the same level of development in the game.
Side note but a fun little aside was having Joel and Ellie working together to get a ladder for Joel to use. It’s such a big mechanic in the original game and it was fun to see it realized in live-action. An addition to the show is that Joel was suicidal after the death of Sarah and it’s an addition I like. I do wish the photograph plot point from the game, where Tommy and then later Ellie attempt to give Joel a photo of him and Sarah at a soccer game, was included in the show. In the game, Joel initially rejects the photo from Tommy but later finds cathartic closure when Ellie gives Joel the same photo months later, which strengthened their bond.
In the end, The Last of Us was a great adaptation of an iconic video game. It emphasized drama and character while delivering memorable sequences and great set design. I think it stumbled by brushing over some emotional beats and character growth found in the game by sacrificing screentime that could’ve been given to Joel and Ellie, but the end result is still a really compelling and wonderfully acted HBO series that raised the bar for video game adaptations overall. Cue the excitement and debate over The Last of Us Part II and how the showrunners will adapt that game.