Season 1, Episode 9: ‘Look for the Light’
As I mentioned back when “The Last of Us” premiered, I have never played the video game, so I can’t compare the show’s action sequences with how they come across in the original. I can say this though: In the season finale, there is a climactic shootout that closely resembles what most people think of when they imagine a game with a lot of killing, as Joel blasts his way through staircases and hallways, leaving a trail of corpses.
But here is the catch: Joel is in a Salt Lake City hospital, shooting at the Fireflies, the supposed allies he just went on a cross-country mission to find. At long last he has delivered Ellie into the hands of the doctors who might be able to synthesize a cure for cordyceps. Yet at a pivotal moment, with Ellie on the operating table, Joel raises his rifle and executes a surgeon.
How did we get here? Let us go back — way, way back.
Just as the season premiere began with an extended look at Joel’s last normal day, the finale shows how Ellie was born into chaos. The episode opens with her mother, Anna (played by Ashley Johnson, who voiced Ellie in the video game), running through the woods, heavily pregnant. She makes her way to a remote house, where she finds what she hopes will be a safe spot on the floor to give birth. But the infected creature chasing her barges in, and all she has to fend it off with is a knife. A wounded Anna slays the beast, delivers Ellie, cuts the umbilical cord, and then — in an echo of what Joel said last week — tells her baby girl, “I got you.”
Before the infected Anna turns, her old friend Marlene shows up and (paradoxically, given Ellie’s feelings about the Fireflies) agrees to take care of this child after putting Anna out of her misery. Marlene carries this tragic moment with her for the next 14 years. When she later crosses paths with Joel at that Salt Lake City hospital and he grumbles that she does not understand what he has been through to protect Ellie, Marlene grimly mutters, “I’m the only one who understands.”
Humanizing Marlene here is one of the ways that the writers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann toy with the audience’s emotions. By the episode’s end, Marlene will be another obstacle standing in the way of Joel’s getting where he wants to go and doing what he needs to do. Mazin and Druckmann do not make it easy for us to root for him to shoot her down.
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The writers, along with the director Ali Abbasi and the cast, also put viewers in a fragile place with the way that the episode depicts Ellie, post-Silver Lake. Still shaken after a cannibal preacher tried to rape her — and after responding with a hitherto unseen ferocity — Ellie ceases her previously incessant chatter and even stops celebrating the journey’s small joys. When Joel’s discovery of an unopened can of Beefaroni and a Boggle game does not even raise a smile, he looks worried.
This will be my last chance for a while to praise Bella Ramsey, so let me say that the way she handles these early scenes is just about perfect. The obvious and most common way to play “emotionally shut down” as to act catatonic. That is not what Ramsey does. Ellie is clearly lost in her own thoughts, but she is never entirely unresponsive. A sort of social muscle memory seems to kick in, telling her to reassure Joel occasionally by pretending to be OK. Much like the way Ramsey reacted in the “young love” scenes of Episode 7, her take on trauma here feels painfully true.
Ellie brightens up for real once they get to Salt Lake City and she sees a pack of giraffes roaming freely through the urban ruins. Her genuine delight moves Joel, who decides it is time to tell Ellie about what happened with Sarah: that he could not save her, and that after she died he tried to shoot himself but missed. When Ellie says, “Time heals all wounds I guess,” he looks right at her and replies, “Wasn’t time that did it.” If you have ever had a spark of empathy for these two characters, this line and this look hits like a sock in the heart.
The hits keep coming. Hoping to nurture Ellie’s cheerier mood, Joel asks her to break out some puns. But a few seconds after she lands on the all-too-apt “People are making apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow,” the two are ambushed by the Fireflies, who sneak up behind them, grab Ellie and knock Joel unconscious.
This is how Joel ends up in the hospital, watched over by Marlene, who marvels at how far he and Ellie made it on their own. (“I had five men whose only job was to protect me; I still almost got killed,” she admits.) In no mood for small talk, Joel demands to know where Ellie is.
The answer alarms him. To get what they need, the Fireflies’ medical research team is about to cut into Ellie’s brain. She has been prepped for a surgery she will not survive. So Joel shifts into rampage mode.
Here at the end of Season 1, it is worth mentioning that for a show about a planet overrun by mushroom monsters, only a few episodes have shown Joel mowing down swarms of the infected. More often he has been killing regular humans — although in nearly every case, his violence has been fairly easy to justify. This shooting spree here, though, is tougher to take, because he is slaughtering the men and women trying to save humanity. He does not stop until he has an unconscious Ellie in his arms and a dead Marlene lying at his feet in the hospital’s parking garage. This whole sequence asks us to think hard about what kind of ending we want for this story: the eradication of cordyceps, or a happy Ellie and Joel?
Mazin, Druckmann and company generate some suspense in the finale’s closing minutes, as we see Joel driving away in the nice new truck Marlene promised him but we can’t see Ellie sleeping in the back seat. Once it is clear that she is there, though — and once she wakes up — a new kind of tension arises. What will Joel say about what just happened?
In short: He lies. He says the Fireflies did not need Ellie because they had already found other immune children and were unable to get anything useful from them. Does Ellie believe him? Hard to say. She has been through a lot. She even finally tells Joel about how she had to kill Riley, and how the deaths that have followed have been weighing on her.
But as she has made clear multiple times, what she cares most about is staying with Joel. And as the show itself has emphasized: Staying alive and staying connected to someone may be the only real and lasting solution to such a terrible situation. So for one last time Ellie asks him to “swear to me” that everything he said is true.
He swears. She says, “OK.” Life goes on.
Do we think that the Fireflies really could have converted Ellie’s brain-meat into a cure? Marlene seemed confident about it back in Boston; but in Salt Lake City she makes the Fireflies’ plan sound chancier. We do see in the flashback that Anna cut Ellie’s umbilical cord after being infected, so there is perhaps some validity to the theory that the kid is immune to the plague because the fungus can “read” her genetic material and thinks she is one of them. Still, once the doctors killed Ellie, what would their Plan B have been if they were wrong?
With Joel’s icy exterior shattered by the Silver Lake nightmare, he now seems unable to stop talking about the previously taboo subject of Sarah. He compares Ellie to his daughter, at first saying that Sarah was more “girlie” before adorably backtracking and adding, “I’m not saying you’re not girlie.” (Ellie, stating the obvious to save him from embarrassment, interjects, “I’m not.”)
A nice touch: After encountering real giraffes in the Salt Lake City wilds, Joel later walks through a pediatric ward covered in paintings of zoo animals. This subtly compares what Joel and Ellie have experienced in what Marlene calls the “broken world” with whatever future the Fireflies — like FEDRA before them — may have to offer.
Another nice touch: Ellie calls back to her first adventure with Joel when she stares across the Salt Lake City skyline and admits that while their trip together had its ups and downs, “You can’t deny that view.”