when The last of us released in 2013, it was widely hailed as one of the greatest video games of all time. This was largely thanks to its strong, controversial ending. The HBO adaptation makes minor changes to the final moments of this story, but it largely ties in closely with the game.
The big change is a flashback scene. We see a woman—Anna—running through the woods. She’s clearly very pregnant and running away from someone—or something. He arrives at a house where he calls the people who aren’t there, then rushes upstairs and barricades himself into an empty room. This is Ashley Johnson who plays Ellie in the video games (and also Pike in The Legend Of Vox Machina, among myriad other roles). Even if you didn’t recognize her, you would instantly recognize her voice. What a voice!
In any case, the infected bursts through the door and barely manages to deal with it with her switch. She literally gives birth while taking the zombie away. As the baby cries on the floor, he sees that he has been bitten. She quickly cuts the umbilical cord and collects her baby, whom she names Elli. Here we have an explanation for Ellie’s immunity. She was still attached to her mother when the cordyceps entered her bloodstream, but it was cut off quickly enough that the fungus didn’t take root completely. Now when Cordyceps gets inside her, they think she’s already infected and move on. Sort of like a vaccine, but not quite.
Regardless, now we know. This was never explicitly stated in the games but it makes sense.
Back in the main timeline, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) make their way to the Fireflies. Ellie is out of sorts and Joel does his best to cheer her up and distract her. He finds food, the game of Boggle, he chats with her breezy, but she’s aloof, still stuck in the horror of the cannibals in last week’s terrifying episode. The only thing that breaks her from her gloom is another classic scene from the game: The Giraffes.
The two climbed through a skyscraper to view the city. When they reach a bombed out area of the building without going up, Joel takes Ellie up to the next floor so she can push a ladder down (another fun video game moment). She spots something and runs, forcing Joel to follow her. What comes is not what he expected. A giraffe is grazing outside. Ellie looks at it in amazement, and Joel cuts her some leafy branches to give to the animal.
Below, they see a whole herd of the wonderful creatures. I half expected to hear that Jurassic Park theme play over the stage. It’s spectacular. “Was it everything you expected?” Joel asks, reminding us of a similar scene back in Boston — though he asked the question in a much different tone then. “It has its ups and downs,” Ellie replies. “But you can’t deny the point.”
They make their way to the hospital and Joel talks about his past. He tells her about how he tried to kill himself after Sarah died and that sometimes it feels like there’s nothing, but if you keep going, you’ll find something new to fight for. “Does time heal all wounds?” she says. “It wasn’t time,” he tells her, and it’s clear to both Ellie and us what he means. Ellie has saved him as sure as she has.
But it’s not over yet. They are ambushed by the Fireflies patrol and Joel is hit over the head with a rifle. He wakes up in a hospital bed. Marlene (Merle Dandridge) tells Joel she owes him. It’s a miracle Eli made it this far. Then she tells him what the doctors are doing. They think Ellie has been infected since birth, which has given her a special immunity that they can basically take away from her. He is now in surgery.
“But Cordyceps infects the brain,” he says, realizing the implications of this. “I have no choice,” Marlene replies. Ellie can save the world, but she won’t be around to see it. “Don’t do this,” Joel pleads. “You do not understand”.
Marlene says she is the only person who understands. He was there when Ellie was born. She made a promise to her mother to protect her. But the greater good demands sacrifice, and Ellie will not be hurt. She was never told, so she never felt fear.
Marlene tells her men to escort Joel to the highway and leave him with his pack and Ellie’s switch. They push him forward, leading him through the hospital, guns at the ready. On a staircase, he makes his move. He grabs one of the guards guns and shoots them both. One is killed instantly. He asks the other where Eli is being held, but the guard won’t tell him.
“I don’t have time for this,” Joel says and shoots him dead. Then he climbs the stairs again and enters the hospital, guns blazing. He shoots through the first guards. When one surrenders, lowering his rifle, Joel shoots him. He changes his clip, kills another, takes the guard’s rifle. He shoots until he runs out of bullets, pushing through the hospital like an angel of death. When the gun runs out of ammo, he picks up a pistol.
Leaving a trail of blood and carnage in his wake, Joel finally makes it to the pediatric ward to find the doctor and several nurses in a room preparing to begin surgery. Elli is unconscious. She enters the room and tells them to unhook her.
The doctor turns, grabs a scalpel and stands between Joel and the operating table. Joel shoots him and repeats his instructions. They unhook Ellie and he picks her up and drags her away.
In the garage below, he sees a van that has obviously been worked on. He heads towards him when Merle steps out of the shadows, gun. She tells him it’s not too late. They can still save the world. “That’s not up to you to decide,” he says. “It’s not up to you either,” she replies. Let Elli decide. “I’m sure he would do the right thing.”
For a moment, it looks like Joel will back down. Marlene lowers her gun and Joel shoots her in the stomach. He puts Ellie in the van and hears Merle panting. When he walks around the van, she struggles on the pavement. She pushes herself and begs for her life. “You’re going after her,” Joel says and shoots her again.
On the way, Elli finally wakes up. She asks what happened and Joel lies. There were dozens of others like you, he tells her. They could not find a cure. They gave up. Then raiders attacked and she barely made it out alive. She looks incredulous. When she asks about Marlene, he doesn’t answer and she rolls onto her other side, facing away from him.
They make it most of the way to Jackson, but have to hike the last few hours. When they reach a view of the city, Ellie stops. She asks Joel to swear to her that everything he said about what happened at the hospital is true. It doesn’t blink. “I swear,” he says. She studies his face for a minute, then says, “Okay.”
And the credits roll.
Much like the game this show is based on, this one leaves us with all sorts of questions and a long, long debate about the moral implications of both Joel’s actions at the hospital and his subsequent decision to lie to Ellie—both for to prevent her by returning (thus keeping her safe) and to preserve their relationship, which she worries won’t last if she learns the truth.
I’m working on a separate piece to discuss this in more detail. For the purposes of this review, I’ll just say this: I’m on Team Joel here all the way. If you don’t protect the innocent, there is no greater good worth saving. If you sacrifice the life of your own daughter (even a surrogate daughter, as is the case here) to save the world, then the world is not worth saving. It’s one thing to sacrifice yourself for the greater good, but to sacrifice another?
This was a tremendously powerful episode. I’m surprised at how much they paid for with a runtime of just over 43 minutes, but it worked and never felt rushed. I’m also impressed how they took the hospital sequence and adapted the video game combat into something so cinematic and haunting. But mostly, I love how this ends with Joel lying to Ellie out of love, and her accepting it—even though she might know it’s a lie—also out of love. And then it was over, just like that.
I will repeat that this is such a perfect ending that I wish it was The it’s over but we made it The Last Of Us Part IIfor better or worse, which means we’ll get at least two more seasons of it The last of us on HBO. And this is where I’m deeply torn, as I really think they’ve done a great job (apart from a mid-season lull) and I love Pascal and Ramsey in this. What’s coming makes me nervous. I won’t spoil that here, but I’ve discussed it elsewhere if you’re curious.
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