Why ‘The Last of Us’ Finale Is More Complicated on TV

This story contains spoilers for the first season of “The last of us.”

One of the first hit TV shows of the year, HBO’s “The Last of Us” has been hailed as one of the best video game adaptations ever.

The series, created by executive producers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, is set in a post-apocalyptic America where humanity has been ravaged by a mutant fungus that turns those infected into mindless cannibals. Sunday’s finale saw Joel (Pedro Pascal), a grizzled survivor whose daughter was killed on the first day of the outbreak, and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a teenage girl miraculously immune to infection, finally complete their journey to a medical facility where they hope to help create a cure.

The season finale was predictably divisive. Times staff writer Tracy Brown and video game critic Todd Martens discuss reactions to the episode, how it compares to the game, and more.

Tracy Brown: Despite Hollywood’s inconsistent track record with video game adaptations, “The Last of Us” has been a series I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time. As someone who doesn’t usually play games that involve shooting and avoids most horror, a TV show was the perfect way for me to finally experience a story I’d heard so much about. But then I ended up feeling like I should have played the game first anyway.

That said, I knew what to expect with the season finale. I knew even before I started playing “The Last of Us Part 1” how the game ended and that the ending was divisive. But what I didn’t expect was how different the experience was as a TV show compared to the game. So, I’m curious, Todd, as someone who also experienced “The Last of Us” through the video game first, what do you think of the finale?

Marlene (Merle Danderidge) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) in “The Last of Us.”

(Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Todd Martens: The ending of “The Last of Us” has been divisive since its release in 2013. It is made for debate as it raises multiple moral questions. There is the question of sacrifice – should a person give his life if it means the possible salvation of humanity? And then there are the personal questions, as Joel, in an attempt to protect Ellie, lies about the operation. His inability to be honest with Elli, to inform her of the actions he took to save her life, always felt awkward, even in-game.

But I think the ending is an example of the power of interactive entertainment. For much of the game, we play as Joel and see the world from his perspective. We may not always agree with Joel’s actions, but we have the illusion of control over them, and as we move Joel through the narrative, we develop a sense of empathy and a level of attachment to him. We see, for example, how his relationship with Ellie reawakens his faith in humanity. Joel has never fully recovered from the trauma of losing his daughter, and Ellie shows him that it is possible to be close to others again.

This creates a protective feel for the player. We take care of Elli. We want to protect her. And I think that’s why, in my original review of the game in 2013, I wrote that it felt hopeful, despite the harshness of the world. In a sense, his message was a message of longing, of wanting so desperately to be able to connect with another human being. With this emotional backdrop, I felt, in the game, that someone must protect Ellie at all costs.

What surprised me is how different I would feel watching it unfold as a TV episode. I think Lorraine Ali, one of the Times’ TV critics, summed it up pretty succinctly in her review:

“As Joel told Ellie before they entered the hospital where a team was secretly planning to dissect her: ‘Maybe there’s nothing bad out there, but up until now, there’s always been something bad out there… We don’t have to do this. I want you to know this.” She replies, “After all I’ve done. It can’t be for nothing.’ Ah, but it will be, Eli.’

For the past eight episodes, “The Last of Us” has shown us the cruelty of its world. We saw how humanity was destroyed and optimism seemed like an endangered emotion. We didn’t just see Joel’s perspective. We saw a wider, wider lens, and — while I don’t think that means the ending is good or bad, per se — I think that made Joel’s decision to protect Ellie, rather than try to save the world, more difficult to deal with.

You were playing the game more recently and said you felt like the ending hit differently in the series. How come?

A man carrying a teenage girl wearing a hospital gown.

Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in “The Last of Us.”

(Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Coffee: As you mentioned, I found that after hours and hours of basically living in Joel’s shoes in the game, it was much easier to understand his decision to save Ellie instead of possibly saving the rest of the world. Even him lying to Eli about what happened when he asks Joel to swear he’s telling the truth isn’t uncomfortable to watch, but you accept it and hope they find some happiness together afterwards.

But watching Joel in the episode is much more difficult.

The show was less subtle in its run up to the finale about taking a look at the complicated depths of love. Episode 3, with Bill and Frank’s story, introduces the idea that there is only one person in the world worth saving because you love them. Kathleen, the rebel leader in Kansas City, was willing to risk the entire city to avenge her brother. You see Ellie’s mom, Anna, in the opening moments of the finale lie to Marlene about the timeline of her infection because she chooses Ellie’s life over everyone else’s safety. All are moments that are not in the game, but foreshadow Joel’s final decision.

In the show, it’s much easier to see Joel’s actions as horrible because it feels so much more abrupt. You always knew you weren’t Joel, so the lack of empathy kind of defeats the point of the ending. Now, Ellie’s desperation to believe Joel – even though you can tell she knows he’s not telling her the truth – is much more heartbreaking, and their relationship is something of a mess. The future just looks bleak.

It was also interesting to see how the response to the finale was divisive among those who just watched the TV series. You mentioned Lorraine’s review, but we also know colleagues who loved the finale. Recaps and reviews from different outlets are also separated.

A man and a teenage girl smile at each other on a rooftop.

Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in “The Last of Us.”

(Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Martens: It’s interesting to me how personal the ending can be. As a childless single man, I think that shows my perspective. Maybe it’s a little easier for me to say, “The right thing to do is try to save humanity.” But I remember when I talked to Neil Druckmann, the game writer and co-creator of the series, he was very adamant that he felt Joel made the right choice. He made it clear that he would have made the same decision.

“To me, he did the right thing for him. As a parent, if I found myself in the same situation, I would hope I could do what Joel did.”

Druckmann added, however, that he probably would have spared Marlene, the Firefly leader who swore to raise and protect Ellie. “That’s where I think Joel is different from me,” Druckmann said. “But everything else I hoped I would do the same to save my child.”

I also felt that the show made it clearer what Ellie would want. In the game, as someone who controls Joel, you play his point of view. But I felt like the show worked harder to show us Ellie’s perspective on the situation and seemed to imply that she was willing to sacrifice herself because she had experienced so much loss and grief and hoped to spare others those feelings.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the surgery and the vaccine will work. I remember feeling that in the game, “We have to save Ellie because there’s no certainty that this is going to work.” In interactive entertainment, we feel very much like puppeteers, as if we are in dialogue with the character we control. We see the world through their eyes and their emotions become ours. I think the ending, which was already divisive, becomes more on TV because we’ve taken a step away.

Coffee: In the game, “the right choice for Joel” becomes “the right choice” because that’s how you win. But on a TV show, you don’t have to worry about winning.

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