By Ben Konuch
“We can just be all poetic and lose our minds together.”
Episode seven of “The Last of Us” starts with a desperate, panicking Ellie trying to keep a dying Joel from slipping away. After his injury in the last minutes of episode six, he’s losing too much blood, and while Ellie tries to find some way to stabilize him, he tries to tell her to leave him and go find Tommy. He doesn’t think he’s going to make it, and he doesn’t want Ellie to die alone in the cold after he goes.
This is the trigger that brings back a flood of memories for Ellie, and the majority of the episode is a flashback that shows her life back in the QZ, the first person she had to leave behind and the reason she now knows that she’s immune.
Adapting all of the game’s expansion pack “Left Behind,” this episode is another somewhat frustrating detour from the series’ main story, but it’s to an important effect. We see glimpses of Ellie’s life in the QZ as she trains in FEDRA’s military school to become a soldier, despite the fact that she has no interest in fighting for FEDRA. She struggles to stand on her own after her best friend Riley disappears, but out of nowhere Riley returns and pulls her out of the school for a night of fun.
Riley, played in the series by Storm Reid, takes Ellie to an abandoned mall in the heart of the QZ that’s been abandoned since the outbreak and finds a way to turn on the power. This bathes the mall in neon lights that haven’t shone for twenty years, and Riley takes Ellie through the mall in a touching glimpse of the lives these two could have had in a world that hadn’t fallen apart. It’s a sweet gesture that demonstrates how much Riley cares for Ellie and seeing the smiles and silly laughter and carefree fun from Ellie is a painful contrast to the terrified and heartbroken girl we see at the episode’s beginning trying to save Joel.
The emotional twists of the episode come when it’s revealed that Riley left FEDRA school to join the Fireflies, who are now transporting her out of the QZ. Everything she did for Ellie was because she wanted to give her best friend one last memory. Ellie is furious, but after almost walking out on Riley, she comes back and Riley reveals that she’s willing to leave the Fireflies to run away with Ellie. Ellie is about to agree when an infected from deep within the mall is awakened by their commotion and attacks them both. What was a happy night becomes a frantic, terrible fight for survival with both girls getting bit, but only one walks out of that mall.
This episode echoes previous episodes’ decisions to pause the main narrative in order to provide a long backstory that gives context to the greater story, but I think this episode did a better job of centering its themes and context for why this detour matters.
While it’s not immediately apparent, the bond that she shares with Joel is mirrored by her friendship with Riley. Both are important people who love her in different ways, but the loss of Riley is to Ellie what losing Sarah was to Joel. Seeing the way their friendship mattered to her, the way that their bond gave her happiness and peace and someone in the world that cared for her. Seeing it all get ripped away gives us a better understanding of who Ellie is. It also helps us see that Joel isn’t the only one of the two who had his world taken from him.
So when the flashback ends at the end of the episode, and Joel tells her to leave again and find Tommy to help her, we understand exactly what Ellie is feeling. We understand the fear, the pain, the panic at the only other person in the world who cares for her almost slipping away. But she won’t leave him. Ellie wouldn’t leave Riley, and even if it hurts to lose Joel too, she’ll risk staying and helping and loving.
Her choice mirrors Joel’s choice to take her from Tommy in the last episode, and now we see how both Joel and Ellie have made the hard choice to risk opening up to love someone in a loveless world, even if the risk of losing them hurts more than never loving in the first place.
While another flashback episode may be frustrating to some, the impact and the importance of Ellie and Riley’s story have lasting relevance to Joel and Ellie’s story. However, the same content could have been covered in less time, perhaps enabling some more frequent cuts back to the present like the “Left Behind” chapter in the game did, but the episode did enough to still ground the flashbacks without making the entire episode feel like a waste of time so close to the end of the season. As it stands, episode seven is an engaging piece of storytelling that’s faithful to its source material and adds to character development in a meaningful way.
I give “The Last of Us” episode seven an 8.5/10
“The Last of Us” is now streaming on HBO Max
Ben Konuch is a sophomore Strategic Communication student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and hanging out with crazy MuKappa friends.
Images courtesy of HBO Max