By Ben Konuch
“You live in a broken world that you could have saved.”
After nine episodes of watching Joel and Ellie’s story, HBO’s “The Last of Us” has come to an end. With brutality on full display, beautiful cinematography and one final masterful performance from Pedro Pascal, “The Last of Us” ends its first season in spectacular – albeit rushed – fashion.
This episode begins with a flashback scene that introduces us to Anna, a pregnant woman played by Ashley Johnson, who portrayed Ellie in the game. She takes shelter in an abandoned house as she goes into labor, and is forced to kill an infected when it breaks in. In the struggle realizes she’s been bitten, prompting her to frantically cut the umbilical cord of her newborn child to save it from infection. In a tender moment after, Anna comforts her child and names her Ellie. This scene is distinct from the game, providing a new explanation for Ellie’s immunity.
The scene is also important for defining Marlene’s character, showing how her connection to Anna is the reason she allows Ellie to survive despite the risk that she might be infected. Her struggle to kill Anna at her request shows that Marlene isn’t a cold-blooded killer, but is ultimately someone who will do whatever it takes to do what she thinks is “the right thing.”
When we once again see Joel and Ellie, we find them entering the outskirts of a desolate Salt Lake City. Joel and Ellie have almost completely switched places in their character dynamic now, as Ellie seems quiet and reserved after the trauma of what happened with David and Joel trying to bring her out of her shell in moments that are both sweet and a little bit sad to watch. In one particularly heartfelt moment, Ellie spots a group of wild giraffes and Joel shows her how to feed one, and we finally see a bit of the old Ellie shine through.
This is the most open we’ve seen Joel, and his conversations reveal more information about who he was after losing Sarah. In a genuinely crushing moment of transparency, he reveals to Ellie that he was so lost in the years after Sarah’s death that he tried to commit suicide, explaining the deafness in his ear that’s been commented on throughout the series. This intimate moment is followed by Joel finally putting into words what we’ve seen unfold for the last nine episodes, that it wasn’t anything about time or the world that helped him find a reason to keep going, but his love for Ellie that has finally healed him.
This tender moment is quickly shattered, and after Joel and Ellie are knocked unconscious by a group of Fireflies, Joel wakes up to find Marlene standing over him in a hospital bed. She then gives him the biggest emotional hit of the entire series by telling Joel that after a series of tests, the Fireflies discovered that there was a way to remove the evolved cordyceps from Ellie’s brain. This could possibly create a cure, but the procedure will kill her. There’s no other way, she tells him. He’s done good, she tells him. This is for humanity, she tells him.
But Joel doesn’t hear any of it.
After nine episodes of protecting this girl, caring for her and creating a bond of genuine love, after opening up his soul once again to someone for the first time since he lost Sarah, after finally feeling like a whole person again instead of just an empty shell, Marlene wants him to just walk away. But the audience and Joel both know that this isn’t possible, and what comes next is what happens when a man who has finally been healed after being shattered for years is faced with that same kind of pain: raw, unrestrained rage.
Joel lashes out at the Fireflies with a dramatically captured display of Joel’s full brutality and efficiency. As solemn music drowns out most of the audio, Joel carves his way through wave after wave of Fireflies, the very same ones he has been trying to find for months, with a terrifying coldness and efficiency. Pedro Pascal once again shines through his silent acting, giving us a crystal clear picture of the anger, the mourning and the desperation Joel is battling through as he slaughters his way to Ellie’s operating room. The stakes are high and the emotions are higher, but he manages to succeed, reaching her before he loses another daughter.
As the episode ends and the season comes to an end, we’re perhaps left angry and disappointed with Joel. He’s killed dozens of Fireflies, killed Marlene and lied to the only person he really loves about it all. I’ve seen countless debates between fans about whether or not he made the right choice, but these discussions miss an important element of the story: Joel didn’t have a choice. After nine episodes we understand now what kind of man he is, what he’s lost and what he stands to lose again. Did he condemn all of humanity for one life? Maybe. But could any of us say with full confidence that we could turn our backs on whoever our Ellies are in our own lives?
That’s the hurtful beauty in the story of “The Last of Us.” Joel isn’t a hero or a villain, he’s just a broken man who is tired of feeling loss and pain, and because of his love, is willing to do whatever it takes to save Ellie and himself. It’s controversial, and maybe things could have ended differently, but they couldn’t for Joel. This path was sealed since the moment he killed the soldier outside the Boston QZ, it was just that none of us or them knew it yet.
I give “The Last of Us” episode 9 a 9.5/10, and “The Last of Us” series the final score of 8.5/10
Season one of “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