An Abrupt Ending to a Superb Adaptation


Spoiler WarningThe Last of Us reaches its season one conclusion by exactly capturing the videogame’s shocking ending. Joel (Pedro Pascal) makes a fateful decision. He can either save the world or the life of the surrogate daughter who filled the void in his aching heart. Every parent understands there is no choice. Joel would never let anyone harm Ellie (Bella Ramsey). If only showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann had stuck to the dramatic discipline that made the show’s execution flawless to this point. “Look for the Light” plays out like a first-person shooter in the bloody climax. It felt staged and improbable in a series that had portrayed humanity’s downfall with such gripping realism.

“Look for the Light” begins fourteen years ago with the heavily pregnant Anna (Ashley Johnson) running through the woods. She reaches an abandoned farmhouse. Anna locks herself into an upstairs room as her water breaks. She barricades the door, but a clicker smashes through. Anna struggles with the infected before stabbing it to death with her switchblade. She looks down in shock to see the baby girl between her legs. Anna also notices the bite mark on her inside thigh. She quickly cuts the umbilical cord.

Anna’s Precious Child

The Last of Us

Marlene (Merle Dandridge) leads a group of Fireflies to the house that night. She finds Anna cradling the newborn Ellie in her arms. Marlene sees Anna’s been bitten. Anna swears she cut the cord before Ellie could become infected. She hands her precious child to Marlene with the switchblade. Take care of Ellie but kill her. Marlene cannot do it. Anna begs her for a quick death. They’ve been best friends their whole lives. Marlene gives Ellie to a Firefly. She weeps as she shoots and kills Anna.

In the present, Joel and Ellie arrive in Salt Lake City, Utah. They find a tall building to survey the area. Ellie sees an incredible sight. Wild giraffes nibble at the overgrown trees. Joel gives Ellie a branch to feed it. He stares at her lovingly. They don’t have to go any further. Ellie refuses. Too many people have died for her. She will honor them and see this through.

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Joel makes a startling admission as they walk. His scar and loss of hearing were a failed suicide attempt after Sarah’s murder. He flinched when trying to shoot himself. Joel admits he’s glad to have survived. He found something else to live for. Ellie tears up at his honesty. She will stick with Joel once everything is done. He promises to teach her the guitar.

A flash grenade is thrown at their feet. Joel shields Ellie as it explodes in deafening smoke and light. A Firefly knocks Joel out with his rifle. Joel wakes up in a hospital room surrounded by Marlene and her men. She thanks Joel for getting Ellie safely there. She would have been “dead on day one” without him. Joel asks to see Ellie. Marlene responds she’s being prepped for surgery.

Marlene’s Shocking Truth

Merle Dandridge in The Last of Us

Joel asks Marlene about the procedure. Cordyceps infects the brain before it transforms. Ellie will be killed to harvest the cure. Marlene acknowledges the shocking truth. She has known Ellie from birth, but the sacrifice must be made. Joel leaps to his feet and is whacked in the gut by Marlene’s guard. She orders them to take Joel to the highway and give him back his gear. Marlene also hands them Ellie’s switchblade. Kill him if he causes trouble.

A pair of Fireflies leads Joel downstairs. He makes note of their location on the fourth floor. Joel hesitates before snapping around to knock down the first soldier. He grabs his pistol and kills them both. Joel cocks the machine gun and takes the switchblade. He races back upstairs as an agent of death.

Joel kills everyone he encounters. A terrified Firefly who dropped his gun gets no mercy. Joel tosses his spent machine gun, stabs another victim, and picks up a new M16. The Fireflies are eradicated as he stalks methodically down the corridor.

Joel arrives at the pediatric surgery unit. He flings open the operating room door. The surgeon steps in front of him with a scalpel. Ellie lies unconscious in a hospital gown. Joel shoots him in the skull without hesitating. The camera lingers on the dead doctor’s face as blood trickles out. Joel demands the terrified nurses remove Ellie’s IV sedation. He gingerly carries her away.

Out of the Shadows

Joel protects Ellie
Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution

Joel exits the elevator into the parking garage. He sees a minivan nearby. Marlene comes out of the shadows with her gun raised. Joel can’t save Ellie from everyone. There’s still time to make this right… even after everything he’s done. Marlene lowers her weapon to talk. Joel shoots her in the stomach. He places Ellie on the backseat then returns to Marlene. She begs for her life. Joel knows she will never stop coming for Ellie. Marlene whimpers before a bullet in the face.

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Ellie opens her eyes in the backseat. What happened? Where are they? Joel lies and says the surgery was a failure. That the Fireflies told him there were many immune like Ellie. Raiders attacked the hospital and they had to flee. Everyone, including Marlene, was killed. The car lasts all the way to Wyoming.

Joel talks about Sarah to Ellie as they hike towards Tommy. His daughter would have liked Ellie’s humor. She’d make Sarah laugh. A troubled Ellie listens to Joel. They reach a vantage point and see the colony nestled in a valley. Ellie tells Joel about killing her best friend in the mall. They both got bitten but she never turned. Ellie asks Joel to swear that everything he said about the Fireflies and the hospital was true. He responds unwaveringly, “I swear.” Ellie looks at her friend, protector, and adopted father with skepticism before nodding “Ok.”

A Seed of Doubt

The abrupt ending leaves Ellie with a seed of doubt. She knows Joel isn’t telling her the truth. Joel had no qualms whatsoever about his brutal actions. He was helpless as Sarah died in his arms. Joel faced the same scenario again as a vastly different man. Cordyceps unleashed his dark side as a ruthless survivor. Joel had become a stone-cold killer. Ellie was the fire that rekindled his humanity. There wasn’t a chance in hell he would let another daughter be murdered.

Joel’s stunning choice made The Last of Us video game an instant classic. The powerful moment echoes through the finale with a surprisingly less artistic touch. Joel seemed invincible gunning down the Fireflies. He shreds at least twenty people without batting an eye. The assumption being that he was unstoppable in his heroic rescue. But Joel isn’t a bulletproof killing machine. Formidable, yes, and supremely lethal, but the climax devolves into a role-playing game sequence when it could have been so much more dramatic.

There’s a caveat based on prior knowledge. I played the game so knew exactly what was going to happen. Those who didn’t were probably shocked by the sudden turn of the events. It’s still impactful, but I think suffers from a lack of creativity. The pivotal moment was not the time to devolve into a video game perspective. Ashley Johnson portraying Anna was a nice nod and wink to the source material, though. She played Ellie in the game. The riveting open was more indicative of the show’s tense approach all season. We learned why Ellie’s immune and saw the source of her strength.

The finale didn’t meet my sky-high expectations. It’s by no means a failure but serves as the weakest episode in a superb season. The Last of Us nailed the casting of Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. They were deeply layered and complex protagonists. Their journey together will continue this year as Emmy winners. I sincerely hope that Mazin and Druckmann have several seasons of new storylines before events of The Last of Us Part II. The game’s sequel was divisive to say the least. There should be an interlude before the consequences of Joel’s actions and lies come back to haunt them.

The Last of Us is a production of The Mighty Mint, Word Games, PlayStation Productions, Naughty Dog, and Sony Pictures Television. All season one episodes are available to stream on HBO Max.

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