So, turns out Joel isn’t dead.
I mean, he’s not doing great. He’s barely hanging on. Ellie has dragged him into a nearby abandoned house (thoughtfully parking their horse in the garage) and found him a dirty mattress to lie on while she tries to find anything that might be able to help him.
I’m a little annoyed by this, honestly. If you’re going to take a big dramatic swing, stick with it. Don’t hedge it by pulling a Monty Python “I’m not dead yet” the following week. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always happy to have more Pedro Pascal, but this feels cheap.
What doesn’t feel cheap is the extended flashback that makes up the majority of the episode. It’s a touching portrayal of teenage friendship and first love and ends just the way TLOU has primed me to expect.
Ellie is back in FEDRA school, basically an ROTC program for young fascists. She spends her days doing drills, running in circles, training to kill Fireflies, and punching mean girls who try and take her walkman. Bethany thought she could bully Ellie because Ellie’s friend and protector, Riley (Storm Reid), ran away. Well, the fifteen stitches Ellie gives her to tell her differently. (My favorite reaction of the episode is when Bethany’s smirk turns into worry when she sees Ellie’s angry scowl.)
Later that night, after a quiet evening in her room reading her terrible No Pun Intended joke book and her Savage Starlight comics, Ellie is awakened by a visitor to her room. She almost punctures the intruder with her faithful switchblade but stops when she realizes it’s her old roommate and best friend, Riley, come back for a visit after three weeks away. After Ellie processes her hurt feelings, Riley tells her that she’s come to take Ellie out for the best night of her life.
And what’s the best thing in the world for a couple of teen girls? The mall, of course!
Avid viewers will remember that Ellie told Joel way back in episode 2 that she got bitten by the infected at the mall. So you know where this is going. But, past Ellie doesn’t know that yet, so let’s all go to the food court.
As they head towards the mall via rooftop and avoid FEDRA patrols, Riley tells Ellie that she’s joined the Fireflies. This leads to them having an argument about which of them is naive. Riley says that FEDRA is a bunch of fascists who oppress their own people. Ellie rolls her eyes and says the Fireflies are terrorists who are trying to blow her up.
The mall is supposed to be locked off, due to the infected, but Riley knows otherwise. When FEDRA turned on the power to an apartment block, the mall was on the same grid and got reactivated. So now, Riley has an evening of fun planned for the two of them.
The mall is everything Ellie ever dreamed of, and Riley and Ellie reenact pretty much every weekend from my teenage years. Arcade games! Merry Go Round! Photo booth! Dick around on the escalators! (Pro tip, Ellie: It’s not as much fun to walk up the down escalator if you aren’t able to annoy some harried shoppers by getting in their way).
After a few rounds on Mortal Kombat II (Ellie’s favorite game!) with Mileena eating her fighter and spitting out her bones (call back to ep 3!), Riley has a gift for her. She takes her through the food court into a nacho place. “Is my gift tacos?” asks Ellie. (Tacos do make a good gift.) Riley just rolls her eyes and instead gives her a book. It’s No Pun Intended Part Too. Apparently, the mall has an old Waldenbooks. They take turns reading puns until Ellie notices the pile of blankets and pillows in the corner. She asks Riley if she’s been staying in the mall. Then Ellie moves a blanket and finds a pile of explosive devices. Ellie figures out that the Fireflies assigned her here to watch over the stash. Ellie gets angry. Those are bombs that the Fireflies want to use on me! Oh no, says Riley, I would never let them use them on you. Even Riley has to know how lame that sounds.
As Ellie starts to leave, Riley yells after her that the Fireflies are sending her to the Atlanta QZ. She wanted to get Ellie to join, so they both could go together, but Marlene shot that idea down. (Remember Marlene? From way back in episode 1?) Ellie is mad and sad, never a great combination. She asks why Riley came back for her in the first place if she was just going to leave her again. Riley, clearly trying to keep it together, tells her she wanted to see her again and say goodbye. Well, bye! Ellie storms off.
My wife was watching this episode with me, and during Ellie’s argument with Riley, she said to me “Doesn’t she realize she loves her?” and, well, yeah Ellie. Come on.
After leaving in a huff, Ellie turns back to apologize, but suddenly hears screams in the distance. She races back, only to find the screams are coming from a zombie prop at a Spirit Halloween store. (Remember, the apocalypse happened in late September, so of course the mall has a Halloween store.) This was the fifth wonder of the mall, that Riley was saving for last. Ellie sits down next to her and tries to work through her frustrations with Riley. She left and she thought she was dead, but now she’s alive, but just for a night, and then she’s gone again to go blow up stuff with a radical group. Riley tells her that she couldn’t understand. Riley used to have a family, long ago. She belonged to something, and she needs to have it again.
Riley pulls out some Halloween masks (a wolfman for Ellie, an evil clown for herself), and after insulting Ellie’s taste in music (screw you, Riley, a-ha is awesome) she puts on Etta James covering I Got You Babe. (Sometimes the music choices here are a little too on the nose)
They start dancing in their masks for a while until Ellie takes hers off and begs her not to go. Riley says ok, and Ellie kisses her. She immediately says that she’s sorry. For what, asks Riley. Awww…
Of course, because this is The Last of Us, we can’t have nice things. This tender moment of connection is almost immediately interrupted by one of the infected shambling into the store. Riley tries to shoot it, but Ellie has to stab it in the head to kill it. She’s pumped full of adrenaline…
Until a horror-stricken Riley points to her arm. Ellie got bit by the infected. Riley holds up her hand. Her too. After Ellie goes on a smashing rampage in the store, Riley lays out their options. They can take the easy way out – suicide before the fungus takes over. Or, they can spend whatever time they have left together. They’re fighters. and they’ll stick it out together.
Back in the present, Ellie has found a needle and thread and is going to try and suture up Joel. I’m sure that needle is good and sterilized after sitting in a drawer for years.
The Ellie and Riley friendship this week was lovely, but I am starting to get a bit fed up with the narrative tropes. Every week, there’s another friendship and character we get invested in, only to see them die. I understand that this is a drama set in the end times, and I understand that the show is quite literally about maintaining our humanity in the face of overwhelming odds, but it’s getting to the point of diminishing returns and becoming just trauma porn.
Someone on Twitter was complaining about how the show just ignored how gasoline would evaporate and rot after years in a tank and it took him out of the show. I rolled my eyes at that, but this week some of the mall activities made me feel the same way. Spirit Halloween props barely work in the store when they’re new. I can’t imagine them working after two decades. Still, that’s a minor quibble on my part.
Next week shows Ellie running into what looks like a religious sect in the mountains while Joel clings to life. So, maybe he dies after all? We shall see!
Rating 3.5 out of 5 You get docked for the Joel fake-out.
Line of the Week:
Ellie: (reading from the pun book) “How does a computer get drunk? It takes screenshots!”
Riley: “What are screenshots?”
Ellie: “I don’t actually know.”
No iPhones in the apocalypse! The horror!