Welcome to the season finale of The Last of Us. It’s been quite a journey, starting with the collapse of humanity and taking Joel and Ellie across the country in the hopes of saving it. Despite some complaints about the repetitive trauma the show wants to inflict on me each week, I think this show is great. Let’s get into the final episode.
The episode starts off with an extremely pregnant woman running through the woods, I assume because fungus zombies are after her. She makes it into an abandoned house, bars the bedroom door, and bears down as she goes into labor.
As she’s giving birth, an infected burst through the door. The woman tries to fend it off and stabs it with her switchblade. After finally dispatching it, she hears a baby’s cry. Her baby came out in the middle of the fight.
(Wow, HBO sure does love its traumatic birth scenes, huh? I recapped House of the Dragon last year, and I thought I was done with messy labor scenes. Nope! Thanks, guys. Super cool of you to just throw that in here.)
A few hours later, Marlene (remember Marlene? Boston Firefly Marlene?) and her Firefly crew finds the woman in the house. The baby is crying, because Anna (the mom) hasn’t fed her. Why? Well, turns out the infected bit her before she could kill it, and she didn’t want to pass it along to her baby, who she has named Ellie. She says the baby was born before she was bitten, but that seems unlikely.
So this is the birth of Ellie. Is this a clue as to why she’s immune? Is it because her mom got bitten during birth, and the umbilical cord filtered enough out? Hard to say, but it seems like that’s what is being implied here.
Anna makes Marlene promise to take care of Ellie. She gives Marlene her trusty switchblade to pass along to Ellie (knives are a great baby shower gift), and then implores Marlene to kill her before the infection takes hold. Marlene doesn’t want to do either. She can’t take care of a baby as a Firefly freedom fighter (which is probably why Ellie wound up in the FEDRA school), and she doesn’t want to kill her friend either. But after a moment, she does both.
Joel and Ellie make it to Salt Lake City. Ellie seems very withdrawn, probably because her encounters with the cannibal rapist religious community have left her more shaken than she wants to admit. Joel is being chattier than usual, trying to buoy her spirits. While scouting around for the Firefly hospital, they stumble across a herd of giraffes who are apparently living in an old football stadium.
Ellie is delighted and amazed, and Joel shows her how to feed them by holding out branches. While walking through an old army camp, Joel admits that the scar he got from the “person who missed” was from himself. He didn’t want to go on after his daughter, Sam, died, and he flinched as he pulled the trigger. This is a big admission from Joel, usually so reticent to share anything, but obviously, he has grown to care about Ellie. Ellie guesses that time heals all wounds, and Joel tells her it wasn’t time that cured him. Oh man, TLOU is making me feel things again.
Joel lightens the tone by saying he’s the mood for some really shitty puns. Ellie is only too happy to oblige. (“Why do moon rocks taste better than earth rocks? Because they’re meteor!” I agree, Joel, that’s a zero out of ten.) This whole section is lovely and sweet, but this is The Last of Us, and we aren’t allowed to have nice things, so their chat is interrupted by a flash-bang grenade.
Joel wakes up in a hospital bed, and, surprise! Marlene is there. She apparently survived the shootout at the end of episode one and also made her way out to Salt Lake City. Joel immediately asks where Ellie is and is told that she’s fine. She’s being prepped for surgery.
See, their doctor thinks that the cordyceps has been growing inside her since birth, and they’re sending out chemical messengers that tell the outside cordyceps that the host is already infected, so no need to come in. So, they’re going to take a sample of the cordyceps in Ellie and see if they can replicate those messengers.
Joel asks, “But… isn’t cordyceps in the brain?”
Yes, says Marlene. It sure is.
Joel has spent all this time protecting and caring for Ellie to get her to the Fireflies, assuming they were just going to draw her blood. Oh no! The friendly Fireflies are going to carve up her brain! And while maybe medical technology in our 2023 can easily take a brain sample with lasers and whatnot, I doubt that the medical standards of the post-apocalypse would be able to find a lot more than some whiskey and a rusty saw blade. But it’s cool! Ellie won’t feel a thing! Somehow sensing that Joel might not be happy about this, Marlene asks her security to escort him out of town, and once he’s there, to give him Ellie’s switchblade. You know, to remember all the good times.
As he’s being escorted out, Joel goes on a John Wick-style rampage, leaving a trail of dead Fireflies in his wake. This sequence is impeccably filmed, with the sorrowful music drowning out most of the dialogue and sound. Joel goes floor by floor, killing everyone he comes across, even the ones who throw down their arms and surrender. And when he finally gets to the doctor, who is starting up the ol’ bone saw as Joel bursts in, he’s got no time for his explanations. He shoots him as well and carries Ellie down to the garage.
Marlene is there, trying to stop him. She knows what he’s going through. (She really does, as we saw in the opening scene, killing her friend before she could turn into an infected.) She knows he wants to protect Ellie, but she’s going to grow up and move on, and what then? She tries to reason with Joel, telling her that Ellie would agree with her. That’s a bridge too far for Joel. He shoots her, and then double taps her and drives away.
As they drive off, Ellie wakes up. Joel tells her that they couldn’t find a cure from her blood. There were others who were immune, and they’ve been trying for a while, and they just couldn’t make it work, so now they’ve stopped trying. And they had to rush out because the hospital was being attacked by raiders. They head back to Wyoming to stay with Tommy. As they approach the compound, Ellie tells Joel her big emotional trauma. Joel had asked her in Kansas City if that had been the first time she had to kill someone. It wasn’t, The person she had to kill before was Riley. When they got bitten at the mall, they decided to lose their minds together and enjoy the time they had left. Of course, only Riley turned, so Ellie had to kill her. Everyone she has loved and trusted has died, and sometimes by her own hand. Joel tries to reassure her, but she demands that Joel swear that everything he told her about the Fireflies was true. (Which, of course, it wasn’t.) He swears, and after a moment, Ellie nods and says OK.
This was an amazing ending, full of the emotional connections between Ellie and Joel. And it is also an incredibly morally ambiguous conclusion, because sooner or later, Ellie will find out that Joel is lying. And what then?
The big question here—and one that my friend Christian Angeles has written about as well—is: Was Joel right? Or is he the villain?
The Previously On intro this week was a lot longer than usual and made a big deal of showing how the relationship between Joel and Ellie has evolved, from being reluctant companions (Joel telling Ellie that she’s “cargo” at one point) to genuinely trusting and caring about each other. Which seemed excessive. I’ve been watching the show. I have eyes. The theme of the show has not been subtle. Joel and Ellie have both suffered traumatic losses and are looking for reasons to keep on going. The message of the show has been—constantly—to hold on to what it is that keeps us human. Whether that is the romance of Bill and Frank, or Henry doing whatever he can to keep his little brother safe, or Joel risking his life to keep Ellie safe. So, narratively, the show is on Joel’s side. Protect your family above all.
But, Marlene has a point. If they can save humanity using Ellie’s brain tissue, isn’t that worth it? It’s the classic Vulcan principle—the lives of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. But it’s different when it’s Spock choosing to sacrifice himself. This is more like Kirk ordering Spock to his death without telling him why or that he’d even be in danger. And the Fireflies have proven themselves to be untrustworthy so far. Every promise of support and equipment has fallen through. In the one town that overthrew FEDRA (back in KC), the resistance proved to be just as brutal as the oppressors. And maybe their doctor can synthesize a vaccine in the filthy pediatric wing of a rundown hospital, but I wouldn’t bet my FEDRA ration cards on it.
So sure, in theory, Joel has made a bad decision for potentially extremely selfish reasons. (I’d love to see someone do a mashup of Vertigo and The Last of Us, where Jimmy Stewart is talking about his late wife and Joel is talking about his late daughter.) His dad-ness has trumped his rationality. It remains to be seen if his love for his surrogate daughter will cause the fall of mankind.
And I am excited to watch next season and find out.
Episode Rating 5 out of 5
Season Rating 4 out of 5
Line of the Week:
Ellie: People are making apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow. Too soon?
Joel: No, it’s topical.
Joel embracing the Dad-joke vibe is amazing.