The Last of Us Season 1 Finale Recap: Joel's Barbaric Choice Jeopardizes His Future With Ellie — Grade It!

The things we do for love.

The Last of Us ends its freshman season with an episode that draws Pedro Pascal’s Joel and Bella Ramsey’s Ellie closer together than ever… until a heat-of-the-moment decision on Joel’s part, and then a massive lie about that decision, rips them asunder.

The hour is a gorgeous, evocative ending to a near-perfect season — and you’re going to want to hear from executive producers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann (go here for that), as well as The Last of Us OG Ashley Johnson (interview here!), have to say about it. But first, let’s recap what happens in “Look For the Light.”

ELLIE’S ORIGIN STORY | A pregnant woman wearing a yellow dress and tennis shoes runs through the woods, arrives at a house and quickly barricades herself inside an upstairs room, sitting on the floor with her back against the wall. The woman is in labor; the house is under attack. After we hear screams and clicker sounds, an infected woman busts through the door and goes straight for the mother-to-be.

She has a knife in her hand — you’ll recognize it as Ellie’s knife — but when a contraction comes on strong, she drops the weapon. She manages to get a hold of it once more and kill the infected, and she’s so focused on survival that she doesn’t realize until after that she’s given birth — the baby is crying on the floor — or that she’s been bitten on the thigh.

the-last-of-us-finale-recap-season-1-epiosde-9Mom cuts the umbilical cord and picks up her daughter. (Those little fingers and toes!) “Yeah, you tell ‘em. You f—kin’ tell em, Ellie,” the woman says, crying as she cradles the infant. And now’s probably a good time to note what gamers likely realized upon the woman’s first line: She’s played by Ashley Johnson, who voiced Ellie in The Last of Us video game.

When Marlene and a man get to the house, they find the woman — whose name is Anna — in the same spot. Marlene apologizes for being late, saying that they couldn’t get out of the QZ. Anna explains that Ellie needs to eat; she didn’t want to nurse her after she was bit. She lies and says that she cut the cord before the attack, then instructs Marlene to bring Ellie to Boston and give her the knife. Marlene says no, crying, but Anna is resolute. “How long have we known each other?” she asks. “Our whole lives,” Marlene says softly. “That’s why you pick her up right now, and then you kill me,” Anna replies.

Though Marlene initially refuses, she eventually hands the baby off to her companion and shoots Anna before the Cordyceps can turn her.

the-last-of-us-finale-recap-season-1-epiosde-9-LOOK WHO’S TALKING | In the present-day, Ellie is not 100 percent herself after the worst afternoon ever spent at a steakhouse. She’s quiet, she’s a little spaced-out, and Joel has to call her name several times before she realizes he’s talking to her. They’re on a highway full of stopped cars and with Ellie quieter than normal, Joel seems to have taken it upon himself to fill the verbal void. He talks about how maybe they can find a guitar and he can teach her how to play. When she’s slow to respond, his “Ellie” is so worried; we’ve said it before, but damn, Pedro Pascal is so good in this role. She reads the concern in his tone and replies with false happiness. “Yeah,” she says, smiling, “that’d be great.” When he calls her out later on her reticence, she says she’s fine.

They eventually get to a building and are barely inside before Ellie starts scampering up levels like she’s in Super Mario Bros. When Joel eventually catches up to her on a high floor, he’s surprised to see a giraffe eating from a tree that’s grown into the structure.  Ellie whispers not to scare the animal. He rips off some leaves and hands them to her so she can feed it, and she giggles as the giraffe snacks on what she’s offering. He’s very obviously THINKING THOUGHTS while watching her have a moment of pure joy.

Eventually, the animal moves and she climbs to a terrace to watch it reunite with some of its friends. And while she’s happily witnessing the giraffe hangout, Joel brings up the risks involved with what could happen at the hospital. “We don’t have to do this. I just want you to know that,” he says, floating the idea of going back to Jackson, where they can “forget about the whole damn thing.” But she’s convinced this is her purpose. “After everything we’ve been through, everything I’ve done, it can’t be for nothing,” she says. She acknowledges that he wants to protect her — and he HAS protected her — and the way she talks about their future, as though there’s no doubt that she’ll stick with him, is incredibly moving. “I’ll follow you wherever you go,” she says. “But there’s no halfway with this. We finish what we started.” And really, what else can Joel do but nod his agreement? Also? Bella freaking Ramsey, ladies and gentlemen.

THE TERRIBLE TRUTH BEHIND JOEL’S BAD EAR | When they arrive at the hospital, they see the ruins of triage tents outside. Ellie wonders if it was a FEDRA thing, but he says no: The Army put up emergency medical camps everywhere right after the outbreak. When he mentions that he was a patient in one, she assumes he was there with his daughter. “Sarah? No, she was gone already,” he says, and the ease with which he a) says Sarah’s name and b) makes reference to her death speaks volumes about how far his relationship with Ellie has come since the start of the season.

He was at the camp for his ear injury, which resulted from a near-miss from a gunshot on the second day after the outbreak. Ellie jokes that the Army medics stitched him up better than she did, but he’s very serious as he stops walking and baldly confesses that he tried to kill himself. “It was me,” he says. “I was the guy who shot and missed. There’s no story. Sarah died. And I couldn’t see the point anymore. Simple as that. And I wasn’t scared, either. I was ready. I couldn’t have been more ready.” He says he flinched as he pulled the trigger, “and I still don’t know why.”

the-last-of-us-finale-recap-season-1-epiosde-9She knows why he’s telling her this, and she’s certainly taking the admission seriously, but she attempts to lighten the moment by joking that time heals all wounds. (“She’s fighting to keep it all subtext,” my very insightful co-worker/The Last of Us gamer Jason Averett says when we’re messaging back and forth about the scene, and he’s SO RIGHT. While I think Ellie appreciates the sentiment, it’s weird to see your dad cry!) But you know who wants the subtext to be THE TEXT? Joel, who’s a few barely held-back tears away from enveloping her in a bear hug. “It wasn’t time that did it,” Joel says, his voice thick and his eyes glassy. “Well, I’m glad that that didn’t work out,” she says simply. “Me, too,” he agrees, wiping his eyes roughly as they continue their walk.

Joel jokes about wanting to hear some bad puns, and she happily obliges, whipping No Pun Intended: Volume Too out of her backpack. They’re having the closest thing to fun this series allows when OF COURSE a guy appears behind them and lobs a flash grenade their way.

the-last-of-us-finale-recap-season-1-epiosde-9-THE BEGINNING… | Joel sees the explosive right before it blows. He and Ellie are knocked down, then men with guns approach and take her as they knock out Joel. He wakes up in a hospital room; a Fireflies symbol is one of the first things he sees.

Marlene is there, and she apologizes that the patrol didn’t recognize them. Ellie is fine, she assures him, and thanks him for keeping her safe. But she won’t let Joel see her, because she’s being prepped for surgery. Marlene explains that the doctor’s working theory is that Ellie has has had Cordyceps in her since birth: “It makes normal Cordyceps think that she’s Cordyceps. That’s why she’s immune.”

She goes on about how the doctor’s plan to take it out of Ellie, multiply her cells in labs and then produce something like a vaccine that could be administered to everyone, but Joel’s focused on one thing. “Cordyceps grows inside the brain,” he says, inferring that harvesting those cells means killing Ellie. Marlene resolutely reminds him that there is no one else they can turn to, and they’re not planning on telling her that she’s submitting to her own death, mainly so she won’t be afraid. [Side note: THAT IS MESSED UP.]

Joel, naturally, rails against this decision and gets knocked down by one of the armed guards. Joel yells that Marlene doesn’t understand, but she points out that she was there when Ellie was born, and “I’m the only one who understands. I’m sorry. I have no other choice.” She instructs her men to walk him out to the highway and leave him there with his backpack and Ellie’s knife. “If he tries anything,” she adds as they march him out, “shoot him.”

the-last-of-us-finale-recap-season-1-episode-9… OF THE END | Of course Joel tries something! He’s Joel! Angry Dad kills both of his guards in the stairwell and then slowly makes his way through the building, murdering everyone he runs into. One man surrenders and puts his weapon on the ground, but Joel kills him anyway. Eventually, he picks up one of the fallen Fireflies’ assault weapons and lays waste to anyone he comes across.

He’s switched to a handgun by the time he arrives at the pediatric surgical unit and finds Ellie, anesthetized and in a hospital gown, laid out on the operating table. “Unhook her,” Joel orders, and when the surgeon refuses and grabs a scalpel to defend himself, Joel kills him. He commands the other medical staff in the room — one of whom is Laura Bailey, who voices a pivotal character in The Last of Us Part II — to turn their backs to him. Then he scoops up Ellie, who’s still unconscious, and takes the elevator to the parking garage.

The doors slide open to reveal Marlene waiting for him, gun drawn. “You can’t keep her safe forever, no matter how hard you try,” she warns Joel, arguing that he’s ultimately hurting Ellie by taking away the chance for a cure that could set the world right again. Joel is not immune to what she’s saying; it definitely seems like he’s struggling with his emotions as Marlene promises that “we can still find a way” and puts down her gun.

the-last-of-us-finale-recap-season-1-episode-9The next thing we know, he’s driving. Ellie is in the backseat. As she stirs and starts to wake up (side note: His “You’re OK, you’re with me” KILLS ME), he says that there were dozens of people like her at the hospital — all immune — but that the doctors tested them and couldn’t make anything work. “They’ve stopped looking for a cure,” he lies, compounding the fabrication when he explains that raiders attacked — which is why they didn’t have time to stop and get her clothes. He confirms that people got hurt. “Is Marlene OK?” she wonders, and Joel’s eyes get misty again as he drives. “I’m taking us home,” he tells her. Ellie is still a little out of it but awake enough to know something smells fishy. She turns over so he can’t see her face in the rearview mirror. “I’m sorry,” he whispers.

Flashbacks throughout this scene illuminate the truth: He shot Marlene but didn’t kill her. She begged him to let her go, but Joel had no mercy. “You’d just come after her,” he said, then put a bullet in Marlene’s head.

‘SWEAR TO ME’ | Their car breaks down in Wyoming. On the five-hour hike back to Jackson, Joel is the chattiest of Kathys, going on about how he and Sarah used to hike and how she and Ellie would’ve gotten along. I know his newly talkative nature is mostly driven by guilt, but there’s something about the way he’s trying SO HARD with her now, when it’s nearly too late, that breaks my heart.

They come to a rise and see Jackson in the distance. But before they continue on their way, Ellie has something to say. “Back in Kansas City, you asked me about the first time I killed someone,” she says. She tells him about getting bit at the mall with Riley and fills in what we didn’t see in Episode 7: that she had to kill Riley when the fungus took over.

Ellie clearly feels guilt about Riley, and Tess and Sam — everyone in her orbit who’s died in the past few months. Joel attempts to comfort her by talking about how sometimes things don’t work out how you hope, but “if you just keep going, you find something new to fight for.”  And that’s warm and fuzzy and all, but prepare for him to ruin everything in 3… 2…

“Swear to me. Swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true,” she says, interrupting him. “I swear,” he replies. (In my notes, I write: “HER FACE!”) She doesn’t believe him. She knows he’s not telling the truth. But she nods, says “OK,” and that’s where we leave it.

Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the finale? Grade it, as well as the season as a whole, via the polls below. Then hit the comments with your thoughts!

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