THE LAST OF US: Left Behind

Posted on February 26, 2023

The Last of Us takes another step back from the present, gives us the flashback we probably needed to see the most out of all possible flashbacks, and once again broke our hearts a little with another queer love story that ends in tears. Unlike Bill and Frank’s love story, which we adamantly argued was a triumphant one, Ellie and Riley’s story is almost unbearably tragic. There were many reasons to love this episode (not least Bella Ramsey’s astonishing performance), but our favorite parts of it had to do with how cleverly and subtly Ellie’s entire backstory had been set up in previous episodes. In episode 2, She reacted sharply to Joel’s suggestion that she might have a boyfriend and told Tess that she snuck into the old mall on her own, where she got bit, making it fairly clear that at least one part of her story wasn’t true. Later, she asks Joel if it ever bothers him having to kill Infected, knowing they were once people. In episode 4, she reveals her deep love of punster Will Livingston’s work, implies that she’s fired a gun before, and admits that she had to hurt someone in order to save herself. In episode 5, she gushes to Sam about her love of the Savage Starlight comic (“Endure and survive!”). Last episode, when Joel let her take a swig of his whiskey, she noted that the taste hadn’t gotten any better since the last time she had it and later told him that everyone she ever loved has either died or left her. While this episode was a much-needed respite in order to tell Ellie’s story, it turns out that Ellie’s been telling us her story all along, without even trying to. It’s the only story she has, so everything in her life relates to it in some way.

Somehow, after Joel collapsed in the snow last episode, Ellie managed to get him into a house and down to its basement, which is probably the warmest spot. He tells her to leave him, go north and find Tommy. She tells him to shut the fuck up – forcefully. He pushes her away, they exchange a long look, and she goes to leave him. Amazingly, a tear rolls down his cheek as she goes. Sure, we suppose it’s possible – maybe even likely –  that he was crying because he was dying, but Joel doesn’t strike us as that guy. He was crying because his worst fear had come true. He failed another daughter. From here, we flash back to a few weeks before the first episode, with Ellie firmly ensconced in Junior Fascist school, doing the bare minimum and running in the gym with her Walkman headphones on, listening to Pearl Jam’s “All or None.” Once again, the show tempers its somewhat dark point of view with a tiny amount of hope, or at least an acknowledgement that people are people, no matter what else happens. The world may come crashing down, but teenagers are still going to be teenagers; with the same social norms, rebellions, and cliquey behavior.  Another girl tries to start shit with Ellie and she sends her to the infirmary with fifteen stitches. She’s called before the school’s headmaster, who offers her a semi-cushy future as an officer in FEDRA if she’d just buckle down and stop rebelling, although it sounds like the dimmest, most pathetic of dreams. “You get your own room, you get a nice bed. We eat well, we don’t go on patrol. We’re cool in the summer and warm in the winter” When Ellie asks him why he cares about what she does, her responds earnestly, “I care because no matter what anyone out there says or thinks, we’re the ones holding this all together. If we go down, the people in the Zone will starve or murder each other, that much I know.” This would seem to be the script making an allusion to the events of Kansas City, although it should be noted that the citizens of KC didn’t tear each other apart, they just made the mistake of following a deeply damaged resistance leader whose obsessions left them exposed. There have been some critical remarks made about the show’s seeming whitewashing of fascism (the kindly, toy-promising, child-killing soldiers in episode 1) and soft perspective on collaborators (Henry, Dr. Edelstein) while making those who rebel against that fascism into monsters (Kathleen). Certainly, a surface reading of this headmaster’s speech – or Henry’s actions or Kathleen’s mistakes – might indicate that the show has a distinctly pro-authoritarian perspective, but with all due respect to the critics who’ve made that argument, we think they’ve completely missed what the show is trying to do. More on that in a bit.

In her dorm room, a chastened but lonely Ellie reads Will Livingston’s No Pun Intended: This Otter Be Good and the Savage Starlight comic. It’s a standard girl’s dorm room in a lot of ways, with posters, ripped-out magazine pages, and pictures taped to the wall, but everything is dim, dirty and grim. Her best friend Riley (Storm Reid, bringing an exasperated big sister vibe that feels new coming from her) comes back in the middle of the night, sneaking through the dorm window after disappearing three weeks ago. Ellie thought she was dead. She admits that she joined the Fireflies, which Ellie scoffs at until Riley shows her her gun. Riley waves off all of Ellie’s objections and says “Come with me for a few hours and have the best night of your life.” Ellie protests, but Riley knows she’s going to give in and gets her to cut to the chase. “Turn around,” Ellie says as she’s getting dressed. “You’re so weird about that,” Riley scoffs. They run through back alleyways and across rooftops, in a sequence that skirts the line of being a little too precious, but never manages to go over it, largely because it’s impossible to see these girls as starry-eyed, given the world they live in. They find a dead guy in an empty building and they’re remarkably cavalier about it. They steal his bottle of good whiskey and take turns swigging from it and pretending not to hate it. Ellie teases Riley about being a Firefly and asks if she became one because she started dating “some Firefly dude” and just went along with it. It turns out that Marlene recruited her after seeing her sneak out from her FEDRA school dorm at night. Ellie refers to the Fireflies as anarchists and terrorists while Riley calls FEDRA fascist dickbags, to which Ellie protests. “In a way, FEDRA kind of holds everything together,” she says, echoing her headmaster’s words nearly verbatim. She takes her to an area of the QZ that has newly restored electricity for the burgeoning population, which prompts Ellie to  note that the QZ isn’t always bad. They each accuse the other of being susceptible to “propaganda bullshit.” Despite the framing of the discussion and the world they inhabit, this almost feels refreshingly normal; two teenagers sneaking out of their dorm to drink and have political arguments.

Bella Ramsey probably does her best work of the season in this episode (which would make this the best work she’s ever done, we guess), letting a range of expressions flicker across her face, from embarrassment to awe to an aching yearning that’s so intense it’s almost hard to look at. The look on Ellie’s face when she sees the mall fully lit is hilarious, but also incredibly sad. A degraded snapshot of 2003’s retail offerings being treated like a view of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In that vein, Riley promises to show her the “four wonders of the mall” that nigh. “You planned stuff?” Ellie asks, flattered. She is completely floored by the “electric stairs.” They marvel at a Victoria’s Secret display window, Admitting that they know why people bought this stuff, but still finding it completely bizarre and alien. Riley imagines Ellie wearing a thong and giggles. Like the subtlety of Bill and Frank’s middle-aged flirtation, you have to pay attention to see how these girls are breathlessly flirting with each other without even knowing that they’re doing it half the time. Staring in the store window, getting her first major glimpse of circa 2000 advertising images of women, Ellie instantly feels self-conscious about her looks. They ride the carousel together. After trading a few more swigs of whiskey and more than a few sideways glances at each other, Ellie asks Riley if she really believes that she can liberate the people of the QZ. Annoyed, Riley tells her not to treat it like some sort of unrealistic dream and reminds her that “They’ve done it in the other QZs; set things right, they way they used to be.” What sends up a big red flag here is how Marlene, the woman who recruited Riley, was shown telling her lieutenant in the first episode that the Fireflies have largely been a failure and haven’t done much of anything to curtail a military dictatorship from thriving. It forces the question of whether Marlene fed Riley a line of bullshit to recruit her and whether she did so to keep her away from Ellie. Ellie tells her that they could set things right themselves if Riley comes back. “We’re like the future,” she reminds her, adding that they could both wind up running things. What we have here are two young people spewing the propaganda fed to them by adults. This is why we think it’s a facile interpretation to suggest that the show is pro-fascism in any way. Every single character has been shown to be morally compromised in ways large and small and the scripts seem to go out of their way not to condemn most of them. This could be seen as a very nihilistic point of view, the idea that everyone is essentially morally deficient which means nothing really matters. This was the defining point of view for the majority of The Walking Dead‘s runtime, but we think The Last of Us is turning that perspective on its head. Yes, everyone is morally compromised after an unprecedented extinction event, but most people are just trying to do what they think is right, whether that’s Bill and Frank hoarding supplies, the people of Jackson killing anyone who wanders too close, Kathleen jailing the people who collaborated with the enemy, Joel killing to survive, Captain Kwong earnestly spinning promises of a glorious life as a mid-level manager for a crumbling dictatorship, or Marlene lying to a teenage girl to recruit her to a cause.

This is followed by a truly adorable sequence in a photo booth, with the two would-be soldiers acting like every teenage girl in America for the last 70 years, for just a moment. Riley lingers a little long on her lean, flustering Ellie, who pushes her off. She takes her to the mall’s arcade which leaves her literally speechless. Given how much time the show has spent in dimly lit, solitary, quiet places, we could feel Ellie’s sense of awe and wonder at all of the lights and sounds. Riley spent an hour breaking open the change machine so they could have enough quarters to play. Remember in episode 3 when Joel and Ellie stopped at Cumberland Farms and she spotted an old Mortal Kombat machine? “I had a friend who knew everything about this game,” she said then. “There’s this one character named Mileena who takes off her mask and she has monster teeth and then she swallows you whole and spits out the bones!” The show has been telling us the story of this night since the very beginning. And because we know that this is the night that Ellie got bit and we also know that Riley doesn’t survive it (“Was Riley a terrorist?” Marlene asked Ellie in the first episode), the tension as the episode progresses becomes excruciating.

After going several rounds, the girls nearly fall into a celebratory kiss, but once again, their youth and inexperience rush them past the moment. For the first time, Ellie seems aware of her feelings for Riley, because her mood suddenly shifts and she says she has to get back to her dorm. Riley tells her she has a gift for her, takes her through the food court and into a kitchen behind a taco place, where she’s been sleeping. One thing we will never understand about shows like this are the spaces people choose to live in. There had to have been a thousand more comfortable and probably safer places to hole up in a mall than the floor of a taco joint’s kitchen. Anyway, Riley gives Ellie the copy of No Pun Intended Too that she will unleash on Joel in the months ahead – because everything that defines Ellie now is bound up in what happened this night. She is at first delighted by the gift, until she discovers the bombs that Riley has been making. She realizes that Riley didn’t “discover” the mall; she was posted to it by the Fireflies. Riley insists that she would never allow the Fireflies to use bombs anywhere near Ellie or near civilians, which Ellie rightly calls out as the delusional bullshit that it is. “Right, like they’re going to listen to you.” Riley suddenly drops the big sister act and looks scared and small for the first time. Ellie marches out and Riley calls after her to tell her that she’s leaving in the morning for Atlanta, having been posted there by the Fireflies. Riley asked Marlene if Ellie could come with her and she said no, which makes us wonder if Marlene was trying to keep them separate. Ellie leaves her, devastated and hurt. She thinks better of it and returns to find her hiding out in a Spirit Halloween store (which is a nice touch when you consider that the outbreak happened in late September). Ellie tells Riley she’s leaving her to join some cause she doesn’t even think she understands. Riley counters that, unlike Ellie, she remembers what it’s like to have a family and wants that for herself again; just two damaged girls in love, trying to figure it out. “I matter to them,” Riley explains. “You mattered to me first,” Ellie replies, finally adding, “You’re my best friend and I’ll miss you.”  To close out their night of goofy teen-girl flirtations, they put on scary masks and dance to “I Got You, Babe.” Ellie takes off her mask and breathlessly asks Riley not to go. She softly replies “Okay,” and they kiss. “I’m sorry,” Ellie whispers “For what?” They giggle. Knowing what’s coming, the tension is almost unbearable at this point. When the attack comes, it’s brutal, mostly bloodless, and brief. We like that this show doesn’t feel the need to linger on gore. We’re not squeamish about that sort of thing, but we appreciate that the clear focus is on the characters and the story, not the violence. Ellie eventually stabs the infected in the head, killing it. They reveal their bites to each other and it becomes heartbreaking to watch at this point. Riley tearfully runs down their options: immediately kill themselves (“The easy way out”), but she prefers the second option: “We just keep going.” They hold each other and weep.

In the present, Ellie decides to stay and raids what’s left of the house until she finds a needle and thread. She returns to Joel, they grasp hands and exchange a long, silent look before she gets to work. We don’t know yet exactly how the story with Riley ended, but it’s clear that Ellie will never leave a best friend’s side again.

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