The Last of Us: season 1, episode 7 – Left Behind

“It ends this way sooner or later for everyone, right? Some of us just get there faster than others. But we don’t quit.”


This week’s ep is another example of what sets The Last of Us apart from other post-apocalyptic dramas – it’s not an action piece driven by plot, but a character piece that happens to be set after the end of the world. Hearkening back to the heights of ep3, Left Behind is another virtual two-hander, featuring basically only two characters. But unlike the heartrending story of Bill and Frank, this tale unfolds not over twenty years but the course of a single night – a night that changed Ellie’s life in more ways than one.

Ellie’s been dropping hints about her past all through the season, and this flashback episode finally revealed… well, most of them. In other circumstances, a tale of two teenage girls spending an illicit after hours night at the mall might make for a typical teen comedy; here, it’s shot through with tragedy. The tragedy of a world lost, as Ellie marvels at wonders we all take for granted, but even more, the tragedy of what was, inevitably, going to happen to Ellie’s best friend Riley.

We’ve seen enough of this world to know that death is an everyday occurrence. And when we first met Ellie, Riley was nowhere to be seen. So her death is a grim inevitability from the start of the ep, as she bursts into Ellie’s dingy room with an offer of a night she’ll never forget.

We already know that Bella Ramsey is a capable performer as Ellie, a typical smartass teenager with a hidden emotional core. So Storm Reid, as Riley, had a lot to live up to in taking half of the limelight in this ep. Fortunately, she seemed more than up to it. Effortlessly charismatic, but sensitive with it, she’s more than a match for Ramsey; no wonder Ellie starts blurring the line between friend and lover.

Yes, those subtle hints about Ellie’s sexuality pay off here, as a life-affirming dance to Etta James’ powerhouse cover of I Got You Babe turns awkwardly romantic. Ellie’s hesitant kiss is totally believable; what teenager, gay or straight, isn’t terrified of their first kiss? I gather the kiss, the song, and indeed this entire ep are drawn from an expansion pack from the original game; but unlike there, there’s no horde of Infected to bring the action, just a solitary, rather sad individual to bring on the inevitable tragedy of the girls’ infection.

Before that, though, we get an intriguing look at life in the Boston Quarantine Zone, as run by those nasty fascists of FEDRA. Well, I say ‘fascists’, but the only representative we see, Captain Kwong (prolific Canadian actor Terry Chen), seems like a reasonable, responsible man, doing his best to support the residents of the QZ. It’s a far cry from the savage picture drawn earlier of the Kansas City Zone prior to the revolution, and prompts much discussion between Ellie and Riley about the ‘propaganda’ from both sides. It’s another example of the shades of grey in this story – it’s not as simple as ‘nasty oppressive government vs pure heroic rebels’.

Ellie’s bedroom is an intriguing glimpse into her personality. Yes, like any teenager’s room, it’s festooned with posters and pop culture references; but in a nice nod to the end of civilisation twenty years before, the posters and pictures are crumpled and faded. Interestingly though, even by 2003 standards, Ellie’s tastes are a little old-fashioned – a poster for 1987 movie InnerSpace, a classic Sony Walkman (perhaps CDs were less well-equipped than tapes to survive a couple of decades), and tapes of Etta James and a-Ha. The latter’s classic Take On Me features twice; the original version as the delighted Ellie plays on the escalator, and a mournful instrumental as the girls ride the carousel.

The ”four wonders of the mall” were another melancholy glimpse at how things we take for granted would seem like miracles to those who’d never experienced them. That first sight of the mall lit up like Christmas conveys how something so mundane could seem magical in these circumstances, and the girls’ discussion of what people used to think was important (including uncomfortable sexy underwear!) is both touching and profound. Elsewhere, it was fun to watch the girls playing Mortal Kombat II (one of the few games I have played) in the arcade.

Interestingly, we glimpse a long-faded movie poster for something called Dawn of the Wolf Part 2, which features a man and girl who look uncannily like Joel and Ellie – I wonder if this was another easter egg from the game?

But obviously the post-apocalyptic Breakfast Club hijinks have to end eventually, as a lone Infected (that somehow Riley hasn’t encountered despite sleeping there for some time), shambles in to put a stop to the fun. It’s at this point that you realise this is effectively Ellie’s origin story; this is when, and how, she got bitten. Obviously we now know that she’s immune – and the story of her finding out isn’t told here, leaving more to be revealed – but at this point she, quite reasonably, assumes it’s a death sentence. As, presumably, it is for Riley.

Their weary discussion of what to do with the little time they have left is again a touching one, but I found myself wondering about something else. Previously, Ellie told Joel that Kansas City wasn’t the first time she’d killed somebody. So was she referring to the Infected she managed to off with her handy knife here, or is there still a trauma to be revealed – like that it was actually her who had to deliver a coup de grace to Riley?

We don’t find out here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that turns out to be the case in a later episode. Meanwhile, in this one, Ellie’s failure to save Riley (and Sam, and Henry) is obviously her big motivator in her frantic efforts to save Joel’s life. I must admit, I wasn’t entirely convinced that simply stitching up that massive wound we saw last week would do the trick; but I’m guessing it will, as we still have another two eps to go.

That’s right, there’s only two more eps to end the season – and it’s a mark of the show’s maturity that it can take a break from the action a this point for a two-handed character piece flashback. This was an excellent episode, full of joie de vivre and melancholy, that shed light believably on Ellie’s previously only hinted at motivations as a character. Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid carry the ep with considerable aplomb, and the compressed time setting of a few hours in one night is a good contrast to the twenty years of Bill and Frank’s story earlier on. I’m interested to see what the season’s endgame has in store, but I’m also glad it can take time out for episodes like this.

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