The Last of Us: season 1, episode 9 – Look for the Light

“You can’t keep her safe forever. No matter how hard you try, no matter how many people you kill, she’s gonna grow up, Joel.”


Season finales, especially in big budget genre shows, tend to be things of spectacle, with all the budget thrown at the screen to keep the audience on tenterhooks for the next year. In a Walking Dead season finale, you could pretty much guarantee hordes of zombies invading the heroes’ sanctuary, with action, explosions and headshots aplenty.

So you’d probably expect the first season finale of The Last of Us, a show with a far bigger budget than TWD, to really let rip, with Our Heroes battling through hordes of Infected to finally save the day. Right?

Well, no. In keeping with the downbeat tone and focus above all else on the characters and their relationships, this was a decidedly low-key affair; and all the better for it. In fact, there was only one Infected on show, and that one was dead five minutes into the episode. The story had other places to go.

If you’d been wondering throughout just how Ellie was immune to the Cordyceps infection, here was your answer – her mother was bitten just as she gave birth, severing the umbilical cord with the hope of saving her newborn daughter from infection. In a nice touch, similar to last week’s casting of Troy Baker, Ellie’s mother Anna was played by Ashley Johnson, the original Ellie from the game.

As an explanation, I must admit, I found it a little pat, and actually thought it would have been better for Ellie’s immunity factor to remain a mystery; but again, perhaps this was taken from the game. It does at least explain Ellie’s orphan status, and shows that the Fireflies have been keeping an eye on her since birth.

Ah, the Fireflies. We had hints a couple of eps ago that these apparently heroic rebels might not be all that they seem. But as ever, there were shades of grey here. Yes, Marlene and co do come off as fanatics; but they really are trying to save humanity. It’s just unfortunate that to do that, they have to kill a little girl.

Of course Joel wasn’t going to allow that, however much it might be for the greater good. Joel and Ellie’s relationship is now firmly cemented as a father-daughter one, as evidenced by their easy banter and conversation early in the ep. Like a real family, their conversation can turn on a sixpence from rating the joke book’s awful puns to Joel’s halting confession  of his attempted suicide after the death of his daughter.

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are magnificent here, really selling the fact that these are two characters who’ve come to deeply love each other after everything they’ve been through. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the magical scene where Ellie encounters a giraffe, placidly chewing away on leaves and utterly unafraid of the former masters of the planet. Bella Ramsey in particular really conveys the magic of the moment from a child’s perspective; Ellie may be a sassy teenager, but she’s not yet a grown up, and her wonder at the beautiful creature is touching.

It’s a superb sequence, which I gather was lifted straight from the game. With game creator Neil Druckmann sharing writing duties with Craig Mazin, I’m glad they kept it in – and more than a little surprised to hear that a shoot-em-up game ever included it. It’s another testament to the game’s great reputation.

Because the show has been focusing on Joel and Ellie’s relationship, pretty much half the ep was spent showing us their interaction. The script gave them plenty of time to breathe as dramatic characters before the inevitable appearance of the Fireflies. As one unfamiliar with the game, I’d actually wondered if they wouldn’t show up this year, with a potential second season continuing the heroes’ trip. But no, it seems that Mazin and Druckmann wanted to tell a complete story in these nine episodes, and what we got here (I found later on reading up) was the actual conclusion to the first game.

In a show that’s focused on shades of grey throughout, it was no surprise to find the last episode showing us an awful moral dilemma. Yes, the Fireflies may be able to replicate Ellie’s immunity for the rest of humanity; the only trouble is that they’ll have to kill her to do it. Merle Dandridge, reprising her role as Firefly leader Marlene from the game, is suitably steely. She knows (or thinks she knows) what’s best for the whole of her species.

Yes, it’s understandable, and she comes across as reasonable. But that kind of messiah complex is truly fanatical. Nowhere did this come across better than in her final, tense conversation with Joel. “It’s not for you to decide,” he spits; “Nor you,” she retorts. The damning thing about Marlene is that she never thought to ask the one who really should decide – Ellie.

But Joel wasn’t painted as truly heroic either. Yes, he’s the story’s main character, and you want to like him; Pedro Pascal’s performance goes a long way to achieving that. But we know he’s done terrible things in the past, and last week showed that he’s still more than capable of that. This time, we see him go on a positive orgy of carnage, as he single-handedly wipes out the Fireflies. Yes, he’s doing it for a noble reason; but does his love for his ‘daughter’ really trump the whole future of humanity?

In keeping with that moral ambiguity, his gun rampage through the hospital isn’t presented, as it might be elsewhere, as an action sequence. Instead, director Ali Abbasi keeps the volume low, and plays some of Gustavo Santaolalla’s most mournful music over the whole sequence. I don’t know if it was portrayed as slam-bang action in the game, but here it came across as tragic – a man who’s lost so much making the only moral choice he can. Even if it costs humanity their future.

So, a lot to think about in this final ep. It’s a happy ending, of sorts, in that Joel and Ellie are now firmly together as a family, heading for his brother’s idyllic little town and presumably a quieter future (if season 2 allows it). But it’s also shown as pretty much sealing humanity’s fate. Perhaps the survivors of this apocalypse are no more than a last gasp of the species, before it dies out forever. Pascal’s face, as Joel swears to Ellie that his lies are the truth, conveys perfectly that he knows exactly what he’s done.

This has been a superb series, echoing and faithfully adapting the game while keeping the focus on character rather than action. Its most obvious comparison, given the premise, is to The Walking Dead; but the downbeat tone, and weary resignation of the characters, made it more like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s to the show’s credit that it kept the appearances of its monsters to an absolute minimum (though that might have displeased fans of the game hoping for more action).

I’m definitely down for the now-confirmed second season. But having now read up on the first game, I know we’re at the end of that story. I haven’t read up on the second game, in case season 2 is a similarly faithful adaptation of that – I want to keep spoilers to a minimum. But I gather the second game isn’t nearly as highly regarded as the first, and it seems from the plot threads here that the show could easily go in its own direction. Whichever is the case, I’ll be back for more when the show is.

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