[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Episode 9, “Look for the Light,” including the ending.]
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Dr. Maya Angelou’s words may not have been taught in FEDRA military school, and even if they were, it’s unlikely Ellie (Bella Ramsey) would recall the above quote now, since she wasn’t conscious for Joel’s (Pedro Pescal) killing spree. But long before her protector went on a murderous rampage that may have ended mankind’s hopes to survive a fungal apocalypse, co-creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin showed us who Joel was, just as the Season 1 ending made painfully clear who he continues to be.
In the premiere, when Joel, Ellie, and Tess (Anna Torv) are busted at the edge of Boston, memories of his lost daughter trigger a feral defense mechanism. Joel snaps, brutally beating the guard who stopped them — and Ellie watches. “OK, fine,” viewers may have reasoned at the time. “Ellie needs a guardian, and in a brutal world like this one, that guardian may need to be capable of comparable brutality.” But warning signs only mounted from there. In Kansas City, Ellie saves Joel and refuses to acknowledge the toll it takes on her, mirroring his impenetrable exterior. When he tries to talk to her about it, Joel struggles to explain why they should feel justified in killing their attacker — it’s as if he’s worried about coming across as a monster, or admitting to himself that he might already be one.
Last week, when Joel recovers from his stab wound and discovers Ellie has been taken, we get a longer look at his dark side. He tortures his attackers for information on her whereabouts and kills them even after they tell the truth. Left to his own devices and pressed for time, Joel responds with violence — the same type of violence he and Tommy (Gabriel Luna) adopted in the years between Sarah’s death and Ellie’s arrival, and the same type of violence we’ve come to expect and encourage in our action heroes. “We did those things, but they weren’t ‘things,’” Tommy says to Joel in Episode 6. “We murdered people. I don’t judge you for it, [but] there were other ways. We just weren’t good at them.” Joel still isn’t, and it turns out killing a few cannibals was just a warm-up.
In form alone, Episode 9 builds to an archetypal hero’s ending. Our two protagonists have been separated, and when Joel wakes up, he’s told Ellie is about to die. So what does he do? He guns down every person who stands between him and his ward: guards, doctors, even the woman who’s known Ellie her whole life. Technically, they’re all trying to kill her, and he’s there to save her.
Only… that’s not what he’s doing, and the audience can feel it from the second he begins his assault. Director Ali Abbasi shoots Joel’s twisted rescue mission without an ounce of tension. Mournful music plays over each fateful gunshot. The camera either lingers on the bodies of Joel’s victims or cuts back to their lifeless expressions. There’s no questioning if he can get to her, just a dreadful inevitability — he will keep her alive.
But he shouldn’t. “The Last of Us” makes clear its ending isn’t a heroic act, but a tragic one. Were Joel’s actions jarring? Absolutely. As an audience, we’ve seen this ending a million times: The father figure does whatever it takes to save his kid. It’s typically framed as an act of selfless courage — who wouldn’t root for the guy protecting an innocent child? Episode 9 asks you to do exactly that, or at least consider it. Even if you’re relieved that Ellie’s still alive, it’s impossible to like where our leads end up.
Not only is Joel acting in his own best interest — killing dozens of innocent people to protect the father-daughter relationship he can’t allow himself to lose again — but he’s defying Ellie’s expressed wishes. Before the Fireflies find them, before Ellie is taken to a surgery she won’t come back from, before Joel learns exactly how the scientists hope to copy the chemical messengers inside her brain in order to protect the rest of humanity, he tells her, “You don’t have to do this,” and Ellie responds, “After all we’ve been through, everything I’ve done, it can’t be for nothing. I know you mean well,” she tells Joel, “I know you want to protect me. […] But there’s no halfway with this. We finish what we started.”
Courtesy of Liane Hentscher / HBO
In the finale’s climax, Joel becomes the villain — he chooses to become the villain, and we have no choice but to go along with it. Ellie doesn’t either. Not really. She tells him what she wants, and he ignores her. She suspects there’s more to what happened while she was unconscious than Joel is telling her; that his story about dozens of immune people just like Ellie, about doctors who’ve given up on a cure, about raiders who stormed the hospital before she woke up — it’s a little too neat and tidy to be the whole truth. Similarly, she might be suspicious that Joel is talking about his daughter again; arguing that Ellie and Sarah would like each other in the same breath that he insists they aren’t the same person. It sure seems like Joel needs to believe all these things more than reality confirms they’re true.
And in these closing moments of a magnificent first season, there’s one more major pivot. When Ellie asks Joel to swear he’s telling the truth, and Joel lies right to her face, Ellie becomes the hero. Sure, we’ve been rooting for her all along, but until now, we had two protagonists, and Joel was the one we started out with. We watched his backstory for nearly an hour before Ellie shows up in the premiere. He’s the traditional hero type — a strong male lead, if you will — and, as Marlene supposes, he did save Ellie a handful of times throughout their journey.
But “The Last of Us” has been pivoting toward Ellie’s perspective for a while now. Episode 7 is dedicated to her backstory. Episode 8 sees her save Joel’s life and, very purposefully, subverts the viewers’ expectation that Joel will be the one to save her from a cannibal cult. Instead, Ellie saves herself. She doesn’t need him, and he doesn’t get to play the hero. In Episode 9, she doesn’t need him either — she’s exactly where she wants to be — and despite inserting himself into the situation, he doesn’t get to play the hero. He becomes something else.
In Season 2, it will be interesting to see how the show’s point of view continues to shift. Is Joel beyond redemption? It sure seems that way when he kills Marlene (Merle Dandridge), even as she tries to convince him they can still fix what he’s done. (It’s also worth asking if he’s beyond redemption for fans, who’ve withstood a barrage of heartache throughout Season 1.) As for Ellie can she come back from all this? Can she lead a healthy, happy life with Joel as her primary caretaker? All along, “The Last of Us” has inverted familiar conceits: It’s not a zombie show, so much as a show with zombies. It’s not a survival show, so much as a show about what it means to really live. It’s not a show about a hero saving a girl, but maybe it can be a show about a girl who saves a fallen hero?
All that can be said with any certainty is that “The Last of Us” has shown us what it is, and we’d be foolish to expect anything less the second time around.
“The Last of Us” Season 1 is available to stream on HBO Max. Season 2 has already been renewed.
Courtesy of Liane Hentscher / HBO
• In my midseason report, I wrote that Episodes 3 and 5 still had more to tell us about the season as a whole, and now I can finally elaborate. Imagine those two entries as two sides of the same coin. Love is at the center of both, just as its at the center of Episode 9, but the coin has to land on one side or the other — and they predict very different paths.
Perhaps Ellie and Joel can make a happy home for themselves in the commune. (Call that path “heads.”) Ellie can help Joel find peace, and he can continue protecting her — much like Frank (Murray Bartlett) helped Bill (Nick Offerman) build a life, while Bill helped protect Frank. But given the destruction and lies such a life would be built on, it’s possible Joel and Ellie could end up more like Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) and her dead brother, Michael. (This would be “tails.”) If Ellie gets older and leaves Joel — as Marlene predicts is inevitable — will that loss destroy Joel? Has it already? Could his love for Ellie be so overwhelming that’s its corrosive, as Kathleen’s love was for Michael?
Having not played the game’s sequel, “The Last of Us: Part II,” this is purely speculation. But Episodes 3, 5, and 9 certainly make clear the power of love and how it can steer people down sharply divergent paths.
• “People are making apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow.” 10/10! Lord help me, I love puns.