This post contains major spoilers for The Last of Us episode 7.
Episode 6 of The Last of Us ends on the biggest cliffhanger of the season, with Joel seemingly succumbing to a stab wound. Episode 7 picks up with Ellie dragging him to shelter and trying to keep him alive. Joel tells her to go back to Wisconsin to live with his brother Tommy, but instead, she frantically rummages through an abandoned house to find something she can use for first aid.
As she works, we get our first flashback to Ellie’s time in FEDRA school: a dull, grueling life full of mindless drills and bullying. Ellie’s friend Riley (Storm Reid, A Wrinkle in Time and Missing) has disappeared from their dorm room, but one night she comes back to tell Ellie that she’s joined the Fireflies. Then, even though Ellie is on thin ice at FEDRA, Riley convinces her to sneak out to see a surprise.
Riley takes Ellie to a teen wonderland—an abandoned mall where the electricity still works—and the two proceed to have the sweetest, most wonderful date two teens in the ruins of civilization can imagine. They mess around on the escalators. They ride the merry go round to a contemplative rendition of “Just Like Heaven.” They take silly photos in a photo booth. They dance in Halloween masks.
The episode is filled with hints of their feelings for each other, with Ellie nervously fixing her hair and gazing at Riley as they ride their painted horses. They clash over their separate loyalties, especially when Ellie finds a pile of explosives that Riley intends to use on FEDRA, but they prioritize each other. The episode is a miniature queer teen apocalyptic romance, and it makes you want to savor every moment.
But near the end, a lot of things happen in quick succession. Riley drops a bombshell: the Fireflies are moving her to Atlanta, and this is her last night in Boston. Ellie convinces her not to go, but then they’re attacked by one of the Infected. Any hopes they had of continuing their lives together are abruptly cut short.
Is The Last of Us tired of breaking our hearts yet?
One of The Last of Us‘s greatest strengths is its focus on children: Sarah, Ellie, Sam, and now Riley. As I’ve written before, the series is an unflinching look at how the apocalypse affects the most vulnerable among us.
The most wrenching scene in the episode, I’d argue, isn’t the moment when Ellie and Riley realize they’ve been bitten. To be clear, that moment is devastating, with Ellie’s frantic cries and attempts to wipe the infection off, and Riley’s numb shock.
Instead, the hardest scene to watch is the one immediately afterwards, when they sit together, mourning the lives they’ll never get to have. After spending most of the episode being (relatively) carefree teens, they now contemplate euthanizing themselves before the infection takes hold. In the end, though, they decide to ride it out together, spending their last day or so with each other. They hold hands, determined to lose their minds together.
We know that Ellie is immune, which means we know what happens next: she has to watch Riley turn into a monster. After that, she presumably realizes she’s not going to turn herself, and makes her way to Marlene. All that happens offscreen, though. The series allows Ellie and Riley their private grief. (I feel obligated to mention the sci fi trope of no one being dead unless you see the body, but Craig Mazin’s writing is too sophisticated to undercut this episode’s impact like that.)
The scene also sheds some new light on Ellie’s character at the beginning of the series. Underneath her surliness, chained up in a Boston apartment with Marlene testing her cognitive skills every day, is roiling, untold heartache.
Why does Ellie’s flashback happen now, when Joel is dying?
There’s one obvious reason why Ellie would suddenly think of Riley now (aside from narrative convenience). She was powerless to save Riley from the Cordyceps, but she can save Joel from a stab wound. She can avoid being left behind again.
But there could be another reason why Riley is on Ellie’s mind. In episode 6, she finally found out about Joel’s daughter Sarah. It’s possible that cracking open Joel’s past gave her some space to let in her own grief. After all, the revelation seemed to strengthen their bond, with Joel even telling her about his life before the infection.
The Last of Us is a world in which you have to put your feelings on the back burner and keep moving forward to survive, but Ellie’s grief shows how close she’s grown to Joel. They may both realize, in season 1’s final two episodes, that their bond is their most valuable resource.
(featured image: HBO Max)
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