This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us Episode 7, “Left Behind.”
The Last of Us’ “Left Behind” is the show’s latest in an already long line of heartbreakers. This seventh episode finally gives Ellie (Bella Ramsey) the flashback treatment it deployed in its first and third episodes, detailing the night Ellie discovered she was immune to the Cordyceps fungus, and also lost her best friend, Riley (Storm Reid), to a zombie bite. “Left Behind” is a beautiful showcase, a miniature coming-of-age tale with a plot that is rigged to elicit emotional turmoil from the audience. But there’s a key element to the tear-inducing story that might be easy to overlook: the setting.
When Riley and Ellie meet in “Left Behind,” it’s a reunion. Sometime a while back, Riley went AWOL from FEDRA military school, leaving Ellie to defend herself against bullies and her own sense of listlessness. Riley reveals that she left to join the Fireflies, the anti-FEDRA resistance group, and surprises Ellie with a perfectly planned one-night-only adventure in an abandoned post-apocalyptic shopping mall to make it up to her. Riley introduces Ellie to the concept of an escalator, they try on various masks in a costume store, and they play old-school video games in an arcade.
Over the course of the night, Ellie embraces her sexuality when she has what seems to be her first kiss with Riley, and Riley announces that she’s leaving town with the Fireflies. The two argue and reconcile, refusing to let the tenuous predicament of their impending separation cast a gloom over the joy they experience in simply coexisting. But then they get attacked by an infected human. Both of them are bitten and they decide to wait it out, enjoying the time they have left together—which was the plan all along anyway. Though we don’t see what happens after, we can intuit: Ellie watches her friend succumb and assumes she’ll follow soon after, only to discover that she is immune.
The decision to set this coming-of-age story in a mall is one The Last of Us’ creators made the characters fight for—the pair had to evade FEDRA patrols to get there and, obviously, incurred a lot of risk by staying. But, dramatically, this decision was one of the smartest ones the show (and the game) has made thus far. Malls, in the past several decades of American culture, are the quintessential settings of coming of age. They are symbols of freedom, a place where teens can go to get a taste of individualism and get away from authority figures. This individualism can take many forms, from simply using the money you’ve finally earned yourself to buy your own thing or craft your own style, to hanging out with your friends (to make out or get into trouble) unimpeded. The shopping mall was, perhaps, the most physical and unmoving representation of the establishment of teenage culture: a monument to the transition between childhood and adulthood in the suburbs, the place where teens felt the most constricted and most needed an escape.
It is telling that even in a post-apocalyptic world, teenagers are still sneaking out to malls to smooch and do whatever the thing is that they know they shouldn’t. The space teenagedom occupies is a simultaneously finite and amorphous one. It’s a time for becoming who you are and exploring what you like, but on society’s timetable and within expectations of what you should be. One can imagine that for kids who are only offered this important period of experimentation in a fascist military boot camp, in a larger world that has reverted to something resembling preindustrial society, that their adolescence would be even more fleeting. And yet, it is still the mall where they run to get their first taste of freedom. It’s almost as if they can feel the raging hormones and angst from decades past, as if that was the currency teens actually used for a go at a vintage Mortal Kombat machine or for a ride on a carousel.
Homing in on this sense of nostalgia only makes the swiftness of Ellie finding something, and losing it very soon after, that much more upsetting. We already know the Ellie who is hardened by what her life is, but also by what it is not, and it is here that we finally get to see the thing she is mourning. We are forced to ponder a life without this accepted and given space for adolescent freedom, and, even more, a teaser of this freedom that is snatched from us so quickly and devastatingly. We all know what it is to emerge on the other side of adolescence as some version of an adult, but “Left Behind” asks us to confront the idea of not being able to take as much time to get there.
In one night, we witness Ellie embracing her sexuality, experiencing the most heartbreaking loss of her life thus far, and leaving her FEDRA-abiding life behind along with the notion that she’s as susceptible to Cordyceps as everyone else. There’s no past for Ellie to return to anymore. “Left Behind” weaponizes our own reminiscence, bringing us closer to Ellie by forcing us, too, to confront the massive loss of not only our past, but the freedom to decide our future.