This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us Episode 9, “Look for the Light.”
The Last of Us has been roundly praised as the best video-game adaptation ever made, even the first to be truly great, and part of that greatness is that you don’t need to have played the original games to appreciate it. Although the HBO series is replete with moments from the games repeated beat for beat and even shot for shot, it’s not hobbled by mindless fidelity to its source, and it finds ways to exploit its new medium that would never work if you were sitting in front of the TV with a PlayStation controller instead of a remote control. (Imagine an hourlong section of the games where you play as a survivalist with a thing for Linda Ronstadt whose primary objective is to successfully grow strawberries.) But in the final episode of the first season, “Look for the Light,” The Last of Us returns to its source material in a way that comes close to wrecking everything the show has accomplished.
Joel and Ellie have finally reached the goal they’ve been headed toward the entire season: the Firefly encampment in Salt Lake City. Joel has spent the past 20 years grieving the murder of his teenage daughter, Sarah, at the beginning of the Cordyceps pandemic, and the more recent death of his partner, Tess, and an uneasy reunion with his brother has underlined the lesson that it’s best for him not to care for anyone at all. But after Ellie nurses him back to health, saving his life while endangering her own, he finds his heart opening once more, rediscovering his feelings at what turns out to be the worst possible time.
Inside the Firefly base, Joel discovers a new wrinkle to the plan he’s been following, which was to bring Ellie, the only known human with an immunity to the zombifying fungus, to a facility where her immunity could be studied and hopefully replicated to create a vaccine. Because Cordyceps takes root in the brain, the only way to study the source of Ellie’s immunity is to remove hers, a procedure she would obviously not survive. Marlene, the Fireflies’ leader, made the decision to go ahead without telling Ellie, because when faced with weighing the survival of all of humanity against the life of one teenager—even a teenager Marlene herself had watched over since infancy—she felt that she had no choice. But when she tells Joel this, he responds, “I do.”
Choice is, of course, what differentiates interactive storytelling like video games from older forms like movies and television. When you’re playing as Joel rather than watching Pedro Pascal play him, his actions are literally in your hands, and although games as intensely scripted and cinematic as The Last of Us can only offer you so many options—the actors can’t suddenly reconvene and shoot a new scene just because you’ve decided to arbitrarily abandon Joel’s mission and head to Florida instead—it’s designed to make the player feel the weight of those choices, even and especially the more questionable ones. Which is part of what makes the ending of The Last of Us so wrenching. After Joel realizes what’s going on, he turns on the Fireflies and slaughters them, fighting his way to the operating room where Ellie has been sedated. When the doctor, said to be the only living person capable of making a Cordyceps vaccine, gets in the way, Joel kills him, and before he leaves the compound, he kills Marlene, too, reasoning that if he left her alive, she’d never stop trying to track them down.
The game offers you a choice in this final section, but it’s not much of one. As you make your way through the hospital toward Ellie, you can either kill the Fireflies or evade them, but you’re not allowed to let Marlene carry out her plan. (The only way for that to happen is for you to let yourself get killed, turn off the game, and assume everything works out for the best.) You can’t change your objective and decide that you’re playing for the greater good of humanity instead of to protect one girl, and because you’re a character in a zombie-attack game, the only language you have to express yourself is the language of violence. You have to kill the doctor and kill Marlene, and then lie to the person you’ve done all this to protect about what you’ve done.
In the first season’s finale, Joel does much the same. But instead of a boss fight, Joel’s path to the operating room is a cakewalk. From the moment he turns on the Fireflies who are meant to be escorting him to the highway out of town, he’s unstoppable and untouchable, taking out more than a dozen battle-hardened resistance fighters without getting so much as a scratch. Joel ducks behind a wall as a hail of bullets throw up clouds of dust, then pops up and takes out enemy after enemy with one clean shot. For a show that has emphasized its gritty realism at every turn, one whose hero was previously almost killed by getting stabbed with a broken baseball bat, Joel’s sudden invulnerability is a disastrous step into fantasy logic, where the steeliness of his resolve makes him impossible to defeat. In the game, fighting your way to Ellie is a difficult challenge, so you’re invested in the outcome just by virtue of the hours you’ve put in getting there. But on the show, Joel just sails right on through. It’s more like the clichéd idea of a video game than the game itself.
“Look for the Light” contains some of The Last of Us’ most overt homages to the games, including an appearance by Ashley Johnson, the games’ Ellie. (There’s also a playful passing reference to the boost mechanic.) Here, Johnson plays Anna, Ellie’s mother, in a pre-credits flashback that indirectly explains how Ellie got her immunity. An extremely pregnant Anna is being tracked by a Cordyceps-infected human and takes shelter just as her water breaks. A mushroom zombie bursts through the door; she fights it off and then realizes that her baby has already been born, apparently unnoticed while she was stabbing her attacker in the neck. Death makes room for life, as it does when Anna realizes that she’s been bitten and hastily cuts her umbilical cord—unknowingly exposing the infant Ellie to just enough Cordyceps to make her immune.
Joel’s actions feel like the opposite of Anna’s. Technically, he’s saving Ellie’s life the way her mother did. But as Marlene argues when she’s unsuccessfully pleading with Joel for her own life, there’s a good chance Ellie would have chosen to sacrifice herself if she’d known the truth (evidently not enough of a chance for Marlene to actually give her that choice, but still). If Joel were really acting to save Ellie, he’d tell her what he’d done, rather than concocting a lie about the procedure not working and the hospital being attacked by raiders. He’s just concerned about protecting his emotional attachment to Ellie, which the show may present as morally gray but also sanctifies by scoring his rampage with mournful cello music. The season ends with Ellie asking Joel if his story about what happened at the hospital is true. He reassures her that it is, but the look on Ellie’s face suggests that she isn’t buying it. We shouldn’t either.
Update, March 14, 2023: This article has been revised to more precisely characterize Marlene’s relationship with Ellie.