THIS POST CONTAINS spoilers for this week’s episode of The Last of Us, “Left Behind.”
The world of The Last of Us is both vast and tiny. Over the course of seven episodes, we’ve traveled from Texas to Boston to Colorado, with a stop in Jakarta. We’ve seen planes crash, society fall, cities be consumed. But we’ve seen this transformed world almost entirely through the eyes of two people(*). Post-apocalyptic worlds are a dime a dozen in modern pop culture. Even a fully-realized one like this would barely be worth mentioning if not for the duo we get to watch travel across it. It’s Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s work that makes it special.
(*) Even the one detour from Joel and Ellie’s story was about a couple, with barely any other characters for most of it.
If last week’s episode was primarily a showcase of all the things that Pascal is great at, then “Left Behind” is even more of one for Ramsey. Joel seldomly appears, and when he does, he’s either delirious from the wound he suffered at the end of “Kin,” or simply unconscious. Instead, this is a flashback to Ellie’s life before she met Joel, to a love story that feels far more tragic than the life Bill and Frank got to spend together.
As Ellie debates whether to take Joel up on his request for her to abandon him, she thinks back to her time in the Boston FEDRA school. We see she was more or less the girl we know now: both smart and a smartass, great at wearing down adults until she gets her way, and overjoyed at parts of our world that we take utterly for granted, like riding an escalator.
But as she told Joel back in Jackson, everyone she’s ever cared about has either died or left her. Over the course of “Left Behind,” she suffers the pain of both, all in the same person: her best friend Riley (played by Storm Reid from Euphoria).
When the flashbacks begin, Riley has gone AWOL from the school, leaving Ellie not only without a companion, but a protector. Even in the present with her knife, Ellie’s much more of a talker than a brawler, and she loses a fight to a bully in the gym. Captain Kwong(*) tries convincing her to follow the rules and take advantage of her obvious intelligence to become a FEDRA officer, but the Ellie we know isn’t much on rules and regulations. She’s here because for a kid in a fascist dictatorship, the safest place to be is to be training to become a fascist yourself. And with Riley seemingly gone for good, she has no one and nothing else.
(*) Kwong is played by Canadian actor Terry Chen, whom you might recognize from dozens of guest and recurring TV roles over the years, but around here will always be thought of as Rolling Stone editor-in-chief Ben Fong-Torres in Almost Famous.
But then Riley returns, having joined the Fireflies, and takes Ellie off for a perfect night together — which neither of them realizes, until it’s too late, will be their last night of any kind together. They leap across rooftops like Batman and Robin, eventually winding up at an old shopping mall that Riley has been to enough times to know that it’s not full of infected like FEDRA claims.
We know this will end badly. Ellie told Tess back in the second episode that she got bitten in a mall, and in the series premiere, Marlene referred to Riley in the past tense. But even knowing this, it’s hard to not get caught up in the swirl of, well, euphoria that surrounds Ellie and Riley as they explore this seemingly magical playground. They ride a carousel, take pictures in a photo booth, play arcade games, and generally have a blast. Their pleasure is infectious, because of how good both Ramsey and Reid are.
There are arguments along the way, when Ellie finds out that the Fireflies have been stashing pipe bombs at the mall. There are also gifts, as we find out that Riley gave Ellie the new pun book that she loves reading aloud to Joel. It completely recontextualizes those scenes, so they’re less about Ellie trying to annoy her guardian than they are about her trying to hold onto a piece of the love of her life.
And it’s very clear how Ellie and Riley feel about each other long before they kiss. The whole night feels like a grand romantic evening that Riley has planned, and it all builds to the two dancing — in masks from a Halloween store — to the Etta James version of “I Got You Babe.” Of course they kiss, and Ellie’s smile is bright enough to light up the whole mall even if Riley hadn’t turned the power back on.(*) She has clearly dreamed of this, and now it’s happened, and it couldn’t be any more perfect.
(*) One question, though: wouldn’t FEDRA at some point notice that there was this significant drain on the power grid? Or is this a situation like Bill with his local gasworks, where there are certain power stations that are simply going unmonitored, and that still work just fine because no one else is drawing on them?
But Ellie and Riley live in a profoundly imperfect world, and it turns out that all their raucous celebrating has awoken a slumbering infected man in a nearby toy store. The mushroom creature attacks them, and though Ellie manages to fatally stab it in the head, it’s two late: both girls have been cut, and assume they will turn soon. It’s the kind of ecstasy-to-agony twist that could emotionally cripple someone. We’ve seen that Ellie is better able to function than Joel has been in the years since Sarah died. But in the moment, it’s just brutal, especially because we know that Ellie will somehow survive her wound, and that Riley won’t.
And as we realize this, the parallels between Ellie’s past and present situations become clear. Joel believes he’s dying, and wants Ellie to leave him to it; while Riley suggested that perhaps, “We can just be all poetic and shit and lose our minds together.” We do not see what ultimately happened in the mall, but it’s not hard to connect the dots. While in the present, Ellie rejects Joel’s request, grabs a needle and thread, and attempts to sew up his wound.
Even if Ellie finds another girl to love at some point, she’ll never forget her first kiss, and the tragedy that immediately followed it. But for the moment, she has found some familial love to buoy her after the loss of romantic love. She had to leave Riley behind (perhaps violently), but she’s not leaving Joel. For all the horror and action that suffuses this show, so much of what has struck a chord has been its various depictions of love: the life that Frank helps Bill create, the sacrifices Henry makes for Sam, the fear Joel has of letting Ellie down, and now the bittersweet memories Ellie holds of Riley.
What a performance. What an episode.