The Last of Us Finale Imperils the Show’s Hard-Earned Success

The Last of Us Finale

There are spoilers in this article for “Look for the Light,” The Last of Us Finale.

The fact that you don’t have to have played the original games to enjoy The Last of Us is one of the reasons why it has been universally hailed as the best video game adaptation ever done, if not the first to be truly excellent. The HBO series is filled with scenes from the games repeated beat for beat and even shot for shot, but it isn’t constrained by mindless fidelity to its source, and it finds ways to take advantage of its new medium that wouldn’t be possible if you were in front of the TV using a PlayStation controller rather than a remote control. (Consider an hour-long game mode where your main goal is to grow strawberries successfully while playing as a survivalist with a thing for Linda Ronstadt.) Nevertheless, The Last of Us returns to its source material in the season’s final episode, “Look for the Light,” in a way that almost undoes everything the show has done.

The Salt Lake City Firefly encampment is the destination that Joel and Ellie have been working toward the entire season. Since the beginning of the Cordyceps pandemic, Joel has spent the previous 20 years lamenting the death of his adolescent daughter, Sarah. More recently, the death of Tess, his partner, and an uncomfortable reunion with his brother have reinforced the lesson that Joel should not care about anyone at all. He finds his heart opening again and rediscovering his feelings at the worst possible time when Ellie nurses him back to health while putting her own life in peril.

Joel finds a new twist to the plan he’s been working on inside the Firefly base. The idea was to take Ellie, the only known human with an immunity to the zombifying fungus, to a facility so that her immunity could be examined and maybe cloned to develop a vaccine. The only way to explore the origin of Ellie’s immunity since Cordyceps takes hold in the brain is to remove it, which she would not survive. The commander of the Fireflies, Marlene, took the choice to move forward without informing Ellie because she believed she had no other option when weighing the survival of all of mankind against the life of one teen, even one she had raised since infancy. Yet Joel says, “I do,” in response when she tells him this.

Of course, the element of choice separates interactive narrative from more traditional media like movies and television. 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—designed it’s to make the player feel the weight of those choices, even and especially the more difficult ones. When you play as Joel instead of watching Pedro Pascal play him, his actions are literally in your hands. Which contributes in part to The Last of Us’s heartbreaking ending. As Joel battles his way to the surgery room where Ellie has been sedated, he turns on the Fireflies after realizing what is happening and slaughters them. Joel kills the doctor, who is allegedly the only person alive who is capable of creating a Cordyceps vaccine when he gets in the way. Before leaving the compound, he also kills Marlene because he believes that if he left her alive, she would never stop looking for them.

In the final section of The Last of Us, players are offered a choice between killing or evading the Fireflies as they navigate through a hospital to protect Ellie. However, this choice ultimately doesn’t allow players to change their objective and prioritize the greater good over protecting one girl. As a character in a zombie-attack game, violence is the only language available to express oneself. Players must kill the doctor and Marlene and deceive Ellie about what has happened, as there is no alternative option to progress the game.

In the season one finale, Joel’s journey to the operating room echoes the unrealistic nature of a typical video game. The show, which previously showcased its gritty realism, takes a disastrous step into fantasy as Joel effortlessly dispatches more than a dozen battle-hardened resistance fighters without a scratch. His sudden invincibility is at odds with the show’s emphasis on realism and stands out as a clichéd video game trope. In contrast, the game itself presents a difficult challenge in fighting to reach Ellie, creating a sense of investment in the outcome for players. The show’s portrayal of Joel’s journey is more reminiscent of a video game stereotype rather than the nuanced and challenging gameplay of the actual game.

“Look for the Light” pays homage to The Last of Us game in many ways, including the appearance of Ashley Johnson, who played Ellie in the game. In a pre-credits flashback, Johnson portrays Anna, Ellie’s mother, in a scene that indirectly explains how Ellie acquired her immunity to the virus. The scene showcases Anna’s fight for survival against a Cordyceps-infected human while in labor, and how her courage and sacrifice ultimately led to Ellie’s immunity. The touching moment highlights the show’s gritty realism, which is a hallmark of the game, and is a must-watch for fans of the game.”

In contrast to Anna’s selfless actions, Joel’s decision to save Ellie feels morally ambiguous. While he technically saves Ellie’s life, it’s unclear whether it’s what Ellie would have wanted, as Marlene argues. Rather than telling Ellie the truth about the Fireflies’ plan and letting her make her own decision, Joel lies to her and fabricates a story to protect his emotional attachment to her. The show portrays this as morally complex but also romanticizes Joel’s actions with mournful music. The season ends with Ellie questioning Joel’s story, and the audience is left to wonder if he made the right choice.

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