Friday, March 17, 2023

Recap: The Last of Us Episode 9 — Look for the Light

Content warning: Spoilers for this episode and the entire season; brief discussion of suicide. 

Short and brutal season finale sees our heroes making impossibly hard choices in the name of love — at the cost of the truth.

Avid fans of The Last of Us have had a week to emotionally prepare for this final episode, all while knowing it was going to be a shockingly brief 43 minutes — the shortest running time of any episode this entire season. 

We See Where Ellie Gets Her Badass-ness

In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Ellie’s mom, Anna, played by Ashley Johnson, who provided motion capture and voice acting in the original 2013 video game. As someone who’s played the game several times, I went absolutely feral when I got to hear new curses and grunts from the voice of Ellie. Having video game-Ellie play TV-show-Ellie’s mom imbues Bella Ramsey’s portrayal with even more gravitas — Ashley created and shaped the character, but Bella is perfecting it. 

The episode opens with a harrowing foot chase as an in-labor Anna eludes shrieking, off-screen Infected through a forest. She enters a farmhouse just as her water breaks, and collapses against a wall as she begins the process of giving birth.

A Post-Apocalyptic Birth Gone Horribly Wrong

In modern-day America, giving birth is one of the most dangerous activities a woman will ever engage in. In a post-apocalyptic hellscape, can you imagine how unlikely it would be to go off without a hitch? No running water, no epidurals, no clean bed. And in this case, no one to even help deliver the baby. 

This episode, we had been promised, was going to be the origin story of why Ellie is immune to the cordyceps virus. Just as Ellie comes out, Anna is bitten by a runner on the thigh. She grabs her switchblade — a visual leitmotif that will run throughout the entire episode — and cuts the umbilical cord to prevent the virus from spreading. 

And there we have it — this is the reason why Ellie can be bitten and not turn. Her immunity is spoken of as an impossible occurrence throughout the season by everyone who learns of it. Does this mean Anna was the only person ever to be bitten just as she gave birth? Is that the only way immunity happens? It also leads to other, weirder thought experiments. Would an infected 5-month pregnant person ever give birth? Would the baby be stuck inside a tiny Infected fetus? What if Anna had chosen to breastfeed the newborn Ellie? Would that have changed her from immune to simply infected? 

Your Legacy Is a Switchblade 

Anna’s involvement with the fireflies is made apparent as Marlene enters the house to find Anna cradling Ellie. Marlene, we find out, has been friends with Anna their entire lives. As a final favor, she asks Marlene to save her daughter— to make sure she knows her name is Ellie, that she finds care, and that she’s given her switchblade. This brief moment hit me in the gut. Imagine a world where your only inheritance is the knife that your mother killed a fungus-infected human just as you were being born. 

Your life is owed to this knife, and you, in turn, will carry it around with you as you grow into a young adult yourself, using it to kill the same creatures that are plaguing humanity. Luke Skywalker has his lightsaber. Indiana Jones has his whip. Ellie has her switchblade. Anna then asks her friend to kill her, a final act of mercy from Marlene now that Ellie has been shepherded away by a soldier. Marlene refuses initially out of love, and for a brief moment, you wonder if she will let her friend become a hideous, twisted version of herself. 

You picture a postpartum Anna doomed to turn into a runner, then wander through the house for years. Would she turn into a clicker? Before you can continue down this depressing thought spiral, Marlene returns and shoots her. This is Ellie’s origin story. Her birthright is a violent act of love. 

Boggle, Giraffes, and a Promise 

We shift to the present, finding Joel and Ellie entering Salt Lake City, where they’ll find their final destination, the Firefly hospital. Joel has recovered from his shiv wound, and Ellie is physically okay after her ordeal with David, but she is definitely not emotionally okay. She is aloof, distant, and sad, despite Joel’s new-found emotional availability. 

He finds a Boggle game so they can play later, and he talks about teaching her guitar. The two have switched roles — he is becoming more emotionally available, and she is shutting down. They are so, so close to completing their goal, and Ellie, it seems, may believe that their future is not set in stone, despite saying that she’ll follow him wherever he goes. (This made me tear up, a la “where you go, I will go” from Fried Green Tomatoes). 

She doubles down when he offers them the choice of just going back to Jackson, with its enticing warm food, electricity, and movie nights. No matter what, she tells him, they have to finish the drill. You can almost picture in Ellie’s head Riley, Henry, Sam, Tess — people whose deaths she wants to make mean something with her immunity. 

Moments after making this solemn and very adult declaration of determination, we see that Ellie is, however, still a child. While crossing through an abandoned building, she discovers a wild horde of giraffes grazing in a baseball field, and gets close enough to feed one. (Shocker — they used a real giraffe! The entire time I watched this scene I kept thinking “Wow, that’s some good CGI!”). This is a tender moment where Ellie gets to experience the childlike awe of a spotted leopard horse with an impossibly long neck. 

Giraffes are wild-looking, even to our modern sensibilities, so imagine a child born after the breakdown of society getting to meet one. Ellie has many firsts in the show, including a first car ride, but meeting a giraffe is incredibly special. 

Choices, and Who Gets to Make Them 

As they approach the hospital, our duo gets overtaken by Fireflies, and Joel wakes up in the hospital. Ellie, he is told by Marlene, is getting prepped for surgery. Joel instantly knows what's up, and says “Not her.” It’s here where the idea of choice comes into play. 

Ellie didn’t know that she was going to undergo surgery, and she definitely didn’t know that she wasn’t going to make it out alive. (The cordyceps virus grows in the brain, so the procedure would necessitate brain surgery she wouldn’t survive). Some argue that Ellie, had she been told, would still have agreed to do it. 

Her devotion to the cause would give her life meaning. But Joel, who has acknowledged his feelings, cannot, will not let this happen to his baby girl. It’s not just love for Ellie driving him. Like Bill, his role and purpose in life has become protector again, and he cannot lose this. The last time he lost his purpose — Sarah — he almost died by suicide. 

Marlene spares his life, gives him Ellie’s switchblade (there it is again) and instructs two soldiers to walk him to the interstate. Joel, as we expect, attacks them and begins making his way to the operating room to save Ellie. This part of the video game is very long, and it requires you to kill dozens of Fireflies. It’s also a tough level, difficulty-wise, and it took me probably a few hours to clear it. 

Who Decides Who Lives or Dies? 

Here’s the fascinating thing, though: It wasn’t until watching this episode that I felt conflicted about all of the deaths Joel rains upon the Fireflies. He is brutal, and ruthless, and methodical. When a soldier puts his hands up asking for mercy, Joel shoots him anyway. By the time he gets to the OR, he has murdered at least a dozen people. 

This is one of the reason why the show is so much more emotionally devastating than the game. Human expressions and gestures will always outperform the uncanny valley of digital renderings. Did I cry and feel moved at the video game? Of course. But the show is next-level emotion with world-class acting. 

The way he walks slowly and changes out weapons and loads in ammo is calm, cool, and collected. He’s on a mission to save his daughter. But I couldn’t help but think about the mass shootings in America today. What’s the difference? One man’s will against a group of people. Of course, victims of mass shootings tends to be innocent bystanders — children, teachers, concertgoers. The Fireflies, on the other hand, are a paramilitary organization.

But are the lives of these soldiers worth less than one little girl? When he opens the door to see Ellie lying anesthetized at the table, the surgeon tries to stop him. Joel kills him. He grabs Ellie from the table and leaves the hospital, having left carnage in his wake. He encounters Marlene in the parking garage, and she tries to stop him, as well. 

She tells him that she alone knows the cost of what she is doing, having promised Ellie’s mother she’d care for her. Joel kills her, too, the final obstacle to their escape. He can't risk anyone coming after them, either.

Wanting to Believe 

Ellie awakes in the back of their stolen car, as they speed away from Salt Lake City back to Jackson. Joel lies to her, saying that they didn’t need her after all, and that the hospital was attacked by raiders. She doesn’t quite understand, but falls back asleep, exhausted. 

Fast forward a few days. The car has broken down, and they have to make the last few miles on foot. At this point, Joel is positively ebullient as he talks openly about Sarah — the most we’ve seen thus far in the show. You can tell how excited he is about the future, about spending time with Ellie in Jackson in a functioning society.

Ellie knows something is up, and on a promontory overlooking the promised land of Jackson, asks him to swear that everything happened as he said it did. She knows he’s lying, but wants desperately to believe him — believe in him. He doesn’t miss a beat, and swears it. After all, he’s done, this short lie is the least of his bad deeds. If the did discuss the truth, she would have said that he took away her choice, her meaning. 

But the Fireflies did the same thing by not telling her she would die. Who trumps? It’s impossible to say, just as it’s impossible to know whether the Fireflies’ surgery would have been successful. Her death, then, would have been all for naught. 

What’s Next? 

The show ends abruptly at this scene, and we can only assume they head to Jackson and start a relatively normal life together. For video game players, we know what happens, but for TV viewers, it’s all up in the air. As someone who’s played both games, I can only say one thing: I really recommend finding a way to play the sequel, if you can. Spoilers abound, and it’s going to be a long two years before the next season, baby girl. 

The Math 

Baseline Score: 8/10 
Bonuses: +1 Ashley Johnson (the original Ellie in the game) is fantastic; real-life giraffes!; incredible readings from Ellie’s joke book; a morally gray but loving choice in the final minutes.
Penalties: -1. Only 43 minutes! This could have been stretched out into a two-parter, for sure.
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. Video game nerds gets incredible payoff and extra details that add to, not detract, from the original story. 

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A cohost of Hugo-nominated podcast Hugo, Girl!,  she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley.