‘The Last of Us’ Makes a Near-Fatal Misstep
To ensure a second season, the HBO show sacrificed narrative integrity in its finale
Just seconds before watching the season finale of The Last of Us, my husband, a television writer, asked for my pitch on what might qualify as a satisfying ending to what had been, for us, uneven travels in zombie land.
“They have to get there,” I said. “But in order to find a cure they will have to kill Ellie, and that means Ellie and Joel will have to escape so there will be a second season.”
I was correct about the ultimate episode plot points, but, as any classic rock fan knows, much as you try, try, try, satisfaction remains elusive.
The episode begins with a bang and chase, dropping us right into the middle of Ellie’s stirring origin story. Her pregnant mother hightails it through a field, suffers simultaneously through labor contractions and an Infected attack, only to have her best friends shoot her before she, too, becomes a member of the clicking fungus clan.
In the right hands, motherless Ellie’s inheritance of one switchblade knife and enduring trauma might provide several season’s worth of emotional investigation. It would be an honor to watch the very talented Bella Ramsey tunnel through grief and regain a new kind of balance.
It would be delightful to watch the very talented Pedro Pascal do the same. His character, Joel shoulders his own deep pain. The show reminds us that he’s lost his daughter, and we learn that he’s attempted suicide. We should be happy to know he feels better because he’s found a new kid to love. But do we? All this comes out very quickly, seemingly the last in a series of fumbling but well-meant attempts to shake Ellie from her I-hacked-my-cannibalistic-would-be-rapist-to death funk. How he arrived at this story after suggesting a game of Boggle that only a post-apocalyptic world may be able to answer.
Joel’s trying hard, but grief is a wide sea.
The creators of The Last of Us know this. They conceived the third episode scene where Murray Bartlett as Frank plays a jangly piano version of Linda Rondstadt’s “Long, Long Time.” It’s loud and fast and jarring. When Nick Offerman, as Bill, sits down and plays it slow, the shift is seismic. In four bars or less, he seduces us all by revealing his lonely, sensitive, heartfelt core.
But we’ve no time to slow things down. It’s the last episode and we’ve got to keep this show on the road. Ellie snaps out of her mood and shares a laugh with Joel over the book of puns. The sun is shining. And then, just as we’ve learned to expect, the violence comes.
Smoke bombs. A sharp knock to the head. Jump cut.
Whew! We’re with the good guys. But nope. They’re the bad guys. Or… wait. What? Are they? Who cares? All we know is that Ellie is in the operating room and her life is the price to be paid for the salvation of humanity. Joel’s got a Trolley Dilemma, but we’ve got about twenty minutes to wrap this thing and who wants to talk about ethics? This is a video game. It’s about getting to the next level by focusing on the mission: kill faceless menace. And that is how our broken hero, now a Terminator/Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo mash-up, goes on a shooting spree.
We turn to guns to retain the status quo. We turn to guns to protect our individual rights. We turn to guns and we keep running even if it means running with an unconscious kid in our arms. Even if it means running while the whole world collapses around us.
Ellie comes to in the backseat of an SUV driven by her stony faced father figure. Where are we going? It’ll be okay. She has no clothes. He isn’t worried. She’s lost her backpack. He’ll get her another one. Move past the grief. Keep moving.
Grief may not be as fleet of foot as Ellie’s mom racing through the grass with one hand on her bulging belly, but, dogged as those mushroom head Infected, it’s always going to catch up.
In the Last of Us, Ellie ponders her past, questions the motives of those around her and delights in the appearance of a giraffe. She mourns her losses when she can and when she has to run, she doesn’t leave grief behind. Over the season, her understanding of her own power deepened and I do think she began to see how, so often, that power does not come from violence.
Because I had just watched the Oscars, director Sarah Polley’s acceptance speech was fresh in my head. Speaking about the source material for Women Talking, she credited author Miriam Toews for writing a novel in which people who don’t agree manage to sit together and find a way. “They do so,” she said, “Not just by talking but also by listening.”
Slow down. Play the song at half-time.
I’m sad to say that when my husband asked me to pitch a satisfying ending to The Last of Us, I pitched the first thing that popped into my head. It seemed like the only way to lead into a second season. It’s nice to be right, but I’m not satisfied with the way we often accept that good story construction means making easy choices that result in conflict.
Too comfortable in his role of violent savior, a blood-soaked Joel scoops Ellie from the operating table, taking possession of her power and her person.
The writers had to put our smartest, bravest character in a drugged stupor to set up enough deceit and disappointment to power a second season. I wonder what might have happened if they’d allowed Ellie to stay awake, for her curiosity to blossom. What if they’d given her the choice to save the world? I don’t want to sacrifice Ellie, but I do wonder what might have happened if they’d left the story up to her.
2 thoughts on “‘The Last of Us’ Makes a Near-Fatal Misstep”
It might be worth mentioning to your thesis that this was the outcome to set up a second season: This was an exact retelling of the ending of the video game that came out 10 years ago, and was not modified in any way to support another season of television.
The original game was also a surprise success, and was not written and produced with the intent of a sequel following (and though that sequel did come it was not for another seven years).
The game developers have said this was an intentional outcome from the start, and even during play testing many testers spent time confused about why they could not choose to make the alternate decision (since games often provide the user the agency to choose an ending)
I do think the weight of Joel’s decision was hurt a bit by how rushed the episode was, but it was definitely not to advance the length of the TV Show.
The original game was definitely produced to read like prestige television though. Hence the same moral dilemma, just not for the sake of setting up a sequel. Still pretty rushed though. Given how people have been complaining about how underdeveloped it was for years now it’s a bit of a surprise that’s the one thing about it the prestige television version didn’t change.