REVIEW: ‘The Last of Us’ Finale Makes A Hard Call


Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight films are nothing if not quotable, but there’s perhaps one line that rings truer than most. “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” Spoken as a principle reminder to Christian Bale‘s Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, the dialogue is just as relevant to Pedro Pascal‘s Joel Miller in the shocking finale of HBO’s The Last of Us – a series that survives on the actions of love and, more importantly, their consequences. The show spent its entirety building the relationship between Joel and Bella Ramsey‘s Ellie to substantiate a wildly controversial, yet immensely effective, ending that will come to redefine its characters and recontextualize the season for all time.

From the very beginning of The Last of Us‘ 9-episode run, showrunner Craig Mazin and franchise creator Neil Druckmann have emphasized their desire to portray a world filled with grey areas and difficult decisions. The idea of making a hard call, specifically one that may not be morally correct, for the sake of love has been woven into the series’ DNA and made visible in nearly every installment. Whether it be Tess’ final stand, Bill’s choice to drink the wine, Henry’s sell-out for medicine, or even David’s cannibalism, viewers have been shown over and over again what people are capable of when the life of someone they care about is on the line. It’s the fabric that holds The Last of Us together, and the through line that’s pushed each episode past the point of decency. As such, it’s only fitting that the season finale, titled Look For The Light, confront the topic head-on, putting both Joel and the viewers at home in a near-impossible predicament and forcing them to sit with the outcome after it’s all said and done.

Those who played the original game may have seen it coming, but for first-time watchers, Joel’s ultimate decision to choose Ellie over a universe was likely a heartbreaking surprise. The minds behind the show did an excellent job of seeding the climactic moment beforehand, giving the duo a collection of sweet moments as a lead-in to demonstrate how strong the connection between Joel and Ellie has become and give further evidence of Joel’s thought process. They even successfully adapted one of the game’s most iconic scenes, with the pair encountering giraffes in Salt Lake City, to make a point of Ellie’s innocence and the beauty the world stands to lose. Pascal‘s performance is exquisitely desperate throughout, at first as a wanting father and later as a wounded protector, injecting the episode with the appropriate amount of distress in an underlying, ever-present fashion.

The true genius of Look For The Light, however, lies in the subtle way it compares two separate reactions to the same difficult decision. With Ellie unconscious for the majority of Joel’s monumental actions, the episode finds itself needing someone else to act as a foil for the protagonist. The season has spent much of its time convincing viewers of Joel and Ellie’s motives, and that’s not easy to shake. It makes people far more apt to root for Joel’s murder spree, saving a character they love, without considering the viewpoint of the other side. The magnitude of what Joel’s done cannot fully sink in unless there’s someone to present an alternative route, and for the audience to actually respect that secondary opinion, the character who vouches for it must be one with a decent amount of credibility. As she did in the original game, Merle Dandridge‘s Marlene is the one who brings that presence to the table.

Joel and Marlene are two very different types of survivor. Joel, as has been stated countless times, is a protector. In his mind, he exists solely to keep the ones he loves alive. There is no world but his own, and anyone who challenges that is merely an obstacle. Marlene, on the other hand, is fighting for something bigger. She’s trying to revive the planet, an end goal she feels justifies the sacrifice of anyone it may require. It’s a wonderfully dramatic parallel that’s rich for dissection and gives the episode that signature extra layer fans have come to both expect and admire. While this climactic face-off has always been integral to The Last of Us, the finale episode is able to do something with it that Druckmann‘s initial version of the story simply wasn’t allowed to. After numerous references, the extent of Marlene’s ties to Ellie is revealed, and it does wonders for the final moments of the first season.

Look For The Light opens with the first-ever glimpse at Ellie’s mother Anna, played by Ashley Johnson (who brought Ellie to life in the games), and gives Marlene’s decision to end Ellie’s life an immense added weight. Druckmann has been attempting to grant Anna’s story a space for nearly a decade, and this episode might have been the perfect place to finally place it. The sequence is haunting, further emphasizing the damage even a single Infected can do, and although probably not the full scope of what Druckmann would like to explore with Anna’s character, it’s exactly what’s needed for the hour at hand. The audience gets a peek into the relationship Marlene shared with Anna and a much better idea of what Ellie means to the former. Present for her birth and now the would-be harbinger of her death, despite a promise made to a dear friend, the difficulty behind Marlene’s decision is now clear.

So, when Joel’s disquieting rampage through the hospital inevitably ends with a confrontation between Marlene and himself, it’s the kind of storytelling payoff that dreams are made of. An entire series focused on the survival of one girl, coming down to two powerful forces who had both been assigned to protect her. One has grown willing to take her life for the larger majority, and the other has grown willing to murder countless innocents to ensure she stays alive. Neither character is entirely in the right. It’s a problem with no real solution, the perfect final example of The Last of Us‘ cherished grey area.

Ellie, on the other hand, is robbed of her agency. As has always been her draw in life, she is not allowed a say in her own future. A shepherd, once again sedated as a sheep. Every major plotline culminates in these closing moments, punctuated by the last idea left unaddressed – consequence. Joel makes the most dramatic decision of his life, and then to salvage what he has left, he lies. The lie, and the anxiety of what might come with it, is something Joel and the folks watching from home will be forced to sit with for the foreseeable future. It’s been a miracle of a season, and the finale is appropriately breathtaking. One can only hope it’s made the same impact it had on gamers in 2013.

Just make sure to remember – when you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.

Previous Post

‘Agatha: Coven of Chaos’ Rumored to Setup a Major Young Avengers Storyline

Next Post
namor antagonist

Ruth Carter Wins Oscar for Best Costume Desing for ‘Wakanda Forever’

Related Posts