Ellie is, without a doubt, the strongest character in The Last of Us. A complex, endearing, multi-layered, endlessly interesting survivor. She is, and always has been, the true protagonist of the entire post-apocalyptic franchise, from the original video game to all of its sequels, spin-offs, and adaptations. Without her, there is no The Last of Us, so it’s about time HBO’s acclaimed series finally took the dive into what makes her tick. Based on and titled after the celebrated downloadable expansion Left Behind, this week’s episode steps away from the mainline narrative to explore a bit more of Ellie’s backstory, and give some much-needed context heading into the season’s backend stretch. The result is another beautifully heartbreaking stand-alone outing and the perfect showcase for Bella Ramsey‘s immense talent.
Ramsey has been incredible from the start. Their portrayal of Ellie, a beloved personality so distinctively brought to life by Ashley Johnson in the video games, has been joyfully spot-on since they first charged Pedro Pascal’s Joel with their signature switchblade and found themselves eating drywall. Left Behind, however, was always going to be their toughest challenge, with its looming presence in the series teased for months via trailers and other promotional materials. The story told in this chapter, yet another rooted in love, is Ellie’s character thesis. It explains almost everything about her constitution, and informs every decision she’s made, or will make, from here on out. Ramsey needed to nail their performance, for the sake of Ellie and the series at large, and unsurprisingly, they pull it off with what seemed like spectacular ease.
It is important that the audience feel what Ellie is experiencing throughout the hour. To not just see it, but to become immersed in the story and really understand its characters. Of course, this feat can’t be achieved with handholding. It has to be subtle, and it has to appear real. Furthermore, viewers aren’t slow, and they’re likely to recognize Left Behind is leading toward a clear ending. As such, it becomes critical that the episode not do the same thing. The entirety of the entry’s runtime is building towards something tragic, but the final moments of the episode are only effective if the people watching forget what they know is coming. They need to perceive hope and they need to get it from the faces on screen. This is potentially the most difficult task an actor can come up against, which is why it’s so impressive what Ramsey and special guest star Storm Reid are able to accomplish through even the most minor of glances.
The chemistry shared between the performers is impeccable. In terms of casting, The Last of Us struck gold. Ellie and Reid‘s Riley spend most of Left Behind talking about everything except what they’d actually like to say, yet the actors are still able to convey the rest through hopeful eyes and nervous glares. It makes for a wildly compelling, and far more convincing, exploration of their relationship, something that becomes absolutely essential when the episode swaps out action set pieces for more character-driven conflict. Even if the audience is aware that Riley is bound for death, they still want to believe the same fairytale whimsy that Ellie is clinging to.
For most of Left Behind, that lie is sold through the ghostly dreamscape of the mall and the soothing winsome with which the leads find ways to interact with it. Though weighted by heavy questions, much of the episode is bolstered by a childlike innocence, used in large part to make the ending pack a harder punch. People often remember Left Behind for its devastating conclusion, but HBO’s take should serve to remind them it’s actually a pretty fun, smile-inducing journey for the large majority. It’s a continuation of what makes The Last of Us, as a whole, so addictive. A dangerous combination of enchanting, heartwarming, fantastic love with the soul-crushing reality of imperfection and consequence. An upper and a downer. The human condition.
Ultimately, Left Behind is yet another example of television at its best. Ramsey and Reid are flawless, working magic across more gorgeous set design. Thought-provoking ideas bouncing between the walls of a neon-lit cavern, acting as a parabolic playground for emotion. The Last of Us continues to be more of an experience than something simply observed, which may sound dramatic or hyperbolic, but has come to be apparent in its manner of affecting those who view it so drastically. Perhaps this is because, as Left Behind so efficiently demonstrates, The Last of Us taps into something so incredibly human it becomes difficult to deny. People see themselves in Ellie, and thankfully, they’ll get to see more down the line.