The finale of HBO’s The Last of Us turns a reluctant hero into a villain.
This is a recap and review of episode 9. Spoilers to follow!
We begin this finale episode with an explanation of why Ellie has immunity to the Cordyceps infection. A pregnant woman runs across a field towards a decrepit house. Contractions wrack her, but she manages to get to a room upstairs and attempts to barricade herself in. A Cordyceps breaks into the room and attacks. The woman manages to stab it with a knife while simultaneously giving birth. Of course, she was bitten in the scuffle, so she cuts the umbilical cord quickly (in an attempt to prevent the baby from being infected) and then stares at her newborn, naming her. In terms of realistic birth scenes, this was not perfect, but far from the most egregious I’ve seen.
Later, Marlene shows up at the house. The woman, Anna, begs Marlene to take the baby to safety, calling upon their years of friendship. She also asks that Marlene give Ellie her knife when she gets older. She then demands that Marlene kill her, but Marlene says she can’t and leaves the room. In the hallway, she gives Ellie to a subordinate, then heads back into the room and shoots Anna. Marlene takes the baby back.
In the present, Joel brings Ellie a can of Beefaroni and Boggle, to cheer her up, but she’s sullen and quiet. Joel then offers to teach Ellie how to play guitar, but she’s not listening, either suffering from PTSD or trauma from the events at Silver Lake Resort or contemplating what will happen to her at the hospital. Arriving in an abandoned city, they head up a skyscraper to find the best route.
After being boosted up a landing, Ellie takes off. Joel chases her and finds her staring at a giraffe. In a move borrowed from the brachiosaurs feeding scene in Jurassic Park, he helps her feed the animal.
Ellie follows the giraffe as it joins its herd outside, and Joel approaches and suggests they head back to Tommy’s commune rather than find the Firefly hospital. Ellie argues that she’d rather what they’ve gone through have meaning. She says that after they complete their mission, she’ll follow him wherever he goes.
Back on the ground, they find a collection of emergency medical camps, where Joel explains he was in one of these camps because he’d tried to shoot himself after Sarah’s death. He says he couldn’t have been more ready, but he flinched when he pulled the trigger. He also adds that it wasn’t time that healed his wounds, but implies it was meeting Ellie that did so. Given that he can talk about Sarah now without wincing or abruptly ending the conversation, he is indeed starting to process his grief.
As Ellie reads more jokes to Joel, armed soldiers appear behind them. They launch a flashbang grenade, then grab Ellie and knock Joel out.
Joel wakes up on a cot to find Marlene staring down at him. She explains that Ellie is fine and that while she’s in his debt for his delivery of her, Ellie is in surgery where they will extract the lobe in her brain that contains the Cordyceps growth. Joel believes this will kill her, and Marlene explains Ellie’s birth and that she is very sorry this is the only option.
She tells her soldiers to walk him to the highway and give him his pack. Then enter a stairwell, and Joel uses an opportune moment to kill the nondescript henchmen and escape. In a move that shows now only how terrified he is of loss but how warped his perception of right and wrong has become, he travels through the hospital, shooting the Fireflies even when they attempt to surrender.
He heads into the pediatric ward, locating the operating room. The doctor says he won’t let Joel take her, so he shoots him. He takes the unconscious Ellie off the table and leaves.
In the parking garage, Marlene approaches with a gun drawn. They argue about the ethics of the situation, with Marlene stating that Ellie would have wanted to sacrifice herself to save everyone else. Joel looks down at her, his heart clearly breaking, then we jump to him driving an SUV with Ellie in the backseat.
He lies to her, telling her that other people are immune, but none of the Fireflies’ attempts to find a cure worked. He claims raiders attacked the hospital. When she asks about Marlene, he doesn’t answer. We are shown in a brief flashback that he murdered her in cold blood.
They drive back to Wyoming, where the SUV dies. They have a five-hour hike before them, to which Joel begins to tell stories about Sarah and why she would have liked Ellie.
Before they enter the commune, Ellie explains Riley’s death and how she had to kill her. Joel suggests that she find something new to fight for. She wrestles with this, realizing that Joel is implying that he lives now to keep her safe. Perhaps not meaning to, he is placing a heavy burden on her. She asks him to swear to her that he told her the truth about the hospital. He does. She clearly knows something isn’t right but agrees to go to the town.
In a masterful way, the season prepared us for this finale all along. Joel’s actions in the hospital, while abhorrent, are not out of character. Not only did other antagonists (Kathleen, David) have layered backstories or motives that were more complex than just “pure evil,” Joel was always morally gray, choosing to use violence to solve all his problems. While the people he hurts earlier in the season are “bad people” (people attacking him or part of a raider gang), he always goes a step too far in using violence as a first resort. And while Joel is never meant to be a knight in shining armor, in this episode he steps over the morally gray line into villainy. Ellie (like a true hero) wanted to sacrifice herself to save others, and he denied her that choice. She believed in what the Fireflies were trying to do, and Joel, selfishly, went against her wishes. And then he lied to her. This is not the mark of a good man, and it’s fascinating that the show went in this direction, taking a shot at the archetypal “protector” and turning it into something less than virtuous. It’ll be interesting (and, I suspect, heartbreaking) to see how this plays out in season two.
The real climax of the series, in terms of a fight scene, was last episode’s: Ellie’s fight against David. Both how the conflict was filmed and her reaction to the violence presented Ellie as a clear heroine. Joel’s unflinching slaughter of innocents in the hospital was not filmed like an action movie as we were not meant to root for his success; instead, the score is sombre and the filmography clinical. Joel’s lack of remorse and murder of Marlene, who also had a vested personal interest in Ellie, show us how much fear and pain can warp a person’s perceptions of right and wrong, even if he realizes and regrets it later. But does Joel regret it? That remains to be seen.
Overall, The Last of Us Season One was a raw, realistic, and emotional post-apocalyptic story that isn’t afraid to broach challenging topics, doesn’t rely on shock value to keep viewers interested, and provides so many moments that spur contemplation and conversation. I adored it.
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I disagree with your interpretation of what happened in the conversation between Marlene and Joel.
Marlene explains to Joel that the doctor (this is the doctor’s theory) will operate on Elle’s brain to remove the cordycepts growth he theorizes is producing chemical messengers.
From the removed growth he will attempt to synthesize these theorized chemical messengers, so that other humans can be given them in the hope and expectation that this would also make them immune to the disease like Elle.
But Elle didn’t decide to make this sacrifice, she was not told that the surgery would kill her.
Marlene says to Joel, “We didn’t tell her, we didn’t cause her any fear, there won’t be any pain.”
The truth is, she and the doctor decided to sacrifice Elle because they didn’t tell Elle that the surgery would kill her – they lied to her by omission of this fact.
This was morally wrong and that is what Joel is reacting to when he goes on a rampage to save Elle from this deception and her sacrifice by Marlene and the doctor.
Marlene and the doctor are not acting selflessly in this deception, they stand to benefit themselves if the doctor’s theory and experimentation works out.
Marlene and the doctor decide to withhold the danger of the surgery to Elle, so she would agree to it. Elle did not knowingly agree to the surgery with the knowledge that the surgery would kill her.
If Elle had been fully informed and had agreed to make this sacrifice of her own free will, then I would agree with your interpretation, but the conversation between Marlene and Joel makes it clear that Elle was deceived.
One more point, the stakes are so high that this operation go forward, so that potentially humanity might be saved, presumably all the Firefly’s know this.
If I were Joel all the Firefly’s under Marlene’s command are fair game – this is truly a life or death situation for everybody present. Marlene would never stop trying to get Elle’s brain, you might argue she has a duty to continue to try, therefore she must die so Elle will be safe.