[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Season 1, Episode 7, “Left Behind.”]
A lot of the conversation around “The Last of Us” centers on what gets lost after the world changes. There’s societal collapse, transformation, widespread death, and a fundamental shift in priorities. But for all that’s missing in a post-Outbreak world, the series’ latest episode “Left Behind” does make room for a kind of wonder that wasn’t really present in the Before Times. Some of the lone bright spots in the show have come from Ellie (Bella Ramsey) being in absolute awe of something she’s never experienced before. We’ve seen her try to wrap her head around football, airplanes, and monkeys. There are tragic reasons that all these things are novelties to her, but that sense of discovery the show gets from her circumstances is what’s sometimes able to balance out the harshness.
So as the season gears up for the homestretch, “The Last of Us” takes a quick trip back to the not-so-distant past. “Left Behind” is the simplest episode in scope of the season so far, setting most of it on a single night. Disillusioned by the conditions at her FEDRA-operated school, Ellie weighs her options and the limited number of life goals set in front of her. One fateful night, her best friend Riley (Storm Reid) returns from a mysterious absence to show Ellie a secret corner of the Boston QZ. In the wee post-curfew hours, Ellie and Riley tour the highlights of an abandoned mall and discuss their respective futures. Just as the two begin to explore what part of those futures might look like spent together, an attack from an Infected leaves both of them bit.
In Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie’s conversations about losing loved ones and not having anyone left alive to care for, this is the story that was promised. Free from the heavy lifting of having to connect Ellie’s past and present, the episode can focus on showing what it is that’s keeping her going. The simplicity of the hour gives “Left Behind” a chance to rest. If nothing else, Ellie and Riley’s adventure lets director Liza Johnson add some literal electricity to the show: neon lights, fluorescent bulbs, a flickering GameStop sign. There was an abstraction in Joel’s outline of capitalism and contact sports last week. Here, there’s a more tangible secondhand thrill in seeing someone experience an exciting new corner of everyday life for the first time (one that has escalators, too).
The key sequence before all of the mall stuff is that conversation with Captain Kwong (Terry Chen) in the school office. (Unless they already happened to have one lying around, it seems like FEDRA officers made it a top priority to keep Boston’s nameplate factory open.) It’s another in an increasingly long line of examples of Ellie being presented with two options. Her whole life has been simplified down to a series of “one or the other” decisions. Here, she’s being offered either grunt work or upper management. All the way through picking Tommy or Joel to take her to the Fireflies, Ellie has had other people shape her path.
Part of that is being younger. But it also gives a window into the resentment she often has toward those decision-makers, some of whom (like Marlene) take it out of her hands entirely. When Riley reappears in her life and tells her the reason for being gone, there’s a hint of resentment in Ellie’s reaction that someone she knew was able to break that pattern and take the off-the-board option. It also makes those moments in the mall stick out even more. She can pick her own pose in the photo booth. She can button mash to her heart’s content.
For reasons beyond it being a flashback, it’s impossible not to compare this episode to the Frank and Bill saga of “Long, Long Time.” Where that episode managed to contain two entire lifetimes, “Left Behind” is considering the absence of a lifetime. Bill had a few extra layers of protection around his walls, but apart from that, these are a pair of stories about people trying to salvage some joy in the face of an uncertain future. Ellie and Riley have a certain carelessness of youth, even if responsibility is being thrust upon them in unreasonably tough circumstances. It might be why they’re so convinced of their safety that they spend a majority of time throwing caution to the wind and sticking to the places in the mall loud enough to attract any infiltrating Clickers.
Regardless, “The Last of Us” puts forward the idea that safety can be an illusion. Frank and Bill crafted their idyllic hideaway, but even as Frank says in his monologue of last requests, there were still plenty of Bad Days. All the flash grenades that the Fireflies can stow in their underground arsenal are meaningless in a sneak attack when attention is being drawn elsewhere. And in a continuation of a season-long question, if the only point of life is to keep finding ways to stay alive, with no time for anything other than survival, is that still a life worth living?
The one curious thing about “Left Behind” is its placement. In isolation, it’s a sweetly executed look at a particular moment in time, but for the purposes of “The Last of Us,” it’s not offering much that an economical show hasn’t provided already. We’ve seen ironic remnants of the past like the “Back in 5 min” note in the theater box office window. We’ve seen Ellie grateful to have someone she can play with, in her all-too-brief time with Sam. We know she was skeptical of a life spent enforcing martial law. “Left Behind” isn’t so much filling in the gaps as adding more to a plate that was pretty much full.
So why now? The key addition here is the idea that Ellie lost someone beyond family or friends or acquaintances. There’s a glimmer of her beginning to imagine how to move through the world with a true partner. The context is obviously very different with Joel than with Riley, but this is another underlining of why Ellie doesn’t want to face the challenges to come by herself. Sewing up Joel’s torso in the final seconds is her version of atoning, in the same way that Joel is trying to make up in some small way for the death of his own daughter. If you can’t save the world, do what you can to save the ones that matter to you. In Ellie’s case, though, she might just be able to do both.
There’s also something pointed in seeing what episode writer Neil Druckmann leaves out. The sense of doom and dread hovering over the end of this episode is already there. Ellie’s scar will be there weeks later. It hasn’t been that long since Sam met the same circumstances that presumably awaited Riley. With already so much evidence about The End, this leaves those details alone for now. Instead, the focus is on a dance to an Etta James-sung cover (taken directly from the extended game franchise). It’s on taking a few giant swigs from a bottle just to see what it tastes like. And it’s on that merry-go-round, for however long the music plays.
“The Last of Us” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max.
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