This review contains full spoilers for episode nine of The Last of Us, now available to view on HBO Max. To stay spoiler-free, check out our The Last of Us Season 1 Review.
As HBO’s The Last of Us reaches its season one finale, the story arrives at its most crucial fork in the road. Of course, the choice that Joel makes is as divisive as ever, and for the most part, is fantastically translated to the screen — once again faithfully recreating iconic imagery and echoing familiar conversations. But while it grants exciting new information about Ellie’s origins on one hand, it does slightly dampen the impact of Joel’s decision on the other. In serving a satisfying and shocking ending the episode is a success, but it’s not necessarily the resounding one I expected.
Following on from House of the Dragon you’d be mistaken for thinking there’s nothing HBO loves more than a traumatic childbirth scene. This one may take the crown, though, as Ashley Johnson’s Anna welcomes Ellie to the world having killed an infected house invader just moments earlier. This encapsulates the essence of the series in a nutshell, displaying both the horrors and beauty found in this world in a single scene. It’s an arresting and memorable way to open this great season finale.
The show continues to be beautifully photographed, demonstrating how to illuminate what the eye should be drawn to in low-light settings — the Fireflies emerging from the darkened treeline like their namesake, flashlights flickering, being a perfect example of this. Marlene’s arrival and subsequent heartbreaking goodbye to Anna is yet another instance of the series at its strongest — adding extra scenes not present in the game that enrich the story for veterans and newcomers alike. The reveal that Ellie’s umbilical cord wasn’t cut before her mother was bitten is the biggest ever reveal we’ve had as to the reason why she is immune, and serves as a satisfying (if not harrowing) answer to one of The Last of Us’ biggest questions.
There are welcome moments of levity, however, including a fun little joke at the game’s expense as Joel and Ellie struggle to combine their powers in bringing a ladder into place, and a shared smile with a hungry giraffe — both moments that are faithfully recreated from its source material. These moments are fleeting, however, and the short time we spend with both Joel and Ellie in this episode before its action-heavy finale kicks off is part of the problem as to why this conclusion just doesn’t quite hit as hard as it could do.
Despite spending several hours in their company up until this point, the moment that Joel has to make his big decision feels only just about earned, and doesn’t quite pack the same punch as it did in the game. It’s a question that can only be answered once we’ve been able to look back on the complete season – yes, remarkable after remarkable episode has been released, but did they do enough to service this finale? I think that both Druckmann and Mazin have done a commendable job in building such a strong bond between the leads in such a short space of time. It’s just a shame that it inherently could never be as strong as the bond forged between the characters and player while directly controlling them over many, many hours. It’s a fundamental difference in the way we consume and process TV shows and video games, but full credit has to go to the creators as to how well they’ve pulled it off across the series in total.
This isn’t necessarily the fault of this particular episode, though, and what little time we do have of Joel and Ellie interacting here is very well used. The past couple of episodes may well have firmly belonged to Bella Ramsey’s Ellie, but this week it’s Pedro Pascal’s time to shine. Joel’s fall from grace demands that he displays fragility, fear, and fury over the course of 40 minutes, and he conveys each expertly. Ellie simultaneously placing full trust in Joel but insisting they have to follow through with the plan noticeably sows seeds in Joel’s mind. We see this happen again as he opens up about Sarah’s passing and subsequent depressive episode, which brings down the last barrier to fully opening up to Ellie — both performances are particularly stellar in this scene.
Of course, it’s all building up to the show’s big twist. Pedro Pascal’s anger bubbles as he comes to the realisation that Ellie will die, but the wordless tears speak louder than his outburst. Ruthlessly and tactically, he takes out any Firefly in his way because he’s blinded by love. It’s a regimented massacre from Joel that serves the story well, even if it isn’t in keeping with the more enjoyably rustic nature of combat seen in the series so far; here he switches from scrappy brawler to SWAT team member, seemingly gaining top-tier combat skills from the tear gas he inhaled moments earlier. The sudden flick of the switch to full Rambo mode just feels a little sudden in the context of the show as, apart from last week’s brutal torture scene, we haven’t seen too much of the violent side of Joel — something that is constantly present in the game. It’s not completely out of character for Pascal’s Joel, it’s just the presentation feels a little off, is all.
The brilliantly mournful music that soundtracks the assault does not paint this as a heroic event, but one filled with regret — regretful on Joel’s part that it has come down to this. Any warmth present in Joel has totally drained from his face, and the compassion in Pascal’s eyes completely vacated. In his mind, there isn’t much left worth saving in this world because his world has become Ellie, and in saving her, he has saved his world. In doing so, though, he has betrayed the trust of those who have put his trust in him — Tess, Marlene, Tommy, and of course Ellie herself. It’s the fitting culmination of everything he’s seen on his journey both with Ellie and over the past 20 years — he’s lost everything except her, so will do anything to stop that from happening.
That lie to Ellie is yet another heavy burden that Joel will have to carry around with him, and one you can already tell is weighing on his mind through the somber tone of Pascal’s voice. The show ending on the same rattlesnake-like plucking of guitar strings before Ellie delivers the one-word sting in the tail is a delightful nod to one of the best mic drop endings of any story. It’s both a fitting and worthy way of ending this thoroughly faithful adaptation.