Spoilers from the outset for this finale review of HBO’s adaptation of The Last Of Us.
The season finale opens with Anna, Ellie’s biological mother, being chased into a house by unseen infected. An original character only referenced in dialogue during the Left Behind DLC (Episode 7 for a recap), Anna is portrayed by the actress who provided voice and motion capture for Ellie’s video game counterpart, Ashley Johnson. Compared to her co-star Troy Baker’s stint as James in last week’s Episode 8, Johnson’s time on the series feels short-lived, yet impactful. It’s fitting that Johnson should play Ellie’s mother in the television series, considering her role in the video game, which brings it all about full circle. After rampant, scarily quick footsteps pound down a hallway, Anna is attacked by an infected stalker, killing it with her switchblade, but becomes bitten after giving birth to Ellie. Anna cuts the umbilical cord moments after discovering her infection but later tells Marlene that she’d removed the cord before. Marlene takes Ellie and is forced to kill Anna to prevent her from turning. The series establishes that Anna and Marlene’s friendship spans decades, making it all the harder for the Firefly leader to kill her friend at the end.
In the present day, Ellie becomes withdrawn as she and Joel make the final leg of their journey into Salt Lake City in search of the Firefly hospital. On a highway, Joel attempts to engage Ellie in conversation, having found a tin of Chef Boyardee’s Beefaroni and Boggle, a board game in an RV. He says if she wants to beat him at a game, it’d be that one. Ellie’s a world away, losing track of conversations as Joel further offers to teach her how to play guitar. Deeper into the city, Ellie predicts that Joel will want to cut through a tall building and climb to the roof to gather their bearings. Instead, Joel jokingly suggests that they could use dynamite (which he says he discovered in the RV on the highway) to create a shortcut. For a moment, Ellie almost believes him. Even his humour isn’t enough to shake Ellie out of her reverie. Later, as Joel and Ellie climb through the building, Ellie becomes distracted by something unseen. Joel gives chase as Ellie runs ahead excitedly, which leads them to find a giraffe grazing on greenery.
Despite some skepticism over how real the giraffe appears, it was confirmed that the animal was not generated with visual effects. Joel gives a delighted Ellie leaves to feed the giraffe. Like a proud father, Joel watches fondly. The giraffe rejoins a group of other wild animals as they cross an open green, supported by a stunning post-pandemic skyline of Salt Lake City. Joel and Ellie observe the city from a rooftop, followed by a repeat of the “you can’t deny that view” dialogue, harking back to Episode 2. Joel suggests turning back to Tommy’s, outlining the risks they might need to take should they go on. After everything Ellie has endured and survived, it needs to mean something. Everything that came before has to be for a reason. There is no other choice. Joel respects her decision, and they move forward. After finding an abandoned emergency medical camp, Joel tells Ellie about a failed suicide attempt the day after Sarah died. The revelation explains how Joel received the head wound, first mentioned in Episode 3, and partially lost hearing in one ear. He admits he was ready to die since he felt he had no meaning in life without his daughter.
Joel earnestly admits that Ellie was the one to help him recover from his past. Their interaction, followed by more terrible jokes from Ellie’s pun book to lighten the mood, might be just some of the best moments in the series. Nothing more to say. Joel and Ellie are ambushed by soldiers, with Joel waking up inside the Firefly hospital and Marlene keeping watch. Marlene explains that Ellie is being prepared for surgery. According to the doctor on the site, he believes the Cordyceps had developed in Ellie’s brain since birth. The growth produces a “chemical messenger” which bypasses the Cordyceps virus from infecting her, enabling her immunity. If the Cordyceps is removed from her brain and the chemical messengers are reproduced, it could create a cure. Now we know. But the implications, dire as they are, are lost on no one. Ellie will die should the surgery go ahead. Marlene is fully aware of the outcome, having promised Anna so long ago to keep Ellie safe. With the picture clear, it’s hard for not only Joel but for Marlene too. She orders two of her soldiers to escort Joel from the hospital and lead him out with his belongings, returning Ellie’s switchblade.
Joel kills the two soldiers escorting him in a stairwell, making mental notes of the hospital floor plan before he escapes. Joel proceeds to kill anyone and everyone he finds in his search for Ellie. The scene, supported by Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting score, feels merciless, almost like an unprovoked mass shooting. The direction and Pascal’s performance are second to none in these tense few minutes. In the surgery room, Joel finds Ellie with a doctor and two nurses (featuring a sneaky Laura Bailey cameo). Joel coldly kills the lead surgeon (who we presume will transpire to be Abby’s father, Jerry). Joel takes Ellie from the hospital in a lift to an underground parking garage. Marlene attempts to reason with Joel. He says the choice to kill Ellie to develop a vaccine is not hers to make, to which Marlene retorts it wouldn’t be his either. He shoots Marlene and takes Ellie back to Tommy’s.
As Ellie recovers, he falsely claims that the Fireflies had given up searching for a cure since others shared her immunity. Ellie asks about Marlene, and Joel’s silence confirms her worst fears. Since he knows Marlene would likely come after him, a flashback to the garage reveals Joel shooting her in the head. Joel and Ellie complete the last few miles of their journey on foot through the woods of Wyoming. Joel talks about the hikes he once took with Sarah and how he feels the two girls would have bonded. Ellie admits to feeling guilty that she’d survived while others lost their lives, and discloses details of the time she had to kill someone, mentioned during Episode 4. She tells Joel about Riley and urges him to swear that everything he’d told her about the Fireflies is true. He swears. Whether Ellie believes Joel is unknown, but she must know he’s holding something from her. Ellie’s final glance at Joel before the last line of dialogue in the series speaks a thousand words.
Episode 9, as a finale, is highly satisfying and hits every beat required flawlessly, faithfully original to the source material. The performances (Pascal and Ramsey as standouts), music, and direction are all on point. The savagery of Joel’s hospital rampage is unforgettable. Killing the doctor even more so since we know the significance of this single, violent act. The new additions to the story, from Joel’s suicide attempt, Anna’s opener, and an explanation into Ellie’s immunity, are worthy of high praise, elevating an characters and story to an even higher place. We’d be here until the end of time discussing the moral rights and wrongs of Joel’s decision to rescue Ellie from the hospital, so we’ve avoided doing so in this review. Take a listen to Game Buster’s season finale podcast here for a deep-dive discussion. We even talk about Nabo the giraffe.