In the last level of The Last of Us, Joel proves that Ellie’s survival matters more to him than does protecting the country from cordyceps infections. His decisions tend to polarize players, but not to the extent of ruining the game’s popularity. While revisiting the story through the TV show, I deliberately sought out justifications for Joel’s actions. In addition to those transferred over from the game, the series also clarified points previously left subtle or ambiguous, or created additional justifications. Ultimately, I can only forgive some of Joel’s decisions, but currently continue to love the first season as a whole.
Look for the Light
Airdate: March 12, 2023
Director: Ali Abbasi
Writers: Craig Mazin & Neil Druckmann
Look, sometimes things don’t work out the way we hope. You can feel like… like you’ve come to an end, and you don’t know what to do next. But if you just keep goin’, you find something new to fight for.
A flashback to 2009 reveals that Ellie’s mother, Anna (Ashley Johnson, who plays Ellie in the Last of Us games), gave birth to her shortly after receiving an Infected bite. As spring 2024 arrives, Joel and Ellie approach a Firefly-owned hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. Ellie remains traumatized by her experiences in Silver Lake, but she and Joel cheer up during a serene interaction with some of Salt Lake’s gentle wildlife. After the Fireflies capture and sedate Ellie, their leader, Marlene (part-Japanese, part-Korean Merle Dandridge, reprising her role from the first game and “When You’re Lost in the Darkness“), informs Joel that in order to concoct a vaccine against cordyceps infections, they must extract some fungus from inside Ellie’s brain. Unable to comprehend a future without Ellie, Joel races to free her from the deadly operation.
With both “When We Are in Need” and this episode, Ali Abbasi directed Joel’s most definite expressions of paternal love for Ellie. His earliest attempts to cheer her up depict a role reversal between them; as Joel chats up jokes and things that could interest them both, while Ellie adopts a quiet and gloomy demeanor. The stilted delivery of some of the dialogue emphasizes the awkwardness of this reversal, but Bella Ramsey convincingly conveys the gradual return of Ellie’s spunk. Joel further weakens the emotional barrier he set up against Ellie at the beginning of the journey, when he confides in her the truth behind the gunshot that scarred his head. In terms of both writing and delivery, his confession that the love between him and Ellie healed wounds that time could not provides one of the most emotionally-beautiful lines of dialogue I’ve found in any of Pedro Pascal’s screen performances. (Although, since it doesn’t make sense out of context, I couldn’t paste into this article.)
The writers, Abbasi, and Pascal also depict darker effects of Joel emotionally bonding to Ellie, by presenting merciless displays of hatred towards anyone who could directly or indirectly kill her. When Joel swiftly and quietly slaughters all the Fireflies blocking him from the pediatric ward, the montage feels more shocking than it does tense or triumphant. Even when he has Ellie back in his arms, he looks more stunned than proud at preventing essentially his second daughter’s demise. Before Marlene confronts him, the viewer has ample time to let sink in how much blood Joel has on his hands due to reclaiming Ellie – not just from killing obedient or well-intentioned Fireflies, but also from prolonging the cordyceps pandemic. As the video game’s only cast member to portray their character in live-action as well, Merle Dandridge fascinatingly exudes Marlene’s philosophy that even if it sounds difficult to sacrifice someone for the potential good of the world, she must do it. This philosophy does reflect Joel’s, except his world at this point revolves around Ellie.
Whether or not they sound relevant, I have some practical reasons to consider ensuring Ellie’s future more important than letting the Fireflies produce their vaccine. The tribulations of Joel and Ellie leave me doubting the need or effectiveness of a cordyceps immunization manufactured by Fireflies. After the duo began their travels, we only saw Infected attack them twice outside of flashbacks, with the last encounter apparently occurring before Christmas. Ellie’s failure to cure Sam’s infections suggests that a vaccine extracted from her DNA would either work only on those not bitten, or not work at all. The Fireflies don’t seem widespread enough to vaccinate those not yet bitten, considering how Joel and Ellie didn’t find any in between Boston and Salt Lake. I also doubt that if the Fireflies asked for Ellie’s permission to sacrifice her, she would have granted it, judging by how strongly she resisted providing sustenance to Silver Lake’s cannibals.
Whether or not Joel has any of that on his mind in the hospital, I don’t blame him for not telling Marlene any of it. The Fireflies don’t give him a chance, before they knock him and Ellie out. Since Joel failed almost 21 years earlier to talk that one soldier out of shooting Sarah, he also likely figures that in this situation, he couldn’t waste too much time before helping Ellie escape. Regarding Silver Lake, it doesn’t help that Joel didn’t actually witness any attempts to chop up Ellie. However, I trust him to have deduced from the freezer of human corpses what the kidnappers did to scare her so badly.
I’ve struggled at forgiving Joel for lying to Ellie about why he liberates her from the hospital. In his defense, the show depicts the occasional lie as necessary for protection. The beginning of this episode suggests that Marlene would have executed Ellie as an infant, if not for Anna denying any chance that her infection transferred cordyceps into the baby. In the present, Joel’s fabrication comes off as an attempt to protect both himself and Ellie from something less tangible, and more inevitable. When he claims that someone unambiguously evil interrupted the experiment, she presumably remains oblivious to a disillusioning nuance: That love can destroy if expressed recklessly. Meanwhile, he doesn’t find out if she would have agreed to literally losing her mind for the sake of fortunate strangers.
Regardless of what exactly happens in The Last of Us Part II – I haven’t played it myself yet, but I do know some of the plot – I don’t expect Ellie to forever remain ignorant of how she and Joel truly escaped the operation. Various instances of her quickly uncovering someone’s secret demonstrate that if one wants to withhold information from her, they must very thoroughly hide the evidence. Ramsey confirms through both their skeptical performance, and in the “Inside the Episode” segment, that Ellie doubts the accuracy of Joel’s account. He has also demonstrated a tendency to eventually retract lies that he tells his family; exhibited during the aforementioned conversation regarding his scar. I’ll leave it to her and her writers to decide whether or not to forgive Joel’s attempted deception. “Look for the Light” ends The Last of Us Season One with a dramatic capper on the themes of both the healing and corruptive powers of love, as well as intriguing setup for Season Two.