Well, Bella Ramsey did say the final episode would be polarizing, didn’t she?
After eight weeks of touching love stories, harrowing deaths and more heart-in-the-mouth moments than I can count, The Last Of Us’ first season arrives at its finale while packing a fair amount of controversy in it’s back pocket and how you take the final, denouement may be an intensely personal decision.
Those who haven’t played the original game and is expecting a big, infected pile on may surprised at how intimate and low key the final third of the episode may be – but that’s not to say Joel’s reaction as the final minutes close out aren’t as devastating and haunting as all the other high points of the show so far.
However, with a second season already confirmed, any complaints of an abrupt, enigmatic finish are sure to be only temporary.
Healed up an on the move after their respective near-death experiences involving life threatening stab wounds and and a community of unwitting cannibals, Joel and Ellie finally arrive at their destination and after having a nice little moment with some wild giraffes, they have a final one to one about Ellie’s determination to get her unique biology checked in order to find a global cure. However, after they both come to the understanding that Ellie is willing to do whatever it takes, they are ironically jumped and attacked by the very Fireflies they’re trying to locate with Joel getting laid out by a well placed rifle butt.
Waking a little while later in the very hospital he was trying to locate, Joel is greeted by Marlene, the very woman who started him on his quest to deliver Ellie in the first place. However, after both muse about the toll their respective journeys have taken, Joel’s dangerously brutal parental instincts kick in once again when Marlene tells him exactly what extracting a cure will actually cost.
You see, the Cordyceps virus is located in the brain and to extract the aspects of Ellie that make her immune to the infection means an operation that will unavoidedly be fatal to the young girl, even though the chances of producing a viable cure is higher than a 90’s surfer. Maybe if Joel had known this at the start of his journey to smuggle Ellie across the country, things might have gone different, but now that the two have bonded due to their numerous adventures that have rekindled the parental drive within him, Joel barely hesitates when making his choice.
Weighing up the fate of the entire world against the girl in his care, Joel doesn’t even flinch and he embarks on a rampage that directly effects the very future of humanity.
To end The Last Of Us’ first season on such a divisive act from its main character was only going to work if the balance was just right. After all, weighing up Joel’s decision to essentially kick all of humanity into the bin because the fires of parenthood have been violently restored within him needs to be perfectly balanced in order not to invoke complaints of shitty characterization or needlessly showy plotting – thankfully, the show comes through for us once again and delivers an episode that will no doubt have fans debating for eons on end.
Impressively, Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin’s script is smart enough to load the bases on both sides, while Ali Abbasi’s direction allows plenty of nuance to flow between the two leads that all directly lead to Joel’s understandable, but terrible reaction.
On one side, we have the perfectly reasonable excuse that Joel is merely a father protecting his surrogate child which is given further validity by the events of the last couple of episodes – their fates and lives are inextricably linked by death and the fact that they’ve gone through hell to save one another – but the fact that Joel has now started openly discussing his real daughter means that emotional floodgates have opened for the first time in decades and there a very good point to be made that Joel may not actually be in his right mind. Allowing his heart to overule his brain (much like the Cordyceps virus itself) Joel doesn’t even flinch when weighing up his options, slaughtering Fireflies like they were any other attacker when all they’re trying to do is save the world.
To make people immune from the virus wouldn’t only mean that the Cordyceps would be gone, but it also means that survivors wouldn’t have to live under the oppressive rule of FEDRA, arguably the actual threat that the Fireflies want to stamp out and the fact that Marlene was present at Ellie’s birth and knows exactly why she’s immune (thanks to the show squeezing in one last flashback), means that she’s been planning this for literally the entirety of the child’s life. Hence Marlene’s plan, while admittedly a little cold, is incredibly humane considering the circumstances with Ellie eager to help even if she’s not been told the full facts about operation’s life expectancy.
In essence, what we have here is Joel doing “heroic” work in the selfish manner of a villain while Marlene strives to do something unthinkable in order to save the world and the show doesn’t hold back while showing that Joel has reverted back to his more brutal ways in order to save a girl he now sees as his own daughter – an act that will have devastating repercussions down the road.
Yet after all this blood and thunder, the season fittingly ends on a quiet moment, loaded with questions. After the fact and Ellie wakes from her drugs, Joel feeds her a kong line of clap trap involving other cures, a failed attempt and even a fictional attack by raiders to explain away his terrible deeds, which mirror the softening lies told to the child conserning the operation. Ellie asks him only once whether everything he’s told her is true and accepts his word the way a trusting daughter would – unequivocally.
Whether she actually believes in her it is another matter, but after they’d both shared intimate stories earlier about Joel’s suicide attempt after his daughter’s death and Ellie killing her infected best friend, his word is all she needs to comfort her – even if his story holds less water than a brown paper bag.
It’s a brave play and one that pays off virtually everything that’s happened between the two characters and both Pascal and Ramsay predictably knock it out of the park with their respective performances. In fact, it’s precisely this level of care and attention that’s taken, what is in essence, a zombie show and made it so much more.
So, one of the greatest seasons of television of all time? It’s definitely got a shot – and it’s certainly the greatest video game adaptation of all time – but let’s not forget, that for all of its poignant moments and dark places, the darkest moments are still yet to come. Despite the questionable matter that it’s been earned, embrace the light while it still shines…