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Did Joel Just Doom All of Humanity in The Last of Us Season Finale?

By having Joel choose his surrogate daughter over the rest of humanity, The Last of Us offers a bravely unsatisfying conclusion.
  • Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)
    Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us Season 1, Episode 9, “Looking for the Light.”]

    The season finale of The Last of Us moves quickly. At a sometimes-too-brisk 43 minutes, "Looking for the Light" plows through the moment we've been waiting for all season. Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) finally find the Fireflies (or, rather, the Fireflies find them), and the truth of their plan to use Ellie to facilitate a cure for the cordyceps plague comes horrifyingly into focus.

    This is where we've been heading this whole time, where Joel's lone-wolf mistrust of the Fireflies and his growing fatherly bond with Ellie clash, presenting Joel with what, for him, isn't much of a choice at all. Of course he's willing to blast a path through every Firefly he sees in order to save Ellie and take her away to safety. A cure for humanity means nothing to Joel if he has to lose another daughter. But there's an ambivalence to this episode that is tantalizingly complex, and it might be the reason that this season of The Last of Us felt like a push and pull between the Joel/Ellie pair and the world outside of them.

    For as swiftly as events move once we're inside the Firefly hospital, the episode actually eases us in with a pair of scenes that underline exactly where Joel and Ellie's relationship is at the moment. They find an overgrown zoo where they have some sweet moments with a CGI giraffe. Then they have a bracingly candid talk about Joel's suicide attempt in the days after Sarah was killed. The details of Joel's ordeal end up being much less important than what the conversation itself reveals about Joel and Ellie. He's not bottled up like he was. Eight episodes ago, he forbade Ellie from even speaking Sarah's name. Now he's rattling off her best qualities and telling Ellie they'd have liked each other. He's talking about his lowest moment freely, if abashedly.

    After the events in Silver Lake, where Ellie barely escaped a horrifying fate, the walls around Joel are gone. And while Ellie's devotion to Joel had already been growing, she's now as close to him as she's ever been, plainly telling him that once they accomplish whatever is to be accomplished at the hospital, she'll follow him wherever he goes. The father-daughter bond here is complete, which is an endpoint in and of itself. The parts of The Last of Us that were designed to bring Joel and Ellie to this point have paid off. Now it's a matter of what's next.

    What follows is the Fireflies using a flash-bang explosion and the butt of a rifle to bring Joel and Ellie into the hospital, and by the time Joel is awake, the wheels are already in motion. Marlene (Merle Dandridge) may have a heavy heart as she explains to Joel that they need to dig the cordyceps out of Ellie's brain in order to get at a cure for humanity, but all Joel hears is that Ellie is going to die. That's all he needs to hear.

    The next 20 minutes play out almost perfunctorily. We know the two armed Fireflies sent to escort Joel out to the highway are no match for him. We know he's going to save Ellie before she goes under the knife in the operating room. There's a momentary hesitation in the parking garage where Joel, holding a sedated Ellie in his arms almost exactly how he carried Sarah in the premiere, seems like he might not kill Marlene, but he ultimately does. By the time Ellie is awake, she's in the back seat of a car headed back to Jackson, Wyoming. The Fireflies and their hopes for a cure are miles behind them, dead or dying.

    So why wasn't I feeling exactly triumphant?

    As with everything I've felt since March of 2020, I wondered if this had something to do with the pandemic. Does a lone wolf's refusal to take collective action to save everybody in a crisis hit different after watching COVID play out? The possibility was worth entertaining. But that wasn't quite it. In M. Night Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin, the main characters are also faced with a choice to sacrifice one of their family to save all of humanity, and I was certainly on the side of telling humanity to take a flying leap in that one.

    In that case, the extenuating circumstances were that a queer family in 2023 was already under enough of an existential threat that asking them to selflessly murder one of their own to save a world that is already so hostile to them felt perverse. Wouldn't the same apply to Joel and Ellie, whose last brush with the human race had her on the brink of being raped and cannibalized?

    I then wondered if The Last of Us had done enough to get me onboard with Joel and Ellie to support Joel's “us against the world” rationale here. Why else would I be annoyed at Joel for not hearing Marlene out at the hospital? It was the show's job to make me just as rabidly protective of Ellie as Joel is, but it couldn't even pull that off! Instead they spent all that time on detours through poignant gay side characters and a quagmire in Kansas City. If Joel was going to mow a path through Fireflies and cure-seeking doctors in the season finale, the show needed to make me so invested in Ellie and Joel's bond that I would pump my fist, not wring my hands.

    But I don't think that's what was going on in the last 20 minutes of the episode. I think The Last of Us was up to something just a bit bolder. We're supposed to be on Marlene's side too. That's why she's there in the flashback scene at the beginning of the episode, in which Ashley Johnson (who voiced Ellie in the video game) plays Ellie's pregnant mother, fleeing a pursuing Clicker, who gets bitten moments before giving birth to Ellie. That scene accomplishes a lot, not least of which offering an explanation for Ellie's immunity (her mom gets bitten before the umbilical cord is cut, which puts the cordyceps into Ellie's system from the beginning), but significantly, it places Marlene in the room with a newborn Ellie. She's Ellie's mom's best friend, so close to her that she nearly can't bear to put her out of her misery to save her from a fungal fate. Marlene knew Ellie from those first moments. We know she's not just some ends-justify-the-means lunatic eager to tear Ellie's brains open to find a cure.

    When Joel not only shoots Marlene in that parking garage, but then cold-bloodedly finishes her off so she won't ever pursue them, he's gone too far. He's a mad father willing to blast anybody out of the way so he can take Ellie away and keep her safe forever, like he couldn't do for Sarah. Even the shortness of the episode feels like it plays against a “heroic Joel” arc. He doesn't face much, if any, adversity in his hospital rampage. There's no thrill in watching him bravely escape death. He's a bull in a china shop, and that china never had a chance. The Last of Us isn't reveling in Joel's paternal instincts in this finale. It's recoiling from them. When Joel lies to Ellie that the doctors had concluded there was no possibility for a cure, we can see she doesn't believe him. Even when she asks him again in the episode's final moments, she has doubts. Ellie may not have chosen to sacrifice her life for the good of humanity; the Fireflies denied her that choice. So is Joel by lying to her like this.

    Early on in the Season 1 finale, Ellie makes it clear that she wants to see this mission through. Joel couldn’t give a damn about the mission; he's got his daughter back. That's a complicated note to end the season on, and one that takes some sitting with. If last week's episode felt a bit too cleanly Walking Dead-esque, "Looking for the Light" ends on a note that risks dissatisfaction in order to complicate its main character. Maybe the heroism we were all rooting for is the more selfish act. Certainly Joel wouldn't care if it was — but Ellie might.

    The Last of Us Season 1 is streaming on HBO Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Last of Us, HBO, Bella Ramsey, Merle Dandridge, Pedro Pascal