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The Last of Us Sets Its Doomed Romance at the Mall

In a flashback episode, we meet Ellie's teenage crush and reflect on the enduring appeal of mall culture.
  • Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid in The Last of Us (photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)
    Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid in The Last of Us (photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for “Left Behind,” Season 1, Episode 7 of The Last of Us.]

    This week's The Last of Us provides an essential piece of backstory for Ellie, a flashback to the period before the show's 2023 timeline began, and the motivation she needs to get to the business of saving Joel's life. And it all comes from one magical evening at the shops. Mall culture is thriving in 2023, if only on television, and The Last of Us taps into that in a big way.

    The episode is largely a flashback, bookended by Ellie frantically trying to save Joel's life after last week's unfortunate impalement. Yes, Joel is still alive, obviously, despite a surprising amount of online chatter wondering if perhaps The Last of Us had killed off its main character six episodes into its first season. He thinks he's done for, though, and urges Ellie to leave him behind and backtrack to find Tommy. She doesn't want to, but she also doesn't seem to know what to do, and that's when the flashback hits.

    We go back to several weeks before Ellie first encountered Joel, when she was, for all intents and purposes, a cadet in training for FEDRA — and a rather rebellious one at that. Her best friend Riley (played by A Wrinkle in Time's Storm Reid) is being sought out by FEDRA after having run away. When Riley sneaks back into the QZ, she reveals that she's been recruited by the Fireflies, and she wants Ellie to join her. Ellie, who doesn't seem to have a ton of enthusiasm for the FEDRA officer track that's being offered to her, is initially skeptical of the Firefly way. Riley is persistent, though; at the very least she wants to coax Ellie to break curfew and sneak out of the QZ with her on a secret excursion. There's more than a little danger in the air.

    Their destination is the long-abandoned mall, leading to an episode that has as much heady resonance for the audience as it does for Ellie. Riley has managed to figure out how to get power up and running at this once-vibrant hub of youth culture. And even though Ellie warns that this place is supposed to be "crawling with infected," it looks entirely empty. It's not too hard to catch on to the budding teen romance between Ellie and Riley. Glances last a little bit longer, and they're both very familiar yet slightly awkward with each other. Ellie, at the very least, is smitten — she and Riley are on the kind of date teens had long before either of them was born.

    The Last of Us has crafted quite a few poignant moments out of the fact that the post-plague world is the only one Ellie has ever known. That reality has mostly manifested in her asking Joel questions about things like air travel and pro football. "Left Behind," the seventh episode of the season, frames this differently, as Ellie gets to actually experience, however briefly, the way things used to be. She's so thrilled at a working escalator that she nearly tumbles down it. Ellie and Riley traverse abandoned stores and the overgrown food court. The mannequins in the Victoria's Secret display window remain, to their age-appropriate fascination/revulsion/confusion. There is the requisite trip to the photo booth where they, indeed, take a silly one.

    And then there's the arcade, lit up in gaudy neon pinks and purples, whirring and beeping with all the energy of the old world. Ellie says it's the most beautiful thing she's ever seen, and it's hard to argue with her. She and Riley play Mortal Kombat, and Riley, like all the most crush-worthy teens, plays as Mileena. This moment plays as so much more than just a winking nod to The Last of Us' video-game origins. It's a small miracle, offering the kind of normalcy these girls can barely grasp: a date with the best friend you're secretly crushing on at the mall arcade, giggling at the lingerie mannequins, and wondering when you're going to work up the nerve to kiss them. They even get to ride the carousel to a barely perceptible instrumental version of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven."

    The music choices this episode — Etta James' cover of "I Got You, Babe," A-HA's "Take on Me," and a Pearl Jam needle drop — are drawn from multiple eras and genres. It evokes the sense that the nostalgia that Ellie and Riley are basking in here has become unstuck in time.

    TV has mined mall nostalgia effectively in recent years. Back in 2019, Stranger Things set an entire season at the Hawkins mall, in part because the mall was so emblematic of '80s culture. In January of this year, That '90s Show delivered a food-court romance that enshrined the mall deep within '90s culture. Here, Ellie and Riley are being transported back to the early aughts, before everything went to hell. The mall is a pretty useful avatar, if it can make you recall three decades' worth of culture immediately.

    The mall holds an even broader appeal for the home audience. For viewers mired in post-pandemic late capitalism, when Amazon and online shopping have decimated brick-and-mortar, and large gathering spaces have been (and often remain) unavailable to us, the mall is as much of an alien setting as it is for Ellie on the show. It's an appropriately postmodern kind of nostalgia, too. The malls were the big capitalist boxes that put the mom-and-pop stores out of business, after all. The world we long for is the one that devoured the one that came before it. But the world that Ellie and Rylie long for isn't in the past, inside this corpse of a mall. It lies in the future that Riley is willing to fight for by joining the Fireflies, the one Ellie will soon risk a cross-country trek for. It's the world they take a leap toward when they finally kiss.

    Predictably, things fall apart almost immediately. A Clicker, which the audience had previously seen lurking in an abandoned store, emerges and attacks, and both Ellie and Riley are bitten. The audience knows Ellie is going to be okay — we can even check off the box marked "how did Ellie get infected?" on our mental scorecard. The news won't be nearly so good for Riley, and another The Last of Us romance meets a sad ending.

    Ultimately, what happens in this flashback convinces Ellie to defy Joel's orders to just let him die. Back at the mall, Riley laid out two options: a quick death by suicide, or riding out however long they have together before they get all mushroomy. Ellie asked for a third option, but none presented itself. In the show’s present, Ellie creates one by ransacking the house she and Joel are hiding out in for a needle and thread to sew up his perforated gut. What's past is dead; now's the time to fight for the future.

    New episodes of The Last of Us air Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO and stream 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, Pedro Pascal, Storm Reid