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Why The Last of Us Used a Clip of The Goodbye Girl for Movie Night

The 1977 romantic comedy seemed like an odd fit for the kids in Wyoming, but it means something for Joel and Ellie.
  • Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us; Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO; Everett Collection)
    Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us; Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO; Everett Collection)

    You wouldn't think that a post-apocalyptic HBO drama about a fungal outbreak based on a video game would have much in common with a 1977 Neil Simon movie, and you would be absolutely right. In Episode 6 of The Last of Us, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) finally find Joel's brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), who's living in a fully functional Wyoming community that provides shelter, safety, electricity, and even some of the comforts of the world before the fungus hit. One such example is movie night, where the children (and many of the adults) from the community gather to watch an artifact from the old world. We only see a brief glimpse of the movie Ellie is watching with the other kids, which makes it all the more tantalizing. What film print survived the last 20 years of marauding clickers and crumbling infrastructure to become a beacon for the children? More importantly, what movie did creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin choose to thematically connect to the events of this TV show we're watching? The answer: The Goodbye Girl.

    There are many reasons why this is a weird choice, but first a quick summary about the movie. Neil Simon was a massively acclaimed and successful New York City playwright and screenwriter who wrote, among other things, The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, Sweet Charity, and The Heartbreak Kid. His works were about relationships, people struggling to make a life for themselves, small-scale romance and friendships, and life's little comedies. In 1977, Simon wrote the screenplay for The Goodbye Girl, which starred Richard Dreyfuss as a struggling actor in New York who takes a vacant room in the apartment of Paula (Marsha Mason), a woman living alone with her daughter (Quinn Cummings) after a recent breakup. It's a love story, for the most part, and Dreyfuss won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his high-energy, egotistical-yet-neurotic performance. It's a movie, like much of Simon's work, that makes a lot of sense to people who have gone through the churn of modern life and romance.

    That The Goodbye Girl is the movie the adults in Jackson, Wyoming are showing to the kids is foremost a slyly funny gag. The young ones aren’t going to appreciate this movie for its well-observed gags about the New York theater scene or the quirks of late 20th-century romance. This movie is over 50 years old (in the show’s timeline) and is more artifact than entertainment. Obviously, pickings were slim when it came to salvaging movies that could be projected for a whole town's worth of people. You make the most of what's available, and in this case, the kids of this survivor town in Jackson are getting a lesson in New York City romantic comedy of the 1970s.

    But there is a deeper thematic level if you feel like reaching for it, and it boils down to the relationship between Ellie and Joel, which is under some strain in this episode. They've both obviously grown attached to each other. For Ellie, that means putting her trust in this man to guide and protect her. For Joel, that means an increasingly oppressive fear that he might let Ellie down and get her killed. In The Goodbye Girl, the Dreyfuss character, Elliot, forms an attachment to Paula’s daughter, Lucy. Their first meeting is the scene shown in The Last of Us. Lucy's been let down by the men her mother has dated before, and the closer that Elliot and Paula inch towards romance, the bigger the threat that Lucy will one day be let down again. The movie ends with Elliot getting a movie gig for four weeks out west, and Lucy heartbroken that another father figure is packing his bags. (Don't worry, there's an optimistic note before it's all over that Elliot will be back.)

    So while the children of the community are all getting an invaluable lesson in the late-'70s and early-'80s heyday of Marsha Mason, Joel is privately making plans to send Ellie off with Tommy, who he sees as better equipped to keep Ellie safe. Ellie is incredibly wounded when she finds out, and the confrontation that she has with Joel afterwards has a hint or two of a similar confrontation in The Goodbye Girl.

    Is the inclusion of The Goodbye Girl into the post-apocalyptic wasteland of The Last of Us mostly a gag? Absolutely. But there's a reason why, of all the scenes from that movie, we get to see the one between a rootless man and the spunky young girl who will come to count on him. Clever play, Druckmann and Mazin. Next week, find a way to work in Norma Rae.

    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, Craig Mazin, Marsha Mason, Neil Druckmann, Pedro Pascal, Quinn Cummings, Richard Dreyfuss