This Last of Us article contains spoilers.
When Left Behind, a 2014 story DLC for The Last of Us, dropped on PlayStation 3, it was immediately hailed as a heartfelt and crucial addition to the critically acclaimed game. Not only did this new chapter give us a previously unseen moment in Joel and Ellie’s quest to reach the Fireflies in Salt Lake City but it also gave players vital insight into Ellie’s past.
Set three weeks before Ellie and Joel meet in the game, Left Behind tells the story of how Ellie was bitten in the first place. When her best friend, 16-year-old Riley, returns to their dorm at the Boston QZ FEDRA military school after going missing for a few weeks, Ellie agrees to sneak away with her on an adventure to a mall they’d visited once before (we learn that in the comic book prequel American Dreams). It’s during this trip that all is revealed: Ellie and Riley are on their way to becoming more than friends, even as the latter is planning to leave Boston with the Fireflies. But both potential futures are cut short when the duo are attacked by a horde of infected, culminating with both of them being bit.
As we learn in both the game and on the HBO series, only one of them actually succumbs to the infection. Left Behind makes clear that Riley’s death is a major event that continues to shape Ellie’s worldview, from the survivor’s guilt she feels every time someone else she cares about dies to her determination to help find a cure for the infection. (We see her desperate attempts to try and save little Sam with her blood in episode 5 of the HBO series, for example.)
Folks tuning into HBO’s version of “Left Behind” will find that the episode sticks pretty close to the source material, with some minor alterations. There’s no water gun fight or brick-throwing mini-game on the show. The game they play at the arcade is Mortal Kombat 2 on the TV series, while it’s the fictional “The Turning” in the DLC. (Warner Bros. owns the rights to the Mortal Kombat franchise, so this change was a no-brainer and a bit of very cool nostalgia!).
Storm Reid and Bella Ramsey’s performances in the episode pull directly from the game’s cutscenes, including when they’re dancing with Halloween masks and their final intimate moments after a run-in with infected. Many of their most powerful scenes in the episode play out like straight recreations of moments in the game, like Ellie angrily smashing things in the mall after being bitten. Like in the game, HBO mercifully pulls away from the flashback just as Riley and Ellie decide that they’re going to keep on fighting after being bitten. Despite the show’s track record for going all-in on the misery and death, we never see Riley actually die from her wound, instead ending on a “hopeful” note — even though we already know Ellie’s best friend is not going to make it.
There were two big elements of Left Behind that were altered for the show. One is the number of infected that attack Ellie and Riley in the mall. Because it’s a video game that needs to give players stuff to do throughout the experience, the original version of Left Behind has the duo being overrun by an entire horde of monsters, with an escape sequence that ultimately ends with both of them being bitten. On the show, they’re attacked by a single infected, although the show expertly builds the tension by showing the audience the waking monster before Ellie and Riley are aware they’re not alone in the mall, leaving viewers anxiously awaiting the surprise attack.
Another big omission is the present-day section interspersed throughout Left Behind. With Joel wounded, Ellie is forced to venture into an abandoned mall by herself. She soon discovers it’s crawling with infected and heavily-armed bandits who want to capture her. In the DLC, players switch between both sections, which really tell one cohesive story about Ellie trying to make up for Riley’s death by saving Joel. But on the show, Ellie and Joel take cover in a house, where she finds a needle and thread with which to stich up Joel’s wound, completely cutting the present-day mall section.
Given the limited one-hour runtime for the show, focusing in on the flashback while cutting out the additional present-day video game quest is the right move, as the point of the episode is to give us the vital details about Ellie’s past that inform her relationship with Joel. And, at least for this writer, the HBO series certainly pulls it off.
The Last of Us airs on Sunday nights on HBO and HBO Max.