This Last of Us review contains spoilers.
The Last of Us Episode 7
“Left Behind” is an episode of The Last of Us that fans have been eagerly anticipating since the show was announced. Although the video game flashback to Ellie and Riley was released as bonus content in 2014, it’s considered to be essential to the game’s overall narrative, as it gives stirring insight into Ellie’s past that lends depth to her relationship with Joel.
The show includes Ellie’s backstory as a part of the main story and stays true to the game where it counts, though some moments are omitted and some new ones are added. We see one of the new scenes early on in the flashback, with Ellie getting into trouble as a FEDRA trainee and getting pressured by Officer Kwong to clean up her act so that she can one day become an officer and not a low-level grunt for the rest of her military career.
While the fork in the road of life scene between Ellie and the officer isn’t compelling on its own (it’s frankly been done countless times in other movies and shows), it does inform what happens later in the episode by underlining the fact that Ellie has a future she’s working toward. We later learn that Riley does, too, with the Fireflies, until those plans change. We see them discuss these plans to help us envision their respective potential futures so that when they get ripped away, the weight of the tragedy is felt in full.
Before delving into how beautifully Ellie and Riley’s last night together plays out, it must be acknowledged that Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid’s performances needed to be spot-on here…and they are. From the dialogue, to the body language, to the complementary camerawork, everything about this episode feels intimate and full of love.
If they didn’t convince us that they’re in love for every second that we see them together, the entire thing would fall apart. Whether Ellie and Riley are laughing together over a corny pun or fighting over the Firefly’s questionable (at least to Ellie) freedom-fighting philosophies, every interaction is passionate. They’ve certainly earned their first kiss by the final act. Fabulous work from the two young actors. It’s actually a little sad that we won’t get to see more of them together on the show.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the episode is the presentation, which is, in a word, ravishing. The soft but saturated neon lights of the mall are at once uber artificial and unexpectedly romantic. In real-world 2023, malls are about as drab and uninspired as settings get. But Ellie and Riley’s mall is a dazzling spectacle of colors, lights, and sounds that are unlike anything else we’ve seen on the show so far.
Another thing we haven’t seen on the show is Ellie smiling the way she smiles when she’s with Riley. One of the sneaky emotional underpinnings of the episode is watching Ellie beaming, in love, having the best night of her life, while also knowing in the backs of our minds that she may not feel this type of happiness ever again.
A lot of the episode’s power comes from the terrific song choices. From Pearl Jam’s desperate, melancholic “All or None” playing over Ellie’s lonesome existence at FEDRA, to A-ha’s “Take On Me” evoking ‘80s nostalgia as she goofs around on an escalator for the first time. From a tear-jerkingly sentimental, music-box version of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” playing on the carousel, to the girls dancing the night away to Etta James’ version of “I Got You Babe.” It’s a lovely mixtape of tracks that elegantly ties the story together in neat little bows.
“Left Behind” has some uncanny resemblances to the game, like the aforementioned carousel scene, the Halloween store, and the arcade showdown (the amount of Mortal Kombat II gameplay they show feels excessive and yet absolutely necessary because…nostalgia). But while these scenes were taken straight from the source material, they’re elevated here by Ramsey in particular. In all of these scenes, you can see in the way Ellie’s eyes linger on Riley that she’s helplessly enamored with her, and nuances like this come through much more powerfully on the show. Even their final moments together, which involve considerably less infected than the scene from the game, feel more understated, matching the intimate tone of the rest of the story.
Perhaps the most significant change the show makes to the ballad of Ellie and Riley is in the format in which it’s told. The game alternates between Riley’s mall and Ellie in the present, scouring for medical supplies for Joel in a significantly less jovial, infected-ridden mall. The show doesn’t jump back and forth nearly as much, instead bookending the Riley flashback with Ellie caring for a seriously wounded Joel in the present. Both narrative structures have their advantages, but what’s nice about the show is that the 2023 events are short, simple, and poetic.
Ellie making the decision not to leave Joel to bleed out in that freezing, abandoned house shows that she’s willing to fight for Joel’s life as much as he’s willing to fight for hers. And the image of her stitching him up with the needle and thread isn’t there simply to make us squirm. It’s emblematic of Ellie’s commitment to helping others, to–as Tess would say–save the ones she can save. She couldn’t save Riley, but she’s not giving up on Joel, even when he’s given up on himself.