This Last of Us review contains spoilers.
The Last of Us Episode 9
“Look For the Light” is the culmination of what has been, unequivocally, the best video game adaptation ever made. Dramatically and thematically, the episode is a powerhouse, with moments so soul-crushing they cast a sinister shadow on every episode that came before.
That being said, there’s also something…off about this final chapter of HBO’s The Last of Us. The thing is, as a grand finale, it doesn’t feel, well, grand enough. With a runtime of 44 minutes, it feels a little truncated, or at the very least, oddly paced. And there’s a particularly unexpected, gaping hole in the episode that detracts from the way the story plays out, though not to the extent that it lessens the devastating power of the ending, which is as stirring now as it was 10 years ago.
One of the masterstrokes of the episode is the brisk opening flashback. The prologue serves three main purposes. It gives context to Marlene’s relationship to Ellie, it explains (in part) why Ellie is immune, and most importantly, it underlines how precious Ellie’s life is to the people who have fought to protect her, from her mom all the way up to Joel. Casting Ashley Johnson to play Ellie’s mom is a nice touch, and though the flashback isn’t in the game, it’s a welcome addition that underlines the significance of the tough decisions Marlene and Joel make in the end.
When we rejoin Joel and Ellie in 2023, there’s a dissonance between them that’s illustrated beautifully by Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal. These two actors have absolutely crushed it throughout the season, and their uneasy interactions in this second act are immaculate. Joel’s finally happy again, which he hasn’t been since before Sarah died. He’s eager to connect with his new “Baby Girl” and share life with her in the way he wanted to with Sarah. Their tender moment with the giraffe is everything Joel ever wanted. In her, he’s found heaven. But Ellie…Ellie’s somewhere else. “After all we’ve been through. Everything I’ve done. It can’t be for nothing,” she pleads in response to Joel suggesting they go back to Tommy’s and “forget the whole thing.”
Joel’s somber admission that he tried to kill himself after losing Sarah signifies just how far he’s come in his relationship to Ellie since Boston, but it also helps explain the subsequent atrocity at the Firefly compound. He’s finally found something to fight for—to live for—again, and losing all of that, at this point in his life, is unimaginable. Ellie is Joel’s purpose, but he’s not hers. She would give her life to save the world, but he won’t let her. Love can be a destructive, even diabolical thing, and this idea is precisely what makes The Last of Us such a disquieting, exquisite piece of fiction.
Joel’s murderous rampage has been built up to in thoughtful ways over the course of the season. Tess told him, “Save who you can save.” Bill wrote to him in his letter that men like he and Joel are protectors. “And God help any motherfuckers who stand in our way.” Henry considered himself a bad guy because he “did a bad guy thing.” All of these interactions, along with the tragedies that befall Joel along the way, lead to him committing unspeakable horrors in that hospital. As a character arc, this is pretty damn near perfect.
The hospital massacre is presented, artfully, in dreamy slow motion, with muffled sound and a string-heavy, mournful orchestral score playing over the top. This is all done to underscore the fact that what Joel is doing is positively evil. He’s in a trance, killing people who’ve surrendered and are only acting in self-defense. It’s appropriately revolting to watch, which makes the haunting epilogue so endlessly thought-provoking.
As good as the story of The Last of Us is as a whole, there is one aspect of the show that is conspicuously absent from the finale. Aside from the runner that Ellie’s mom quickly offs in the flashback, there are no infected to speak of in the last two episodes of the season. This is problematic for two reasons. The most salient reason is that, after the unforgettable appearances of the infected we’ve seen prior to this, it’s disappointing that the incredible-looking creations don’t get a showcase in the finale.
But the less obvious downside of the infected’s absence in the finale is that it makes the rhythm of the storytelling feel flat and a little rushed. There are a lot of great, dialogue-driven scenes in this episode, but what’s missing here is a scene in which Joel and Ellie encounter and overcome a horde of infected together before they finally find the Fireflies. This happens in the game (they fight their way through a dark, flooded tunnel with a flamethrower—so sick), and it’s fantastic because it gives us one last chance to appreciate the infected in all their gory glory, but it also reminds us of the enormous scope of the thing Ellie is fighting against. And on top of that, they fight through a dark tunnel and emerge into the light of day, where the Fireflies await them, which is symbolism at its best.
The finale could’ve really used an epic last battle like this, but maybe the creators wanted to focus on the human elements of the story and felt like featuring the infected would have served as a distraction. Or maybe they simply ran out of money in the show’s budget. Whatever the reason, the Cordyceps’ presence is sorely missed here.
Thankfully, the season ends on a perfectly disturbing note with Joel and Ellie’s heart-to-heart on the ridge overlooking Tommy’s sanctuary. We know why he lies when he swears that everything he said about the hospital and the Fireflies is true. He loves her, and he won’t let her go at any cost. But we can’t forgive him for it. What an awful thing to do, to steal a little girl’s life’s purpose, against her will, to fulfill your own, and then lie to her face about it. “I swear,” he says, betraying her right before our eyes. Does Ellie trust Joel when she mutters “okay” just before the screen cuts to black? It’s not so clear. But while she may not believe him, she at the very least understands him…and astonishingly, so do we.