The Last of Us Season 1 Finale: Fun Cameo Fuels an Important Flashback

Episode 9 faithfully adapts the game's events, while filling in a few blanks on Ellie's backstory and fungal immunity.

by | March 12, 2023 | Comments

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The Last of Us’ first season finale doesn’t pack many surprises for those already familiar with the PlayStation game that spawned the HBO Max series. Creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann had promised the nine-episode season would closely adapt the events of the franchise’s first game, and they’ve mostly delivered on that, right down to the final, line-for-line exchange between Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey).

Titled “Look for the Light,” the finale covers the same ground as the game’s last three chapters — “Bus Depot,” “The Firefly Lab,” and “Jackson.” And while the 44-minute episode doesn’t deviate far from the established narrative path, it does take a few creative liberties to further flesh out Ellie’s past and the source of her immunity to the Cordyceps infection.

So can this surprisingly short season-capper satisfy fans of both the series and the game? And how do its minor changes alter the larger story? Let’s head to the Firefly hospital — after feeding some giraffes, of course — and find out.

Spoiler alert: The following contains details about The Last of Us season 1, episode 9, “Look for the Light.” Stop here if you have not watched the episode.


Ashley Johnson in The Last of Us

(Photo by Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Before this week’s opening credits can even roll, we get an awesome cameo, some welcome backstory, and the most badass birthing scene ever committed to film. We first meet Anna, Ellie’s biological mom and Marlene’s (Merle Dandridge) friend, who’s briefly mentioned but never seen in the games. She’s suffering contractions while being pursued by a Cordyceps-crazed freak. She reacts by simultaneously giving birth and stabbing the monster in the head. Oh yeah, she then uses the same knife — the switchblade that ultimately gets passed down to Ellie — to cut the umbilical cord.

More than just nudging our butts to the edges of our seats, the tension-ratcheting scene provides some larger context. While giving birth and fighting the infected, Anna is bitten. She can see herself turning even as baby Ellie, still tethered to her mom, cries on the floor. Anna doesn’t nurse her newborn for fear of infecting her.

In the next scene, Marlene finds her friend, who immediately lies and insists she was bitten after she severed the umbilical cord. She also begs Marlene — who she’s known her entire life — to take Ellie back to Boston and care for her. Anna then asks Marlene to kill her before she turns. Marlene reluctantly complies with both requests.

Anna is played by Ashley Johnson, the actress who voiced Ellie in the games. It’s great that we finally get to meet Ellie’s mom and learn more about her, even if it’s via this absolutely gut-wrenching scene. But it’s even cooler that this integral character is brought to life by the very same performer who also brought Ellie to life in the game a decade ago. Troy Baker, the original Joel voice actor who admirably appeared last week as James, definitely got the short end of the cameo stick here.


Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us

(Photo by Liane Hentscher/HBO)

The new flashback scenes sandwiching the opening credits run about 10 minutes, leaving roughly half an hour for the finale to tie up the game’s aforementioned three chapters. But the episode not only pulls all this off, but also adds another wrinkle to Joel’s troubled past.

With last episode’s emotional conclusion cementing Joel and Ellie’s bond, we find their father-daughter relationship further evolved this week. As in the game, Joel talks about teaching Ellie guitar, and the pair also share the fantastic moment with the giraffes. In fact, the latter scene plays out almost identically, with Ellie even dropping the ladder in her excitement to see the animals. Joel’s suggestion of abandoning their journey and returning to Tommy’s is also the same. Ellie’s similarly distant and quiet in both versions as well.

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us

(Photo by Liane Hentscher/HBO)

What’s new to the story, however, is Joel revealing to Ellie that he attempted to take his own life in the wake of his daughter Sarah’s death. On top of this fresh, though often presumed, piece of Joel’s past being a pretty big reveal, it says a lot about his relationship with Ellie. He really opens up to her here, shedding any last remnants of the rigid facade he held up for much of the series. If there was any remaining doubt concerning his closeness to her, this conversation — especially Joel’s tearful allusion that Ellie has healed him — readily puts it to rest.

Interestingly, the game contains its own, unique relationship-strengthening moment also involving Sarah. Ellie possesses an old photo of Joel and Sarah from happier, pre-pandemic times. She admits to stealing the picture from Marie in Wyoming and offers it to Joel. It’s an optional exchange, one that’s not as impactful as the pair’s conversation in the series, but it similarly attempts to showcase Joel’s emotional evolution.


Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us

(Photo by Liane Hentscher/HBO)

The rest of the episode plays out very similarly to the game — incorporating many near-identical scenes and dialog exchanges — save for two key differences. The first is how Joel and Ellie are discovered and captured by the Fireflies. Believe it or not, their journey is even more harrowing in the game, with Ellie nearly drowning just before the rebel group finds them. An extended set piece sees Joel trapped in a bus submerged under water, leading to Ellie finding herself in an equally soggy situation.

But she can’t swim, resulting in Joel rescuing her and trying to resuscitate her just as the Fireflies arrive. Crucially, she’s still not breathing when they’re separated, so Joel doesn’t know her fate when they’re dragged off. The series replaces this entire sequence with the couple becoming disoriented and captured after the rebels toss the smoke bomb.

The second key difference comes soon after, when Marlene meets with Joel just as he’s coming to. Their exchange will be familiar to fans of the game, except for the expanded explanation on Ellie’s immunity. Where the series smartly ties the theory of the Cordyceps growing with her since birth to the opening scene with Anna, the game sort of glosses over her immunity, simply stating her Cordyceps infection has “mutated.”

Of course, Joel’s reaction is exactly the same. His kill spree sticks scary-close to the source material as well. He does mercilessly slaughter far more Fireflies in the game, as the action sequence sees players systematically stalking and executing targets on their way to the pediatric operating room. That said, it’s somehow more chilling watching Pedro Pascal — playing Joel as a sort of numb, Terminator-like mass murderer — than it is pulling the trigger ourselves.


Merle Dandridge is Marlene in The Last of Us

(Photo by HBO)

While the game doesn’t include the scenes with Anna or connect her being bitten while giving birth to Ellie’s immunity, it doesn’t entirely leave her out of the story’s conclusion. Much like the photo of Sarah Ellie offers to Joel, there’s an optional pick-up in the hospital players may stumble upon. It’s a tape recording of Marlene offering a cathartic confession to her long-deceased friend, explaining that she has protected Ellie since her birth, but now no longer has a choice but to sacrifice her for the greater good. She ends the message with “I miss you, Anna. Your daughter will be with you soon.”

This isn’t the only recording that helps soften Marlene’s personality a bit. In another, players hear how upset she is to discover from the surgeon that “there’s no way to extricate the parasite without eliminating the host.” Curious players craving more story can explore the hospital further, taking a break from killing Fireflies to collect recordings from other characters involved in Ellie’s procedure and the larger quest for a cure.

The game also cranks up the intensity a bit during Joel’s final escape with Ellie. Where the episode cuts from the operating room directly to the elevator, the game makes you sprint a good stretch, carrying Ellie while alarms flash and blare, and gunshots follow you until the doors close.

Everything from that point on is practically interchangeable between the two mediums, from Joel and Marlene’s encounter in the parking garage and he and Ellie’s car ride back to Wyoming to their final exchanges and his lie — and Ellie’s dubious acceptance of it — that will lead us into season 2.

96% The Last of Us: Season 1 (2023) is now streaming in its entirety on HBO Max.

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