Fans anxiously waiting to learn Joel’s fate following last week’s cliffhanger won’t find much relief this episode, as it spends most of its 55-minute run time in the past. The Last of Us episode 7, “Left Behind,” rewinds the clock to a time before Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie’s (Bella Ramsey) worlds collided.

While faithful viewers might not look forward to another week spent on tenterhooks, the game’s biggest fans will appreciate the show thoughtfully adapting a side story that could’ve easily not made the cut. How does this week’s flashback episode fit into the larger story, and why will it feel like new narrative territory even to many who played the original game? Let’s head to the mall and find out!


Spoiler alert: The following contains details about The Last of Us season 1, episode 7, “Left Behind,” as well as the game DLC of the same name. Stop here if you have not watched the episode or wish to avoid spoilers from the game add-on.


DLC DETOUR

The Last of Us: Left Behind

(Photo by Sony Interactive Entertainment)

It’s now the norm for video games to continue or expand their stories via downloadable content (or DLC), additional chapters or modes that arrive sometime after the game proper releases. Optional, typically standalone entries that are purchased separately, these DLC drops are sometimes shallow cash-grabs or extra material that doesn’t match the quality of the source material. DLC is also frequently ignored by more mainstream gamers who’ve played the primary story and have no desire to invest additional time – or money – to check out this peripheral content.

This week’s episode takes its name directly from the original game’s highly acclaimed DLC. Released about six months after 2013’s The Last of Us on PlayStation 3, “Left Behind” introduced Ellie’s best friend Riley and focused on the pair’s relationship as they explore an abandoned mall outside of the Boston quarantine zone.

While this week’s episode takes some liberties with these original events, it largely sticks to the narrative path players followed in the game. But again, for the more casual gaming crowd that maybe skipped, or wasn’t even aware of the DLC, this week’s chapter will feel as fresh as — though tonally familiar to — Bill and Frank’s fleshed-out story from episode 3.


 

A TALE OF TWO MALLS

Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us

(Photo by Liane Hentscher/HBO)

The absolute biggest difference between the two versions of “Left Behind” is that the TV take almost entirely excises the current-day events that immediately follow Ellie bringing Joel to relative safety after the attack at the university. The episode begins shortly after last week’s cliffhanger and also concludes in Joel and Ellie’s current timeline, with her stitching him up.

The DLC begins similarly, though the game’s Ellie brought Joel to an abandoned mall rather than an empty suburban house. But the game’s different setting cleverly kicks off a parallel story, which sees Ellie exploring malls in two separate timelines, albeit under very different circumstances. The game expansion jumps back and forth between the two settings and stories, spending as much of its 2-plus-hour playtime in present Colorado as it does in past Boston.

The former finds Ellie desperately scouring the shopping center for medical supplies to help Joel. She ultimately discovers a first-aid kit in a military helicopter that’s crashed through the mall’s roof, but not before going through hell to acquire it. She ultimately comes to Joel’s aid with supplies — just as she does in the episode — but the path to that end is packed with plenty of post-apocalyptic threats. With Joel sidelined, players control Ellie through this entire stretch of the game, taking out enough human raiders and fungal freaks to fill the mall’s food court.

In fact, as praised as the DLC is, it’s also received criticism for making Ellie too much of a badass. A lengthy section toward its end, just before Ellie reunites with Joel, sees her severely outnumbered, but still eliminating a dozen or so human and infected foes. But don’t let the disbelief-suspending gameplay dissuade you, as experiencing this version of “Left Behind” — especially after seeing the show’s fresh adaptation — will give you a new appreciation for Ellie’s desperate determination to help Joel.


A RELATIONSHIP EVOLVED

Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us

(Photo by Liane Hentscher/HBO)

While the episode completely cuts Ellie’s current-day mall misadventures – sadly losing that inspired past-present parallel storytelling in the process – it dives a bit deeper into the heart of her relationship with Riley (Storm Reid). It also gives us a previously unseen peek at her time attending the Boston QZ boarding school. Her interaction with bully Bethany, as well as the resulting meeting with the FEDRA officer, is all new.

But everything from the time Riley arrives until the two are bitten sticks closely to the source material. The big moment when the mall’s electricity is restored to the carousel, photo booth, arcade, countertop dancing, and Halloween store are all pulled from the game. Some of the events have been tweaked, and even play out differently — and in a different order — but the general framework, and major story beats within it, remain mostly unchanged.

That said, more emotion and tension have been injected into this version of the side story, especially concerning Riley becoming a Firefly. The wedge her rebel alliance puts between her and Ellie is much more pronounced, with the reveal of the pipe-bombs serving as an emotions-ratcheting punctuation mark that’s not present in the game.


Storm Reid in The Last of Us

(Photo by Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Of course, this all feeds into the character of Riley, who’s more nuanced in the show. Unlike the game, the series explores more of her background — her lost family and how the Fireflies help fill that void — as well as her future, being destined for sewage duty by FEDRA. The story of her recruitment by Marlene is also new. Ellie’s romantic feelings for Riley are also telegraphed a bit more in the show with new scenes, like her fixing her hair in the Victoria’s Secret window reflection and them holding hands on their way to the carousel, more heavily hinting at the burgeoning attraction.

Ultimately though, both versions find the couple enjoying that tentative, innocent first kiss before Riley decides to stay in Boston with Ellie. Their heartbreaking fate, and conversations surrounding it, also track with the source material, with the exchange about how to spend their last moments being nearly identical. Speaking of those final minutes, the game also leaves them to players’ imagination, with the assumption Riley succumbs to the infection and Ellie discovers her immunity to it.


CREEPY DOLLS AND OTHER CALL-OUTS, NODS, AND EASTER EGGS

Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid in The Last of Us

(Photo by Liane Hentscher/HBO)

As always, the show isn’t shy about peppering its episodes with fan-pleasing references, from subtle prop inclusions and familiar dialog exchanges to obvious callouts to the source material. “Left Behind” is no different, repeatedly respecting its roots — and its fans — with nods to Ellie’s precious Walkman, her beloved Savage Starlight comics, her obsession with pun-filled jokes, fascination with Mortal Kombat II (The Turning in the game,) and so much more.

Those unfamiliar with the source material, might find it interesting that some of these elements serve as playable interactions in the game. Players can choose to tell a number of jokes after Riley gifts her the book, for example, while the arcade machine — broken and brought to life by Riley’s imaginative narration — involves a button-matching mini-game.

The photo booth is also interactive, as are several elements in the Halloween store, including the masks. The game even presents players with a choice when the alcohol is discovered. In the series, the booze appears throughout and even helps the girls’ shed some of their inhibitions, but choose to take a swig in the game, and Ellie hilariously spits it out. Additionally, the squirt guns referenced in the episode have a much bigger role in the game, with players getting to participate in a soggy battle between the couple.


Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid in The Last of Us

(Photo by Liane Hentscher/HBO)

While the episode clearly has a good time playing with its origins, it gets especially clever with the infected that finally catches up with Ellie and Riley. In the game, the pair are chased through the mall and then outside by a horde of monsters, but the series’ lone Halloween-store attacker will also be familiar to keen-eyed viewers who played “Left Behind.”

During Ellie’s time in the Colorado mall with Joel — which, again, isn’t in the episode — Ellie discovers an infected man inside a doll store called “American Princess.” The baddie is fused to the wall and dead, so Ellie cautiously approaches him to fish a pharmacy key from his pocket — an important objective required to progress. In the episode, we find a similar foe, also stuck to the wall — of an American Girl store — but he’s alive, alerted by Ellie and Riley playing in the arcade, and ultimately comes after them.


A similar, but happier difference, is Joel’s physical state in the series versus the game. He’s in rough shape in the former, alive but facing an uncertain future. But at least he’s awake and screaming when Ellie begins stitching him up. The few times he appears in the DLC, however, he’s not even conscious and looks barely better than he did when he first slipped off his horse.

96% The Last of Us: Season 1 (2023) new episodes air on Sundays on HBO and HBO Max.

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