The Last of Us, Season 1 Finale Review – Look for the Light
The season finale of The Last Of Us on HBO Max races to the finish line in an erratic and unsettling way that seems to encapsulate the style of the series as a whole. Feeling like a checklist of plot points that the show runners forgot to cover in the previous 8 episodes, this brisk 44 minute episode did manage to stir up some feelings.
We finally return to the flashback opening format, in which we see the birth of Ellie, as her pregnant mother (Ashley Johnson) is chased into a home by an infected woman that bites her while the baby is being born. As origin stories go, it’s not an unsatisfying way to explain Ellie’s immunity. We also finally see where Firefly leader Marlene fits into Ellie’s story, though it’s unclear why the girl was allowed to be taken in by FEDRA at some point, if Marlene was the one entrusted to find the baby a home. Perhaps that’s a story saved for a Season 2 flashback. But satisfaction was not the aim of this episode.
The emotional high achieved at the end of episode 8 was always going to be a tough act to follow, but the jarring way in which the characters of Ellie and Joel had changed due to their emotional breakthrough really made this story feel like it was the finale of an alternate reality version of the series. It’s unclear whether it was the intention of the director to throw off audience expectations or just a ham-fisted way of setting up new tension leading into season 2, but the final state of characters I came to love this season just broke my heart.
Now that Joel has completely accepted Ellie as a surrogate for his deceased daughter, Sarah, the barely verbal tough guy can’t shut up. Whether he’s awkwardly reminiscing about his favorite memories of Sarah to Ellie or trying to get her to play a game of Boggle with him, Joel has become like the new stepdad who’s trying too hard to connect…and I hate it.
Meanwhile, Ellie has gone from a spunky, clever teen action hero, to a quiet, moody, easily distracted airhead. I literally thought her infection was finally kicking in and affecting her brain somehow, based how much she had changed since we had last seen her on screen just 7 days before. Though the series had major jumps in place and time between episodes previously, it never messed with the characterization this much and it was frustrating.
When one of Ellie’s distractions leads her to find a Giraffe wandering through the ruins of Salt Lake City, she and Joel enjoy a Jurassic Park moment that is the sappiest bit of “life is beautiful” nonsense I’ve seen in a long time. The attempted manipulation of the the audiences emotions was obvious, as was the the fact that the joyous moment the two were living in would not last. Achieving this uncharacteristic level of peace and happiness, takes them off their guard, resulting in the pair being concussed by a grenade, as we quickly jump into what could be seen as the best part of the finale.
Finding Joel awakened in a hospital, only to find that Marlene has authorized brain surgery on Ellie in order to synthesize a cure was definitely a shock. Not only were we led to believe that it was Ellie’s blood that carried the immunity agents, but we thought Marlene had an emotional connection to the girl. Of course Joel won’t stand for this and massacres all the Firefly soldiers, including the medical staff preparing to operate on Ellie. Saving the unconscious girl with a distant look in his eye that makes it clear that her well-being is not his only motivation, Joel is confronted by Marlene in a parking garage and continues his path as a lethal protector.
These scenes are most effective in presenting difficult decision Marlene has had to make in order to create a potential cure, trading one life for the future of all of humanity. Joel on the other hand becomes less sympathetic, as we quickly realize that this broken man selfishly wants to keep the girl alive solely to replace what he had lost. This rescue is taking place after Ellie had made it clear that she wanted all their efforts to mean something by allowing herself to become the source of humankind’s potential salvation. Granted she likely didn’t know she would be giving her life to the cause, but Joel never gives her a chance to make that choice. He was always complicated, but now he’s downright pathetic.
As the episode wraps up with Joel lying to Ellie about why they left the Firefly facility, we see that Ellie herself is suspicious of Joel’s true intentions. The man she once looked to as a savior, appears to be transforming into a captor. While this certainly plants the seeds for distrust that will surely come to a head in The Last of Us Season 2, it’s a depressing way to end this point of the journey. It certainly doesn’t make me excited to tune in for more, knowing that the versions of the characters I came to care for have changed completely into people I don’t recognize.
All in all, The Last Of Us has been more hits than misses. Though Bella Ramsey was carrying the entire season on her shoulders, the performances from the entire cast, even those who were only around for a single episode have been outstanding. “Long, Long Time” and “Left Behind” were amazing stand alone installments that I would watch again in a heartbeat. The production design has been impressive and the emotional journey of Joel and Ellie was satisfying until this conclusion.
That being said, the inconsistency of the directing of the series has been very frustrating. Given the video game roots of the series, it felt like they skipped certain levels, causing us to miss cut scenes or essential action that would have made the episodes flow together more smoothly. The Last Of Us isn’t a cohesive viewing experience, but it certainly had some impressive moments of creativity and emotional resonance.
For me, this is the last I need to see of The Last Of Us, but if the seemingly inevitable trailer for season 2 gives me a glimmer of hope for the old spark of the characters returning, perhaps I’ll be enticed to hit play once again.
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