The release of The Last of Us in 2013 already marked a remarkable shift in narrative tone for big-budget, so-called “AAA” games. However, for some of us, 2014’s DLC chapter, The Last of Us: Left Behind, proved to be even more remarkable. It took mechanics that, in the game proper, had been used in nail-biting sequences of life-or-death desperation and repurposed them as the stuff of bonding and relationship-building, leading us to feel Ellie’s connection with Riley not just through cutscenes and pre-written dialogue but through play, in the purest sense of the word.
Now, the episode of HBO’s adaptation based on Left Behind is here, and it’s very good on its own terms. The storytelling fundamentals still work, even with the interactivity that made the game so striking removed. (A number of sequences built around that interactivity, including one in which Ellie and Riley have a contest in which they throw bricks to break car windows, and one in which they hunt each other with water rifles, are understandably totally absent in the episode.) However, because Left Behind was a particularly remarkable example of what’s possible when AAA mechanics are used in new and exciting ways, I don’t feel that there was really any hope of this episode reaching the same highs. The game was one of the very best, most innovative and moving AAA experiences of the decade in which it was released. This is—and I don’t mean this as an insult at all—a very good episode of a mostly very good TV series, and it does benefit from a few music cues that the game lacks. On top of that, Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid are both exceptional, and defixfnitely make this story and its deeply felt emotions their own. Let’s get into it.
A tale of two malls
First, let me touch on the biggest change between this episode and the game on which it’s based. In both, Joel’s been seriously injured, and Ellie must find some supplies with which to treat his wound. Here in the show, we experience Ellie’s mall flashback while she rummages for supplies in a house where she and Joel are hiding out, and the only real thematic throughline between the action of the “present” and the “past” of the episode is that what Ellie goes through in the past informs our understanding of why she’s so desperate not to lose Joel in the present.
In the game, she’s actually got Joel locked up in an old storefront at a Colorado mall, and the flashbacks to her night at the mall with Riley are interspersed with action set in the “present” in which she searches this other mall high and low for medical supplies. Playing the DLC, you probably spend about as much time in the Colorado mall as you do in the Boston one, and as Ellie, you must fight infected stalkers, solve some environmental puzzles, and survive some very challenging combat encounters with men who are hunting Joel and Ellie. The Colorado mall also has a number of details that trigger associations for us as players with the Boston mall. For instance, both have a restaurant chain called Fast Burger, and in the pocket of a body she’s searching, Ellie finds a strip of photos created by the same type of photo booth she and Riley use at the mall in Boston.
Meanwhile, all TV show Ellie has to do is look in the kitchen for a needle and thread. She doesn’t know how easy she’s got it.
This hopeless situation
In the episode’s opening scene, the injured Joel tells her to leave and she says “Joel shut the fuck up!” reminding us, as the last episode emphasized and this one will drive home, that she has known too much loss already, and she’s not about to give up on him.
He tells her to go to Tommy. She covers him with a jacket, gives him a fuck you look, and walks out of the room, and into the flashback that dominates the episode.
She’s running listlessly in circles in a high school gymnasium. On her Walkman (yes, an actual Sony Walkman, which she also has in the game) she’s listening to “All or None” by Pearl Jam. It’s from the 2002 album Riot Act, so it would exist in the show’s timeline where the outbreak occurred in 2003. Without spoiling anything for those who haven’t played The Last of Us Part II, Pearl Jam does figure into the game in a way that likely won’t, for timeline reasons, play out the same in the show, so this at least lets the band’s work be heard in the TV series.
(Incidentally, none of this stuff with Ellie in school is from the game. Some of it may be based on material in the comic book series The Last of Us: American Dreams, but as I haven’t read that series, I can’t say for sure.)
Soon, a bigger girl starts giving Ellie shit, telling her to pick up the pace so that the whole group doesn’t get punished. When Ellie says she doesn’t want to fight about it, the girl says tauntingly, “You don’t fight. Your friend fights. She’s not here anymore, is she?” With that, Ellie decides she does want to fight after all.
Cut to some time later, and Ellie’s sporting a nasty shiner. A FEDRA official, Cpt. Kwong, notes that her behavior has been particularly bad for the past few weeks and that his bad-cop approach in response—tossing her in the hole multiple times—hasn’t worked, so he tries the good-cop approach, giving her a heartfelt talk in which he suggests that she’s too smart to throw her life away, but that seems like exactly what she’s determined to do. She can either keep misbehaving and end up a grunt, doing grunt work until she dies in one unfortunate circumstance or another, he says, or she can swallow her pride and someday become an officer. His impulse is rooted in a bleak view of humanity—”if we go down, the people in this zone will starve or murder each other, that much I know”—but Ellie nonetheless seems persuaded, for the moment.
Ellie’s room, featuring a poster for Mortal Kombat II
Later, Ellie’s in her room as the rain falls outside. She’s reading an issue of Savage Starlight, the significance of which I first talked about in my recap of episode five.
Setting the comic down, she stares at the vacant bed across the room before a lights out call prompts her to try going to sleep. For a bit, the camera lingers on details in the room, like a small stack of cassettes that includes A-ha’s greatest hits compilation and an Etta James tape, both of which feature songs we’ll be hearing before the night is out. Also on Ellie’s wall are dinosaur drawings, space shuttle diagrams, and, amusingly, a poster for the 1987 sci-fi comedy Innerspace starring Martin Short, Meg Ryan, and Dennis Quaid.
We also see a poster for Mortal Kombat II. Yes, this reflects one of the biggest changes to the source material that we’ll get to later in the episode. However, what you may not know is that, when Left Behind was remade for The Last of Us Part I, the developers also snuck a Mortal Kombat II poster into Ellie’s room there, confirming (via retcon) that the game does at least exist in the game’s universe as well, likely because they knew by that point that MKII was going to be taking the place of The Turning in the TV adaptation.
A rocky reunion with Riley
Riley and Ellie’s reunion gets off to a rough start when Riley (Storm Reid, Euphoria) sneaks into the room and puts her hand over the mouth of the sleeping Ellie. Ellie panics, knocks Riley to the floor, and grabs her switchblade before she realizes who her attacker is. When she sees that it’s actually her best friend, the exposition starts flying fast. Riley’s been gone for three weeks because, after a long time spent “talking about liberating the QZ,” she’s actually decided to do something.
This triggers complicated feelings in Ellie, who refuses Riley’s request to come with her and have “the best night of your life” because she has to get up in a few hours for drills “where we learn to kill Fireflies.” Yeah, these friends are in a tough spot, seemingly on opposite sides of an ideological (and real) conflict. As Riley predicted, though, Ellie quickly relents, the chance to spend a few hours with the friend she’s been missing so much apparently too tough to pass up.
What’s FEDRA vs. Fireflies between friends?
After they make their escape, Ellie is surprised that Riley seems less inclined toward conflict than usual, telling her, “You can’t fight everything and everyone. You can pick and choose what’s important.” “Are they teaching you this at Firefly University?” Ellie asks, and it turns out they are. A minute later, as they’re sneaking through an old apartment building, Ellie’s flashlight starts giving out. “Firefly lights are better,” Riley teases. When Ellie declares that “one point for the anarchists,” Riley says, “We prefer freedom fighters.”
In a moment that’s new for the show, Ellie and Riley find a man’s body in a hallway, with some pills and a bottle of hard liquor nearby, which they snag and take swigs from on the rooftop. In the game, they instead raid the camp of a man they were on friendly terms with named Winston, who, remarkably for someone in their world, died of natural causes. He has some booze in a cooler that you can drink. The show’s Ellie handles the liquor much better than her game counterpart, who spits it out.
After begging Riley to let her hold her gun, Ellie asks, “So, what happened, you started dating some Firefly dude and was like, ‘Uhhh, this is cool, I think I’ll be a terrorist’?” It’s a striking line because it’s both an obvious joke and it also seems to be Ellie perhaps trying to feel out Riley’s attitude toward boys, as if she’s trying to determine if there’s any chance Riley reciprocates her feelings. (Nothing like this is said in the game.) Soon, Riley tells the truth: she encountered a woman—Marlene—who asked her what she thought of FEDRA. Riley replied with her honest opinion, “they’re fascist dickbags,” and with that, she was in. Ellie starts to push back, regurgitating some of the same bullshit Cpt. Kwong told her earlier about FEDRA holding everything together, but rather than let it devolve into an argument, Riley says they’re on a mission, and leads them onward, hopping across many a rooftop on the way to their destination: the mall.
When they arrive, Riley arranges a pretty cool reveal for Ellie, having her friend stand in the darkened shrine to capitalism before flipping on the power. Ellie gazes in awe as everything becomes illuminated. Riley promises to show her “the four wonders of the mall,” and their adventure truly begins.
Take on me
The Last of Us becomes the latest prestige TV series to use the A-ha hit “Take on Me,” a song that also figures into the game’s sequel, as Ellie experiences the wonder of escalators, or as she calls them at first, “electric stairs,” for the first time. Amazed by the contraption, she races down them, races back up them, walks in place, and, perhaps trying to impress her crush and probably feeling the effects of that swig of alcohol she took earlier, just generally acts like a total goofball.
As they make their way toward Riley’s first wonder (which is now the second wonder because Ellie was so wowed by the escalator), they pass a movie theater with a poster out front for a film in the Dawn of the Wolf series, the Last of Us universe’s stand-in for Twilight. Briefly stopping to regard the display at a Victoria’s Secret, Riley comments on how strange it is to her that people once wanted that stuff, then starts laughing while trying to imagine Ellie wearing the lacy lingerie. Riley moves on, but Ellie takes a moment to check her look in the window, clearly concerned about the impression she might make on Riley tonight.
Just like heaven
Riley tells Ellie to close her eyes, and as she leads her by the hand to the mall’s next wonder, we’ve gotten enough insight into Ellie’s feelings that we can imagine how exciting it must be for her, that high school electricity you might feel at the slightest physical contact with the person you’ve been dreaming about.
The wonder is indeed worthy of the build-up: a stunning carousel, lit up in golden lights. This is, of course, straight out of the DLC, the source of some of its most iconic images, but new here is the fact that the carousel plays a music-box version of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” and I think the lyrics of that song sum up how Ellie feels in this moment pretty well. Like the game on which it’s based, this episode is full of unspoken emotion, which makes it all the more effective. Ellie’s smile, beaming at Riley as the carousel spins, says more than words ever could. Find someone who looks at you the way Ellie looks at Riley here. The two have another drink, and Ellie continues to bask in Riley’s presence.
But such moments never last, and as the carousel grinds to a halt, Ellie’s mind is interfering with what her heart feels, turning over questions again about Riley’s allegiance to the Fireflies. “Did you really leave because you actually think you can liberate this place?” she asks, making the question sound every bit as dismissive as it reads. When Riley protests that it’s not a fantasy, that the Fireflies have set things right in other QZs, Ellie tells her that they could do that too, “if you come back. We’re, like, the future.”
Riley doesn’t seem hopeful about her prospects with FEDRA, telling Ellie that Kwong has her lined up for sewage detail. To Kwong, Riley is doomed to the kind of grunt work she told Ellie she could avoid if she plays her cards right. This is new for the show, and makes it that much more clear why Riley wants a life outside of what FEDRA has in store for her.
Pictures of you
Next up on Riley’s tour of wonders is the photo booth, another classic moment from the game. When the DLC first launched in 2014, this moment felt impactful because it featured some then-novel Facebook integration, allowing you to upload images of the specific poses you had Ellie and Riley strike to your feed. It was a way for people to share the experience and connect over their feelings about it. It’s a bit strange to see a moment that was initially designed not just for interactivity but for social media integration be recreated without these elements that once made it so special. It’s still a sweet scene, of course, but this is one case where the game will always be the definitive experience for me. At least the show’s Ellie and Riley actually get a printout of their photos, albeit faded and colorless. The game’s duo got only their memories of the experience.
As they head to the next wonder, Riley talks it up, saying “it’s pretty dang awesome and it might break you.” Ellie tells her not to oversell it, but she hasn’t. She tells Ellie to stop and listen, and in the distance is the unmistakable cacophony of a video arcade. Yeah, Ellie is stoked. Standing before Raja’s Arcade in all its noisy glory, she says, “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Mortal Kombat II vs. The Turning
The arcade’s got Centipede and Tetris, Frogger and Daytona USA, all alive and ready to be played. But there’s one game they want to play most: Mortal Kombat II.
This is one of the episode’s biggest departures from the game. There, the machines in the arcade remain off, and the most Ellie can do is imagine playing with them. (As I discovered when re-playing Left Behind for this recap, there’s a hidden trophy you can get here, a little self-deprecating joke from Naughty Dog. If you approach and interact with a Jak X Combat Racing arcade machine in the back corner, Ellie will imagine playing it for a bit. When she’s done, she comments to herself, “That game is stupid,” and you get the trophy, called Nobody’s Perfect. Oof, was Jak X really that bad?)
In the game, it’s not Mortal Kombat II that they play, but a fictional fighting game called The Turning, and Ellie can only play it with her imagination. As Riley narrates the action, and as Ellie imagines it so vividly that she can hear the game’s announcer as well as the sound effects of battle, you enter a series of onscreen inputs to pull off attacks, blocks, dodges, and, finally, an ultra kill. Yes, The Turning was clearly inspired by Mortal Kombat, so the genuine article makes for a pretty fitting replacement.
In his own commentary piece, my colleague Kenneth makes a strong argument that something is lost by having the characters actually play a game, rather than merely imagining one. I definitely agree that the way it plays out in the game is much more poignant. It’s just one more thing that Ellie will never get to really experience. At the same time, I think the interactivity of the sequence was central to its impact, that just seeing Ellie imagine the game and input sequences would have little of the same effect that the scene conjures through the device of having you do it, and in lieu of that, I think swapping in Mortal Kombat II, a game so many of us have our own memories of playing, allows us to feel some deeper connection to the scene. For me, it’s another instance, like the photo booth, where the TV show was never going to fully recapture the power of the game on which it’s based.
Kiss me, kill me
Bella Ramsey does a great job of capturing the intense excitement and supreme cluelessness of a gamer girl who’s literally never played an arcade game before, and it’s fun to watch both her and Reid react to the game’s legendary sound effects, and to Mileena’s famous fatality. Eventually, playing as Baraka, Ellie gets a win on Riley, who tells her how to do his fatality. Baraka impales Mileena on his blades and the girls lose it, and in the excitement, we can tell, even if Riley can’t, that Ellie really wants to kiss her. The moment passes, though, and Ellie protests that she has to be back home in bed soon. However, Riley tells her that she got her a gift, and that’s enough to get Ellie to tag along for a bit longer.
In the food court, Riley’s got a little camp, where she gives Ellie volume two (actually “volume too” lol) of Will Livingston’s series of pun books, the same one she’s been torturing Joel with throughout the series. In the game, Riley gives it to Ellie just after you ride the carousel, and you can spend a while reading jokes to Riley if you like. (My favorite of the bunch: What’s a pirate’s favorite letter? ‘Tis the C.)
In the show, however, Ellie’s delight in the new treasure trove of punny goodness is short-lived, as she finds a bunch of explosives Riley has made. Riley says that she would never let them be used on or anywhere near Ellie, but Ellie doubts that her supervisors would care what Riley has to say about that, and she storms off.
Riley gives chase and tells Ellie that she’s leaving, that this is her last day in Boston, which is enough to get Ellie to stop. “I asked if you could join so we could go together,” Riley says, “but Marlene said no.” In the game, Riley phrases this sentiment a bit differently, telling Ellie that Marlene “wants you safe at that stupid school. I’m not even supposed to come see you.” The reasons why Marlene might be looking out for Ellie from afar—even before knowing Ellie was immune to cordyceps—will become clear in time, if you don’t know them already. Despite Riley’s heartfelt plea, expressing her desire to spend some of her little time left in Boston with Ellie and to say goodbye on good terms, Ellie remains furious, and storms off again.
Love and truth in the Halloween shop
She thinks better of it, though, and turns around before she gets too far. Trudging back through the mall, she hears screams and fears the worst. Charging into the store the screams are coming from, she’s confronted with a spooky sight indeed: some sort of mechanical Halloween jumpscare device letting out the pre-recorded shrieks. Here it is, the Halloween store, the final wonder Riley had in store for her. (In the game, you actually enter the Halloween store first upon arriving at the mall. This scene effectively combines that one and one near the end of the DLC.)
Riley’s hiding out in the Halloween store, and tells Ellie she was saving it for last because she thought she’d like it the best. “I guess it was stupid,” she says. “I’m fucking stupid.” Ellie sits down. It’s time to talk about some real shit.
“So you leave me. I think you’re dead. All of a sudden, you’re alive. And you give me this night. This amazing fucking night. And now you’re leaving again, forever, to join some cause I don’t even think you understand. Tell me I’m wrong.” Yeah, I can see how Ellie’s got some emotional turmoil going on at the moment.
Riley tells Ellie that she doesn’t know everything. Unlike Ellie, Riley remembers what it was to have a family, for a little while at least, and the real sense of belonging that came with that. Now the Fireflies have chosen her, and she senses a chance for that kind of belonging and purpose again. “I matter to them.”
Ellie softens a bit, and tells Riley that she’s her best friend and that she’ll miss her. Riley proposes “one last thing,” and Ellie agrees, before Riley tosses her a werewolf mask and grabs a spooky clown mask for herself, masks they both also wear in the game. She puts on Etta James’ “I Got You Babe,” the same song that features so prominently in the game at this pivotal moment, and begins dancing atop the display case.
For a while they just enjoy the moment, but what Ellie is feeling is too strong to be contained, so she takes off her mask and pleads with Riley, “Don’t go.” Just as in the game, Riley agrees, almost as if she’s been waiting, hoping that Ellie would ask her this. Ellie kisses her, then apologizes, to which Riley responds, “For what?” It’s a beautiful and cathartic moment, and a painful one, too, since we know their happiness ends even before it has a chance to start. It makes for a fascinating contrast with the third episode, which charted the love story of Bill and Frank across decades. Here, we get the love story of Ellie and Riley, not quite in real time but not too far off. This night lasts only a matter of hours, and yet the memory of it will be with Ellie forever.
I feel like “don’t go” is a bigger ask on Ellie’s part here in the show than it is in the game, since she knows that FEDRA has Riley pegged for grunt work, and it’s a lot to ask someone you love to resign themselves to a life of such limited possibility just to be with you. But I’m sure that in that moment, she thinks that together, they can create something better. And who knows, maybe they could have.
They barely even get a chance to imagine what that future might look like, however, before the infected we saw earlier roars and runs in, putting up one hell of a fight before Ellie finally finishes it with her switchblade. Not before both of them are bitten, however, and just like that, their dream future evaporates.
“I’m not letting you go”
And while future Ellie rummages desperately in the house for something to help Joel with, past Ellie, thinking her fate is sealed, smashes shit in a rage before collapsing next to Riley. Riley says they could just off themselves with her gun, but she’s not a fan of that idea. Taking Ellie’s hand, she says, “Whether it’s two minutes or two days, we don’t give that up. I don’t want to give that up.”
Rummaging in the kitchen, Ellie finds some needle and thread and returns to Joel. For a moment, she takes his hand, interlocking her fingers with hers. She’s not letting him go. Then, she begins to sew.