By Luis Navarro
Fans of the video game and casual viewers who were left in shock by the cliffhanger ending of Episode 6 highly anticipated the release of Episode 7 of HBO’s The Last of Us. Episode 7 tells the short story from Left Behind, downloadable content (DLC) for The Last of Us Part I that expands on Ellie’s backstory and how the events of one particular night changed the course of her entire life. In the context of the TV show, Neil Druckmann and his team have proven yet again their ability to adapt a profound video game story into an episode without sacrificing any story-telling qualities.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
After the events of Episode 6, Joel and Ellie take shelter in an abandoned house. Believing there is no way to treat his wound and that he will soon die, Joel pushes Ellie away and tells her to return to Tommy, who will keep her safe. As she leaves, Ellie stops momentarily and begins to recall the day her life changed.
The memory begins with Ellie running laps in a gymnasium before being interrupted by a girl who instigates Ellie into a fight. Later that night, as she sleeps, her former roommate Riley sneaks into her room and surprises her after having been gone for three weeks. Riley reveals that she has joined the Fireflies and convinces Ellie to sneak out for a night she’ll never forget. The pair make their way across the Quarantine Zone (QZ) by jumping from rooftop to rooftop and eventually arrive at the abandoned mall.
Riley sets out to show Ellie the various wonders of the mall, including an escalator, carousel, photo booth, and an arcade. After playing Mortal Kombat, they stop at a taco shop, where Ellie discovers a stash of pipe bombs. She confronts Riley about it, who reveals that she knows of this place because the Fireflies posted her there to guard the bombs. Not only that; she mentions that it’s her last night in Boston before leaving for Atlanta. This revelation upsets Ellie and causes a fallout between the two. Ellie storms out and makes her way out of the mall before eventually changing her mind.
When she returns, she finds Riley in the last wonder of the mall – the Halloween store. The two come to terms and decide to make the most of their night together. They put on masks and begin dancing on the counter until they kiss. This moment of sunshine in a messed up world is promptly interrupted by an infected who attacks them and manages to bite them both before Ellie can kill it. After moments of frustration that see Ellie smash up the displays of the Halloween store, she and Riley consider their options: take the easy way out and commit suicide or spend whatever time they have left with each other.
The episode cuts back to Ellie standing in the house she and Joel are hiding in, and in a moment of clarity, Ellie decides to stay with him and take matters into her own hands, frantically searching for something she can use to help Joel. She finds a thread and needle and begins to stitch up Joel’s wound with it as the episode ends.
A Tale of Tragic Loss That Sprouts Change
Episode 7 executes the relationship between Ellie and Riley perfectly. Unlike Bill and Frank – who are middle-aged men when they first meet -theirs has the hallmarks of a teenage relationship. They’re awkward with one another and impulsive, and their (friend) date is as cute as you can get in an apocalypse.
Storm Reid delivers an exceptional performance, which shouldn’t come off as a surprise to anyone familiar with her previous work in Euphoria, another hit show from HBO. Her chemistry on-screen with Bella Ramsey is undeniable. Their synergy makes their crush believable and the tragic end all the more disheartening.
Episode 7 provides necessary growth for Ellie’s character heading into the show’s final stretch. The moment of hesitation she has after Joel tells her to leave him allows her to think back to the tragic night at the mall. The audience witnesses Ellie experience the loss of someone she cared for deeply, a memory that hangs over her as she contemplates what to do with Joel.
Ellie recognizes that in Riley’s last moments, she didn’t give up on her and opted to stay with her until the very end. At that moment, she decides she will do the same for Joel, doing everything she can to help him live. Her reaction mirrors Joel’s in Episode 1, when the armed guard triggers a flashback of the soldier who killed Sarah, causing Joel to act on instinct and kill him.
Drawbacks of Human-Centered Stories
A problem permeates this episode and the show: the world doesn’t feel dangerous. Ellie and Riley can light up an entire mall, make as much noise as they see fit, and generally do things that previous zombie shows have established as unacceptable since these actions can easily lead to death. Granted, that is what ultimately happens in this episode, but the fact is that unless there is an infected on-screen, there is little to no tension surrounding the characters of The Last of Us.
The lack of infected is clearly by design and not an oversight from the showrunners. The Last of Us is unique in that it draws the story’s attention to the human characters and the narrative they form. It is a bold move for a show/game firmly lodged in the zombie genre, but it is because of this distinct take on apocalyptic zombie stories that people have embraced it. Human-centered stories help audiences relate to the characters. Combined with the tension created by the never-ending threat of a zombie attack, it can captivate anyone and keep them engaged for a long-time.
However, the show does not balance these two ends of the spectrum. The game can use gameplay mechanics to fabricate that tension, but when you tell a story through a medium like TV, it relies mainly on the writing to create that atmosphere. A great music score and visuals can help, but these are only accessories for the writers to use to enhance the emotional impact of their words.
That being said, the lack of tension is not imperative to the story in Episode 7. Unlike a horror movie, it doesn’t require its audience to be tense for its payoff to work. When you write a story that gets your audience invested in a character in a concise amount of time, you can afford to leave tension out of the episode. And only then, when the audience has let their guard down, you spring it on them to remind everyone that this world is cruel and unforgiving.