Watching The Last of Us is not exactly a feel-good endeavor. That’s not a criticism or even a controversial statement. The series is a fantastic, moving adaptation that has been telling an engrossing story from its opening scene. But that story takes place in a bleak world full of broken people and literal monsters. Characters fight to barely survive in a wasteland of suffering until they die a horrific death that leaves us emotionally drained. And yet, even knowing all of that, the show’s seventh episode seemed like a bridge of sadness too far. The flashback to Ellie and Riley’s final day together bordered on manipulative in a way the show’s other tragic installments haven’t. Still, in the end, The Last of Us reminded us no matter how dark and painful things get, at its core, this is a story about hope. And Ellie is the living embodiment of that.
You didn’t need to be an expert in The Last of Us video games to know Ellie was hiding something about her past. The usually smart-aleck youngster grew quiet when asked about when she was bitten. She was specifically evasive when asked if anyone was with her during the attack. Now we know why she won’t talk about it. It was even worse than we could have imagined. Ellie’s was with RIley, her FEDRA roommate, best friend, and object of her affection.
It happened when Riley had brought Ellie to a seemingly abandoned mall. That trip, ultimately meant to serve as a Firefly recruitment pitch or goodbye, revolved around a wondrous night of pure happiness. Riley was able to give Ellie the gift of being a kid, a simple joy neither of them ever experienced. The two were also able to express their love for one another, a blossoming romance they’d never acknowledged before.
But that sequence of joy and love went on for a very long time, all while the episode teased the inevitable disaster we knew awaited. Every laugh, every smile, every hand held, and every kiss added another layer of brutality. After awhile all that doomed happiness started to become too much. For a show that has managed to avoid feeling emotionally manipulative even while ripping our hearts out again and again, this episode felt like it was needlessly adding on extra pain. We met Joel’s daughter, saw the Cordyceps outbreak begin, and watched Sarah die in less time than Ellie and Riley ran around that mall. And it wasn’t as though every moment or conversation was of great importance. A lot of their last day together was about simply being there with them so we really felt the enormity of their tragedy.
Not everyone will agree this episode was emotionally manipulative, or that other episodes haven’t been. Some certainly feel that way about Bill and Frank’s romance. And this flashback did provide important background information about Ellie while still serving the show’s main story. We fully understand why she wouldn’t leave Joel’s side in the present.
But at minimum some sequences and conversations could have been shortened or omitted entirely without detracting from the episode’s overall effect or goals. We didn’t need to see Ellie and Riley experience so much joy to feel the anguish of their demise. We already know the world of The Last of Us is unimaginably brutal. Just as we know Ellie and every other kid born after the outbreak never truly had a childhood. At some point you’re just piling on an already overloaded pile of misery. That’s when you crossover from sad story to manipulative one. But ironically it was the episode’s saddest moment that kept it from truly feeling that way.
As the two young girls sat contemplating (what each imagined was) their inevitable death, Riley told Ellie they had two options. The first was to use their gun to “take the easy way out.” The second was to just continue on until they were both lost to the infection. Two kids in love had to pick between a quick end or a few more moments together before something even worse than death took them. That’s not much of a choice, so Ellie asked what their third option was. All Riley could say in response was “I’m sorry,” because there was nothing else they could do.
At least, there wasn’t a third option for her. But someday there could be for every other Riley out there. Ellie is the world’s third option, a chance at curing the insidious infection that otherwise will eventually destroy all mankind. She is the only hope anyone has of not having to pick between death or worse.
Neither Ellie nor Joel actually know if scientists can use her natural immunity to defeat Cordyceps. There’s no guarantee they’ll even get a chance to find out, either. Not when monsters both human and fungal alike stand between her and them. But they continue on because she is a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise hopeless world. And the darker it gets the brighter even the smallest light shines.
That was true in this episode, The Last of Us‘ most ruthlessly sad installment yet, same as its true for the series in general. Without Ellie this story would be too miserable to suffer through. But that’s why we keep tuning in week after week, because no matter how painful it is to watch these characters suffer, the mere hope they might not have to some day is enough to keep anyone going.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.