Another largely self-contained episode of The last of us, another one that has an enthusiastic audience. It’s become a bit of a thing for the HBO show, but Episode 7, “Left Behind,” is a bit different: Fans have been anticipating this particular episode since the adaptation was announced. Abandoned was an additional story released as a downloadable expansion for it The last of us and was quickly considered the best part of the game. A decade later, it certainly feels like the story’s most heartbreaking moment.
On screen, it’s basically a beat-for-beat retelling of the expansion’s story (although the show’s timeline means the jokes about Facebook and the ephemeral nature of social media are missing), with Ellie suddenly being responsible for an injured Joel and flashes back to events before the two ever met. Here in the past, we are introduced to Riley, her best friend who may be more than that, as the two sneak out at night to visit an abandoned mall. There, Riley plans to give Ellie the best night of her life with a tour of several sights these two post-apocalyptic kids have never seen, including a working merry-go-round and a photo booth.
As in the game, the underlying tension – or at least the non-pandemic-related tension – comes from whether either of the two actually acknowledges that this is a date. It’s a heartfelt portrayal of burgeoning desire as they struggle to determine if the other is interested, and rings true all the more for its strangeness. Same-sex attraction is often difficult to navigate in adolescence (and, admittedly, very difficult as an adult), especially in a world that does not encourage or teach homosexuality. It’s the struggle to exist in that circumstance that makes ‘Left Behind’ hit me harder than the first time.
Seven episodes into the show, it would be reasonable to be suspicious of this happy time the two share, even as they playfully discuss their respective positions in their town’s two warring factions. Sure enough, they end up being bitten by the infected, essentially giving them both a death sentence. Even though we know Ellie survives, it’s a crushing scene. Because if nothing else, it’s clear that Riley doesn’t. We see them both coming to terms with impending death, Ellie enraged and enraged while Riley, the more mature of the two, falls into quiet acceptance. Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid give performances as devastating as those of Ashley Johnson and Yaani King in the game, conveying the appalling unfairness of these youngsters who crash into an unfairly cruel world (similar to another show last year) .
Ellie’s rush to action and fury is established almost from her first scene on the show. Now we know where at least some of that comes from. There’s no way to reconcile the trauma of expecting to die next to the girl you love, only to lose her while you have to move on with life. The weight of this has clearly been on Ellie’s shoulders throughout the show, and it fuels her turbulent relationship with Joel. In each other, to varying degrees, they both see the people they have lost. And even the tiniest tweaks in the fit make a difference in how that friction comes across. Joel from HBO is not only more sympathetic, but also more emotionally honest. His heart to heart with Tommy in the previous episode was a far cry from the toxic encounter in the source material, where he flat out threatens Tommy to take Ellie off his hands. Dan’s argument with Ellie later still allows him to admit how much he cares about her. Without that mean, selfish streak of the game, the show seems less inclined to be critical of Joel as a character, a big part of what drove Ellie’s transformation as a character in the two games. That makes Ellie’s character look a bit more childish around him.
That makes the timing of “Left Behind” all the more important: the game, in particular, told the Abandoned story after Joel and Ellie’s story ended. The expansion was more about providing a counterpoint to Joel’s more selfish interpretation of love than filling in a backstory. Ellie had already recounted the events of Abandoned in the main game, so players went in knowing exactly how it would all end. For the show, “Left Behind” feels like a revelation. It no longer presents Riley as a stark contrast to Joel, but it makes it clear why losing Joel is so scary for Ellie. While the show often comes across as schmaltzier than the source material to me, this episode remains tragic and vital in contextualizing Ellie’s past and future struggles.
For a video game in 2013, it was audacious to have an entire story centered around what it essentially is a date. Putting an explicitly strange love story at the center was unheard of in mainstream games at the time. It’s not all that new now, ten years later and on television, but it remains a poignant, touching little arc. At the time, I held onto their resolve in the ending, with Riley devoting whatever time she had left to spending with Ellie.
It’s a stark contrast to Bill and Frank’s perhaps sugary sweet utopia in Episode 3. Where they were able to create a perfect space for themselves despite the world around them, Riley and Ellie can’t escape it. Gone is the idyllic and quaint sun-drenched home; here is a run-down mall in the middle of the night, the only refuge available for the two girls. Bill has been able to carve out an entire town for years, but they can barely get a few hours. Whether you feel that Bill and Frank’s story served as an important counterbalance to media where strange stories often end in tragedy or pure fantasy, Abandoned is certainly more beholden to the tropes that define these stories (namely, death). Riley does indeed die. But despite the implied tragedy, Abandoned avoids the obvious beats in it. We don’t see Riley’s death or a grieving Ellie. The episode and the game focus strongly on their moments of joy and survival. But ten years later, it’s the harsh reality of their circumstances that sets it apart from Bill and Frank’s story.
By the end of the episode, Ellie has chosen not to abandon Joel, but to fight to keep him alive. Hope wins. At least for now. But with its new place in the story, “Left Behind” becomes the most urgent part. Watching these two girls torn apart by their respective political machines (even though the fireflies certainly sound more appealing) and their squalid conditions, I couldn’t help thinking about the desperate struggle queer people wage daily for freedom and dignity in their lives. lives. Ellie’s struggle throughout the show is now reframed as a traumatized queer girl’s struggle for some sort of peace. The fact that she never met Bill and Frank, never even glimpsed that potential utopia, feels like a missed opportunity. But it is significant: this is it The last of us, and unfortunately too many roads lead to tragedy. Ellie’s journey, as those who have played the game know, is no exception. Ahead is the darkest chapter in her story yet as she encounters David and his group of survivors and finds her alone without Joel’s support, as she is forced to do whatever it takes to survive. After this first season, the events of the game’s sequel await, where Ellie still finds no peace.
And sadly, that’s not an unfair reflection of the world right now. There is no shortage of scared kids seeking support from someone who may have some answers. As a strange woman in her thirties I am so afraid of them, and it is the same kind of fear I felt when I watched the last episode of The last of us. The story is broadly the same, but in 10 years the themes have only become more prescient. Where I once held on to Riley’s love, now I can’t let go of its tragedy. It was always a heartbreaking story; it is all the more so as a decade goes by without us being able to secure a better future for younger generations. “We fight for every second we can spend together,” Riley tells Ellie in both versions. “Whether it’s two seconds or two days, we’re not giving up on that.” When I heard it for the second time ten years later, knowing everything that’s to come in the story, I found myself so sad that Ellie, and the young people like her, have to fight at all.