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‘The Last of Us’ finally gives viewers Ellie’s backstory. It was 10 years in the making

This story contains spoilers for episode 7 of HBO’s “The last of us‘ and corresponding moments from the 2014 Naughty Dog video game ‘Left Behind’.

In the brutal post-apocalyptic world of “The Last of Us,” everyone is scarred by loss.

The HBO drama opened with the image of Joel’s (Pedro Pascal) daughter being killed during the chaos of a mutant fungus outbreak that turns humans into mindless, cannibalistic monsters. Sunday’s seventh episode finally chronicles the love and loss Ellie (Bella Ramsey) went through shortly before she first met Joel.

With Joel gravely injured and incapacitated after the events of Episode 6, a frantic Ellie flashes back to the events that changed her life. Just weeks before going on a trip with Joel, Ellie sneaks out of her dorm room at her military boarding school to have a night out with her best friend (and crush) Riley – the same Riley first mentioned in the series premiere.

“I love that this episode focuses on the perspectives of the younger characters,” Storm Reid, who plays Riley, said on a recent video call. “It’s kind of refreshing to see Ellie’s story… You get to see two best friends… who love each other, who care about each other. It’s two young women trying to figure it out, trying to grow up in this crazy post-apocalyptic world.

It turns out that while Ellie is going through the motions at school following Riley’s disappearance, Riley has dropped out to join the Fireflies – the rebel militia that opposes the oppressive military government in charge since the outbreak. To make up for her radio silence, Riley has planned an extravagant date night for Ellie in a relic from the Before Times: the mall.

Riley (Storm Reid), left, and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) peer through some shop windows in “The Last of Us.”

(Liane Hentscher / HBO)

Those familiar with “The Last of Us” video games will recognize that Episode 7 is an adaptation of “The Last of Us: Left Behind”, a supplemental chapter of the game originally released in 2014. “Left Behind” was praised for its story and for centering a strange teen romance, which broke new ground for mainstream video games at the time.

The “Left Behind” expansion – or DLC, in gaming terms – jumps between the present, where Ellie scours an abandoned mall for medical supplies to treat a critically injured Joel, and the past, where Ellie hangs out in an abandoned mall with Riley.

The “Left Behind” DLC “gave a moment of fun in a really tough world,” said Ashley Johnson, who plays Ellie in “The Last of Us” games. “Seeing those glimpses of (Ellie) becoming a kid and… being carefree and those first moments of being in love with someone. Being next to someone and (thinking) ‘Oh my God, I want to kiss them so badly.’ She and Riley get that beautiful moment in this really hard world – that’s a wonderful thing.

While Riley’s name is mentioned in the original game “The Last of Us”, “Left Behind” marked her on-screen debut. But Riley’s official introduction preceded that – she first appeared in the prequel comic series “The Last of Us: American Dreams”, published by Dark Horse Comics in 2013.

Written by “The Last of Us” creative director Neil Druckmann and cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks, who also illustrated the four-part series, “American Dreams” (colored by Rachelle Rosenberg and written by Clem Robins) tells the story of how Ellie and Riley fell in love with each other. first meet and become friends.

Hicks — whom Druckmann was interested in collaborating with after reading her “Friends With Boys” graphic novel — says that when she got the job, she was only told the series would be a prequel to Ellie.

“We knew from the start it was going to be set in this kind of military school where Ellie was basically dumped as a kid, and she was going to meet another young woman,” Hicks said on a recent video call. “We didn’t know where that would go. So the story just went on from there.

A comic book page featuring a young girl on a school bus heading to a military school

Ellie went to school in a page from “The Last of Us: American Dreams” by Neil Druckmann, Faith Erin Hicks and Rachelle Rosenberg.

(Dark Horse comics)

Reid describes television Riley as “a young girl who is compassionate, who is outspoken, (and) who loves life no matter what the circumstances.”

“She’s tough and she’ll stand up for what she believes in and she’ll protect Ellie at all costs,” Reid said.

Hicks explains that she wasn’t given too many parameters when she was developing the character for the comic.

“Neil was kind of like, ‘Ellie is my character, I made Ellie. So you write Riley and do whatever you want,” said Hicks, who had only seen the game’s original script and some video clips in preparation for the comic. “I always thought of her as a tough older girl, but then she starts falling apart and that very soft center is revealed. Like at the end (of the comic), she just breaks down because she idolizes the fireflies and then she discovers they are not the people she wants them to be.

Riley’s visual inspiration, Hicks recalls, came by chance. She was watching the 2012 Olympics while drawing one day when Canadian diver Jennifer Abel appeared on TV. (Abel is also Riley’s last name.)

“I had been doing sketches of a character that I thought would eventually become Riley, kind of inspired by, say, Katniss from ‘The Hunger Games,'” Hicks said. “And then I saw this synchronized diver, this Olympic athlete, and I just thought she was so striking and started drawing her and then (I thought), ‘Maybe this could be Riley.’ So I sent the sketches to Neil and he really liked them.

A comic strip showing two girls running over rooftops

Riley and Ellie run across rooftops in a page from “The Last of Us: American Dreams” by Neil Druckmann, Faith Erin Hicks, and Rachelle Rosenberg.

(Dark Horse comics)

Because Druckmann and Hicks began collaborating on “American Dreams” while “The Last of Us” was still in production, elements of the comics influenced aspects of the game, including the ending. The comic also reveals the origin of Ellie’s stiletto and how the Fireflies’ leader, Marlene, is connected to Ellie.

Druckmann, who is also a co-creator and executive producer of the TV series, has in past interviews and even the featurette about the making of “Left Behind” that “American Dreams” was instrumental in the conception and creation of the expansion.

In the HBO series, Ellie first visits the mall with Riley in Episode 7. But the abandoned mall Riley takes Ellie to in the game “Left Behind” is the same one she first showed Ellie in “American Dreams.” . Even the arcade and Ellie’s interest in a particular fighting game are part of the comic’s story.

Hicks explained that one of the discussions she, Druckmann, and other “The Last of Us” creatives had while developing the comic was about video games as a whole and how some of the early reactions to the game’s trailer were critical about its violence.

“We were just talking about cases in our childhood history where a video game was really overhauled to depict violence,” Hicks said. “I remember thinking then, ‘Why don’t we let them go to the arcade? And they can play ‘Mortal Kombat’ and it’ll be a nice little commentary on video game violence in the ’90s and video game violence in 2012-2013.’”

But, as Druckmann noted at the time, rights issues prevented “Mortal Kombat” from appearing in the comic. So Hicks created a fictional fighting game called “The Turning” and the character Angel Knives for “American Dreams”. That arcade game appears in both the original “The Last of Us” and “Left Behind”.

A comic strip on which two girls on a roof talk about their future

Riley and Ellie talk on a rooftop in a page from “The Last of Us: American Dreams” by Neil Druckmann, Faith Erin Hicks, and Rachelle Rosenberg.

(Dark Horse comics)

It’s fitting that in Episode 7, the game Ellie and Riley play together at the arcade is “Mortal Kombat II.” Reid, who said she had never been to an abandoned mall before filming this episode, explained that the arcade scene was “a lot of fun” to do.

“We (improvised) that whole scene,” Reid said. “We were really playing the game, so that was a lot of fun.”

Over the course of the episode, Riley and Ellie’s night out becomes about as adorable as it was in post-apocalyptic times. (Hicks laments that Ellie and Riley’s eventual romance wasn’t something she and Druckmann discussed while working on the strip.) And Reid appreciates how the show’s creatives “didn’t try to overdo the romance (Ellie and Riley).” romanticize.”

“They just let it be young, let it be fresh, let it kind of change into what it was,” Reid said. “But I do think Riley saw it coming small bit… Despite her feelings and her inkling of, like, ‘Maybe Ellie likes me a bit’… maybe she didn’t think Ellie would have the balls to kiss her, so I guess that’s the surprise.

Their budding romance is one of the reasons Riley and Ellie are attacked that night at the mall and bitten by an infection even more heartbreakingly. The events are pivotal in understanding why Ellie’s greatest fear is ending up alone.

Still, Reid found the ending both emotional and poetic, even though Ellie and Riley didn’t lose their minds together.

“I like that we ended up where it ends up and we don’t have to see… what happened to Riley,” Reid said. “That scene is essential in bringing us back to what the world (of the show) is and bringing us back to (understanding) that this is beautiful and they’re experiencing love and they’re experiencing joy, but we live in times where you time is cut short, we’ve seen that in different ways in every episode.

Times staff writer Alexandra Del Rosario contributed to this report.