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The Last of Us finally paid off its giraffe tease

A giraffe in the first season of torrent The last of us may have seemed like a tall order, at least to those unfamiliar with the game. Before that, the only place you could imagine seeing such an animal, as a stuffed animal, was probably pushed aside and left to the elements (as indeed we saw in an Episode 2 Easter egg). But that all set the stage for the big one – or at least a big scene in the Season 1 finale where Ellie gets to pet a giraffe.

Like so much of the show, it’s a moment taken almost straight from the game. Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is still mending her way out of a fundamentalist cannibal cult in episode 8. Joel (Pedro Pascal) sees her as standoffish and not super excited – at least, until they start exploring Salt Lake City. Here, the scene plays out almost identically to the game, complete with Ellie passing Joel up the ladder only to drop it when she first sees the animal. The two watch in wonder as a giraffe grazes on the plants and overtakes the abandoned building they are in.

The scene may seem bright, cheerful, and even out of place in an otherwise overwhelmingly bleak post-apocalyptic story. But like so much of it The last of usthe giraffe scene resonates on a more heartbreaking level, a last quiet moment between Joel and Ellie sealing the violence that comes later.

(Ed. remark: The rest of this post contains spoilers for the finale of The last of us season 1.)

The whole of The last of us, as both a first game and a first season, builds to Joel’s frenzy: after so many chapters of Joel readily justifying violence – against infected or ruthless humans – the Fireflies hospital feels less plain. On the one hand, he understands that Ellie’s immunity may be the best chance the world has for a cure. On the other hand, Marlene says it “could” be a cure, leaving a lot of room for him to prioritize what’s most important to him, Ellie herself.

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

That bond is sealed in the presence of the giraffes. After seeing her fight through so much, connecting with her through clicker attacks and puns, Joel had already stopped considering her “load” and started seeing her more as a surrogate daughter. While comforting her at the end of Episode 8, “When We Are in Need,” he even calls her “baby girl,” just like he used to call Sarah.

So the giraffe moment is a way to solidify his view of himself as a protective father. After feeling her distance and trauma, the way Ellie lights up as she chases the giraffe is a reminder that there is a child in there, with a whole world ahead of them. For Ellie, it’s a reminder that there is peace and quiet in a world (as we’ve seen it) so marked by violence and chaos.

For Joel, it’s a connection to his parental instincts (yes, Sarah even has that giraffe stuffed animal in her room in the game). You can almost see him deciding that he would do anything for her, anything not to lose her, even if it means killing an entire team of medical professionals (or just a small battalion of fireflies and a doctor).

The giraffes may seem out of place, but they are a final reminder for the season that something innocent and kind could somehow survive in this world. For Joel, that’s Ellie; for Ellie – well, it’s a fleeting glimpse into the trusting life spoiled by Joel’s lie. She will have to deal with the consequences of his actions in Season 2, after they return to the idyllic Jackson compound. But she will at least pet a giraffe.