Left Behind on HBO and HBO Max
One of the most exciting propositions about this first season of HBO’s The Last of Us was that, at some point, it was going to incorporate a second piece of Last of Us lore: the 2014 add-on to the game called The Last of Us: Left Behind. Released a year after the original game, the downloadable content clued players into more of Ellie’s past and sexuality, and revealed exactly how she got the bite that changed everything.
Well, with more than half the season over, it finally happened. Episode seven of the The Last of Us is titled “Left Behind,” and in it we see Ellie’s isolated life before she was bitten, before she realized she was immune, and before she met Joel. It was another incredible, standout episode thanks to star Bella Ramsey and guest star Storm Reid.
Things kick off soon after last week’s cliffhanger of Joel being stabbed in the stomach and Ellie worrying he’s going to die. Ellie has somehow moved Joel and their horse into an abandoned house and Joel is not looking good. In fact, he’s ready to die and tells Ellie she should leave him and go back to Tommy. Ellie isn’t quite sure what she wants to do so she covers him up, goes up the stairs and stops. She has a decision to make: try to save Joel or try to save herself.
It’s with that on her mind that things go back in time, but not too far. Ellie still looks the same, save for the sweatshirt she’s wearing that says “FEDRA Training.” She’s at FEDRA school, doing laps in a gym and listening to some tunes on an old Walkman. That’s when a much bigger girl named Bethany grabs the headphones off her head. It’s obvious there’s bad blood here, something to do with a friend of Ellie’s who left, and so after exchanging words, Ellie punches her in the face.
Like most schools, when you get in a fight you get sent to the principal’s office. And at FEDRA school, that means Captain Kwong (Terry Chen). Ellie has been here before and Kwong is fed up with her constantly getting into trouble. He tells her she has two paths she can take. One is to keep up the attitude, break the rules, and live her life as a grunt answering to the Bethanys of the world. Or she can straighten up and use her smarts to become an officer. He believes there’s a leader in her and she can help FEDRA in its mission to hold the world together. She decides to choose the second path and he lets her go.
Immediately we see that Ellie is every bit as jumpy and hot-headed as we’ve seen in the show. This isn’t some new thing for her. Nor is her obsession with the world before. In her dorm there are movie posters from space and sci-fi movies like Red Planet and Innerspace, and a poster of the moon; she’s reading the comic book she and Sam read together two episodes ago, and even has a Mortal Kombat II poster, which she saw in that Cumberland Farms in episode three. There’s also an empty bed in the room. The bed of, we assume, the girl Bethany was talking about.
Ellie falls asleep and someone sneaks in through her window. The person puts their hand over her mouth which makes Ellie react violently, grab her knife, and almost stab the person. She stops when she sees it’s Riley (Reid), her roommate who we learn has been missing for three weeks. Riley, it turns out, has joined FEDRA’s main enemy, the Fireflies, which Ellie can’t believe. There’s a history and trust between these two so, despite the shocking turn of events, Riley eventually coaxes Ellie to sneak out with her for a few hours promising the best night of her life.
The two make their way across the city, going in and out of windows, up staircases, and along the way even find a bottle of booze a dead guy bought to kill himself with. (Last week Ellie said she’d tasted alcohol before, right? Now we get it.) They debate the merits of their opposing points of view as a FEDRA trainee and new Firefly; both think their way of living is the right way, hence the constant war between them. The argument seems to be getting out of hand when Riley tells Ellie they’ve made it to their destination: an abandoned shopping mall.
Ellie is of the belief that this mall is filled with infected, but Riley seems to know otherwise. Riley also mentions that a few old power grids were turned on in the area to house some new people in the Quarantine Zone. Which seems like an odd piece of information, until it isn’t. Inside, Riley tells Ellie to make a few turns and wait. She does just that and that’s when things get really, really good.
The power to the mall was restored without FEDRA knowing and Riley lights the whole thing up, store by store. Ellie watches with a look of joy that’s nearly indescribable. She’s never seen anything like it but Riley says that’s not the half of it. She’s planned a whole evening for them to explore the wonders of the mall.
In 2023, most teenagers probably only have a vague memory of spending time in shopping malls so there might still be some wonder and kitsch to them. But for anyone born before this century, there’s nothing more common or relatable than a shopping mall. It’s pure nostalgia. So to see Ellie’s amazement at the mere turning on of the lights—as well as everything that followed—was The Last of Us at its very best, giving its audience a very specific example of something that’s mundane and forgettable to us, but not to a child in this world. It’s the message of appreciation for the little things and that there’s beauty in the simplest of places, especially if you’ve never experienced it before.
Case in point, the escalator. Ellie freaks out about the “moving stairs” to such an extent Riley has to change her tour from the four wonders of the mall to the five, with this being the first. The friends walk through the mall and Ellie marvels at what the humans who looted this place went after and what they didn’t. A jab at our modern way of living because, of course, people cleaned out the sneaker store but didn’t touch the soap store. In Ellie’s world, soap is much more important than the latest pair of sneakers.
One store that also wasn’t looted is Victoria’s Secret and the two girls converse about what the lingerie was used for and how it must feel. Riley jokes about what Ellie might look like in it and after she leaves, you can see that Ellie is curious about it. It’s an intimate side of her personality that the show hasn’t really touched on yet, but is about to get blown wide open.
After the bras and panties, Riley calls Ellie over to wonder number one: the carousel. They ride around on the horses with some lovely muzak playing and for the first time, the best friends feel like, maybe, a little more. There are big date vibes happening and in the vulnerable moment, Riley tells Ellie the real reason she joined the Fireflies. She was assigned her permanent FEDRA position and it was, unfortunately, on the path Ellie told the captain earlier that day she didn’t want. Riley was assigned to sewage detail and felt so disrespected she had to leave. In fact, the only thing she missed about the place was Ellie.
Wonder two is a photo booth which, somehow, sort of works 20 years later and the girls take some cute pictures. Then it’s time for wonder four. Riley asks Ellie to listen and, again, children of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s know the sound immediately. It’s the mall’s arcade and when Riley shows it to Ellie, she calls it the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. They walk around, looking at the games, and if the show has done its job right, you should have this odd little twinge in the back of your head. All season we’ve gotten these little hints that Ellie is obsessed with Mortal Kombat II. So as she traverses the arcade we are left secretly hoping for that game to be there. Then it is. And the reveal is handled with such beauty by everyone involved that there may not be as happy a moment in this series to this point (or, moving forward for that matter). The joy of Ellie finally getting to put some quarters and play this game she’s obsessed with was palpable and never has Mortal Kombat been so lovely. Riley even learned the fatalities so the two could see some real gore. (A sure-fire sign that even though it doesn’t make logical sense, episode writer Neil Druckmann was a big MK fan.)
This, however, is The Last of Us. And just as Ellie reaches her peak moment of bliss, the camera slowly leaves her and Riley. It goes out of the arcade, across the mall, and into another store where the arcade noises wake up a clicker. Fuck.
Before they go to the final wonder, Ellie tells Riley she has to go back to school. There’s still time before she’d actually get in trouble but this is our hint that she’s really taking that talk with the captain from this morning seriously. She’s ready to go all in on a FEDRA life. But Riley tells Ellie she has a present, and so they head to a restaurant.
Like a kid on Christmas morning, Ellie keeps guessing what the present might be. She even randomly guesses a dinosaur, which, Last of Us Part II fans know is definitely not random, just like her love of the moon. The gift is not a dinosaur though. It’s the second volume of the pun book Ellie loves so much. This, again, makes her so freaking excited, even if the girls don’t understand the pun about computers getting drunk by taking “screenshots.” (They were born after computers would have been a thing, don’t forget.)
The book was in the back of a restaurant that Ellie realizes Riley had been staying in. There, Ellie sees why her friend was really in the mall. Riley has been making bombs. Bombs to probably use on FEDRA soldiers. Ellie is pissed and is about to leave when Riley hits her with an emotional bomb: Riley is leaving Boston. The Fireflies want her to go to Atlanta and even though she asked the leader Marlene (great callback to the first episode and hint at what’s to come) if Ellie could go, she said no. That means Riley’s leaving and she wanted this night so she could say goodbye.
Hot-headed as ever, Ellie pushes that reality aside and storms out. She gets almost all the way out before she thinks better and turns around. She then hears a scream. Running, ready for anything, she busts into another store to find… Halloween decorations. Wonder five is the store Riley though Ellie would like best, a Halloween store. She does love it and sits down to hash everything out. The biggest difference between Riley and Ellie, we learn, is that Riley at one point had a family. She knew that sense of belonging. Ellie hasn’t (yet) and doesn’t quite get that while the Fireflies aren’t perfect, they’re giving Riley that home that she needs.
This is an acceptable excuse for Ellie who forgives her, thanks her, and tells her she misses her. After sitting in the mushy moment for a beat, Riley jumps right back into the night’s planned activities. She grabs one of Ellie’s tapes, puts it on in the store, and hands Ellie a big giant werewolf mask. She herself puts on a clown mask and the two start to dance. In a world like this, with so many people gone and terror around every corner, you almost got the sense this was the first time they ever just got to be kids. To live carefree and just dance like idiots in Halloween masks.
Caught up in the moment, Ellie takes off her mask and asks Riley not to go. She then musters up some strength and kisses her. Riley isn’t shocked though. She’s happy about it and agrees to stay in Boston. It’s another happy moment, maybe the happiest moment, because in each other, they find what they need. Love. Family. Future. So of course, that’s exactly when everything ends.
That clicker from before bursts into the store and a fight ensues. It’s manic and violent but, eventually, Ellie is able to stab it in its head, killing it. She’s excited about the victory until Riley points at her. Ellie has been bit, and so has Riley. Their lives are over. At which point, for the first time in like 40 minutes, the episode cuts back to the present. Ellie is still at the top of those stairs figuring out what to do. For the second time in her life, she’s at a crossroads with someone she loves who is in danger of dying.
Back at the mall, Riley and Ellie discuss their options. Do they commit suicide or just go mad together? If they pick the latter, at least they haven’t given up on each other. And while we don’t see what happens next, the show brings us back to present-day Ellie. She makes the decision to not give up on Joel, even if he suggested it, and tears the house apart. She finds a needle with thread and frantically tries to sew him up. Which is the moment the episode ends.
“Left Behind” was just phenomenal. Truly magical. Using Ellie’s past as a way to contextualize the awful moment she’s in at present, and to explain her struggle with it, was a stroke of genius. And in those flashbacks, we get to see Ellie for who she is. A strong, smart, queer young woman who was in love and lost that person. Because no matter what happens in that store, we know that Ellie survives and Riley doesn’t. Bella Ramsey is absolutely incredible in the episode, Storm Reid bounces off her beautifully, and in the end we’re left with an added appreciation of the small things we have in our lives and the knowledge that, at any moment, soap may become more valuable than sneakers.
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