This week, an extended flashback fills in significant aspects of Ellie’s life in the Boston Quarantine Zone.
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By Noel Murray
Season 1, Episode 7: ‘Left Behind’
Although Ellie talks almost nonstop, during her long trip across the country with Joel she has said very little about herself.
Going by the few details she has let slip — and what he have seen ourselves — we know she grew up in the Boston Quarantine Zone with no parents. She does not have a boyfriend. She did have a friend who knew how to perform an infamous finishing move in the video game “Mortal Kombat II.” She loves the comic book series “Savage Starlight.” She thinks whiskey is “gross.” She is wild about Will Livingston’s “No Pun Intended” joke books. She experienced shooting and violence firsthand back in Boston. And she got her nonfatal cordyceps infection while exploring a sealed-off shopping mall.
About 95 percent of this week’s episode consists of an extended flashback to Ellie’s life in the QZ, while in the present day she scrambles to keep the wounded Joel alive. Most of what we see in the flashback confirms what we already knew. But some details are a bit different — and those details matter.
For example: Ellie wasn’t just being educated by FEDRA; she was being indoctrinated. Singled out from her class as a future leader, she was being trained physically and mentally to protect the QZ and hunt Fireflies. Her stubbornness though was causing trouble. She was bucking authority, sneaking out at night, and fighting with the other girls — spurred on in part by her rebellious roommate Riley (Storm Reid).
When the flashback starts, Riley has been AWOL for three weeks; but while Ellie is asleep in their barracks after lights-out, Riley sneaks back in and explains her where she has been. She joined the Fireflies, after meeting Marlene and commiserating about how much they both hate FEDRA fascism. Ellie is skeptical, but still agrees to join her best friend for a wild after-hours excursion — which turns out to be a trip to the mall. For those of us watching at home, the alarms bells are already ringing.
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It takes a while before any trouble starts; and in the hour or two before then, these two girls have the greatest night of their lives. The building has working electricity, so Riley lights the whole place up, and as the young ladies head down what Ellie calls the “electric stairs,” Riley announces her intention to show her “the four wonders of the mall.” Hearing this, Ellie beams and says, “You planned stuff?”
Ellie’s excitement is the first clear sign that she is hoping this outing could — if played right — turn romantic. Anyone who has ever had an intense hang session with a pal they secretly have a crush on will recognize this vibe. When Riley makes fun of the mall’s un-looted Victoria’s Secret store and jokes about what Ellie would look like in lingerie, Ellie blushes and then surreptitiously checks her hair in the window’s reflection. Later, Riley takes Ellie’s hand to lead her to a working carousel, which plays what sounds like an instrumental version of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” Is this flirting?
We experience all these moments from Ellie’s perspective, sharing her hesitancy to make the next move. Sometimes their faces get close, and Ellie clearly wants to lean in further for a kiss. But what if she is misreading the signs? The romantic tension is more stressful than a clicker attack.
Throughout this episode, there is some foreshadowing of the looming tragedy. Before they enter the mall, Ellie and Riley come across a QZ resident who has killed himself with pills and booze. After they liberate his alcohol (which Ellie pretends to enjoy), the corpse falls through the floor. Later, while they are enjoying the marvels of a video arcade — playing “Mortal Kombat II,” naturally — the camera moves away to show a wall-clinging monster, awakened by the noise. It is a nerve-racking mood-shift, worthy of a great horror movie.
Ellie and Riley have some cranky moments together, arguing about whether the Fireflies are a force for good. Ellie fancies herself a freethinking anti-authoritarian, but she has spent much of her adolescence being inundated with anti-Firefly propaganda. When Riley grumbles about how the QZ can keep the lights on but can’t feed their own people, Ellie counters that the Fireflies didn’t help matters when they blew up a storage depot. The friends later briefly split up after Ellie realizes that Riley didn’t just stumble across this mall but has in fact been posted there by the Fireflies, who have her building explosives for them. (Ellie is not persuaded when Riley insists she would never let them use those bombs on her.)
Ellie comes back though, because Riley is about to be reassigned to Atlanta, and Ellie doesn’t want their last memory of each other to be her storming away in anger. They reunite in the Halloween store — the final planned “wonder,” after the carousel, a photo booth and the arcade — where Riley talks about how the Fireflies have replaced the family she lost.
“I matter to them,” she says.
“You mattered to me first,” Ellie says.
Then they put on monster masks, dance around to Etta James’s cover of “I Got You Babe,” and finally kiss. Ellis panics and apologizes; but Riley says, “For what?” The huge smile that spreads across Ellie’s face — followed by her asking, “What do we do now?” — is one of the sweetest and most relatable moments yet in this series.
The magic can’t last. While Ellie and Riley are still giddy over their first kiss, that wall-clinging savage from earlier barges in. The girls kill him off, but not before he wounds them both. Ellie, we know, will survive. Riley, presumably, does not. (Her death is not shown, but it is possible that when Ellie hinted to Joel back in Kansas City that she had killed before, she meant Riley.)
Earlier in the episode, a FEDRA officer mapped out Ellie’s future, pointing to two possible choices. She could keep goofing around and then spend the rest of her life as a miserable QZ worker-bee; or she could follow the rules and one day become a boss. Toward the end of the episode, Riley offers a different binary. They go ahead and kill themselves; or they could savor every last remaining second of their humanity. Riley knows what the right option is: They stay alive until the decision is out of their hands: “Whether it’s two minutes or two days, we don’t give that up.”
Back in the present — in the basement of a snow-covered suburban home — Joel says the opposite. She wants Ellie to leave him, to let him die. Instead, she tears the house apart until she finds a needle and thread to stitch Joel up. He holds her hand tenderly, before she threads the needle and gets to work.
Two more minutes down.
This episode is based on a downloadable expansion to the “The Last of Us” video game, released about a year after the original’s 2013 debut.
The scene where Riley lights up the mall is absolutely beautiful, rich with the soft, colorful glow of retail outlet signs. (Also oddly touching is the electronic clatter of an old arcade, echoing through the empty walkways. Who would have guess that a “Mortal Kombat II” punching sound could be poignant?)
The funniest visual gag in the episode: The sign on the multiplex box office reading “Back in 5 min.”
The Ellie/Riley debates about FEDRA are fascinating, because during Ellie and Joel’s journey, both sides have at different times been proven right. Law and order has indeed broken down in some “liberated” QZs. But some of those communities fell apart in the first place because FEDRA’s rule was unbearable.
Nearly everything in Ellie and Riley’s room either comes up again in this episode or is a part of Ellie’s lore. We see a “Savage Starlight” comic, an Etta James tape, a “Mortal Kombat II” poster, and, of course, the first volume of “No Pun Intended.”
“How does the computer get drunk?” “It takes screen shots.” Another Will Livingston classic! (Ellie and Riley, born too late for that kind of tech, don’t get it.)
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