‘The Last of Us’ Episode 7 Review: ‘Left Behind’ – Spoilers
Another flashback episode, this time with Ellie, shows how this world makes happiness a double-edged sword.
(Editor’s note: Included in the following review spoilers for “The Last of Us” Season 1, Episode 7, “Left Behind”.)
Much of the conversation surrounding “The Last of Us” centers on what will be lost after the world changes. There will be social collapse, transformation, widespread death and a fundamental shift in priorities. But for all that a post-epidemic world lacks, the latest episode of the series, Left Behind, makes room for a kind of wonder that wasn’t really present in Before Times. The show’s few lone bright spots come from Ellie (Bella Ramsey) being completely terrified of something she’s never experienced before. We’ve seen him try to wrap his head around football, airplanes and monkeys. There are tragic reasons why all of these things are new to him, but it’s the sense of discovery that the show gets from his circumstances that can sometimes even out the harshness.
So, as the season prepares for its homecoming arc, “The Last of Us” takes a quick trip back into the not-so-distant past. “Left Behind” is the simplest episode of the season so far, with most of it taking place in a single night. Ellie, disillusioned with the conditions of her FEDRA-run school, considers her options and the limited number of life goals she faces. One fateful night, her best friend Riley (Storm Reid) returns from a mysterious absence to show Ellie a secret corner of the Boston QZ. In the hours after curfew, Ellie and Riley tour the highlights of an abandoned mall and discuss their respective futures. As the two begin to explore what some of these futures might look like together, an attack by an infected takes their toll on them both.
In the conversations between Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie about the loss of loved ones and the fact that no one is left alive to care for, this is the promised story. The episode is freed from the difficult task of connecting Ellie’s past and present and can focus on showing what keeps her going. The simplicity of the hour gives “Left Behind” a chance to relax. If nothing else, Ellie and Riley’s adventure allows director Liza Johnson to add some electricity to the show: neon lights, fluorescent lights, a flashing GameStop sign. There was abstraction in Joel’s sketch on capitalism and contact sports last week. Here, there is a much more tangible, second-hand thrill of experiencing an exciting new corner of everyday life (one with an escalator) for the first time.
The key line before all the malls is the conversation with Captain Kwong (Terry Chen) in the school office. (Unless they happened to have one lying around, FEDRA officers seem to have prioritized keeping Boston’s nameplate factory open.) This is yet another in a growing line of instances where Ellie has two options. His whole life was simplified to a series of “one or the other” decisions. Here he is either offered grunt work or senior management. As long as Tommy or Joel were chosen to take her to the Fireflies, Ellie’s path was shaped by others.
Part of that is that he’s younger. But it also gives a window into the resentment he often feels towards decision-makers, some of whom (like Marlene) let him get completely out of hand. When Riley reappears in her life and tells her the reason for leaving, Ellie’s reaction has a hint of resentment that someone she knew was able to break that pattern and take an option that wasn’t off the board. This also makes the moments spent in the mall stand out even more. You can choose your own pose in the photo booth. You can mash at will.
For reasons beyond flashbacks, it’s impossible not to compare this episode to the Frank and Bill saga of “Long, Long Time.” Where this episode featured two full lives, “Left Behind” contemplates the absence of one. Bill had a few extra layers of protection around his walls, but other than that, this is a couple of stories about people trying to salvage some joy in the face of an uncertain future. Ellie and Riley are treated with a certain disregard for youth, even as they are burdened with the burden of unreasonably difficult circumstances. Maybe that’s why they’re so convinced of their safety that they spend most of their time throwing caution to the wind and insisting on places in the mall loud enough to attract infiltrating clickers.
Regardless, “The Last of Us” puts forward the idea that safety can be an illusion. Frank and Bill had created their idyllic hideaway, but even as Frank says in his final request monologue, there were still plenty of bad days. All the flash grenades Fireflies can stash in their underground arsenal are pointless in a sneak attack when they draw attention elsewhere. And as a continuation of a season-long question, if the only purpose of life is to find ways to stay alive, and there is no time for anything other than survival, is it still worth living?
The only interesting thing about “Left Behind” is its placement. In isolation, it’s a sweetly executed look at a given moment, but in terms of “The Last of Us,” it doesn’t deliver much that an economical show wouldn’t already deliver. We saw ironic remnants of the past, such as the “Back in 5 minutes” note at the cinema box office. We saw that Ellie was grateful to have someone to play with in the all-too-short time she spent with Sam. We know he was skeptical about his life spent under martial law. “Left Behind” isn’t so much about filling in the gaps as it is about adding more to a plate that was pretty much full.
So why now? The most important addition here is the idea that Ellie has lost someone outside of her family, friends or acquaintances. With a glance, you’ll begin to imagine how you’ll travel the world with a real partner. Obviously, the context is very different with Joel than with Riley, but it’s another underscoring of why Ellie doesn’t want to face the challenges ahead alone. Stitching up Joel’s torso in the final seconds is his version of atonement, just as Joel is trying to make up for his own daughter’s death in some small way. If you can’t save the world, do what you can to save the ones you care about. However, in Ellie’s case, she may be able to do both.
There’s also something that episode writer Neil Druckmann leaves out. The sense of doom and dread that hovers over the end of the episode is already there. Ellie’s scar will be there weeks later. It hadn’t been that long since Sam had encountered the same circumstances that presumably awaited Riley. Since there is already a lot of evidence about The End, this will leave those details alone for now. Instead, the focus is on a dance to a cover sung by Etta James (straight from the extended game franchise). You have to take a few giant gulps from a bottle to see what it tastes like. And it’s on the merry-go-round no matter how long the music plays.
“The Last of Us” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and can be streamed on HBO Max.
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