‘The Last of Us’ Episode 9 Review: ‘Seek the Light’
Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin’s Season 1 finale presents fans with a stirring challenge — and sets off an exciting second season.
(Editor’s note: Included in the following review spoilers (for “The Last of Us” episode 9, “Look for the Light”, including the ending.)
“When someone shows you who you are, believe them first.”
The words of Dr. Maya Angelou may not have been taught in FEDRA’s military school, and even if they were, it’s unlikely that Ellie (Bella Ramsey) would recall the above quote now that she was unaware of Joel’s (Pedro Pescal) murder. But long before his protector went on a killing spree that could end humanity’s hopes of surviving a fungal apocalypse, co-creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin showed us who Joel really was, as the Season 1 finale made painfully clear who he still is. .
In the premiere, when Joel, Ellie and Tess (Anna Torv) are busted on the outskirts of Boston, memories of their lost daughter trigger a wild defense mechanism. Joel snaps, brutally beating the guard who stopped them, and Ellie looks on. “Okay, okay,” viewers might have argued at the time. “Ellie needs a guardian, and in such a brutal world, that guardian must be capable of similar brutality.” But warning signs are installed only from there. In Kansas City, Ellie rescues Joel and refuses to acknowledge the burden he is putting on her, reflecting her impenetrable exterior. When she tries to talk to him about it, Joel struggles to explain why they might feel justified in killing their attacker—as if he’s afraid he might look like a monster, or admits to himself that he already is.
Last week, when Joel recovers from his stab wound and discovers that Ellie has been taken, we get a longer look at his dark side. He tortures his attackers to learn her whereabouts and kills them even after they tell the truth. Left to his own devices and pressed for time, Joel responds with violence — the same type of violence he and Tommy (Gabriel Luna) used between Sarah’s death and Ellie’s arrival, and the same kind of violence we expect. and encourage our action heroes. “We’ve done these things, but they’re not ‘things,'” Tommy tells Joel in episode 6. “We killed people. I don’t judge you for that, (but) there were other ways. We just weren’t good at them.” Joel still doesn’t, and it turns out that killing some cannibals was just a warm-up.
Episode 9, in its very form, leads to an archetypal hero ending. Our two protagonists are separated and when Joel wakes up, he is told that Ellie is about to die. So what does it do? He shoots everyone who stands between him and his ward: guards, doctors, even the woman who has known Ellie all her life. Technically, they all want to kill him and he’s there to save him.
It’s just… that’s not what he does, and the audience feels it from the moment he starts attacking. Director Ali Abbasi shoots Joel’s twisted rescue operation without an iota of tension. Mournful music plays over every fatal shot. The camera either lingers on the bodies of Joel’s victims or cuts back to their lifeless expressions. There is no question of whether he can get to her, only a terrible inevitability – he will keep her alive.
But you shouldn’t. “The Last of Us” makes it clear that the ending is not heroic, but tragic. Were Joel’s actions outrageous? Totally. As an audience, we’ve seen the ending a million times: The father figure does everything to save his child. It’s typically framed as selfless bravery—who wouldn’t root for a guy who protects an innocent child? That’s exactly what Part 9 asks you to do, or at least consider. Even if you’re relieved that Ellie is still alive, it’s impossible to like where our leads are leading us.
Not only is Joel acting out of self-interest—killing dozens of innocent people to protect the father-daughter relationship he can’t afford to lose again—he’s defying Ellie’s expressed wishes. Before the fireflies find them, before Ellie is taken to a surgery she won’t come back from, before Joel learns exactly how the scientists hope to copy the chemical messengers in her brain to protect the rest of humanity, he tells her, “There’s no need for this.” you do,” Ellie replies, “after everything we’ve been through, everything I’ve done can’t be in vain. I know you mean well, she tells Joel, I know you want to protect me. (…) But it is not halfway there. We will finish what we started.”
Courtesy of Liane Hentscher/HBO
In the climax of the finale, Joel becomes the villain – he chooses to become a villain and we have no choice but to go with it. Neither does Ellie. Not really. She tells him what she wants and he ignores her. She suspects there was more going on when she was unconscious than Joel is telling her; that her story of dozens of immune people like Ellie, doctors who gave up on the cure, robbers who stormed the hospital before she woke up—it’s a little too neat and tidy to be the whole truth. Likewise, it may be suspicious that Joel is talking about his daughter again; arguing that Ellie and Sarah like each other in the same breath and claims that they are not the same person. Joel seems to have to believe these things more than reality confirms them to be true.
And in these closing moments of the wonderful first season, there is another important twist. When Ellie asks Joel to swear to tell the truth and Joel lies to her face, Ellie becomes the hero. Sure, we’ve been rooting for him all along, but so far we’ve had two main characters, and Joel was the one we started with. We watched her story for almost an hour before Ellie showed up in the premiere. He’s the traditional hero type—a strong male protagonist, if you will—and, as Marlene surmises, he’s saved Ellie a few times along the way.
But “The Last of Us” has been turning to Ellie’s perspective for a while now. Episode 7 is dedicated to his story. Episode 8 sees her save Joel’s life, very purposefully subverting viewers’ expectations that Joel will be the one to save her from the cannibalistic cult. Instead, Ellie saves herself. He doesn’t need it and he can’t play the hero. In Episode 9, he doesn’t need it either – he’s exactly where he wants to be – and despite being involved, he can’t play the hero. It becomes something else.
It will be interesting to see how the show’s perspective continues to change in Season 2. Is Joel beyond redemption? It certainly seems that way when he kills Marlene (Merle Dandridge), even as she tries to convince him that they can still fix what he did. (It’s also worth asking if she’s beyond redemption for fans who endured a barrage of heartbreak throughout Season 1.) As for Ellie, can she come back from all of this? Can she live a healthy, happy life with Joel as her primary caregiver? All along, “The Last of Us” reversed familiar complacencies: it’s not a zombie show, it’s a show with zombies. This isn’t a survival show, it’s more about what it really means to be alive. It’s not about a hero saving a girl, but maybe it’s about a girl saving a fallen hero?
What’s safe to say is that ‘The Last of Us’ showed us what it’s all about, and we’d be foolish to expect anything less the second time around.
“The Last of Us” Season 1 is available to stream on HBO Max. Season 2 has already been renewed.
Courtesy of Liane Hentscher/HBO
• I wrote in my mid-season review that episodes 3 and 5 still tell us more about the season as a whole, and now I can finally elaborate. Think of these two posts as two sides of the same coin. Both center on love, just like in episode 9, but the coin has to land on one side or the other – and they predict very different paths.
Maybe Ellie and Joel can make a happy home for themselves in the commune. (Let’s call that path “heads.”) Ellie can help Joel find peace, and he can still protect her — much like how Frank (Murray Bartlett) helped Bill (Nick Offerman) build a life, and Bill protects Frank. But considering the destruction and lies such a life would be built on, it’s possible Joel and Ellie are more like Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) and her dead brother Michael. (That would be the “tail.”) If Ellie grows old and leaves Joel—as Marlene predicts is inevitable—will this loss destroy Joel? Do you have it yet? Could it be that his love for Ellie is so overwhelming that it is corrosive like Kathleen’s love for Michael?
Since we haven’t played the game’s sequel, ‘The Last of Us: Part II’, this is purely speculation. But episodes 3, 5, and 9 clearly show the power of love and how it can lead people down drastically different paths.
• “People make apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow.” 10/10! Lord help me, I love puns.
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