Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us may be one of gaming’s biggest blockbusters, but it’s safe to say that HBO’s The Last of Us TV series introduced the zombie epic’s acclaimed, contentious story to a whole new audience. And at least some of that audience is wondering: “How does this all end?”
If you were within five yards of a video game in 2013, you may have gotten the sense that The Last of Us tells a story whose ending spawned significant debate. Perhaps you’re curious about where all that drama comes from. Or maybe, after watching the first episode, you’re not sure whether you want to sign up for something that might involve, say, Joel’s new surrogate kid dying. Or maybe you just like to know what you’re getting into, and you devour spoilers as a matter of course.
So before we just tell you what happens at the end of The Last of Us (2013), let’s talk about the reasons why you might actually want to go in cold.
The case for not spoiling the ending of The Last of Us, explained without spoilers
The ending of The Last Of Us is not ambiguous in its contents, containing a crystal clear succession of events and motivations — and at the same time, it leaves room for every player to form their own opinion on it. It demands reaction, and discussion, and “X was right” essays and “No, you psychopath, X was wrong” rebuttals.
Whether the ending of The Last of Us is a true twist ending is arguable. But it is an ending that firmly recontextualizes the kind of story that The Last of Us is. Polygon staff who’ve played the game can attest: Knowing the ending beforehand definitely colors how you respond to the show.
If you don’t already know the ending of The Last of Us and aren’t completely set on knowing what happens, we’d advise you not to look it up. Experience the story as it was intended, and enjoy (responsibly) the meaty open questions that it offers!
I just need to know if Ellie or Joel die!
Yeah, that’s legit. Sometimes you just need to know what you’re signing up for — parental-figure death and child death, especially in such a violent story, are heavy emotions! And The Last of Us has plenty of child death to go around (and not just the horrific one in its first episode). Scroll past the image, and we’ll let you know.
[Ed. note: The rest of this piece contains incrementally increasing spoilers for The Last of Us (2013).]
Neither Joel nor Ellie die at the end of The Last of Us (2013).
Can you just tell me the tone of the ending?
You just wanna know if it’s an upper or a downer? Scroll one more.
Honestly, this is one of the most hotly debated elements of the ending of The Last of Us (2013). Your mileage may vary, but expect your feelings to be mixed.
OMG just tell me the ending of The Last of Us
You got it, boss.
In the final act of The Last of Us (2013), Joel and an unconscious Ellie arrive in Salt Lake City following many brutal adventures, and Ellie is immediately taken in for treatment. Marlene, who had not considered that Joel might develop paternal feelings for the child he was hired to smuggle, tells Joel that the only way to make a cure is to excise part of Ellie’s brain, which will kill her. That becomes the kickoff for The Last of Us’ finale combat sequence.
Joel slaughters everyone in the Firefly lab and carries Ellie from the building. While the player, through Joel, kills plenty of characters in the course of the game, the finale takes pains to underscore this rampage as a thing beyond. And to be clear, unlike more role-play-leaning games, Joel’s actions are not left to player choice — the only way to continue the game is to pilot Joel as he executes doctors who are begging for their lives, shoots Marlene in cold blood, and then lies to Ellie about it.
When Ellie eventually wakes up and asks what happened and why they’re traveling away from the Firefly base, Joel feeds her a complete fabrication, convincing her that the Firefly scientists had already discovered that individual immunity couldn’t produce a cure, and so he had taken her away without incident. Joel and Ellie walk back to refuge together as the game comes to a close, leaving the fate of humanity, and the morality of Joel’s choice, to the player’s imagination.
It’s an ending that recolors Joel and Ellie’s game-long journey from a hopeful quest to save the world to something darker and more personal. It’s a twist in the sense that unexpected things are revealed (Ellie would have to die for a cure; the cure doesn’t get made) but the reveals were not what fueled the discussion. There are a lot of different ways to feel about the events of the ending of The Last of Us — that Joel was wrong, and his acts reprehensible. That Joel’s acts were reprehensible, but he was doing it out of love. That the game’s roping of the player into his rampage was egregious, or bad game design. Or simply that everybody else was overreacting to a pretty fun video game that told an exciting story where you got to kill zombies and cultists and stuff.
But it’s the execution of the end of The Last of Us made sure all of those feelings were felt strongly. And where there are strong feelings, you get endless conversation, and eventually, people who want to Google around to see what everybody’s talking about.