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The heart of The Last of Us is Ellie’s pun book

The Last of Us is held together by dad jokes, just like it should be

Joel (Pedro Pascal) sitting in a chair and looking at Ellie (Bella Ramsey), who is sitting on the floor, hugging her knees Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Zosha Millman (she/her) manages TV coverage at Polygon as TV editor, but will happily write about movies, too. She’s been working as a journalist for more than 10 years.

You’ve probably heard the joke “Why did the scarecrow earn a medal? Because he was outstanding in his field.” But The Last of Us’ Ellie (Bella Ramsey) never has. When she pulls it seemingly at random from her book of puns, she is trying to spring it on Joel (Pedro Pascal), looking to elicit a final eye roll before they go to sleep. When he instead offers up the punchline, she’s both delighted and aghast: “You dick! Did you read this?”

There’s no way, of course, for Ellie to know that this is a very common pun, at least outside a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland brought on by mushrooms. But it’s telling that a scarecrow joke catches her off guard in a way that not even a surprise Clicker or random infected has in the rest of the show. And while this wasn’t the first time Ellie interacted with something new to her from the “old world,” it was an example of what The Last of Us can do at its best, finding smart ways to let the characters’ softness peek through, even in an incredibly hard world.

The heart of that has always been the relationship between Joel and Ellie. Though at first glance they’re an odd pair, there’s a certain symbiosis between the two; they’re both spiky, tough, would-be loners who bring out the softness in each other. And both the game and the show rely heavily on the idea that they form a profound bond, strong enough to inspire brutal acts of violence to protect it. That’s true even when Joel finds the thought kind of shameful, embarrassed to have Ellie see him kill the Hunters who ambushed them, and he’s even more overcome when he hears that it isn’t the first time she’s had to kill someone.

Moments like this in episode 4 gives us the best glimpse yet into their relationship being more than just him as a chaperone, even if he’s still telling her she’s not family, she’s “cargo.” It lets us see Joel finally drop his guard for a moment and genuinely care about the life Ellie’s lived, perhaps thawing slightly from his grief over Sarah’s death. And Ellie is letting herself be taken care of and care in return. When The Last of Us slows down for these moments, it makes time for Ellie to be more than just a generic apocalyptic teen, and Joel her gruff-but-nonspecific protector. There’s texture to her world that we didn’t have before, something that feels more personal to her.

No Pun Intended: Volume Too brings out the same thing in Ellie’s character. When she’s reading to Joel from the book, it’s not only a bonding moment, it’s an illustration that our world is as foreign to her as hers is to us. And it’s more effective storytelling than her marveling at an airplane in “Long, Long Time.” We’ve seen people in post-apocalypses linger at plane crashes, remarking about how grand it must have been to “go up in the sky,” as Ellie puts it. It’s understandable — air travel can leave even a seasoned passenger a bit awestruck — but it’s also overused, and misses the specificity that makes the The Last of Us’ characters interesting and its best moments really shine.

In contrast to her general means-of-transportation-based awe, Ellie’s affection for puns and her lack of cultural context around them is charming, and comes from her unique personality. It’s not just that she’s amazed at how people got around, it’s that she’s surprised anyone had time to use language this way. Through her delight and shock at Joel completing the punchline, we get a sense of her world and just how joyless it’s been until now. And Joel gets to be charmed and saddened by that just as much as we do.

It’s a smaller beat, to be sure. But The Last of Us, and in particular the connection between Ramsey’s Ellie and Pascal’s Joel, is built on minute moments. As Ellie is coming to learn, the world is much bigger and much more complicated than she thought. Here’s hoping The Last of Us can give her the same treatment.

The next level of puzzles.

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