Another mostly self-contained episode of The Last of Us, another one that has audiences raving. It’s become a bit of a thing for the HBO show, but episode 7, “Left Behind,” is a little different: Fans have been anticipating this particular one since the adaptation was announced. Left Behind was an additional story released as a downloadable expansion for The Last of Us and was quickly regarded as the best part of the game. A decade on, it certainly feels like the story’s most heartbreaking moment.
On screen, it is basically a beat-for-beat retelling of the expansion’s story (though the show’s timeline means the gags about Facebook and the ephemeral nature of social media are missing), with Ellie suddenly responsible for a wounded Joel and flashing back to events before the two ever met. Here in the past we’re introduced to Riley, her best friend who might just be more than that, as the two sneak out at night to visit an abandoned mall. There, Riley intends to give Ellie the best night of her life with a tour of various sights these two post-apocalyptic kids have never seen, including a working merry-go-round and a photo booth.
Like in the game, the underlying tension — or at least the non-pandemic-related tension — comes from whether either of the two really recognizes that this is a date. It’s a genuine portrayal of burgeoning desire as they wrestle to ascertain whether the other is interested, and it rings all the truer for its queerness. Same-sex attraction is often difficult to navigate in adolescence (and, admittedly, plenty troublesome as an adult too), especially in a world that neither encourages nor educates about homosexuality. It’s the struggle to exist in that circumstance that has “Left Behind” hitting me harder than it did the first time around.
Seven episodes into the show, it’d be pretty reasonable to be suspicious of this happy time the two share, even as they playfully argue about their respective positions in the two combating factions of their city. Sure enough, at the end they end up bitten by infected, essentially handing them both a death sentence. Even though we know Ellie survives, it’s a crushing scene. Because if nothing else, it’s clear Riley doesn’t. We see them both come to terms with impending death, Ellie raging and furious while Riley, the more mature of the two, falls into quiet acceptance. Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid give performances as devastating as those of Ashley Johnson and Yaani King in the game, conveying the terrible unfairness of these youngsters bumping up against an unjustly cruel world (not unlike another show from last year).
Ellie’s rush to action and anger is established almost from her first scene in the show. Now we know where at least some of that comes from. There’s no way to reconcile the trauma of expecting to die alongside the girl you love, only to lose her while you have to live on. The weight of this has clearly been on Ellie’s shoulders for the entire show, and it fuels her turbulent relationship with Joel. In each other, to different degrees, they both see the people they’ve lost. And even the smallest tweaks in the adaptation make a difference in how that friction comes across. HBO’s Joel is not only more likable but more emotionally honest. His heart-to-heart with Tommy in the previous episode was a far cry from the toxic encounter in the source material, where he outright threatens Tommy into taking Ellie off his hands. Then, his argument with Ellie later on still has him admitting how much he cares for her. Without that mean, selfish streak from the game, the show seems less inclined to be critical of Joel as a character, a huge part of what drove Ellie’s transformation as a character over the two games. That leaves Ellie’s character looking a bit more childish around him.
That makes the timing of “Left Behind” all the more important: The game notably told the Left Behind story after Joel and Ellie’s story was finished. The expansion was more about offering a counterpoint to Joel’s more selfish interpretation of love than it was filling in backstory. Ellie had already recounted the events of Left Behind in the main game, after all, so players went in knowing exactly how it was all going to end. For the show, “Left Behind” feels like a revelation. It no longer presents Riley as a clear contrast to Joel, but it makes clear why losing Joel is so scary for Ellie. While the show often comes across to me as schmaltzier than the source material, this episode remains tragic, and vital for contextualizing Ellie’s past and future struggles.
For a video game in 2013, it was a bold thing to have a whole story center around what it is, essentially, a date. To put an explicit queer love story at the heart of it was unheard of in mainstream games at the time. It’s not as novel now, a decade later and on television, but it remains a poignant, moving little arc. Back then, I latched onto their resolve in the ending, with Riley dedicating whatever time she had left to spending it with Ellie.
It’s a stark contrast to Bill and Frank’s arguably saccharine utopia in episode 3. Where they were able to carve out a perfect space for themselves in spite of the world around them, Riley and Ellie can’t escape it. Gone is the idyllic and scenic sunlit home; here is a decaying mall in the dead of night, the only refuge available to the two girls. Bill was able to carve out a whole town for years, but they can barely get a few hours. Whether you feel Bill and Frank’s story was an important counter to media where queer stories often end in tragedy or pure fantasy, Left Behind is certainly more beholden to the tropes that define these tales (namely, death). Riley does indeed die. Yet despite the implicit tragedy, Left Behind avoids the obvious beats therein. We don’t see Riley’s death or a mourning Ellie. The episode and the game pointedly focus on their moments of joy and survival. But a decade on, it’s the harsh reality of their circumstances that separates it from Bill and Frank’s story.
By the end of the episode, Ellie has chosen not to abandon Joel but fight to keep him alive. Hope wins out. At least for now. But with its new place in the story, “Left Behind” becomes its most urgent part. Seeing these two girls torn apart by their respective political machines (even if the Fireflies certainly sound more appealing) and their dire circumstances, it was impossible for me not to think of the desperate battles being fought daily by queer people for freedom and dignity in their lives. Ellie’s struggle throughout the show is now reframed as a traumatized queer girl’s battle for some kind of peace. It makes the fact she never met Bill and Frank, never even got a glimpse of that potential utopia, feel like a missed opportunity. But it’s a telling one: This is The Last of Us, and unfortunately too many roads lead to tragedy. Ellie’s journey, as those who have played the game know, is no exception. Ahead is the darkest chapter in her story so far as she encounters David and his group of survivors, catching her alone without Joel’s support as she’s forced to do whatever it takes to survive. Beyond this first season awaits the events of the game’s sequel, where Ellie still doesn’t find any peace.
And unfortunately, that’s not an unfair reflection of the world right now. There is no shortage of scared kids seeking support from someone who might have some answers. As a queer woman in my 30s, I’m so frightened for them, and it’s that same kind of fear I felt watching the latest episode of The Last of Us. The story is broadly the same, but in 10 years its themes have only become more prescient. Where I once latched onto the love expressed by Riley, now it’s the tragedy of it I can’t let go of. It was always a heartbreaking story; it’s just all the more so for a decade passing without us being able to secure a better future for younger generations. “We fight for every second we get to spend with each other,” Riley tells Ellie in both versions. “Whether it’s two seconds or two days, we don’t give that up.” Hearing it a decade later for a second time, knowing everything that’s to come in the story, I just found myself so sad that Ellie, and the young people like her, have to fight at all.