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'The Last of Us' finale sums up everything the show's first season did right

It also shows what Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann need to work on in season two.

HBO

Editor's note: This article contains heavy spoilers for season one of The Last of Us and minor spoilers for the game The Last of Us Part II.

Last night’s finale of the first season of HBO’s The Last of Us turned out to be a microcosm of everything that worked across the nine episodes, as well as a reminder of what showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann will want to work on when they pick things up for season two. Throughout the season, The Last of Us has been exceedingly faithful to the original story — but Mazin and Druckmann smartly expanded on the stories of everyone surrounding Joel and Ellie to make the world much richer. In a perhaps too-tight 44 minutes (the shortest episode of the season), the show wrapped up the first part of the story, ending with Ellie’s “Okay,” just like the game.

That single word that tells us Ellie accepts Joel’s lies about what happened between him and the Fireflies, that he’s being honest when he says that they stopped looking for a cure and that her immunity doesn’t mean anything. Joel’s ostensibly off the hook for his murderous rampage through the Salt Lake City hospital to save Ellie from having her brain dissected by the Fireflies. Of course, Ellie being a cure for the cordyceps infection was the whole point of their journey — but not the point for Joel. And the look on Ellie’s face throughout the episode’s coda tells us she’s not convinced, despite what she says before everything cuts to black.

Really, there was no other place it could have stopped. Throughout the season, Mazin and Druckmann made plenty of deviations from the game’s main story, but things always came back to the most important beats in the relationship between Joel and Ellie. The importance of these events in the Salt Lake City hospital cannot be overstated, as they form the basis for everything that follows in the game The Last of Us Part II. As such, some expected to get some hints of how the hospital bloodbath will tie into events to come, but the show stayed firmly focused on the events in the first game. That’s for the best, as Part II has a sprawling, complicated story of its own; shoehorning in a few teases of what’s to come probably would have taken away from the immediacy of what happened between Joel and Ellie.

Before Joel’s killing spree and Ellie’s acceptance of his lies, we were treated to another of the flashbacks that Mazin and Druckmann have masterfully dropped throughout the season, this one going all the way back to Ellie’s birth. People who checked out the many collectibles in the game surely found Ellie’s letter in her backpack from her mother, Anna, who writes to her newborn knowing that her life is about to be cut short.

Ashley Johnson in the final episode of HBO's The Last of Us season one.
Ashley Johnson in the final episode of HBO's The Last of Us season one. (Liane Hentscher/HBO)

The game doesn’t make it explicit, but here we see that Anna (played by Ashley Johnson, who plays Ellie in the games) is both infected and about to give birth. We also get to see Firefly leader Marlene promise to keep Ellie safe before ending her friend’s life. (Also, we now know that Anna gave Ellie her trademark switchblade, something I always assumed but wasn't explicit in the game.) Given how important Marlene’s presence is in this episode, it was the right time to see the very beginnings of her relationship with Ellie. And, as with every other supporting actor on the show, Johnson crushes her limited time onscreen – she’s much more than an easter egg for fans of the game. The glimpses of lives beyond just Joel and Ellie that we’ve seen throughout the season have made the world of The Last of Us feel far richer, whether they take up a whole episode (like Bill and Frank in “Long, Long Time” or Riley in “Left Behind”) or just a few minutes.

My only complaint about this flashback is that Johnson’s story eats into the precious little time we have left for Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey to share the screen together. Throughout the season, the two actors have had marvelous chemistry – but in episodes seven and eight, the story dictates that they spend very little time together. In the finale they share some of the strongest moments of the entire season, but there are so many plot points to get to that I wished for even just an extra five minutes to let things breathe a bit. But moments like the famous giraffe scene and Joel telling Ellie how he really got that scar on his head were just a couple more emotional high points between the two characters (and actors) in a season full of them.

With the first season (and adaptation of the first game) now in our rear-view, I can’t help but wonder how Mazin, Druckmann and the rest of their team will set about adapting The Last of Us Part II. While the first game told a fairly linear story, Part II is full of twists, flashbacks and changes in perspective – without getting too much into spoilers, the game devotes a third or more of its 24-ish hour playtime to a totally new set of characters. It’s an essential part of the story, but it should also present a major challenge for the showrunners to integrate it and keep the story’s emotional impact without leaving behind familiar characters for hours at a time. (In a post-finale interview with GQ, Mazin and Druckmann confirmed that they will spread the events of The Last of Us Part II over multiple seasons.

Fortunately, Mazin showed his narrative chops in the first season, skillfully deploying a number of flashbacks — some new to the story and some straight from the game. As for the divergent stories, I’d have to imagine there will be a lot more intercutting between them than there is in the game. A good example is what director Peter Jackson did in The Two Towers and Return of the King. The original books both split time between two ongoing stories, and you stay with one set of characters for half the book before catching up with another group in the second half. Rather than leave Frodo and Sam for major chunks of screen time, he cross-cut between the stories as they progressed.

If Mazin does something similar, it’ll require some major re-thinking about how to make the game’s dramatic moments land, but that comes with the territory of being showrunner. Whether he can pull it off or not will be critical for future seasons of The Last of Us – the acting, set design, effects and everything else should continue to be top-notch, but it won’t matter if the narrative doesn’t hold up. Of course, a vocal subset of those who played Part II were intensely negative about the game’s story, so we’re likely to see future seasons be significantly more divisive than the first.

Screenshot from Naughty Dog's The Last of Us Part II
Screenshot from Naughty Dog's The Last of Us Part II

It’s also worth considering how the show will treat Ellie’s quest for revenge that makes up the bulk of Part II’s story. In the game, she’s as much an unstoppable killing machine as Joel is in the original game. But in season one, human-on-human violence was significantly curtailed compared to the game. That doesn’t mean Joel is shy about using violence to protect Ellie (see the infamous torture scene in episode eight or his calm dispatch of the Fireflies in the finale), but he's not an invincible video game superhero, a necessary change to ground the show more in reality. It seems inevitable that Ellie’s body count will be similarly scaled down once the show hits her John Wick phase, but it’s still going to be a tricky balance between showing her how far she is willing to go without the violence losing its emotional weight.

Regardless of how it all plays out, it’s going to be a while before we get to see how the HBO adaptation takes on the second game. Pascal recently said there was “a chance” filming starts before the end of 2023, and Mazin has hinted that the “remaining story” that they’re looking to adapt will take more than a season to tell. That means we’re likely to get a serious cliffhanger at the end of season two – even though I know where the story is going, I’m already preparing to yell at the screen when things cut to black.