Critics’ Conversation: Did the ‘Last of Us’ Finale Make the Right Choice?

[The following conversation contains spoilers for the season finale of HBO’s The Last of Us.]

DANIEL FIENBERG Showing no fear of the 95th Academy Awards, HBO’s The Last of Us wrapped up its first season on Sunday night with an episode that almost felt designed to troll the small-but-not-imaginary “This zombie show doesn’t have enough zombies!” hater brigade.

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Sure, the episode began with a pregnant woman — Growing Pains favorite Ashley Johnson — getting menaced by a zombie mid-labor. But overall the finale had more gentle giraffes than marauding mushrooms, which isn’t necessarily what you would have expected, unless of course you’d watched the first eight episodes of the season. Everything that came before established and underlined that even in a dystopia overrun by the undead, it’s messed-up humans you have to worry about.

What was provocative about the finale was that, while the body count was extremely high, the casualties weren’t limited to the so-called “messed-up humans.” Pedro Pascal’s Joel behaved in a way that was very easy to empathize with, but definitely was not for the betterment of humanity.

Angie, neither of us is a video game aficionado here — which doesn’t mean we’re unaware that Johnson, in addition to her Growing Pains bona fides, was the Ellie from the game — so when we speculate on where the series is going from here, we’re not discussing where the games did go. That being said, did you buy Joel’s choice?

ANGIE HAN Well, the episode works very hard to make sure you do, laying it on super thick in the first half with Joel’s confession that he attempted suicide immediately after Sarah’s death, and that only in Ellie did he finally find a new purpose in life. And it’s effective, particularly since Pascal is one of those actors who can move me to tears just by the way he looks at someone. So yes, in context, I absolutely understood how cornered and desperate he must feel. Imagine the trolley problem if the one person you’d have to sacrifice to save all the others were also the only person that made the world feel worth saving to begin with, and … yeah.

But the emotional arc of the finale did feel a little rushed, especially coming off a couple of episodes that kept the pair separated for most of their run time. I think I would have liked maybe one more episode in between to ground us back in the bond they’ve already built, and to explore how it’s evolved since their roles of protector and charge were temporarily reversed. Because so much of this chapter’s impact rests on our investment in their relationship, and what it’s come to mean to both of them.

As harrowing as Joel’s ordeal at the hospital was, for me the real gut punch came at the end, when Ellie confronts Joel about what she’s already begun to suspect is a lie. For most of the hour (well, 40ish minutes — between The Last of Us and Severance, I can’t say I mind this mini-trend of finales that actually run shorter than most episodes in the season) we’ve been in Joel’s mindset, looking at the conundrum from the perspective of how he feels about it and what he stands to lose.

Then, in the closing moments, as Ellie runs down the list of all the innocents who’ve died as a direct or indirect result of her journey, we come to see what Ellie lost when Joel made that decision for her — the cold reassurance that all that pain at least meant something, since it was in pursuit of some greater good. Now she’s the one who’s had her purpose snatched from her. It’s the first time their needs are truly at direct cross purposes with each other, even if they aren’t able to comprehend the full extent of their predicament yet, and it lays the groundwork for more heartbreak to come in the upcoming season.

FIENBERG It’s the trolley problem except that on one track you have a single person and on the other you have HUMANITY. Someday, maybe not the next day or the next week, Joel is going to have to acknowledge to Ellie, and probably to other people, that in a circumstance where he held at least the chance of saving everybody left on Earth, he not only chose to save his pun-making sidekick instead, but in the process killed a lot of people whose only crime was making the correct trolley-problem choice.

Of course, as I noted, if there’s anything that The Last of Us made clear — a thing previously made clear in The Walking Dead and The Road and countless other post-apocalyptic stories — it’s that people aren’t inherently worth saving, even if humanity is. And as Station Eleven taught us, those needn’t necessarily be the same thing.

Joel’s story about his attempt to kill himself was a reminder that our two main characters are having comparable personal journeys — losing the only person who mattered to them and then trying to find a reason to live — but they’re at very different points in those journeys. Very shortly after losing the person who mattered most to her in the world, Ellie found a friend/father, but when Joel offered her the choice between that personal relationship (and survival) and a purpose (but an uncertain fate), she chose the latter. She’s unlikely to be pleased when Joel eventually confesses, even if Joel is able to quote to her from the Talmud that whoever saves one life saves the world entire.

Regarding the overall finale, I also appreciate shows that don’t over-bloat their finales, but I found this finale to be rather wildly rushed, both in its transition from the ultra-nihilistic penultimate episode and then in its transition from the hospital massacre to the “permanent” — I know it will not be permanent — residence.

Thoughts on giraffes or Ellie’s apparent success as a medical professional getting Joel all patched up?

HAN The latter seems like another place where an extra episode, or maybe a more extended run time, would have been helpful! I don’t need to spend half a season watching Joel tend to his wounds, but the speed with which he’s bounced back — by the start of episode 9 he’s apparently perfectly healthy, without so much as a limp to show for his near-fatal injury — can’t help but retroactively diminish the stakes of that whole outing. It can start to feel almost like it never happened at all.

Which has been something of a challenge for the season as a whole, really. The episodic structure, in which each installment sees Joel and Ellie on a new adventure in a new location with new supporting characters, has its benefits: It’s kept the surprises coming, it’s been a great way to keep building out the show’s universe, and it’s allowed for stunning, mostly self-contained detours like “Long, Long Time” and “Left Behind.” On the flip side, though, it’s also meant that events that felt major in the moment, like the deaths of Sam (Keivonn Woodard) and Henry (Lamar Johnson) or the attacks from David (Scott Shepherd) and his cult, tend to get a little buried in whatever happens next.

It’s not that these storylines have no long-term impact. Just this week, Ellie’s demeanor and dialogue make clear the cumulative psychological toll these encounters have had on her; it’s part of what made that last scene so heartbreaking. But the narrative doesn’t allow much room to deal with the aftermath of each incident — for Joel and Ellie to process their emotions, to review the damage, to clean up their messes. It’s always just on to the next level.

In fairness, sometimes those levels involve a family of extremely adorable (if pretty CG-looking) giraffes, and I’m certainly not going to begrudge these bedraggled souls a brief moment of wonder right before they’re ambushed and carted off to possible death. Are you??

FIENBERG The self-contained — not to be confused with “standalone,” even if we occasionally use them interchangeably — episodes are and were a blessing and a curse, and not just because they forced us to be exposed to Ben Shapiro’s online attempts to analyze story structure.

“Long, Long Time” was so heartbreaking that it made me reflect on the first two episodes with perhaps less admiration than they deserved — they’re proficient, which is far from a criticism. And “Left Behind” was so scary and sad and beautiful that it amplified the sadism of the season’s last two episodes in ways that I responded to critically, even if that was entirely the point. The intersection of dehumanized violence and humanized storytelling is exactly what the series is about.

The idea, espoused primarily (but probably not exclusively) by pundits with axes to grind regarding same-sex love, that the self-contained episodes didn’t advance a season-long arc illustrated a profound lack of understanding that sometimes storytelling is driven by plot and sometimes it’s driven by theme. The sojourns with Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) or Henry and Sam or Riley (Storm Reid) at the mall are all about the same core as the Joel and Ellie story: How, and for what, do you keep living?

And I loved the giraffes and appreciated that they looked far better in the final version of the show than in our original screeners, with the rough CG. Coming out of the experiences in “When We Are in Need,” it’s no wonder that Ellie was shellshocked and that the child-like side of her character appeared to be gone. Given the things we’ve previously seen capture her youthful spark, I found it completely believable that a first exposure to zoo animals would restore that spark. If I were in that situation, I’d probably be trying to figure out where the monkeys were, but I’d almost compare it to the outpouring of sadness around the death of Los Angeles mountain lion P-22 a few months ago. As people, we occasionally become so desensitized by modernity and urbanity and domesticity that it takes something truly wild to make us feel again and maybe appreciate our own place in the natural landscape.

HAN Seems like the flip side of that coin might be that our own place in that landscape is far less significant than humans would like to believe it to be. The Last of Us has a real appreciation for natural beauty, whether that comes in the form of giraffes or snowy mountain vistas. But it’s also a world shaped by another natural phenomenon — cordyceps, which has spread its roots all over the globe. There’s an eerie echo between the shots of formerly urban or suburban locations now overrun by untamed flora and fauna and the glimpses we get of people transformed into feral, fungal creatures. In both cases, it’s as if nature is claiming (or reclaiming) what was once the province of humans.

And within that transformed world, it falls on individuals like Joel and Ellie to consider not just how to fight back, but why, and to what end, and at what cost. As you said, The Last of Us is far from the first piece of sci-fi to ponder these big questions about the worthiness of the human race, or to pit the comforts of civilization against the terror and majesty of nature. What I think the show does particularly well is remind us why they matter, through indelible moments of humanity.

The giraffes, or more specifically Ellie and Joel’s reaction to them, would seem an expression of all the stuff that makes our species’ continued existence worth fighting for: a child’s capacity for wonder and delight, a parent’s for overwhelming love. Then, later, it becomes a reminder of the devastating cost that survival comes with — other Ellies and Joels might get to enjoy such moments again, but only if this Ellie and Joel accept they never, ever will.

It’s a tough choice any way you slice it; even if you think the moral option is clear, I’m sure you can sympathize with how impossible it must feel to simply stand by and let a loved one die. Joel’s call may have been the wrong one for his species. But I think it’ll turn out to be the right one for a show all about the impossibility of making such calls.

Before we go, though, I have one other extremely difficult question to pose to you, Dan: Is there any part of you that would be tempted to try and eat one of those mushroom people, and if so, how would you prepare it?

FIENBERG It would have to be at least somewhat a product of desperation, but at the same time, in a moment of extreme dystopic hunger, who am I to look a gift cordyceps in the mouth? If I were feeling ambitious, I’d probably go back to season one of Hannibal for a refresher course on how to best prepare corpse mushrooms. At the moment, though, I’m mostly feeling cold and wet because it hasn’t stopped raining for a month, so you know what sounds good? Some cream of zombie mushroom soup. And I’d probably put the host body in my freezer in case things got desperate, Donner-wise. How about you?

HAN Oh, Hannibal Lecter would have a field day with a whole landscape of mushroom-human hybrids. I’m not Hannibal Lecter, so not exactly clamoring to chow down. But if I had to? I’m thinking I drown the sucker in some garlic and butter — a combination even more classic than Pedro Pascal and an adorable orphaned moppet in need of his protection.

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