The Last of Us 2 ending had the tough job of not only following up what is generally considered to be one of the best video game endings of all time, but simultaneously capping off its own separate story of Ellie's revenge odyssey across Seattle. Thankfully, Naughty Dog somehow managed to achieve the impossible with The Last of Us 2, and deliver a curtain close that felt right for its characters, even if it's final scene is not quite as deliciously ambiguous as that of its predecessor.
We'll be delving into full spoiler territory as we lay out exactly what happened in the The Last of Us 2 ending, and try to work out what it all means. The climax doesn't tie up every dangling plot thread however, leaving us with a few remaining questions that we also try to wrap our head around below. Consider this your final warning for spoilers: If you haven't yet completed The Last of Us 2 campaign, turn away now.
The Last of Us 2 ending recap
The Last of Us 2 ending starts, in quintessential Naughty Dog fashion, with a false finish. After Abby leaves Ellie on death's door following a brutal confrontation in Seattle, Ellie returns home to begin a new life with Dina, and we flash forward 18 months later to find the pair raising baby JJ (named in honour of Joel and Jesse) on a farmstead not too far from Jackson.
Life seems to be good for Ellie, until we discover that she's still suffering from PTSD over Joel's murder, unable to find the closure that she believes will only come with Abby's death at her hands. Tommy's visit, in which he reveals a new lead on Abby and Lev's whereabouts, is all that's needed to break the peace, and Ellie ventures out to California to hunt her nemesis down, much to Dina's disapproval.
Abby and Lev, meanwhile, have successfully managed to track down the reformed Fireflies in Santa Barbara, and are on their way to meet up with them only to be captured by a mercenary group of slavers known as The Rattlers. Months pass, and Ellie arrives, eventually reaching Rattler HQ.
Upon infiltrating the Rattler base and finding both Abby and Lev strung up for an escape attempt, Ellie considers helping them make a break for it, but the images of Joel continue to haunt her, and she forces Abby to fight for her life. This is the Last of Us 2's final 'boss battle'; two incredibly strong but physically broken women trading desperate blows against the misty coastline.
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Eventually, Ellie gets the upper hand, and begins to drown Abby underwater, but another memory of Joel apparently triggers one final act of mercy, and she lets her escape with Lev by boat. Ellie returns to Wyoming to find her farmstead home vacated, aside from her studio of music and paintings. She picks up the guitar, starts playing (as best she can without the two fingers she lost fighting Abby), and recalls the memory that flashed before her eyes while she had Joel's killer in her clutches.
On the night before his death, she had visited Joel's home, confronting him for continuing to interfere in her life long after she cut him out of it after discovering what really went down with the Fireflies all those years ago.
"If somehow the Lord gave me a second chance at that moment, I would do it all over again," replies Joel, refusing to express any remorse or regret for robbing Ellie of her chance to save humanity.
"I don't think I can ever forgive you for that", she admits, letting an uncomfortable pause set in, before adding, "But I'd like to try." An awkward goodbye ends their final conversation together, and it's back to the present day, where we see Ellie put down the guitar, the camera panning out to the window as we watch her walk back out into the wilderness.
The Last of Us 2 ending explained
So, what does it all mean? Well, you can read the end of Ellie's story in a number of different ways, but here's my two cents.
Throughout the game, players were led to believe that Ellie's final interaction with Joel before his death was one of confrontation, in which she publicly derides him for refusing to accept that their friendship is over. As far as we know at this point, Ellie never forgave Joel for his actions in the first game, which explains why she's so consumed by a need to exact revenge on Abby. Deep down, she's really angry at herself for not patching things up with the only father figure in her life before it was too late.
On the contrary, that final, crucial flashback scene on the porch reveals that Joel didn't die thinking that he had lost Ellie forever. Instead, Ellie made a choice to begin the process of forgiving Joel, but Abby and the WLF robbed her of that opportunity, which suddenly gives us a much better understanding of our heroine's hatred towards them. Just as the hope for a restored relationship with Joel came back into her life, Abby snuffed it out with one, unrepentant swing of a golf club.
Which brings us back to the present day, where Ellie has another difficult choice to make. That memory of Joel that appears as she's drowning Abby? It reminds her that she's capable of mercy. That she can honor her friend's memory by being better than him. That if she's able to forgive Joel for committing one of the most unforgivable acts in human history, then she can forgive the woman who killed him.
Ellie's last act of clemency thus breaks the cycle of violence that Naughty Dog has stated runs at the heart of The Last of Us 2. Having made that decision, bringing meaning to Joel's death through mercy rather than violence, she's finally able to move on from this sorry chapter of her life. To me, the final shot of her walking out across the fields is exactly that; of Ellie moving on.
It's fair to say that The Last of Us 2 rolls credits with a more resolute ending than the sinister ambiguity left by the close of the first game, then, but there's still a few, niggling questions you might have that I'll try to address below...
Who are the Rattlers?
After going to great lengths to characterise and carefully colour in the backstories for The Last of Us 2's main warring factions, the Seraphites and the WLF, it seems odd for the game to introduce a third group at the last minute, present for just a few hours before the end credits roll. Instead, The Rattlers are there as a mechanical antagonist for Naughty Dog's final act, though a couple of lines of dialogue and collectable artefacts do offer more insight about the history of this brutal group from the golden coast.
Based out of Santa Barbara, the Rattlers are a mercenary force who capture wandering survivors and enslave them as human labour. Any who try to escape - or exercise any form of resistance - are punished brutally, either shot down, turned into Infected to be used as living scarecrows, or hung up to dry on pillars by the coast.
Even by apocalypse standards, the Rattlers are perhaps the nastiest group of the bunch, evidenced by the fact that they're willing to string up Lev, a 13 year old, as punishment for Abby's escape attempt. Basically, these guys are the epitome of evil, and players can feel far less guilty gunning them down than members of the WLF or Seraphites, who at least show some elements of empathy in their own tribal politics. Fun fact: the larger Rattler who Ellie shoots down after being captured is played by Travis Willingham, the husband of Laura Bailey, who plays Abby. It really is a family production, after all.
What happened to Abby and Lev?
Following Ellie's act of mercy, Abby is able to escape the Rattlers' clutches with Lev by boat, after the pair were left for dead on the pillars of Santa Barbara's coast. Though neither of them are in good shape, it's likely that Abby still intends to group up with Fireflies she managed to contact over the radio just before they were captured.
Just take a look at the main menu screen once you've completed the game. That isn't just any old coastline, but one which appears to belong to the island of Santa Catalina, evidenced most notably by the sight of the famous Catalina Casino in the background. This is where the Firefly on the radio told Abby that the reformed group was now based, and the image of a beached boat in the foreground suggests she and Lev actually managed to make it there after all.
Can we expect a Lost Legacy-style standalone expansion depicting the further adventures of this unlikely pair? It wouldn't surprise me, especially given how much time Naughty Dog has invested into developing those characters, not to mention the fact that the Fireflies' unexpected re-emergence now offers new hope for a potential vaccine.
Similarly, it's not clear whether Yara actually killed WLF leader Isaac back on the Seraphites' island, and there's every chance he's alive and harbouring a deep grudge against Abby for her betrayal. If that's the case, Abby's history could still come back to bite her yet.
When Ellie returns to her farm in The Last of Us 2's final scene, Dina and JJ are nowhere to be found, with the entire homestead emptied apart from their studio, with not even a parting note to clarify where the pair have gone. We can make a fair assumption, however, that Dina made the decision to return to Jackson following Ellie's trip to California, as I doubt she wanted to raise a baby by herself in the apocalypse.
The real question is whether Dina will be able to forgive Ellie after abandoning her for one last hail mary to hunt down Abby, and if Ellie is even capable of moving on from her traumatic events, despite finally letting go of her bloodlust. Whatever the case, the final shot of Ellie heading out from the farm also suggests she's heading back to Jackson too, hopefully to live the rest of her life in peace, and with a new quest to make amends with her soulmate.
Why was Joel in so many of The Last of Us 2 trailers?
Looking back on The Last of Us 2's trailers in hindsight reveals just how far Naughty Dog was willing to pull the rug over our eyes with its promotional misdirection. The studio has a history for this kind of deception, but its latest sequel took it one step further, suggesting that Joel was alive and well for most of the adventure, and would be helping Ellie in her quest to avenge those who appeared to kill Dina.
Of course, we now know it's the other way round, with Joel brutally murdered within the game's first few hours, and Dina accompanying Ellie on her revenge mission. Even so, you can forgive us for thinking otherwise, as there are entire moments in The Last of Us 2's trailers that appear to have been created purely as an elaborate ruse, including Joel's "You'd think I'd let you do this on your own?" line, which is instead spoken by Jesse during Ellie's attempt to track down Tommy.
Dina is also cropped out of several in-game moments seen in the trailer, including parts where Ellie appears to be travelling alone on horseback, but has Dina sat behind her in reality. Never trust a Naughty Dog trailer, basically, but if you're wondering what happened to those Joel scenes missing from the game, the likely answer is that they never even existed in the first place.
Is this really the last of The Last of Us?
No! The good news is that Naughty Dog has already confirmed a new Last of Us multiplayer experience, an evolution of the first game's Factions mode, is in the works, so ambitious that the studio's original plans to release it alongside Part 2 had to be scrapped. We're not sure of a timeline for that project, but - given the PS5 is out later this year - you can likely expect it to be a cross-gen release.
As for new singleplayer stories set in the world of The Last of Us, I think it's fair to say that Joel and Ellie's story is over, but - as explained earlier - Naughty Dog has very much left the door open for the continued adventures of Abby and Lev.
Alternatively, Ellie's diary reveals that she travelled through an infested Las Vegas on the way to California, and only survived by the skin of her teeth. Her entire journey to Santa Barbara, in fact, marks a months-long journey that The Last of Us 2 jumps over as though it were nothing more than a short hike, making it the perfect gap in the campaign to return to with new, story-based DLC. There's also the worrying notion that the cycle of violence isn't broken, after all, as the remaining members of the WLF could return to Jackson to bring Ellie to justice for killing dozens of their soldiers. That is, of course, if the war between the Seraphites and the Wolves has left any survivors…
As you can probably tell by now, there's ample opportunity for Naughty Dog to return to the world of The Last of Us if it wants to, either through addendum-style DLC or even a full sequel/prequel on PS5. I'd welcome it, too, as if Part 2 has proven anything, it's that there's plenty more story to tell in this American apocalypse yet.
For more, watch our full video review of The Last of Us Part 2 below, or check out our guide to The Last of Us 2 New Game Plus Mode to enjoy the story all over again.