The Last of Us ending explained: Your biggest questions from the season 1 finale answered

Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal as Joel in The Last of Us
(Image credit: HBO)

The Last of Us season 1 has concluded – and it has well and truly put an end to the theory that video games just don't translate all that well in different mediums. Over the last two months, the HBO adaptation has steadily built its audience and earned an impressive 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. Its emotional, action-packed finale assuredly sticks the landing, but with a lot of gameplay ground to cover in just 44 minutes, we'd understand if you missed something. (Besides, we know how hard it is to soak up every detail when you're watching through tears).

With that, we've pored over episode 9, titled  'Look for the Light', and answered your biggest questions below – so if you want to know how Ellie was immune, what the Fireflies' actual plan was, and more, keep scrolling. With a follow-up game to turn into more episodes at the ready, the HBO show is far from finished too, so if you're keen to learn more about what's in store for the future of The Last of Us, we've got you covered there as well. 

Before we dive in, it goes without saying that this article contains spoilers for The Last of Us season 1 ending, so if you've yet to watch The Last of Us finale, we suggest you turn back now. Unless you don't mind ruining it for yourself ahead of time, anyway...

The Last of Us episode 9 recap

Pedro Pascal as Joel in The Last of Us

(Image credit: HBO)

Attention: This section contains mentions of suicide, which some readers may find distressing. 

Following a flashback sequence that sees Ellie's mother Anna (Ashley Johnson) fight off a runner while giving birth and later, Marlene take newborn Ellie before executing the infected Anna, The Last of Us episode 9 catches up to Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in the present day. A few days have passed since their run-in with cannibal cult leader David and Ellie is still struggling to come to terms with what happened, prompting Joel to try and get her to open up. He even suggests a round of Boggle after finding the game in an old car, and asks whether she'd be keen to learn how to play the guitar if he ever found a decent one.

After ditching their car on the highway, the pair set off on a five-hour hike to Salt Lake City, where they come across an emergency medical camp and… a herd of giraffes. For a second, Joel takes pause and suggests to Ellie that they forget the whole thing; just stop looking for the Fireflies and the hospital and go back to Jackson, but Ellie insists that they keep going. "There’s no halfway with this, we finish what we started," she argues, and Joel nods in agreement.

As they wander through the derelict streets, Joel tells Ellie about the time he once attempted suicide and how now, in her, he's found something to keep fighting for. "Time heals all wounds, I guess," Ellie says, quickly realizing she's got the wrong end of the stick when Joel interjects, "It wasn't time that did it." 

"Well, I'm glad that that didn't work out," a sorrowful Ellie whispers to her new best pal. "Me too," he replies, before lightening the mood and suggesting Ellie reel off some jokes from her pun book. Then, all of a sudden, they get caught up in a grenade blast.

Joel wakes up in a hospital bed, with Marlene (Merle Dandridge) standing by his bedside. He immediately asks whether Ellie is, to which Marlene assures him that she wasn't hurt in the explosion. When Joel requests to be taken to the youngster, Marlene explains that she's being prepped for surgery – and that the operation is the first stage in the Fireflies manufacturing a cure for the Cordyceps fungal infection. Putting two and two together, Joel realizes that Ellie can't survive the procedure and goes on a murderous rampage through the hospital to find her. After brutally taking out several Fireflies, he reaches the operating theater and kills the surgeon, before lifting an unconscious Ellie off of the table and running to the basement car park.

There, he's intercepted by Marlene, who argues that sacrificing Ellie is the only way to save society and that, if the teen was given a choice, she'd want to give up her life in the name of a cure. But Joel isn't having any of it and shoots Marlene twice, once in the stomach and again in the head, as he growls, "You'd just come after her."

Next we see Ellie waking up in the back of a car Joel is driving, and the latter tell the former that the Fireflies were testing out several people thought to be immune from Cordyceps and that they couldn't work out how to make a cure. Joel goes on to say that the Fireflies sent "all" of the participants on their way and have shut down their efforts to create a cure. When she asks whether Marlene is okay, Joel doesn't answer.

When the car runs out of gas, the pair agree to walk the rest of the way "home" and start chit-chatting about Joel's late daughter Sarah on the stroll. Ellie then starts talking about those she's lost, saying: "Back in Kansas City, you asked me about the first time I killed someone… when I got bit in the mall, I wasn't on my own, my best friend was there and she got bit, too. We didn't know what to do and she says, 'We could just wait it out, be all poetic and lose our minds together.' Then she did… and I had to. Her name was Riley, and she was the first to die. Then it was Tess, then Sam, then…"

"That's not on you," Joel interrupts. "Sometimes things don't turn out the way we hope. You can feel like you've come to an end and you don't know what to do next, but if you just keep going, you find something new to fight for."

"Swear to me, swear to me that everything you said to me about the Fireflies is true?" Ellie demands, to which Joel answers, "I swear."

"Okay," Ellie mutters, and the episode ends.

What was the Fireflies' plan with Ellie?

The Last of Us - Fireflies slogan

(Image credit: HBO)

The first season of The Last of Us revolves around Joel delivering Ellie to the Fireflies out west, but it's not until the final episode that they – and we, as viewers – discover the group's true intentions with the Cordyceps-immune youngster. 

After "accidentally" ambushing them with a grenade on the streets of the Salt Lake City medical camp, the Fireflies bring an unconscious Joel and Ellie to their laboratory. When Joel wakes up, Marlene explains that Ellie is being prepped for surgery – the first step in the Fireflies' attempt to create a cure. After reeling off some scientific spiel about how Ellie is immune, which we go into below, a defeated Joel realizes that Marlene doesn't intend for Ellie to survive the procedure and says, "Cordyceps grows inside the brain…"

"It does," she replies, stony-faced, before admitting that they purposefully didn't tell Ellie the truth so that she wouldn't be afraid. Enraged by Marlene's decision, Joel orders her and her people to take him to Ellie. When she refuses, Joel tears through the hospital (and anyone trying to stop him) to save Ellie before it's too late.

How is Ellie immune? 

Bella Ramsey as Ellie in The Last of Us

(Image credit: HBO)

Unlike the game, The Last of Us TV show offers up a reason as to why Ellie is immune: her mother Anna was bitten by an infected while pregnant with her. Despite Anna insisting to Marlene that she'd already cut Ellie's umbilical cord when she was munched by the monster, she hadn't, which presumably led to a small strain of Cordyceps passing through to the then-unborn littlun. 

"Our doctor, he thinks the Cordyceps in Ellie has grown with her since birth," Marlene confirms in a later scene. "It produces a kind of chemical messenger, it makes normal Cordyceps think that she's Cordyceps, that's why she’s immune. He's gonna remove it from her, multiply the cells in a lab, produce those chemical messengers… and then we can give it to everyone."

It's hard to imagine how the Fireflies, a widespread but relatively underground rebel group, would have the resources to mass-produce a cure, but we admire Marlene's optimism…

Why was Marlene in Salt Lake City? 

Merle Dandridge as Fireflies commander Marlene in The Last of Us

(Image credit: HBO)

Marlene's appearance in the final act of The Last of Us episode 9 is quite jarring at first, because it causes you to immediately question why she tasked Joel with delivering Ellie to the Fireflies if she was always planning to make the trip herself. It's worth remembering, though, that Marlene never actually told Joel to take Ellie all the way to Utah, she asked him to smuggle Ellie out of the Boston QZ and rendezvous with some of her people in the Massachusetts State House. When he, Ellie, and Tess arrived at the drop-off point, however, they found the Fireflies dead.

In the game, Joel and his brother Tommy are estranged – and the pair only stumble across one another by chance. In the show, Joel knows that his missing sibling is likely in Wyoming, so when things go south at the capitol building, he heeds Tess's advice to pick up supplies from Bill and Frank's and reroutes his and Ellie's journey there instead. The pair take one of Bill's cars to Kansas City, where they run into some trouble and wind up travelling to Jackson on foot. There, Tommy informs them that there's a big Fireflies base at the University of Colorado, so Ellie and Joel set off on horseback, which eventually leads them to their final destination in season 1: the Fireflies' lab in a hospital in Salt Lake City.

"We almost lost half our crew crossing the country. I had five men, whose only job was to protect me and I still almost got killed," Marlene explains to Joel when he comes to after their inadvertent grenade attack.

In the first episode, Marlene promises Joel a truck and supplies if he successfully delivers Ellie to the State House, so we know the organization has working vehicles. In the time it took Joel and Ellie to travel to Utah, mostly on foot and on horseback, it's more than possible Marlene could've healed from the FEDRA attack and been driven to Salt Lake City.

Where are Joel and Ellie headed? 

Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie in The Last of Us

(Image credit: HBO)

Right at the end of the episode, after he saves her from the Fireflies, Joel tells Ellie that he's "taking [them] home". Given the events of The Last of Us Part 2 (which we won't go into detail here, don't worry), we can assume he means Tommy's commune in Jackson here.

While the game does mention Jackson, and Joel and Ellie catch up to Tommy just outside of the self-sufficient community, at an offshoot located by a dam, the show had the pair fully venture into the area, which explains why Joel feels like it's a safe haven to return to. It also ties in to an earlier scene when Joel says that they could forget the Fireflies altogether and "head back to Tommy's".

Will there be a season 2 of The Last of Us? 

Clicker in The Last of Us

(Image credit: HBO)

The Last of Us season 2 will be coming, we just don't know when. HBO renewed The Last of Us back in late January, after just two episodes of the first season had aired, which means that season 2 is officially on the way. And it might arrive sooner than we think, too, given Pedro Pascal's recent suggestion that they could start shooting the new episodes this year.

While appearing on Josh Horowitz's Happy Sad Confused podcast, Bella Ramsey revealed that while they've never played the game, they're most excited to play out "the Ellie and Dina story," having seen an edit online of the characters' love story. 

"Also, the complexity of her relationship with Joel and how that gets decidedly... more complex," they continued. "I'm looking forward to that, and the violence that ensues is thrilling in a way. To get to explore that in a really safe environment would be cool but I am nervous about it, too. I know what happens in the second game, and I'm nervous about potentially being without Pedro for a while. That's gonna be really sad."

The Last of Us airs on HBO and HBO Max in the US, and Sky Atlantic and NOW the following day in the UK. Make sure you're up to date with our The Last of Us release schedule or our breakdown of how many episodes are in The Last of Us.

For more from the series, check out our guide to the major Last of Us episode 9 changes from the games and a terrifying look at the Cordyceps fungus.

Amy West

I am an Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, covering all things TV and film across our Total Film and SFX sections. Elsewhere, my words have been published by the likes of Digital Spy, SciFiNow, PinkNews, FANDOM, Radio Times, and Total Film magazine.