Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us episode 7 follow. If you haven't caught up, look away now!
"It's pretty dang awesome and it might break you," Riley (the superb Storm Reid) tells her best friend Ellie during their trip to the mall in the Boston QZ. She's not wrong. What could have been a thankless task for both actors – a flashback episode at a moment where the present-day tension is at its peak – transforms into a treatise on lost innocence, queer love, and unmitigated joy. The Last of Us may be getting a little too fond of its narrative detours but, if 'Left Behind' is any indication, we're more than happy to follow in any direction the show is willing to take us.
Far from the nostalgia-and-neon-tinged liminal spaces of a Boston mall, the episode begins in a very different dreamlike state. A bloody trail leads to an abandoned building, the camera's use of cross-fade mirroring Joel falling in and out of consciousness. As an opening, it carries a wondrous, ethereal quality that answers just enough of the viewer's questions before diving back into Ellie's past – even if some will feel short-changed by last week's cliffhanger being answered so abruptly and definitively from the outset.
But this isn't Joel's story. Weeks or months prior to the events of The Last of Us – it isn't made clear – Ellie is tired and frustrated, housed at a FEDRA academy and being picked on by teen bullies.
It's not until she joins up with Riley, now enlisted in the Firefly cause, where she stops lashing out and starts connecting with her bestie again – even if the early hints are there that there's something more bubbling under the surface. As Riley sneaks in (then out) of Ellie's room, the pair abscond on a trip to a nearby mall for Ellie's dream day out.
Shop 'til you drop
For a sizable portion of the audience, this will be a familiar story. The Left Behind DLC was a heartfelt epilogue to 2013's PlayStation classic and is often seen as a high watermark for video game expansions. It's to writer Neil Druckmann and director Liza Johnson's credit that the episode opts against merely retreading the recognizable and, instead, injects the doomed love story with an energy that's equally parts restless and poignant.
It's on the merry-go-round (one of five 'Wonders' Riley wants to show Ellie alongside a photo booth, escalators, an arcade, and a costume shop) where 'Left Behind' showcases that feeling and does some of its best work.
The sequence, which lasts only a few minutes, effectively utilizes shimmering light and Ellie's lovelorn looks to wordlessly communicate their relationship. It's a silent quality that only the very best deploy – Aftersun immediately springs to mind – to tease out more about a child character's coming-of-age than dialogue ever could.
As the pair move from Wonder to Wonder, we begin to discover a very different Ellie to the one we've spent six weeks with. This is an Ellie, wide-eyed and in love, unburdened by the heavy weight of grief that's waiting just over the horizon. It may only be for a brief moment, but it's genuinely uplifting to see her like this – and makes the act of taking it all away even more heartbreaking.
Wonder of you
Before it culminates in a kiss, Ellie and Riley's relationship veers into irreparable territory upon the discovery that the latter is harboring weapons for the Fireflies to use against FEDRA.
While it's a slightly ham-fisted way of introducing dramatic tension, its half-resolved manner as Ellie tearfully departs then rapidly returns is a true-to-life reflection on partnerships that stay together no matter what. Then, after a faithful recreation of the 'I Got You Babe' dance, the now-more-than-friends share a kiss. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose: infected invade, the pair are bitten, and Riley lay dying.
Ellie's guttural roar in response is a primal act of rage that leaps from the screen and forms the genesis of her journey-to-come. Bella Ramsey makes so much of the tiny moments throughout – the stolen glances, the 'prettying up' in the reflection of a lingerie store – that the emotional explosion stands out as a shuddering jolt. If you're keeping count, it also marks yet another happy ending snatched away from our main players.
If the episode has a failing, however, it's that it is a little top-heavy. All in, Ellie and Riley getting to the mall takes up 20 minutes of screentime. That, in itself, isn't a cardinal sin. It's the fact Riley's fatal injury, off-screen death, and Joel's recovery is rattled through at a serious clip in the final five minutes. Did we really need to meet the man who died from an overdose to know the world's gone to pot? A little more room to breathe and this furious gut punch, the show's best up until now, would have landed a little better.
So, yes, 'Left Behind' is awesome. And it does break you. In many ways, this is an anti-Bill and Frank story, a gay relationship ripped apart – not nurtured – by the world around them. Its use of hazy and intense artificial light (worlds apart from the sun-kissed suburbia of Bill's town) heightens the wistful wanderings that call to mind lazy summer holidays. Where Bill and Frank were comfortable in their skin, Ellie and Riley are two people stumbling their way through teenage adolescence and all that comes with it: the love, the loss, and the not-knowing-what-to-do-next. It's tragic and tender in equal measure.
It's fitting, then, that the episode ends by essentially recalling Bill's parting note to Joel: "Save one person." Ellie couldn't save Riley. She can – and does – save Joel, the final image of the two holding hands, a lasting moment of connection that caps off an almost-classic.
The Last of Us streams Sundays on HBO and HBO Max and Mondays in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV. For more from the HBO series, check out our guide to the major Last of Us episode 6 changes from the games and a terrifying look at the Cordyceps fungus. Discover when the next episode is dropping with our Last of Us release schedule.