Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us episode 9 follow. If you haven't caught up, look away now!
The Last of Us' ninth episode sure doesn't start like a season finale. Then again, the HBO series has always shrugged off tried-and-tested television conventions for the greater good of the show.
In 'Look For the Light', we aren't immediately treated to the final leg on Joel and Ellie's cross-country journey towards the Fireflies. Instead, we rewind almost 15 years with a flashback to Ellie's birth.
Ellie's mother Anna (played with a pitch-perfect cocktail of pain and maternal instinct by Ellie's game actor Ashley Johnson) is clinging to life and fending off clickers as she goes into labor.
As Firefly leader Marlene closes in, Anna asks her to protect Ellie – crucially lying that she was bit after cutting the umbilical cord. While the scene drags its feet somewhat, taking up valuable real estate in what is already the season's shortest episode, the desired impact is twofold.
First, it reintroduces Marlene. The show hasn't spent enough time with the Fireflies to make them a credible threat, so this is a welcome course-correct that also elevates the present-day scenes in the hospital and embellishes them with far greater hidden meaning than previously gleaned. The irony of Ellie's current guardian killing her old one shouldn't be lost on viewers.
It also neatly answers the question on how and why Ellie is immune – something that was only hinted at in the games. It's another great example of how showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have handled the PlayStation games with care, but also haven't been afraid to tinker and shake up areas where it may have otherwise been lacking.
Look for the light
Back in the present, it's not – surprise, surprise – the giraffe scene (complete with fun ladder callback to the game's interminable fetch puzzles) that hits hardest. That tender display of nature reclaiming the urban jungle was always my favorite from the game. It's a close second here. In fact, it's a wholly original scene that will stay with me longer.
As they close in on the Fireflies, Joel finally reveals the origin of his scar – a suicide attempt gone awry. "I couldn't have been more ready," he tells Ellie of his desperate act. Now, he has something – and someone – to live for.
"Time heals all wounds, I guess," Ellie says. Joel's reply, heavy with relief, tells us all we need to know about the duo: "It wasn't time that did it." It scarcely seems possible, but here is the final proof that the HBO series has improved on perfection with Joel and Ellie's relationship. Better still – after the pair are ambushed by Fireflies – it makes Joel's later actions all the more understandable.
After being told Ellie is being prepped for surgery from which she won't wake up, a vengeful Joel tears through the remaining Fireflies and towards the surgery table. In a show filled with incredible musical moments, the montage of Joel's rampage, silent but for a few plucks of the banjo, is the best of the lot.
Then, the final act: Joel kills the remaining Fireflies (including Marlene) and lies to Ellie about a cure not working. Their last interaction – with Ellie opening up about Riley and not quite believing Joel's story – is, happily, just as potent now as it was a decade ago. The shuddering cut to black still underscores the same uncertainty in Ellie's eyes. Gustavo Santaolalla's score, too, ratchets up the tension to a fever pitch before finally letting the audience breath.
End of the road
It's easy to forget how narratively brave this ending is: a beautifully ambiguous full stop on a story laced with grief, trauma, and trust issues. On our screens, it's even more compelling – especially now that we know for certain a second season is coming. There's so much to explore – the first cracks in Joel and Ellie's relationship, a new home for the pair, and Ellie coming of age – before we even get to the internet-breaking twists and turns.
Does The Last of Us stick the landing? Yes – and then some. For many, the magic of the final chapter of Joel and Ellie's (first) story may be dulled by it being overplayed and so iconic, but the show tweaks just enough to wring each drop of emotion out of each sacrifice.
So, for now, it's farewell to Ellie and Joel. The season finale capped off a consistently great season – whisper it, it could be one of the best first seasons ever – and tiptoed close to all-timer status along the way with Frank, Bill, and Riley. HBO, Craig Mazin, and Neil Druckmann deserve to get their flowers for delivering a unique adaptation, one that stayed true to its source material but lasered in on outdated or underdeveloped aspects with surgical precision to turn a great story into an even greater one. Bring on Part 2.
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 9 changes from the games and a terrifying look at the Cordyceps fungus.