Episode Analysis The Last of Us: Left Behind

Episode seven of HBO's The Last of Us continues to reveal the themes and motivations of a story that is not about zombies.

Episode Analysis The Last of Us: Left Behind
Image courtesy WarnerMedia

Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us through episode seven as well as references to the same story points in the game. Read at your own risk.


I find myself in a frustrating position when it comes to talking about episode seven of HBO’s The Last Of Us: Left Behind. It is normally my habit to not look at other reviews or reactions until I get my writeup done. I don’t want other people’s opinions, good or bad, to influence what I talk about. (It’s bad enough that the companion podcast for the episode ruined my brilliant deduction that perhaps Joel had been the one to sell drugs to the man who died of an overdose by pointing out that yeah, you were supposed to wonder that. I was trying to be clever, damn it!)

But Left Behind is, in and of itself, a unique episode in terms of what can be talked about that I ended up peeking at what people were saying to get a feel for what was resonating.

And what I found was a lot of people calling this episode filler.

I just… oh my god. I can’t, people. I can’t. This show could not be more clear about what it is about and there are people out there not only missing the point but aggressively missing it. “Why are there so few infected in my zombie show?!” they stomp around demanding. After which I assume they head to their local Pizza Hut to stomp around and wonder why they can’t buy any couches there.

It’s not a zombie show. It’s a show about love! It has always been a show about love! It has never not been a show about love! And if, in a nine episode run, not only are all the episodes so far about love but two episodes in particular are about romances that are core motivations for the main characters and you’re still sitting there going “Where are my zombies???” I do not know what to tell you!

Look, if you want a zombie show that’s great. There is no shame in that. Walking Dead had a lot of fun episodes. Go watch those again. The Last of Us is not a zombie show. It’s not a zombie show and it’s not a zombie game and it never ever has been.

Yeah, there’s zombie type monsters in it. But they’re just game mechanics! They could just as easily be dragons or monsters or rats. The thing they are doesn’t matter. They’re an interesting graphic interpretation of a reason to mash buttons while a story is being told.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! You need the game mechanics to get the buy in to the story. The games I listed are great games which are all legendary in their own right, and absolutely none of them are legendary because of the things you fight on your way from one plot point to another. Yeah, there are very cool looking scenes involving the reason to mash the buttons, but the memorable stuff is the story.

Bringing my primal scream here back to Left Behind, I find myself pulling my hair out because on the one hand I’ve been trying to take a back seat as much as possible to let you all see the story unfold without even a vague hint of spoilers. On the other hand, some of the aspects of what this story is about - more than just being about love - are becoming so obvious that I feel like if I don’t talk about them they become notable by their absence.

So let’s do it. Let’s talk about those story themes that have, with each episode, become louder and louder. Because they are why this episode isn’t filler, it is the exact opposite of filler, and oh dear god how are people not getting it by now?

But in total fairness if you don’t even want the slightest vaguest risk of spoilers I won’t hold it against you for bailing now and coming back after the final episode airs. I’m not talking any plot points, I promise, just themes. But I know some people find even themes to be spoilery. No harm, no foul, it’s all good.

But if you do want to talk about it, here we go.

The Increasingly Obvious Themes of HBO’s The Last of Us

Let’s first talk about love, because that’s the least spoilery.

As I’ve just gone on about, the show is about love. The story is about love. It has always been about love. So the idea that an episode dedicated to the love between two characters at all, let alone one of whom is a main character, is filler is just… gah.

But sure, let me roll up my sleeves and stand in front of the blackboard for those who need the help.

Ellie, one of our main characters, is a 14 year old orphan who grew up in an apocalypse. She has no family. She has no friends, other than one girl named Riley. She has a bad attitude. She mouths off a lot. She’s not hugely fond of people. She’s also immune to the infection that’s destroying the world.

These are facts. These are things we’ve known about Ellie since meeting her in episode one when she was chained up in a room thanks to the Fireflies. So, class, let me ask you: Why is this girl risking her life to trek across the country?

Because she’s immune and might be the cure for humanity, you might say. And that’s not wrong as a fact but it’s not her motivation.

Think about it. Based on everything we know about Ellie in episode one why does she give a shit about saving humanity?

She has no connections to humanity! She doesn’t like other people much! And the thing she’s doing right now, which is taking her months to do, much of which is walking for hundreds of miles on foot, never mind how she’s risking her life as she does it, is in the hopes of doing humanity a solid.

And this is entirely her! Nobody is forcing her to do this. She could’ve bailed on this mission at any time, either by flat out saying it or sneaking away in the night when Joel once again fell asleep when he was supposed to be on watch duty. This is what Ellie wants. She wants to risk her life to save the world.

Why? Because she loved Riley.

Love story, remember?

Riley died and Ellie didn’t. Riley taught Ellie the lesson that it’s worth it to take a chance on caring about people. She taught Ellie that it’s worth it to fight for what time you have with the people who mean something to you. Riley is why Ellie cares about trying to save the world and Riley is why Ellie is currently fighting to save Joel.

This isn’t subtle! This isn’t interpretation! It’s flat out said by the characters in the same way that Tess and Bill flat out say the lesson for Joel is to save who he can save and protect the one person who matters to him.

So that’s one aspect of what this episode contributed while supposedly being filler. Let’s talk another.

We talked last week about how the concept of point of view is starting to become louder and louder. This week continues that trend. We see it with Ellie and Riley directly when they talk about the Fireflies vs FEDRA. FEDRA is a fascist dictatorship that executes people, but at the same time without them there’d be starvation and chaos (and other QZs have proved that to be true). The Fireflies are good, then, because they oppose FEDRA. Except the Fireflies use methods that hurt innocent people: they attack storage units, forcing people to starve. They bomb parts of the city with no care if innocent people are there.

Are the Fireflies good or bad? Is FEDRA?

The concepts of love and point of view are also intertwined. We saw this especially in Please Hold to My Hand and Endure and Survive. Kathleen and Henry are both motivated by love for their brothers. Both of them are responsible for Kansas City becoming worse once FEDRA was defeated. Is Kathleen a bad guy or a good one? Is Henry?

Kathleen’s actions ultimately lead to the city being overrun by infected. Henry’s don’t prevent Sam from dying in childhood. Does the final outcome make a difference in what they did? Does it make anything they did better or does it make it worse?

Again: these themes have been there the whole time. They aren’t subtle. Frankly so much so that if you wanted to critique the storytelling of HBO’s The Last of Us it’s that they’ve been hitting these notes too hard. However, here we are with people going “Where are my zombies????” so I guess there’s no such thing as saying it too loud for the folks in the back.

Let’s round it out by talking about another one. And this one is admittedly more subtle, but it’s there. The theme of agency and choice.

Who has a choice? Who is given choices about the things that they do? Who offers choices to other people? When do people do things because they are forced to and when do they do it because they choose to?

There are many examples here and some are spoilery. But just to rattle off a few so you see what I mean: Bill chose to let Frank stay with him. Ellie chose to go cross country because she might be the cure. Henry chose to betray Michael to save Sam. The FEDRA officer in Left Behind offers Ellie a choice on the life she could lead.

Love. Point of view. Agency and choice. The show has never failed to be about these things because these are the things the story is about. It’s never been a story about zombies.


As always, things that don’t fit everywhere else:

  • I love so much how well The Last of Us, show and game, understands being a teenager, especially a young one. Ellie and Riley’s awkwardness was so spot on.
  • Ten years on from when the Left Behind DLC was released, it’s important to note that the reveal that Ellie was gay was incredibly significant. Bear in mind - no pun intended - that the few things that confirmed Bill was gay in the game (his reference to “partner” and having gay porn magazines) was in and of itself considered a big step. So an entire DLC about how one of the leads of one of the biggest games was gay was enormous as far as representation goes. Other games had had gay characters, but not necessarily the lead and not necessarily games as popular as The Last of Us.
  • In the podcast Craig Mazin again proves that he knows when his job is to get out of the way and listen to those with lived experience in what the story is about. In this case, understanding that all of the fear that comes with being a 14 year old with a crush is infinitely amplified when you are a gay teenager in a world which does not accept you. Ellie and Riley confessing their crushes isn’t just about the risk of not having their love returned, it’s about the very real risk your life may now be in danger.
  • Liza Johnson did an amazing job with directing. I loved how not only did she know how to nail those moments of being an awkward teenager with a crush (things like Ellie fixing her hair while looking into the window, for example) but how she subtly kept a feeling of dread the entire time. For instance, during the “Because I wanted to say goodbye” conversation, both Ellie and Riley are framed in such a way that you can see over their shoulders. Combined with the reveal that there’s an infected in the building, it was a great way to make the audience feel tense about the idea that something might show up behind them.
  • Not to be That Person but who’s making AA batteries right now? And enough that Ellie can have some for a Walkman?
  • I’m curious if the phone on Captain Kwong’s desk worked or if it was left there as an affectation.
  • Not for nothing, but the fact that Riley and Ellie’s night together was effectively a date as it would have happened pre-apocalypse isn’t a coincidence either. Ellie sure does love finding out about the world before everything went wrong, doesn’t she?

Two more eps to go! It’ll be interesting to see how people react to them.

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