The Last of Us S1E9 “Look For the Light”

“We Finish What We Started”

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

It’s the end of the road for Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie in The Last of Us S1E9 this week. The season finale title concludes the phrase from the Pilot’s title, “When You’re Lost in The Darkness,” bringing the season full circle with “Look for the Light.” It’s been a difficult journey for the duo, who we last saw escaping the clutches of cannibalistic maniacal religious leader David (Scott Shepherd) wanted to make Ellie his child-bride in “When We are in Need,” and, as The Last of Us S1E9 begins, we’re seeing the lasting traumatic effect the experience has left on her. Ellie ultimately killed David with her bare hands, which is probably the most savage killing in the series to date and certainly justified. Meanwhile, Joel stumbled to the lodge Ellie set on fire, still recovering from being stabbed in the abdomen by a raider from David’s camp in the tail end of “Kin.”

As I dive into The Last of Us S1E9, “Look for the Light,” it should be evident now that details will be given, and SPOILERS FOR THE FINALE WILL FOLLOW. Please watch the episode first.

A pregnant Anna stands between two trees looking surprised in The Last of Us S1E9 "Look for the Light"
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

The finale of The Last of Us was ridiculously quick for me, which makes sense given that it was the shortest episode in the show’s catalog at only forty-three minutes with a three-minute recap. Yet, plenty of fan service was given right from the first frame. Ashley Johnson, the voice and face behind Ellie in the video game, showed up as Ellie’s mother for a taut scene that seemed to throw a bit of a nod to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. An abandoned farmhouse in the middle of nowhere sets the location for a pregnant Anna (Johnson) as she tries to block a door and evade an attack from trailing infected. Unfortunately, Anna is unsuccessful and is bitten while delivering Ellie. 

Williams’ scene provides some clarification about Ellie’s immunity, suggesting Ellie’s resistance has come from her exposure to the cordyceps at birth. Anna doesn’t allow her infection to spread, severing the umbilical connection to her daughter quickly, but one does wonder how impeccable Anna’s timing must be. Perfect conditions would have had to have been met for Ellie to survive and not become an Infected baby, though a part of me wonders what that would look like. Marlene (Merle Dandridge) later confirms as much about Ellie to Joel.  

In many ways, The Last of Us S1E9 connect themes from many episodes together going back to the Pilot. Marlene never lets on that she knows Ellie before the two meet in the apartment where the fireflies have Ellie tied up in the Pilot. Marlene is an integral part of Ellie’s story as the show reveals her friendship with Anna, which ends shockingly similar to Ellie and Riley’s (Storm Reid) friendship in “Left Behind,” but also puts Marlene in a position where she’s traveling to Boston with baby Ellie as the last request of someone she’s cared about. Tess (Anna Torv) made Joel promise to take Ellie to the Fireflies on the other side of the country in “Infected” before blowing up an Infected-raided state house. These parallels in Marlene’s story also make what happens between her and Joel later in the episode seem so untenable.

Marlene aims a gun towards something offscreen
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

When the story moves back to Ellie and Joel in the present, Ellie’s outward cries as a baby have been replaced by a stoic resonance. The pun-spitting positivity of the child we saw as we began this journey has been replaced by the stunned and sullen appearance of a scarred Ellie. The effect isn’t anywhere near the aging trauma of Aleksey Kravchenko at the end of Elem Klimov’s Come and See. Still, there’s an equally wistful sense of innocence lost emanating from the early part of the finale. Joel attempts to cheer her up with the discovery of Chef Boyardee (a callback to “Please Hold My Hand”) and Boggle, but her feigned excitement quickly weathers into silent compliance.  

The scene we arrive upon after the baby Ellie origin story feels like a collection of Easter Eggs, from the Beefaroni find to Ellie sitting on a blue truck reminiscent of Bill’s Chevy S-10 from “Long, Long Time” to the game reference about Joel teaching Ellie guitar, and the overpass they head under warning us to fear deviations thanks to their Kansas City debacle with Kathleen, Henry, and Sam in “Please Hold My Hand” and “Endure and Survive.” Luckily, this exit isn’t teeming with cinderblocks or rebel militias. Instead, we get a break from the spirit-crushing dread, and Ellie gets a depression-vanquishing moment that connects her back to the world from the darkness she’s become mired in. 

Beauty is hard to find when you’ve grown accustomed to life’s oppressive gloom. The giraffe scene is everything that we love about The Last of Us. It’s a redemption moment for humanity, a break from the brutality we witnessed in “When We Are in Need,” and a chance to bask in life’s enchantments. As cruel as nature has become, between the fungal aberration and the breakdown in civility, there are still cracks of light shining through. And, as the show says, when you’re lost in the darkness, you have to look for the light. Joel found luminescence in Ellie’s company, which is why he feels comfortable telling Ellie about how he got the scar on his head –flinching at the last moment during a suicide attempt.

Ellie sits on the tailgate of a pickup truck
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

As Joel tells it, “Sarah died, and I couldn’t see the point anymore,” but opening up about his darkest moment is a sign of trust for Joel. It takes a lot for anyone to make themself that vulnerable, but he also thinks it might help Ellie with the bleak numbness that David left her in. “So, time heals all wounds, I guess,” Ellie says. And the biggest revelation is Joel admitting to the overwhelmingly profound effect Ellie’s had on him.  

After the atmosphere returns to “sh*tty puns,” a sense of calm washes over the once courier-and-cargo-turned-family, and our dynamic duo is ambushed. Once again, luck looks upon them favorably as Joel wakes up in a hospital to the familiar face of Marlene. However, she tells Joel how Ellie is being prepped for surgery so her brain can be removed and a cure for the cordyceps infection can be possible.  

I intentionally skipped a moment in the story to talk about it now. After the giraffes, Ellie and Joel discuss a scenario where he and Ellie travel back to Tommy’s (Gabriel Luna) and cut their journey short of the ending. Ellie tells Joel, no half-measures are going to cut it, she’ll happily go anywhere with him after they’re done, but they’re going to finish what they’ve started. Ellie’s monologue contains all the markers of a girl willing to give her life to end the cordyceps infection, but Joel cannot let her go.  

Losing Ellie would destroy Joel, and, to some extent, just the thought of it does. We’ve heard in multiple episodes about how vicious Joel was when he was a raider, but in The Last of Us S1E9, we witness the scorched Earth force he can be. Joel, indiscriminately and without compassion, kills his way through the hospital, right up to the unarmed doctor trying to reason with him through a very Lieutenant Spock appeal that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” to which Joel responds with a bullet.  

Joel embraces Ellie as she sits on a hospital stretcher in The Last of Us S1E9 "Look for the Light"
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

To know Ellie is to love her, or at least in Joel’s eyes. So, when he sees Marlene in the underground parking garage, he’s floored by her decisions. Marlene checked in on Ellie for years, and there’s no way you couldn’t bond with that baby on the road. And, if you want to contend that she could have just given the baby to another Firefly, fine. But Marlene is still the closest thing Ellie has to an aunt. Hell, she was Anna’s best friend at the start of the episode. And this is how she treats her best friend’s kid? Like cargo instead of family? Somewhere, Joel can’t understand how Marlene can’t see what a beacon of hope Ellie’s life can be to the world, while Marlene can’t understand how Joel can’t see the hope her sacrifice will bring. 

This is the realized culmination of the show. Love can traverse from a bright and wonderful thing and travel to some dark places. Joel’s unconditional love for Ellie is that of a parent for their child, moving heaven and earth to save Ellie from the Fireflies. Marlene’s argument is sound as she tries to tell Joel that Ellie isn’t his daughter, she isn’t his second chance, and she knows she would have decided to sacrifice herself for the greater good. Joel’s decision is selfish, but so is Marlene’s. Though she’s already decided to see this event through, Ellie always thought there would be an after she would be a part of. Just saying, knocking Ellie out and not letting her choose seems like a violation of her rights. The only person who has the right to decide what happens to her body is Ellie, and that right seems inalienable.

In the final scenes, Joel and Ellie travel back to Tommy. Ellie has many questions about what happened in the hospital, and Joel lies through his teeth about all of it. He tells Ellie the doctors had seen a whole lot more like her, and they’ve stopped looking for a cure. He also tells her a raider attack left the unprepared fireflies on their last legs. We flashback to Joel killing Marlene after Ellie asks about her, thinking he’s securing Ellie’s anonymity this way. For the last few miles, Joel is a lot more open about Sarah (Nico Parker), but something just feels off about it all to Ellie. She wants to trust Joel, but there’s this nagging sensation that what Joel is telling her is pure bullsh*t.  

Joel carries Ellie in The Last of Us S1E9 "Look for the Light"
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

The finale rests with Ellie asking Joel to swear to her that everything he’s told her is the truth and ends with Ellie accepting the lie and trying to figure out what that means for her. There’s the briefest of seconds between Joel’s confirmation and Ellie’s “okay,” and in that, something dies within her. Ellie’s sense of meaning is gone because Joel wants her to have a shot at an ordinary life, at least for a little while.  

This was a strange episode for me. Like eight million others who watched the show on Sunday, I’ve awaited every episode of the series to release. But The Last of Us S1E9 was unfathomably short, and I had issues with the rushed feeling of the hospital action sequence. I get that the series isn’t meant to linger on the violence or the Infected, but I felt the hospital scene didn’t hold any drama and came off as less impactful when seeing Joel at his most ruthless. It’s obvious director Ali Abbasi (Shelley, Border) wanted to make a fast-moving sequence where time is of the essence. This is a race against the clock where every minute counts, after all. However, a more paced approach and fewer edits could have driven the already emotional episode into a place where the audience’s hearts raced.  

It’s genuinely my only gripe with the entire season, and I think that really says something about the quality of the show. The Last of Us has set a high benchmark early in 2023 as the series to beat, and I’m sure we’ll hear a lot of buzz for the show late in the summer when the Emmys are announced. 

Next season will be primed by Joel’s actions to save Ellie. In the games, Joel’s slaying of Jerry Anderson, Ellie’s surgeon, causes his daughter Abby to begin a quest for vengeance. The actress who plays the game’s antagonist in The Last of Us: Part II, Laura Bailey, cameoed in The Last of Us S1E9 as a nurse in the same operating room where her diegetic videogame dad was murdered. I implore the show’s superfans to take a stab at the games. There are some twists you won’t expect, and a beautiful story about never-ending cycles of violence and the cost of revenge. Plus, it will keep your mind off the long wait we’re surely in for as Craig Mazin, Neil Druckmann, and HBO prepare for next season’s production. 

Joel and Ellie head through a city in a poster for HBO's The Last of Us.
Photograph Courtesy of HBO

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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