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This article contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” and its video game source material.“There’s no halfway with this. We finish what we started.”
Ellie’s words to Joel in the season finale of “The Last of Us” took on a whole new meaning by the end of the episode. Before the fateful decision that would change the course of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie’s (Bella Ramsey) lives forever, writers laid forth their final re-touches to the TV version of the game.
Like episode 8’s featuring of the voice of Joel, Troy Baker, episode 9 featured Ashley Johnson, the voice of Ellie. And boy, was that voice undeniably Ellie’s! She portrayed Ellie’s mother, Anna, as she gave birth to her in an abandoned house. Even before speaking, her visceral labor grunts transported me back to the game’s fight scenes with Ellie in distress. Once again, I’m elated that the series found a place for a main voice actor as a tribute to their work on the game.
Her inclusion provided a backstory that I never anticipated the show to address, with interesting new implications for how Cordyceps functions.
The Origin Of Immunity
A huge change from the game to the show is the audience discovering how Ellie gained her immunity. And … I have questions!
The beginning of the episode showed Anna giving birth to Ellie as she fought off a clicker. The clicker bit Anna as she was pushing Ellie out. Ellie is still connected to Anna via her umbilical cord for a few moments after birth. The show is implying that the clicker’s bite to Anna somehow provided enough infection to Anna’s bloodstream to introduce Cordyceps to Ellie, but not enough to infect her, thus giving her immunity.
But this raises questions about how quickly the CBI infects people. As someone who has given birth, let me educate you: fetuses get their nutrition and blood supply via the placenta, which takes what it needs from the pregnant person’s bloodstream via the uterine wall. It takes some time for whatever the person consumes to get to the fetus — take, for example, a vaccine. It takes about two weeks on average for a vaccine to provide any carryover immunity to a fetus.
Yet, if Ellie gained immunity from this bite at the exact moment of her exiting her mother’s womb, the infection would have had to travel through Anna’s bloodstream instantaneously. But if the infection hit the bloodstream that quickly, why didn’t it also affect Anna just as quickly? If Cordyceps can travel through the bloodstream so rapidly, why don’t people turn minutes after exposure? Do you mean to tell me no other birthing people were bitten mid-labor to become immune like Ellie in 20 years?
Perhaps Cordyceps is like COVID in that it affects every person (and every body) differently. Some people show symptoms, some don’t. Some people get a severe illness, others mild. Is Cordyceps a crapshoot that Anna and Ellie got lucky with?
My biggest gripe with the TV adaptation is how the series handled Marlene (Merle Dandridge). The finale confirmed my fears about the writers’ intentions with her for the series.
Ellie does not know Marlene at the start of the show and seems to only have a basic familiarity with her by the time Joel and Tess encounter the pair in episode 2. But as also discussed in the episode 7 comparison, Ellie and Riley not only knew Marlene in the game but had an established relationship with her.
When Anna asks Marlene, her childhood friend, to take Ellie to Boston, she asks Marlene to find “someone to bring her up.” In the game, although we never see Ellie’s birth or Anna and Marlene interact, Marlene tells Joel that she promised Ellie’s mom that “[she] would look after her.”
Given the dynamics depicted in the show, one can only guess that Marlene did not bring Ellie up as suggested in the game. Instead, Marlene must have dropped Ellie off at the FEDRA military school and kept tabs on her from afar. There is an emotional distance from Ellie by Marlene in the series, a distance that I feel neuters the impact of Marlene choosing to sacrifice Ellie for a cure.
Because the game establishes a caring relationship between the two, Marlene’s decision is more complicated in that version. And, when Joel kills her, we’re led to feel more conflicted about the act because of her prior relationship with Ellie. The show, instead, chose to clearly position Joel as the only one to genuinely care for Ellie. The nuance of two people both caring for someone but having different ideas of what’s best for them is erased by removing what little warmth Marlene’s character had.
Our protagonists are ambushed by Fireflies and taken to the hospital in both versions. However, a very important change was made to the consciousness of Ellie in that skirmish, with huge implications for the next season.
The game saw Ellie drowning (a key hurdle for players in the first game was that Ellie couldn’t swim) and Joel saving her. While performing CPR on an unconscious Ellie, he is knocked out by Fireflies. The show instead saw both walk over an explosive tripwire, causing them to fall disoriented in a cloud of smoke. Fireflies took Ellie — fully conscious, screaming for Joel — while Joel is knocked out.
When Joel eventually tells his lie in the game, it is easy to buy Ellie believing him because she was unconscious for the entire hospital ordeal. Writing Ellie to be conscious at the time of the ambush means that she knew Fireflies took her and Joel — she even mentions as much at the end of the episode. It leaves the door open for Ellie to have possibly known about the surgery being performed on her, though we could assume that Marlene likely didn’t tell her that the surgery would kill her.
With the show also providing an official reason for Ellie’s immunity, the initial conversation between Joel and Marlene at the hospital was adjusted accordingly. Marlene tells Joel in the series that because Ellie’s been infected since birth, the surgeon surmised that infection in her brain thought she was Cordyceps, thus her immunity. In the game, Marlene says that the infection simply mutated in a way that made her immune.
The scene where Joel tells Ellie the infamous lie is the same in the show as in the game, just about shot-for-shot. Yet, the writers once again opted to modify the lie itself.
The drive from the hospital in the game sees Joel tell Ellie that after making it to the hospital, they discovered that there were “dozens” of immune people like her. The Fireflies ran unpromising tests and decided to give up finding a cure. The drive in the show sees Joel mention dozens of immune people but adds in that she didn’t have her clothes because raiders attacked the hospital and they needed to make an urgent escape.
Ellie asked more questions of Joel in this scene than in the game. In addition to asking about her clothes, she asks Joel if people were hurt and if Marlene was okay. He says yes to the first question, but doesn’t answer the second. Ellie’s prying makes Joel’s lie more damning because it means he was given more opportunities to be honest with Ellie in the series.
The final new revelation unique to the show was Joel confiding in Ellie about his attempt to die by suicide after Sarah’s death. No such attempt is canon to the games. The scar on his head was from his own flinch at the moment he pulled the trigger. Ellie remarks that time heals all wounds, to which Joel replies “It wasn’t time that did it.”
And there we have it.
Though it is problematic to suggest anyone can replace a deceased loved one, Joel finally comes to terms with Ellie filling the hole left by Sarah’s murder. By carrying Ellie away from the surgery, he did what he couldn’t do while carrying Sarah on day zero of the apocalypse — save her life. He chose to betray the potential cure for the world because he couldn’t bear to lose another daughter. So he stole Ellie from her destiny, mercilessly murdering nearly everyone at the hospital in the process.
The subsequent seasons of the series will deal with the repercussions of Joel’s actions that day at the hospital as the second game did. For now, though, we as viewers must sit with Joel’s decision made under impossible circumstances. Against all odds, he saved who he could save.
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