The Last of Us S1E7 Recap: “Left Behind” — Take On Me

Ellie and Riley ride a merry go round at the mall
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

The following recap contains spoilers for The Last of Us S1E7, “Left Behind” (written by Neil Druckmann and directed by Liza Johnson)

The last 100 years of film, television, and literature are littered with examples of characters forced into making impossible decisions under harrowing circumstances. I think about the horrific choices Captain John Yossarian must make in the novel Catch-22, the decision the titular character was forced to make in Sophie’s Choice, and the sacrifice Charlie Pace made in the third season of Lost. Each of these choices required life-altering (or sometimes life-ending) trade-offs that no man or woman should have to consider.

While The Last of Us may not yet have reached the pantheon of pop culture like these classics, it’s clear from the opening moments of Episode 7, “Left Behind,” that Ellie—at much too young an age—is forced into one of those choices.

Fans of the original game will soon recognize that this episode draws entirely from the 2014 expansion pack The Last of Us: Left Behind as its source. The game add-on that was created after the original game exploded in popularity follows two storylines. The first is Ellie’s search for medicine in an abandoned Colorado mall so she can treat Joel, who was stabbed in the abdomen after an attack at Eastern Colorado University. The second story flashes back to three weeks before The Last of Us begins, when we are introduced to Riley Abel, Ellie’s roommate-turned-Firefly who breaks Ellie out of FEDRA school for a night.

Ellie and Riley sneak out of FEDRA school
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Episode 7 almost entirely pushes aside the current timeline storyline in favor of the backstory of Ellie and her night out with Riley (played superbly by Storm Reid). The reason for that quickly becomes clear as we learn this was the night Ellie (who we often forget is a child!) learns the burdensome lesson of trade-offs. She needed this lesson because she has a terrible decision to make in our current timeline.

Joel is injured badly, as we learned in Episode 6. Ellie snuck him away from the university and they are hiding in a nearby home. Recognizing the seriousness of his injury and their lack of resources, Joel wants Ellie to leave, run, and return to Tommy and people who can care for her and hopefully continue Joel’s mission. In that moment, Joel becomes a father again. He foregoes his own self-interest and self-preservation in favor of protecting his child. Just before we flashback to a few weeks before these two meet, we see Ellie’s hand at the doorknob. That door represents the choice to run to safety or stay and help her protector.

As the flashback begins, we see Ellie as plucky as ever. She is a trouble-making teen at FEDRA school who just put a classmate in the infirmary with 15 stitches for stealing her Walkman. She is lost without her friend and protector Riley, who vanished without a trace three weeks ago. Seeing this, her FEDRA captain presents her with what will be the first of many tradeoffs in this episode. He explains she can continue “living a grunt life, doing shit jobs, eating shit food.” Or she can use her smarts and her tenacity to become an officer and be “cool in the summer, warm in the winter” while giving out orders to people like her nemesis at school.

Ellie sits in her captain's office after attacking another girl
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

The imagery here that Captain Kwong gives Ellie with the two choices is striking. He represents the “grunt life” choice with his coffee mug and the “officer” life with his keys. The mug is something that is filled, used, refilled, used, and on and on forever. No hope of anything else, and it will never be good for anything else. The keys are what the Captain uses to go places, to unlock places he couldn’t otherwise get into. Those FEDRA bosses may be “fascist dickheads,” according to Riley, but they do know how to spin a tale that gets people to buy into their cause.

But the truth is that Ellie feels lost without Riley and she especially feels lost because Riley disappeared without a single word or without any notice. So when Riley breaks into her room that night to break her out for a few hours of freedom, Ellie gets the next lesson in tradeoffs. You can’t sneak out and spend time with your AWOL friend without risk of consequence. Now that Riley is a Firefly, you can’t risk confiding in the enemy without risk of punishment.

The pull of the connection to Riley proves to be too much and Ellie agrees to come see the surprises that she has in store for her that night. With stunning similarity to the game expansion, Riley and Ellie make their way across rooftops to a Boston mall, setting up some of the more joyous and emotional scenes we have seen through the first three-fourths of this season.

The mall setting is such a flip-it-on-its-head setting for this episode because of the endless teens-go-to-the-mall tropes that have inundated our pop culture. Seeing a mall through the eyes of a teenage girl who has never laid eyes on a mall before is a truly poignant and wonderful experience. From experiencing the magic of escalators (which Ellie handles much better than Buddy the Elf) to the confounding question of why people would have ever worn what was in the windows at Victoria’s Secret, Ellie explores a place that must truly seem like magic against the backdrop of a fungus-filled dystopia.

Riley and Ellie try to understand fashion choices from 20 years ago
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Throughout their walk in the mall and even on the merry-go-round (which must feel like a roller coaster to Ellie), A-ha’s 1985 hit “Take On Me” is featured prominently. As we the audience begin to see that at least Ellie wants this relationship to be much more than a friendship and we learn that this is Riley’s last night before she is shipped to another Firefly station, the reason why this song was used comes into focus.

“We’re talking away
I don’t know what
I’m to say, I’ll say it anyway
Today’s another day to find you
Shying away
I’ll be coming for your love, okay?”

We don’t know how long Ellie and Riley roomed together, but it’s clear they have one of those finish-each-other’s-sentences kind of relationships. They ride the merry-go-round, they goof off in the photo booth, and destroy each other in Mortal Kombat at the arcade, but it’s clear the one thing they haven’t said to each other needs to be said. They are coming for each other’s love. Riley came back to hopefully experience that for one more night.

But love doesn’t come without the tradeoff of the potential to be hurt. And Riley severely wounded Ellie with the news that she is leaving. But Ellie can’t bring herself to leave. More than she cares about Halloween shops, water guns, and photo booths, she cares about Riley.

“So needless to say
I’m odds and ends
But I’ll be stumbling away
Slowly learning that life is okay
Say after me
It’s no better to be safe than sorry”

Towards the end of this episode, showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann recreate a scene that was widely praised when the game was released in 2014. Just before the violent ending, Ellie kisses Riley while they dance to Etta James’ “I Got You Babe” in the Halloween shop. The moment was thought of to be perhaps the first kiss in a video game between two female characters in love. Storm Reid and Bella Ramsey play it beautifully and earnestly. Ramsey has a look in her eye that is equal parts worried and exhilarated. But even she knows by now that a shared kiss means the tradeoff is creating a bond that one day might be fractured.

But Riley clearly feels the same and in a moment of either weakness or hopeless love admits to Ellie that she will stay there with her instead of returning to the Fireflies.

It’s this reveal of the affection they have for one another that makes the next scene that much harder. The loud music and dancing awoke a long-slumbering infected who tracks down the two girls. They fight him off, eventually killing him, but both soon discover that they have been bitten in the struggle.

We know, of course, that this is just the beginning of Ellie’s journey with us on The Last of Us. But for two young girls alone in an abandoned mall, those bites mean certain death. It’s at this moment that Ellie is presented with her final choice in this short, one-day arc. Riley still has bullets in her gun, so they can take the easy, quick way out. Or they can spend their remaining time together, sharing the last shreds and seconds of humanity they have left. Neither of them knows if it will be “two minutes or two days,” but this is the option they choose.

That choice, of course, comes with a tradeoff. Behind the door waiting for them at some undetermined time in the future is watching each other’s humanity and sense of self disappear. But their bond has grown so strong that they are willing to risk that horror for a few more moments together. They finally found each other again, and neither is about to leave the other again.

Riley gives Ellie another pun book
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

We are left to imagine what those final hours were like for Riley. What happened when she changed and Ellie did not? Surely Ellie had to, at one point, make the impossible decision to help Riley end her life. Knowing this is now part of her story we understand as we flash forward that Ellie only pauses for a moment before deciding to search for anything that can save Joel’s life. Joel has become her partner, her mentor, and the person she loves. Even though Joel tries to push her away to safety, Ellie would trade everything for just the chance of more time with Joel. Whether that’s two minutes or two days.

She finds the Jack Shephard special, “standard black” thread and needle, and begins to sew up Joel. Understanding full well that the tradeoff to her staying is the risk of being discovered, the risk of Joel perishing, and the risk of what she fears most—being alone.

Her night with Riley helps her understand something imperative. People are worth the risk. Our relationships are worth fighting for, and worth whatever the tradeoff may be. She could choose the easy, quick way out. But she decided to stay.

Written by Ryan Kirksey

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