Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us season one finale and potentially season two if you haven’t played the games. As HBO’s record-breaking, post-apocalyptic series comes to an end, viewers are wondering if Joel dies in The Last of Us finale, as Bella Ramsey—the actor who played his companion Ellie—warned the ending was going to “massively divide” people.
Of course, people who have played the game on which the TV is based already know the answer to that question and from an ethical perspective, Ramsey is right. As in the game, the season one finale prompts viewers with one of the great moral conundrums. For the uninitiated, The Last of Us is set 20 years after a devastating pandemic that wiped out most of humankind. The disease, a parasitic fungus known as Cordyceps, quickly overtakes the host’s body and mind. Horribly mutated and aggressive, they become what’s known as “the infected”. Joel (Pedro Pascal), a hardened survivor, is hired to smuggle Ellie, a 14-year-old girl, out of an oppressive quarantine zone. What starts as a small job soon becomes a brutal and heartbreaking journey as they both must traverse the US and depend on each other for survival.
Does Ellie die in The Last of Us season one finale?
Does Joel die in The Last of Us season one finale? The answer is no; Joel doesn’t die in the first The Last of Us game, on which season one of the HBO show is based, either. We can’t say the same for Part II, though, sorry. We’ve been led to believe season two will draw from Part II given showrunner/game creator Neill Druckmann who tweeted “Part II —> HBO” on January 2023, but we don’t know to what extent. Gamers already know Joel’s horrific fate in the early hours of the sequel. It’s arguably the most controversial moment in video game history and even lead to the developers receiving death threats. Yeeaah.
But here’s a recap of the final episode of HBO’s The Last of Us. As Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie near their destination—the headquarters where a resistance group called the Fireflies are working on finding a cure—they’re ambushed. When Joel awakes, he finds himself in a hospital bed with the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, standing watch over him. He asks to see Ellie; Marlene says he can’t as she’s being prepped for surgery.
Marlene explains their doctor’s theory that the cordyceps have grown with Ellie since birth and as such have assimilated into her body, completely making her immune. The plan is to remove the cells from Ellie’s body and multiply them so that they may send the same chemical messages to other infected people and thus, produce a cure. “But cordyceps grow inside the brain,” Joel observes. He quickly realizes that the surgery meant to find a pandemic-ending cure will also kill Ellie in the process. Despite Marlene feeling an emotional connection to the teenager (she was there when she was born, after all), the resistance fighter says she has “no other choice.” Marlene orders the Fireflies to escort Joel back to the highway and if he tries to escape or fight his way back, they are to shoot him.
In typical Joel fashion, he doesn’t take too kindly to that. He manages to grab a gun off one of the soldiers and fight his way back to Ellie. He finds her in an operating theater and demands she be unhooked from all the medical instruments. When the surgeon threatens Joel with a scalpel, Joel shoots him in the head. The nurses do as he asks and Joel walks out of the hospital with an unconscious Ellie, who’s still under general anesthetic.
In the basement parking lot, Marlene confronts Joel. “You can’t keep her safe forever. No matter how hard you try, no matter how many people you kill, she’s going to grow up, Joel,” she says. “You’ll die, she’ll leave, then what? How long until she’s torn apart by infected or murdered by raiders because she lives in a broken world that you could’ve saved?” He responds: “Maybe, but it isn’t for you to decide.” Marlene interrupts. “Or you, so what would she decide? Cos I think she’d want to do what’s right and you know it. It’s not too late, even now,” she says.
In the game, Marlene tells Joel: “You can still do the right thing here. She won’t feel anything.” The next shot cuts to Joel driving a car down the highway with Ellie for whom the anesthetic is beginning to wear off. We learn through brief flashbacks that Joel has also shot Marlene. When Ellie asks what happened and why she’s wearing a hospital gown, Joel lies to her. “Turns out there’s a whole lot more like you, people that are immune. Dozens of them,” he says. “The doctors couldn’t make any of it work. They’ve actually stopped looking for a cure. Raiders attacked the hospital; I barely got you out of there.”
We find out they’re making their way back to Tommy’s settlement in Jackson, Wyoming, and as Joel and Ellie do the last five miles on foot, Ellie pauses for a moment. She ponders all the loved ones she’s lost to the cordyceps: her first love Riley, Joel’s partner Tess and young Sam, Henry’s younger brother who was bitten and killed in episode five. She then says to Joel: “Swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true.” He replies: “I swear.” “OK,” she says. Cut to black and that’s the end of season one. It’s almost scene for scene in the video game, too.
In an interview with Collider in January 2023, Druckmann and his co-showrunner Craig Mazin said The Last of Us series won’t be one of those shows that drag on forever. “I don’t have much narrative interest in writing a show that is designed to perpetually continue until the network finally puts it out of its misery somewhere,” Mazin said. “I write to endings. Endings are everything to me. I don’t know how to write if I don’t know how it ends. And also, if the show doesn’t have an ending, it means nothing ultimately is truly purposeful. All the stakes become empty because, if the network renews you, everything’s fine, and I don’t know how to do that.”
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