The relationships portrayed thus far in The Last of Us––father and daughter, brother and brother, romantic partnerships––have all felt incredibly engrossing for the limited amount of time we get to experience them. They all feel as layered as a familial or domestic relationship with years of development would feel: at times incredibly intense, at times remarkably tender.
Despite the back half of the first season beginning to rely on monologues and exposition dumps, we have often gotten to see these relationships develop through flashbacks that expand upon the source material. In fact, these moments have been some of the series’ highlights, such as in episodes like “Long, Long Time” and “Endure And Survive.” Not once have these moments felt like detours in the story, but rather massive expansions on the show’s world-building and themes.
“Left Behind,” the season’s seventh episode and based on the widely beloved DLC, is the first episode in the series to break this chain. Fans will tell you that it is a deeply faithful adaptation of the DLC, with some details added from a companion comic series, and yet it does not feel like a piece of the show’s larger thematic puzzle in execution. Due to a variety of factors, including Mazin and Druckmann’s insistence on adapting a large amount of story in merely nine episodes, “Left Behind” feels like the equivalent of post-apocalyptic puppy love.
Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Riley’s (Storm Reid) friendship-turned-romance doesn’t have the same depth as many of the show’s previous relationships because it simply hasn’t had the time, both in-story and on-screen, to be of much substance. Watching two young women fall-in-love against the backdrop of a literal teenage wasteland is entertaining on its own, not to mention a beautiful piece of representation, but as a piece of this version of The Last of Us, it simply doesn’t match up.
Our time with Ellie and Riley begins sometime after they’ve met in FEDRA’s military school. Riley has disappeared for three weeks whilst Ellie struggles to find her place. When Riley finally returns, she reveals that she has become a member of the Firefly rebel group and takes Ellie on a late night getaway to a local abandoned shopping mall. It’s unclear how long they’ve known each other, but the immediate impression is that this relationship is in its very early stages. In the same way Ramsey has given Ellie a harder edge than the original game, so too has Reid as Riley. They pick on each other, almost incessantly, using sarcasm and one-upmanship as code for admiration. The vulnerability is slim to none. However, there’s clearly something more going on between them. In fact, it’s so obvious that it’s almost excruciating.
The counterargument to this sentiment is reasonable: Ellie and Riley, who have not had an intimate relationship with anyone in years (if ever), would not so easily admit to their mutual attraction, nor engage with it. However, the audience knows it well. Ramsey and Reid are playing up the awkwardness, notably far more than the original DLC, and after the fifth lingering stare, the writing has been written on the wall in permanent ink.
By the time we get to the culminating first kiss, it almost feels chaste. I’m not here to advocate for especially steamy romance from on-screen teens, but in a show where a single kiss can evoke far more emotional weight five episodes prior, the disconnect in this subplot becomes clear. Had we spent more time with Ellie and Riley before this moment in their story, and had Ramsey and Reid’s chemistry felt more lived-in as a result, perhaps this moment would feel more monumental.
However, if one must criticize a show as impeccably crafted as The Last of Us, it is only because the caliber of quality is so damn high in every other aspect. Director Liza Johnson (Elvis & Nixon) produces some of the show’s most dazzling images yet thanks to an uncharacteristically vibrant color palette: the bi-lighting in the arcade, the shimmering gold of the carousel, even the harsh reds of Boston’s abandoned alleyways. In an episode soaked with nostalgia, the visuals more than reflect it.
This episode also continues the show’s track record of superb musical moments, including a gorgeous calliope rendition of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” as Ellie and Riley enjoy a ride on the carousel. It is this attention to detail channeled into superb creativity that makes The Last of Us so fun to watch amidst the tragedy.
Additionally, the final moments between Riley and Ellie feel a bit contrived, but the episode’s finale is anything but. In fact, the episode’s prologue and epilogue are not only an excellent framing device but also an effective beat for Ellie and Joel (Pedro Pascal), the far more compelling relationship of the two we see. Joel insists Ellie leave him to die and return to Tommy, however Ellie refuses to give up on another person in her life and stitches his wound.
Now, Joel must rely on Ellie in a stunning role reversal that plays perfectly into both characters’ backstories and traumas. If Episode 7’s plot does not feel gratifying on its own terms, it certainly ends on a note that succinctly brings us back to the action, which continues through to Episode 8 in a big, big way.
The Last of Us airs Sunday nights at 9 PM EST on Crave, HBO, and HBOMax.