Spoilers ahead for episode 7 of The Last of Us.
There’s a degree at which, within the 2014 PlayStation game expansion The Last of Us: Left Behind, 14-year-old Ellie Williams takes a fall. She’s sprinting to flee the infected runners on her heels, however the scaffolding she’s climbed isn’t stable enough to support her weight; the structure leans, then tumbles. She drops with it, hitting the bottom hard enough to knock the air from her lungs. The zombies are on her right away, and she or he screams for her best friend, Riley.
For those who’ve watched tonight’s episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, you already know the way this story ends. Ellie and Riley each wind up with war wounds from their zombie battle, which—within the cordyceps-infected world they inhabit—means certain death for his or her minds and, eventually, their bodies. I watched this PlayStation scene again recently and was struck by a YouTube comment left by one other viewer: “Imagine if Ellie never fell off that railing within the last part. She would have never gotten bitten, so she wouldn’t have met Joel … Woah, this one small moment set the whole story forward.”
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Episode 7 is grounded, in almost every scene, by similar acts of imagination. When Riley (Storm Reid) drops into her bedroom unannounced, Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is furious enough at her former roommate’s disappearance that she spends lots of the remaining scenes questioning Riley’s devotion to a dream. At 16 years old, Riley has recently taken up with the Fireflies, a bunch of revolutionaries intent on overthrowing the fascist government that deploys FEDRA, the Federal Disaster Response Agency, which in turn controls the key quarantine zones across the country. Ellie thinks Riley’s idea of a greater world—one run by these protestors—is a fantasy, and a dangerous one. As Riley coaxes Ellie into the night, the 2 sip from a whiskey bottle, debate politics, and trade “bullshit propaganda”: Riley is intent on visualizing radical change, regardless of what it requires; Ellie digs her heels in, sure that the most effective path forward is to climb the FEDRA ladder and alter the corrupt system from inside.
Within the abandoned shopping center where Riley brings Ellie by the use of late-night adventure and going-away party, the 2 get to visualise an alternate childhood, one where their teenage years took place before the outbreak. They ride escalators and carousels; they sneak pulls of bad booze; they stare, puzzled, at lingerie; they play old arcade games; they giggle at Ellie’s infamous book of puns; they trade secret, longing glances. They argue, Ellie hurt that Riley is leaving her to fight for a cause “I don’t even think you understand,” and Riley frustrated that Ellie can’t seem to know it.
Ellie then discovers the homemade bombs in Riley’s food-court-turned-camp, and her disappointment is visceral enough to prompt Riley to disclose the reality: The Fireflies are asking her to depart town. Tonight is the roommates’ last together.
Underneath the flickering neon signs, Ellie confronts her friend: “Why did you bring me here?”
“Because I desired to see you,” Riley says.
“And?” Ellie adds, her eyes scanning Riley’s face with a kind of wild, desperate hope. After watching the way in which she interacts with Riley—the bashful smiles, the handholding, the prolonged looks—we all know what she’s wanting to listen to. But how can she allow herself to confess it? Even at this point within the story, weeks before she meets Joel, Tess, or Sam, Ellie has endured a lot loss, a lot disappointment. Who can blame her for keeping her dreams small?
“And I desired to say goodbye,” Riley finishes. That is all of the confirmation Ellie needs. She whirls around and storms off, only returning to Riley’s side when she fears the Firefly recruit is under attack from infected. Really, the screams are coming from low-cost Halloween decor in pursuit of a very good jump-scare. Ellie’s blood pressure spikes once more, but this time the look on Riley’s face convinces her it’s time to listen.
“You don’t know what it was wish to have a family, to belong,” Riley explains to her. “I belonged to them. And I would like that again. Perhaps the Fireflies aren’t what I believe they’re, but they selected me. I matter to them.” The road is intentional foreshadowing of Ellie’s own eventual encounter with Joel. He, too, perhaps isn’t who Ellie thinks he’s. But he desires to handle her. In his way, he selected her. That’s something she’s never allowed herself to assume for herself before. Except, after all, when it got here to Riley.
Outfitted in what I think should be disgusting-smelling monster masks, they twirl on the glass countertops of Spirit Halloween, swinging their arms to the rhythm of “I Got You Babe” by Etta James. However the verve only lasts long enough for Ellie to slowly remove her werewolf face and stare at her friend, her hair wild, eyes enormous and searching. “Don’t go,” she pleads.
Riley, finally, is convinced. “Okay,” she says, and Ellie lurches forward for a kiss. It lasts only a moment, nevertheless it’s convincing enough to send the 2 into suits of nervous laughter, as they realize—with a surge of joy—that the sentiments between them are shared. There’s a future here, an actual one. They’ll picture it. They’ll face it together. But as with so many moments in The Last of Us, the happiness is ripped from its source with a rush of brutality. A stalker, revealed to us earlier within the episode hibernating within the American Girl Doll store, leaps from under a stack of merchandise, and the buddies are suddenly locked in a death match.
After a transient but heart-pounding struggle, Ellie secures her first kill, one she’s adrenaline-addled enough to practically have a good time when it crumples, hissing, to the ground. However the victory is short-lived, as every audience member will already recognize. Staring uncomprehendingly on the teeth marks on her arm, she claws on the stream of blood as if she could erase it.
When Riley reveals an identical chomp on her hand, Ellie’s rage is doubled. She shrieks, already incandescent with grief, slamming a bat through the Spirit Halloween display cases and spraying glass upon Riley’s feet. Resolute through her tears, Riley presents her best friend with two options: 1) They shoot themselves before the infection can take root of their brains. 2) They wait together, clinging to each remaining second of the long run that, only moments prior, they thought might be real.
And that is the final word act of imagination: Riley believing that what stays of their humanity is price fighting for. It’s this alternative that saves Ellie, who otherwise might need died before she could discover her own immunity.
The scene ends with the 2 wrapped tight in one another’s arms, weeping but united. We don’t get to witness what happens to Riley, though we are able to take an informed guess. The most certainly scenario is Riley become an infected, forcing Ellie—in some way, impossibly, still human—to flee from her friend or kill her. Showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann purposefully leave that query unaddressed and unanswered, pinpointing the theme of the whole episode arc. We don’t must know; we are able to imagine.
And if we are able to envision the horror of what Ellie endured, we are able to similarly understand the mission that drives her in the current timeline. Riley’s cause has turn out to be Ellie’s own. She, too, seeks the Fireflies, though to not overthrow FEDRA but to eliminate the necessity for it altogether. She is driven by the assumption—nevertheless unlikely, nevertheless idealistic—that she will be able to actually save the people she loves. That vision in her mind only crystallizes further as she endures the extra losses of Tess, Sam, and Henry.
So once we watch Ellie with a now-injured Joel, we are able to understand why she’s desperate enough to trust her own shaking hands. She grits her teeth as she threads a needle, pushing it through the puckered flesh of Joel’s stab wound. She has to imagine she will be able to save his life. She has to imagine all this loss will amount to something worthwhile. She has to assume she’s the cure, that the world Riley wanted can exist, that Joel may help her make it a reality. And perhaps, at the tip of all of it, he could be beside her when that hope becomes something tangible. There, together, they could actually belong.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture author at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.