How The Last of Us Cherishes a Bygone World

Even as the show moves through a new postapocalyptic reality, it keeps a close eye on what’s been lost.

Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid on a carousel
Liane Hentscher / HBO

This story contains spoilers for The Last of Us Season 1, Episode 7.

An abandoned mall at the end of the world is not a pretty sight. Stores, looted and left in disarray, offer only broken mannequins and empty shelves. Glass shards blanket the floors. Fluorescent bulbs flicker. A place once known as a center of commerce has become a dirt-strewn husk of its former self.

Yet when The Last of Us’s teenage heroine, Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey), gazes upon one such building in the latest episode, she’s entranced. Her face, bruised from a recent fistfight, lights up. Her eyes widen, and a small smile forms at the corners of her mouth. Long before she actually verbalizes it, she’s clearly decided that this plaza is the greatest sight she’s ever seen.

Like the drama’s wonderfully poignant third episode, Sunday’s installment, “Left Behind,” follows an intimate, self-contained plot. In the present, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie’s journey to a lab that can study Ellie’s immunity has come to a halt after Joel is hurt in an attack. Much of the hour instead chronicles a single evening that took place months before the two met, when Ellie and her best friend, Riley (Storm Reid), sneaked out of the Boston quarantine zone. The episode thus delves into Ellie’s backstory and how she experienced the kind of loss that instilled in her a potent fear of being alone.

But “Left Behind” isn’t remarkable merely for filling in the blanks of Ellie’s past. Rather, it’s a quiet celebration of the world that once existed—a world the audience knows all too well and, the show posits, all too often takes for granted. In postapocalyptic stories, world building typically emphasizes the new reality: new vocabulary to learn, new systems of government to understand, new social norms to parse. The Last of Us has its share of this—the walking dead are not “zombies”; they’re “infected”—but the series keeps a close eye, through Ellie, on what’s been lost. Ellie’s fondness for even a dilapidated shopping center offers a reminder of how simple pleasures can be as important as food and shelter. This ruined complex is meaningful not because it houses a sick collection of Halloween decorations, but because it’s a monument to Ellie and Riley’s friendship. Genuine human connection is rare enough in a normal world. For Ellie, who doesn’t yet know of her immunity, it’s a lifeline—which is why, after they’re both bitten at the end of the episode, being with Riley for as long as she can is worth the cost of slowly losing her mind.

As Riley guides Ellie around the mall, she promises to show her “wonders.” These turn out to be ordinary machines, including a photo booth, an arcade game, and a merry-go-round. Ellie has demonstrated a deep affection for cultural artifacts like these: She reads comic books, pins movie posters to her dorm-room walls, and listens to music through her Walkman as she jogs. Such objects may seem frivolous to others, but Ellie’s delighted by them. When she spots the photo booth, she asks if it’s a time machine. When she rides the carousel, she describes her plastic steed as “a magic horse.” In Ellie’s awe, The Last of Us, rather than assuming that humanity’s worth saving, provides a compelling reason for doing so. Ellie is herself a “wonder,” in other words: Yes, she’s pivotal to the mission because she’s genetically valuable, but she’s also immensely capable of finding amusement and joy in what little she has. That capacity for imagination, the show argues, is a uniquely human quality that must be protected.

In its depiction of culture as essential to humanity, The Last of Us shares DNA with Station Eleven, another outstanding HBO adaptation (in its case, of a novel) set in a postapocalyptic landscape. But whereas the importance of art served as Station Eleven’s focus, The Last of Us is more subtle, tracking art’s ambient influence on its characters. In Episode 3, Frank (Murray Bartlett) paints portraits of Bill (Nick Offerman) that he proudly displays around their home. In Episode 5, the underground tunnels leading out of Kansas City are covered in colorful drawings, similar to the illustrations that Sam (Keivonn Woodard) made of superheroes while hiding out. And in Episode 6, the survivors living in the thriving Jackson settlement gather to watch a movie. The art shown in The Last of Us is also more lowbrow: Ellie cherishes her pun book, flips through a porn magazine she finds, and quotes from a series of comics with which she’s obsessed. Portraits and pun books—these objects have significance because they help forge close bonds. They’re expressions of care, as crucial as the thread Ellie finds to sew up Joel’s wounds.

My colleague Ian Bogost wrote recently that turning The Last of Us into a television series revealed that “there just isn’t that much to the story,” not when you’re now a viewer instead of a player concerned with getting Joel and Ellie past hordes of infected. I disagree. Sure, this episode included little forward momentum of the overarching plot, but that’s the point: The show is not just about whether Joel and Ellie will save the world. It’s about what is left to save, and why they should save it at all. As a TV series, the story now has room to meditate—on concepts as enormous and existential as the price of being human and caring for someone else, as well as on more minute details, such as the elegance of a working set of escalators in an abandoned mall. And just like Ellie when she first laid eyes on the structure, the show is finding many wonders to ponder—and to treasure.