What’s Missing From the Grand Finale of The Last of Us

In snapping back to faithfulness to the original video game, the show reminded us of its limits.

Pedro Pascal as Joel
Liane Hentscher / HBO

This story contains spoilers for the entire first season of The Last of Us.

Video-game adaptations used to be defined by how much they could ignore their source material. A Super Mario Bros. movie couldn’t actually be about cartoon Italians jumping on mushrooms with eyes, so it became a battle against leather-clad lizards in an industrial dystopia. The Street Fighter game is about, well, fighting in the street, but the movie is a G.I. Joe rip-off with far-flung action sequences. But as time has passed and button-mashing children of the ’90s like myself have grown up, video games have become hallowed ground: Sonic the Hedgehog has to look exactly like his pixelated counterpart, or the fans will riot.

The Last of Us is one of the most critically acclaimed and feverishly discussed video games of all time, a major milestone in the consideration of that medium as art. So I fired up HBO’s prestige-TV adaptation with some trepidation, worried that the writers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann (the latter of whom co-created the game) would be too anxious to stray from the original story for fear of angering fans. But I was pleasantly surprised: The first season of The Last of Us has taken several fascinating plot detours, with a clear interest in expanding beyond the oppressive (if affecting) bleakness of that apocalyptic digital world.

The last two episodes of the show, though, including tonight’s finale, largely resorted to intense faithfulness, with the exception of a flashback scene that cleverly casts Ashley Johnson, who plays Ellie in the game, as Ellie’s mother. I was impressed, even astonished, by the fealty on display at times—the set design of the cannibal colony that Ellie (Bella Ramsey) stumbled into last week was a precise replica of the game’s animated version, and the visual blocking of even simple scenes of dialogue was identical. Just as in the game, the last scene of tonight’s finale, a terse conversation between Ellie and her fierce guardian, Joel (Pedro Pascal), cuts to black after the line “Okay”—a moment that hit me like a hammer blow as I clutched my PlayStation controller on my first playthrough.

The exactitude of this adaptation is undoubtedly striking. But as I watched the finale, my original fears about The Last of Us bubbled up again—what is the point of watching a story that was once so clearly reliant on you being “in control” of the main character? The finale, titled “Look for the Light,” follows Joel and Ellie as they finally make it to Salt Lake City, having survived a harrowing trip across a country rife with fungus-infected monsters and many a hostile human. They’re ambushed and taken in by the Fireflies, a resistance group that Joel thinks could study Ellie’s natural immunity to the cordyceps infection. Joel wakes up in the company of Marlene (Merle Dandridge), the Fireflies’ leader, who tells him that Ellie could indeed be the basis of a cure—but that the surgery required to create a vaccine will kill her.

In the show, as in the game, it is a crushing moment, a potential outcome the viewer (and player) has tried not to think about during the journey across the country. Joel and Ellie’s bond, halting and awkward at first, is by this point deep-rooted and forged in all of the traumatic things they’ve seen along the way. Pascal plays that connection profoundly, which is vital considering the rampage that comes next. Joel tears through the Firefly facility, killing everyone in his path, to rescue Ellie, murdering the surgeon about to operate on her in cold blood and then, finally, Marlene in order to get the girl to safety. When Ellie comes to, he lies and tells her that her immunity can’t be manufactured, and they move to live with his brother in Wyoming, where he’s part of a built-up community.

As I’ve written before, the ending of The Last of Us reflected a profound moment for gaming. It challenged the player to think about the blurry division between user and avatar. Yes, it’s Joel who “does” those terrible things, but the player is the one making it happen with the controller, and there’s no other option: You have to kill everyone in order to advance. I don’t necessarily like what Joel does, but I understand it, having played an entire story based on protecting Ellie, and I admired the transgressive cleverness of making me carry out his twisted endgame. My ultimate question when starting the show was: Would I feel the same complex soup of emotions just watching passively on my couch?

Yes and no—but mostly no. The action of the finale is well done; Pascal plays Joel’s switch to coldhearted brutishness perfectly, and Ramsey is equally dead-on in conveying Ellie’s suspicion of Joel’s lie. But TV has seen plenty of antiheroes over the past few decades, many of them crueler and quicker to murder than Joel is (though obviously the fate of the human species never rested in the hands of Tony Soprano or Walter White). I’m used to watching intelligent dramas that prod me to consider my sympathies for their flawed lead characters, and at the end of the day, The Last of Us is another one of those: an HBO series centered on a troubled protagonist with a dark side. It just can’t replicate the frightening wonder of actually pressing the buttons to doom humanity in the name of protecting your feelings.