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The Last of Us Left Behind
Image: HBO

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It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye on The Last of Us “Left Behind”

The Last of Us takes a (slightly) different tone, and delivers the best episode of the series to date.

The Last of Us Season One, Episode 7
“Left Behind” Review

Set against the backdrop of a broken down, dilapidated mall, “Left Behind” is perhaps the simplest proposition an episode of The Last of Us will ever have. On the surface, this seems pretty obvious – “Left Behind” is Ellie’s backstory boiled down to one night – but in a more metaphysical sense, it is an episode about innocence and examining how it shapes our worldview, particularly as the realities of the world (and unfortunately, this specific world) begin to shatter the naivety of young minds. A rather expertly crafted episode, “Left Behind” is a fine hour of television that, like the other episodes and stories of the series, is only slightly held back by its inherent lack of creativity.

As expected, “Left Behind” is the true showcase for Bella Ramsey’s performance as Ellie, and on a purely technical level, The Last of Us shines with the scripting and acting choices made throughout the season. While Ellie’s character traits are not exactly mysterious, “Left Behind” offers a rare glimpse of something The Last of Us is often not able to do, with its gruff set of characters fully vested in the world that existed before the outbreak. Through Ellie, “Left Behind” can experience such a wider gamut of emotions, on full display before, during, and after her last night together with her (recently estranged) best friend Riley (Storm Reid).

The Last of Us Left Behind
Image: HBO

Her eyes filling with wonder seeing an arcade for the first time, her confusion trying to interpret her crush’s behavior, the blossoming political beliefs that lead to her and Riley debating the Fireflies’ ethos; all of this is rich character-building material not offered the other characters in the series (even amongst the smattering of teenaged characters we meet). The episode-long flashback is entirely unique in that sense; Ellie’s eyes are full of hope and possibility, even amidst her anger and frustration: I’ve talked for weeks about The Last of Us struggling to find that balance, and it shows here in how it unleashes a series of beautiful near-vignettes for each of Riley’s Four (excuse me, Five) Wonders of the Mall, and how different it makes the inevitable outcome feel.

Ellie’s sense of discovery in the episode’s first half is infectious; it brings the entire series to life, positing (for once) that hope can be worth holding onto – and that, for a moment, there are still people growing up in this world. For a few hours, Ellie even gets to be an Actual Teen; she chugs stolen alcohol with Riley and argues about classmates, almost as if Riley didn’t leave for three weeks to go join the “freedom fighting” Fireflies (and you know, started partaking in some bomb making and detonating activities along the way). There’s a touch of melancholy, of course – Riley makes it clear she has no intentions of returning to the Boston QZ for a life of sewage detail – but the foundation underneath these emotions and ideas are far different than those we’ve seen through the eyes of Joel, or even present-day Ellie, throughout the series.

It makes for what is easily the best 40 minutes of the season; though it comes at the expense of Joel shivering and bleeding out in the background (LOL – sorry, bro), seeing Riley and Ellie’s last night stands out against the rest of The Last of Us‘s mosaic of tragic, depressing stories. I love absolutely everything building up to the moment Riley and Ellie kiss; Ellie’s reluctant flirtations, Riley’s quiet resignations, their obvious chemistry together… it’s such a crystallized, beautifully developed arc, one that embraces the inherent clumsiness of youth, and how powerful and devastating the lessons that are learned when that veneer is inevitably ripped away, as life happens to us.

The Last of Us Left Behind
Image: HBO

Which makes it all that more difficult when The Last of Us pulls it away in a somewhat formulaic fashion; as six hours of the series have conditioned us, Riley is absolutely screwed the very moment Ellie kisses her. Though it is a fitting metaphor (as humans, we are but slaves to our own patterns and sensibilities), it still feels repetitive to watch “Left Behind” play the carrot-and-stick game with its protagonists and the audience once again. The difference here is that this story is actually a necessary one to define Ellie, and as a result, proves that we didn’t really need the Henry/Sam story… and, I hate to say it, the pointlessness of Kathleen’s character.

(Side note: any reason The Last of Us keeps killing the black characters it introduces as devices to define Ellie? I’m assuming this is not intentional, but boy, does it stick out!)

This story explores these same ideas, but on a much more personal, meaningful level, defining who Ellie is by her own actions and choices, rather than her reactions to external influences around her. Strip away these proxy characters, and the Riley arc is the show’s most defined; taking place so far into the season’s narrative, its resolution mostly feels like reinforcement of the same old themes of joy being violently ripped from its characters, mostly to its detriment.

Thankfully, The Last of Us does spare us the misery of Riley’s final moments after they’re both a bit in the mall Halloween store (kicking off the events of the series, given how Ellie survives), cutting back to Ellie trying to keep Joel alive and sparing us at least one awful resolution. Unsurprisingly, her strained facial expressions when we snap back to the present are given new dimensions by her night in the mall (she goes from smashing glass cases to performing manual stitches on someone… now that’s what I call character development, baby!), which almost works to Bandaid over the obvious narrative track the entire story is laid upon.

But mostly, “Left Behind” is just a great episode of television, one that smartly steps back in its quietest moments and lets the performances of Ramsey and Reid carry a simple story, one of young love, the curiosity of developing minds – and of course, an amusing out-of-water experience for a generation of teenagers who will never have to learn how to take a screenshot on a Windows computer. And though it is only a brief, temporary respite from the relentlessly bleak world of The Last of Us, the tonal shift “Left Behind” offers is welcome, not satisfied to only search for beauty in tragedy for the sake of the latter – which, makes it an easy pick for this writer as the best episode of the season to date.

Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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