The Last of Us Season 1, Episode Nine
“Look for the Light” Review
Never a show (or game) to let its ideas and ruminations marinate in subtext, the opening scene of The Last of Us season one finale, “Look for the Light,” stands out as one of the show’s loudest moments. Opening on Anna’s (Ashley Johnson, who portrayed Ellie in The Last of Us Part 1) last few minutes of life, Ellie’s birth and Marlene’s decisions present one of the show’s most affecting emotional scenes – but like much of The Last of Us, engaging beyond those superficial images (the natural cycle of life and death, etc.) reveals a much colder, flat series, one hardened against anything resembling hope or optimism in ways that suffocate the entire series around it.
To The Last of Us, the real infection is love: though cordyceps turns people into monstrous, violent creatures, love is what truly corrupts the soul of people like Joel, Marlene, Kathleen, and the other characters of its world (“it infects the brain,” as we are reminded here). As Anna cuts her cord, realizing she’s probably transferring the virus to her newborn daughter, The Last of Us enforces that love only begets pain – and the deeper the infection, the more dangerous the rot can become. And nothing, of course, is more dangerous than the love of a parent for a child, the kind that rewires our brains and rewrites our genetic DNA; the purest love of all turns out to be the one that can hurt the most (but also save the world!).
The opening scene of the finale brings into focus so much of what I’ve discussed throughout the season; The Last of Us worships at the Temple of Misery, again the only defining trait it presents to the world with “Look For the Light”. What fucking light? Anytime The Last of Us wants a character to feel loved, it is only to rip the rug out from underneath them; after all, love drives us to do crazy things (kill the only doctor in the city, like Kathleen), make irrational decisions (immediately committing suicide after your brother dies), or learn the most depressing life lessons on the planet (meet Joel, Mr. Flinches While Committing Suicide).
The emotional tambor of The Last of Us might be the most miserable, jaded experience on television today, and from the opening moments of “Look For the Light” (which, again, a quick recap: Ellie is literally birthed during a zombie attack on her mother, who cannot breastfeed her and begs her best friend to shoot her in the head), The Last of Us is ready to be high on its depressing supply.
Save for a brief moment of Ellie feeding a giraffe, “Look For the Light” adopts the previous structure of the season’s early episodes; the first half is spent with Ellie and Joel traveling and talking, and the second half unravels the brief peace they’ve found in violent fashion. Being a season finale, the stakes are properly raised: as Ellie slowly recovers from her little incident hacking and burning down a town of reluctant cannibals, they both face down the end of their journey across the United States together as they head toward the Firefly base Joel promised Tess he would make it to.
The first twenty minutes are fairly formulaic for the series at this point; some small talk, a few puns, and some overt dialogue from Joel, so we all understand how this journey’s become his lifeline, even if it had mostly resulted in exposing Ellie to the most traumatic parts of life (which in fairness, began before Joel showed up: Mom dies at birth, first kiss dies an hour after, immediately becomes a sociopolitical pawn). Despite some tinny Joel dialogue, these scenes continue to work because of Ramsey and Pascal’s shared talent to find nuance in the bluntness; their ability to convey certain energies without manifesting them is palpable, and continues to build the emotional layer of their relationship often unseen in the episode’s actions (after all, there’s not a lot of “getting to know you” happening; we don’t see many of the ‘between’ moments, just the ‘right before’ and ‘right after’ of big, traumatic things).
The second half, of course, opens up viewers to the most divisive, debated ending of modern video games: once Joel and Ellie are (accidentally) captured by the Fireflies, Ellie is whisked away to have life-ending brain surgery, in hopes of her mind containing the cure to cordyceps (in the form of a chemical messenger, to be specific). Joel – who has spent the episode saying, “you’re not my dead daughter, but boy, you’re similar!” – predictably loses it, sacrificing the possible cure to let Ellie have a life where she might have some agency over her decisions… and more importantly, let Joel hold onto love just a little bit longer.
Given how this series feels about love – how it infects the brain and takes control of the host, like…. well, you get it – the ending, even for newbies, should not exactly be a surprise. Joel’s been known to be an extremely violent person when he doesn’t have anything tangible to live for; given a purpose, and Joel turns into an invincible Firefly killing machine, dispatching what’s left of Marlene’s crew with almost comedic simplicity as he makes his way to where she’s being prepped for surgery.
To its credit, “Look for the Light” doesn’t shy away from the horrors of Joel’s actions; there’s no explicit justification, no moment where The Last of Us tries to say whether he’s right or wrong. That ambiguity is important; it is a reminder intangible things like love don’t keep score, or tether themselves to some kind of coherent morality. For lovers and parents alike, love can take you to the most wonderful or the darkest of places: for a broken man like Joel, feeling the pangs of parental love after 20 years seems to have made him angry again, as he viciously hunts and kills everyone standing between him and Ellie.
It is the steel pipe to the head of dramatic endings, Joel damning everyone to save the only bit of light he’s found since Sarah died, and lying to Ellie about it all, even though it’s probably very obvious to him she’ll figure things out quickly. Given it adheres so closely to the game (except that getting to the surgical room in the game is actually challenging and quite dangerous), the ending is something I’ve wrestled with for nearly a decade; and seeing it in motion for the second time has left me as unconvinced of it being the right ending, or even one The Last of Us treats as ambiguous.
Joel’s decision and Ellie’s reaction are supposedly played as such; but as the opening scene of this episode – and so many others throughout the series – have taught us, love is bad. It may feel good for a day, a few years, or a few decades, but it is going to make you do terrible things in its name. Real love, teenage crush, or worn-down mutual acceptance: all of it puts a toxin in your brain you become a slave to, zombified by the damning, selfish need to never feel alone in the universe. In that sense, I can’t begrudge “Look for the Light” as an effective finale; it is certainly the culmination of its themes and ideas, but those resolutions are neither interesting, or satisfying.
Moreso, given how everyone who loves makes idiotic decisions that lead to gruesome deaths, The Last of Us is very direct with its feelings about the most mysterious emotion known to the human species – and it is a bitterness that calcifies the entire narrative of the series, and leaves its attempts at emotional poignancy feel empty and manipulative. The lesson is always the same: learn to love and prepare to suffer. It’s a worldview Joel embraced before Ellie, and one the series wants to celebrate and villainize in the same breath; in its attempts to pontificate inquisitively, “Look for the Light” suggests its own title is something not worth pursuing, as finding the light only makes the darkness even more black and more empty, right?
I wish The Last of Us would’ve embraced any other shade of its emotional palette for an extended period; it robs so much richness from its narrative by only presenting a world of misery and pain, a world where the only everlasting beauty or harmony is found in its backdrops. Those lush backgrounds, of course, are the parts of its world that the viewer cannot experience and cannot touch (outside of, you know, the absolutely dreadful green screen when Joel and Ellie stand on a balcony overlooking a baseball stadium), leaving us only with the violence shoved in our faces, the misery and pain always center frame, always occupying the foreground of every exhausting image of depressing thematic clarity.
But I suppose all along, The Last of Us has told us how the intrinsic hallucinogenic properties of hope are what are bound to doom us as human beings – in that sense, “Look for the Light” produces perhaps the most unsurprising dramatic twists in recent memory, and ends one of the more confoundingly applauded seasons of television in perhaps the most unsurprising, depressing fashion it possibly could. Brilliantly performed and flawlessly produced, “Look for the Light” is held back by its reductive inflexibility, embracing an ethos of unforgiving brutality as a substitute for a truly honest, complex reflection on its characters and humanity.