How Episode 7 of The Last of Us Proved There’s Strength in Adaptations

Image from @thelastofus on Instagram

Episode seven of The Last of Us titled Left Behind does everything a video game to television show adaptation should do.

In this episode we get to see a small glimpse into the mundane parts of Ellie’s life in the QZ; socially, academically, and emotionally. We open with the Ellie we already know: a tough girl unafraid to defend herself while simultaneously struggling with the issue of who she is and what she could be in the absence of people who’ve impacted her. We then get to meet one of those people that we now know is Riley. Riley proposes an adventure for Ellie and this episode takes us through that, allowing us into the relationship that Ellie and Riley hold all the way up to the tragic ending.

Riley’s First Appearance

Riley, played by Storm Reid, is such a layered character. While this episode is heavily intended to push Ellie’s character along, we still get so much about Riley almost making it feel like we’ve gotten more than we did. Due to Reid’s outstanding performance, we trusted her character right from the moment she stepped on screen. She had this warm energy that was an invitation to infatuation. Right from the moment we saw her sneak through Ellie’s window, we as the viewer automatically wanted to know everything about her: what she knows, who she knows, how she knows them.

At the beginning of every episode you watch of any show you metaphorically hold this great deal of trust with the episode you’re about to consume. You give that trust to the writers in hopes they don’t betray it. You hope they can present to you a story that feels well rounded and executed well. I found it so interesting how easy it was for me to give up that trust and put it into Riley as she leads this adventure she takes Ellie on, and as we now know is an adventure for the viewer as well. Up until now Riley was only a name so what’s so special about this episode is that we get to experience Riley in this setting of childlike innocence and teenage pining in the same light that Ellie does. We don’t need to have known Riley for years or have any kind of knowledge about who she is as a person because of the choices Reid makes when delivering the dialogue and more importantly the choices she makes when there’s no dialogue. The viewer is really able to immerse themselves in this story.

Image from @thelastofus on Instagram

How HBO Stayed True To The Video Game

Another truly remarkable thing about the story in this episode is the opportunity to essentially “play as Ellie”. While we don’t get to inherently make choices for her character like if you were to play the video game, we still get to experience “the best night of [her] life” from her point of view. We learn at the same speed as her what Riley has been up to, what she’s planned for them, and how all of this impacts that underlying feeling of future nostalgia. Every moment in this episode is in some way a love letter to those who understand Ellie and relate to her, her experiences, her relationships, and her conflicts.

The show has this way of allowing us to understand Ellie only under the most tragic of circumstances which I see as intentional storytelling. I see it as the writers discreetly weeding out the people who just see Ellie from the ones who can truly understand her and relate to her. From this episode on, and into future rewatches of the season, we can now begin to understand certain choices Ellie makes and how it inevitably relates back to Riley. Specifically because Riley was the first person she was able to completely care about and have that reciprocated. 

All through this episode we get this beautiful display of internal conflict between one’s heart and mind from Bella Ramsey who plays Ellie. The viewer is granted this look into Ellie’s insecurities in such a way that it’s disguised as a teenage love story. We are presented many times with the lack of confidence Ellie has and how that eventually mixes into her lack of trust in others and herself. It’s almost a first hand experience the way Ramsey so intricately plays all the moments Ellie debates if she’s ready to cross that line with Riley. If that moment is the moment she should kiss her and when she finally does we as the viewer feel that relief with her. We celebrate with Ellie and can wholeheartedly feel that sense of letting go only because of the way Ramsey has portrayed the act of holding on.

Image pulled from IMDB

Did The Last of Us bury their gays?

The biggest criticism I’ve seen this episode get, specially from it’s queer audience and evidently nonplayers of the video game, is that the bury the gays troupe was alive and well in this episode (no pun intended). While that is technically true as we see the implication of a queer character meeting their untimely death by the end of the episode, I must counter that by saying that, to me, bury the gays is all about shock factor. Most writers will kill off a gay character for the sake of getting a reaction from the audience. The death usually also won’t make sense with the story or feel like it has any effects on previous or future events. The Last of Us does a beautiful job at giving Riley’s death meaning and character development to Ellie in return. We get to finally put a story to Riley’s name after having it be not much more than just a name since episode one. Admittedly, I find it hard to understand any criticism surrounding this opportunity for context.

The Last of Us is a perfect image of a team of people who set out to adapt a video game into a television show in a way that can still be interactive by allowing viewers to share experiences and feelings with these characters. Episode seven specifically is a combination of a carefully planned story with detailed execution. With Ramsey and Reid leading the episode, we as viewers are able to feel every angle of what it means to take chances, mend broken parts, and grieve all the things we’ve missed. Left Behind is more than a story of a teenage romance, it’s a product of the understanding that people change people.

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