There’s something so pure and innocent about how The Last of Us’ Ellie (Bella Ramsey) sees everything in the post-apocalyptic United States, whether it’s a falling-apart skyscraper, a view of the sunset, or a book of lame but oddly funny puns. But, whether in a game or on HBO Max, Ellie’s bond with cold-hearted, short-tempered Joel (Pedro Pascal) becomes increasingly adoring and even empowering as the unstoppable duo travels through zones, fighting both Cordyceps and humans alike. One of the best aspects of this excellent adaptation is Joel and Ellie’s ever-changing dynamics. With each new episode, just like in the game, we see the girl growing closer to her protector as Joel begins opening up to her. But what else makes this relationship even more complex?
The HBO Max series stays true to the original—Naughty Dog’s game of the same name—while brilliantly expanding on its threads, characters, and obstacles. As per the game and the show’s plot, over twenty years into the pandemic, fungi known as Cordyceps kill people and transform them into bloodthirsty monsters. After losing his daughter, Joel becomes a cold-hearted man who stops at nothing to survive. As he encounters Fireflies, a group of rebels fighting FEDRA, he is tasked with transporting a young girl, Ellie, to the Firefly camp. The teenager is a precious cargo as she’s immune to the fungi, an answer to developing the vaccine.
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Ellie and Joel’s relationship is tense from the get-go. The man merely treats her like a transaction, knowing that the end result is receiving a car battery. Many years into the apocalypse, he’s done some horrible things and hurt people. Despite the passage of time, he is still unwilling to discuss his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), his heart heavy with grief that turned him into a shell of a person. As a result, when Joel is tasked with delivering Ellie to one of the Fireflies’ zones, he treats her as an object, not as a person with feelings. This causes annoyance as he becomes frequently irritated by Ellie’s questions, the loud noises she makes, and her overall personality.
Ellie is shy and frightened at first. She has no idea what’s going on, and is rather reserved towards Joel, though not as much as the man is towards the adolescent. But that doesn’t deter Ramsey’s character from trying to get to know Joel better during their long journey. As we see them travel and overcome obstacles on their way, the audience also witnesses the girl’s unadulterated innocence. Ellie talks a lot and has a lot of inquiries about the past; the world before the Cordyceps, and the pop culture of the time before. But when does their first dynamic shift occur?
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It’s perhaps the scene in the first episode when Joel kills the guard who tries to harm Ellie. At that moment, the girl looks up in awe at Joel and trusts he’ll protect her. In contrast, Joel takes longer to warm up to the teenager, even though we know he cares. But, their bond grows even stronger after Bill leaves Joel a letter advising him to look after those he cares about, we can feel their bond growing stronger.
Joel eventually opens to Ellie and tells her about his brother, Tommy in episode four titled “Please Hold My Hand”. By this episode, Joel is completely disarmed by Ellie’s childlike innocence and devoted love for puns. As she tells joke after joke to her companion, he finally breaks down laughing as they lie down to sleep, and Ellie tells him the pun: “Did you know that diarrhea is hereditary? It runs in your jeans!”
As they witness death, suicide, and murder in episode five, “Endure and Survive”, they become even closer. Ellie gets tougher by the day, as Joel realizes deep down that he’s growing attached to Ellie, who in some ways reminds him of Sarah. Ellie, however, is a young person who not only has been scarred and traumatized by her surroundings, but who has also become desensitized to the death that surrounds her. It’s evident in how she handles Sam’s death (Keivonn Woodard) in episode five. Joel notices how she tries to stay strong no matter what because she has experienced so much death and wishes to get over each loss as soon as possible.
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Before Ellie, Joel avoided attachment at all costs. Still, perhaps the lame jokes, warm personality, and something that reminds him of his daughter cause the man to become accustomed to Ellie and her presence as they slowly make their way through Clickers, Kathleen, and her gang. But, their trip comes to an emotional halt when Joel is severely stabbed. This marks another shift in their relationship. This time, Ellie takes care of and guards Joel, attempting to stitch him up, foraging for food, and avoiding lurking danger. She does it all even after the man tries to push her away.
“When We Are in Need,” episode eight of The Last of Us directed by Ali Abbasi, continues to change the dynamics of the duo. It also marks the transformation of their relationship from “just cargo” to a father-daughter bond. The creators introduce and expand on the villain David (Scott Sheperd), who is more vengeful and barbarous than any previously encountered Clicker. The man is the leader of a dangerous cannibalistic group. After encountering Ellie in the woods, he’s taken with the girl and thinks she would make an excellent child bride. As David eventually attempts to sexually assault Ellie, she stabs him repeatedly and then flees in one of the most heartbreaking and brutal, albeit thought-provoking, scenes in the series.
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What comes next moved the audience and the Internet, leaving us all in a puddle of tears. Joel finds Ellie, bloodied and disoriented, and grabs her for attention. She screams to be let go, clearly traumatized by what has transpired. But Joel doesn’t; the man realizes immediately what has happened and hugs crying Ellie, saying, “It’s okay. I got you, baby girl”. The skillful team behind the episode created the most intense, terrifying episode of the series. They made David scarier than the Clickers, and bestowed upon us a devastating emotional transition in the relationship between Joel and Ellie.
The last episode of The Last Of Us season one only further proves how much Joel and Ellie’s bond changed over their long, exhausting, and dangerous journey. As the man is tasked with an impossible choice to save Ellie die or let her die, Joel chooses the latter because he doesn’t want to lose “another daughter”.
Despite the Internet’s reservations (and sometimes outright mockery) of casting Bella Ramsey as the game’s fierce character, the Game of Thrones actor can sleep soundly knowing that they continue to prove all doubters wrong while delivering Emmy-worthy, extraordinary performance. With Pedro Pascal as a perfect Joel, both form an unstoppable duo. Their craft and real-life friendship only strengthen and enhance their performances.
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Fans of the game may have an idea of what to expect next, but the show’s audience is in the dark. Whatever team you’re on, one thing is certain: everyone is in for an emotional, action-fueled ride. The Last of Us creators demonstrated that it’s possible to create a hugely successful show based on a hugely successful game. After experiencing outstanding performances from Ramsey and Pascal as well as inventive scripts for each skillfully directed episode, we certainly can’t wait for season two.
The Last of Us is streaming on HBO Max.