The Last of Us Recap: Ellie Flashes Back to Best-Worst Day of Her Life as Joel's Life Hangs in Balance

Storm Reid finally makes her debut as Ellie's (Bella Ramsey) BFF from the QZ as fans finally learn how Ellie got the bite that revealed she was immune to cordyceps infections.

Fans eager to know if Joel (Pedro Pascal) will survive his horrific gut wound that closed out the last episode of “The Last of Us” … will just have to keep waiting.

Episode 7 might be titled “Left Behind,” but it’s not about Ellie (Bella Ramsey) leaving Joel behind or even vice-versa. Instead, it’s a reference the video game enthusiasts will get immediately. For everyone else, it’s about how this world forces you to leave things behind.

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The bulk of this latest installment — save for two bumper sequences at the top and bottom of the hour — is a flashback to Ellie’s life before we ever met her in the pilot.

Along the way, we get a glimpse of what it was like to be in FEDRA school, and we finally meet the elusive Riley that she’s briefly talked about (in the past tense). How Ellie got that first cordyceps bite is also revealed.

We have to say, the tone of these flashback sequences is unlike anything seen yet on the show. There’s a fresh energy in that it spotlights mostly this deep friendship between two teenage girls and gives their perspective as young people in this hellish post-apocalyptic world.

At the same time, it’s a world that is mostly safe and free from cordyceps threat as they live within the confines of the Boston Quarantine Zone under strict FEDRA control — as witnessed in the premiere.

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Who's Right and Who's Right?

That premiere did a pretty good job of presenting FEDRA as a bunch of “fascist dickheads,” as they would go on to be dubbed, but the opening scenes of Ellie’s flashback suggest that there are those among the organization who truly believe they are the good guys.

Ellie’s superior officer, to whom she is sent after sending a girl to the infirmary to get 15 stitches to Ellie’s one black eye (wonder who won that fight?) tells her that they are the only thing keeping their citizens from devolving into anarchy and killing one another.

There is something to be said about needing some law and order and structure to maintain a civil civilization, so to speak. At the same time, any authority runs the risk of devolving into abuse and corruption. It appears both are at play in the Boston QZ, and perhaps the FIreflies as well.

That night, as Ellie is sleeping, Riley (Storm Reid) sneaks into her bedroom and surprises her. Not just with her presence, but with the fact that in the three weeks she was gone, she joined up with the terrorist group we first see Ellie with.

In fact it was Marlene, who first tasked Joel and Tess with transporting Ellie, who recruited Riley. We also find out along the way that when Riley tried to convince her to bring Ellie in, too, Marlene flat-out refused.

We don’t get the story of how Ellie wound up captured and held by the Fireflies, but it’s easy enough to infer by the end of the hour. For this moment, though, Marlene was probably right as Ellie is still Team FEDRA.

In fact, she and Riley arguing over which group is worse and what is right and wrong exemplifies that in cases like this where two powerful entities are at odds with one another, there is usually enough wrong on both sides to go around, and the ones who lose are often the ones not aligned either way.

It was refreshing that while they were at odds over what was the right side to be on, they didn’t allow it to interfere with their friendship and affection for one another. They were willing to engage in healthy debate and then table their differences when it was time to come together. How refreshing.

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Is It Nostalgia If You Don't Know?

One of the most enjoyable things about the whole episode was this bizarre combination of deep nostalgia and people who have no real connection to anything they’re encountering. Ellie is 14 in the here and now, and Riley reveals that she’s about to turn 17, so these are people who never lived in the world before (or if Riley did, it was just barely).

When we first get a glimpse of Ellie’s room with its empty bed — presumably Riley’s — we are inundated with her cassette tapes, Walkman radio, comic books and even a massive Mortal Kombat II poster.

Yes, she’s reading the “Savage Starlight” comic book, but her book of terrible puns isn’t the “No Pun Intended: Volume Too” book she tortured Joel with earlier. It’s the first volume, which she no longer appears to have.

Riley steals Ellie away for a surprise, which turns out to be a trip to the mall. FEDRA had recently expanded their power grid to accommodate new housing, and inadvertently turned back on the mall. Riley had been staying there these past few weeks, so she had a pretty good lay of the land.

Also, thanks to the fortress-like, windowless construction of many malls, a fully lit up mall on the inside betrays nothing to anyone who might be outside. At least, that’s the story as Riley sold it to Ellie.

The ’80s music that blasted as Ellie experienced her first escalator was giving “Stranger Things” flashbacks and was the perfect soundtrack to two teenage girls exploring a mall. This was the decade that malls came to dominate the landscape and were the cultural center of many teen’s lives.

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Friendship or Flirtation?

It becomes pretty evident early on that Ellie has perhaps stronger feelings for Riley than might be reciprocated. Certain looks she gives at key moments, like riding on the carousel, betray that there are deeper yearnings in her heart than just the joy of seeing her best friend again.

Ramsey gives an incredible performance throughout the episode, mixing that youthful recklessness and silliness with the overwhelming power of teen feelings, often expressed with nothing more than a look or a slight turn of the mouth.

It is immediately clear in all of these scenes that this is an Ellie prior to when we first met her, because she has this lightness in her spirit that is still missing. The Ellie we meet in the pilot is broken in a way Joel should be able to connect to, having lost his daughter all those years ago.

This Ellie, in these flashbacks, hasn’t suffered that kind of loss. She has an innocence, even in such a dark and dangerous world. It’s an innocence paired with that aforementioned recklessness that so often gets teens in trouble.

It doesn’t help that she and Riley were clearly distracted by Riley’s carefully-developed night out, complete with four hidden wonders of the mall (upped to five when Ellie fell in love with the escalator and asked if it was the first one).

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It was also clear that Riley isn’t just giving lip service when she says that Ellie is her best friend and she wanted to get back to her to create this special evening.

When she brings her to the mall’s arcade, she has busted the change machine and already found the “Mortal Kombat II” game cabinet. Later, she surprises Ellie with the sequel to her terrible pun book — a sequel Ellie didn’t know existed, and yes, the one she’s still carrying around.

Finally, after a truly random and bizarre dance sequence on top of a display cabinet in the mall hallway, Ellie took off her werewolf mask and she simply couldn’t hold it in anymore. After Riley took off her Killer Klown mask, Ellie kissed her.

“I’m sorry,” she quickly said, to which Riley replied, “For what?”

Probably one of the most terrifying moment for any LGBTQIA+ kid is when you take that shot with someone you aren’t sure is queer … especially if it’s someone who is already a dear friend.

There was a bittersweet element to it, too, as the moment came after Riley had told Ellie she was being reassigned to the Atlanta QZ and tonight was her last night in Boston. Ellie taking that shot makes perfect sense in this context as it was now or never.

And then, in a moment so sweet you just knew something was going to f— it all up, Ellie asked Riley not to go, and RIley quietly whispered, “Okay.” As they tried to figure out all these new feelings and what this means for their future, reality came flying at them.

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'Til Death Do Us

It may not be marriage, but when teenagers declare their love for one another, it’s with that same level of passion and commitment. They love hard and fast — and change just as fast — but in the moment, it is real and raw and so powerful.

That’s where Riley and Ellie were after that kiss. They may not have said the “love” word, but both of them were clearly feeling the euphoria (pun intended!) of having finally come clean with one another about their true feelings.

Throughout the episode, there were as many moments where RIley seemed to hint at how much Ellie meant to her, but it was easy to filter that through Ellie’s insecurities and uncertainties. With clear hindsight, it’s clear both girls were afraid to speak their truths for fear of repercussions.

Now, in the aftermath of the truth being revealed, suddenly all things seemed possible. In that moment, they could probably both envision a life like the ones Bill and Frank enjoyed (had they known them), long and filled with love.

But life had other plans.

Honestly, we’d have rather they didn’t even bother to show the cordcyeps monster in the recesses of one of the abandoned stores, awakened by their laughing and shrieking in the arcade. That came about halfway through the episode, setting up the inevitable attack which didn’t come until close to the end.

Let’s be honest, we knew it was coming anyway. Riley was too confident that the mall was clear of the creatures, meaning she was probably wrong. Did we mention the recklessness of teenagers?

Just as the pair was wondering what to do now that Riley had said she wasn’t going to go to Atlanta, they heard a noise. Out of the darkness came the cordyceps monster, attacking both teens and throwing them about one by one.

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In the end, Ellie was able to take it out with a knife to the head. A moment later, Riley’s horrified expression revealed that Ellie had been bitten. A few moments later, she revealed that she’d been bitten, too.

The added tragedy of this entire sequence, aside from seeing young love stripped of its entire future in a few moments, is that we have the hindsight of knowing that Ellie’s bit is not fatal.

We can assume that Riley’s is. As Riley apologizes for pulling Elie into this, the two girls hug one another and cry, wondering what to do next. We don’t see what they do, but it’s easy to extrapolate.

Riley was working for Marlene. Ellie uncovered a bunch of bombs she had made and was likely guarding in the back of a food court restaurant. We can assume that it was Marlene who found Ellie in the mall.

One way or another, Ellie or Riley herself or someone else took down Riley before or after she turned, and once it was realized that Ellie wasn’t going to turn, or hadn’t yet, Marlene took her and started realizing the possible implications of that.

This is why she was having her Fireflies test Ellie each day when we met her, to see if it was just a slow transformation.

We didn’t get Riley’s transformation moment because it wasn’t relevant to the story. We know it happens and how it happens. We’ve seen these creatures in various stages now of that process. This was a love story tragically cut short, so it’s appropriate it ended when both girls were still fully themselves.

They’d gone from wondering what their futures might be to wondering which way was the best for it all to end. We left them in their tragic embrace because it was the beginning and ending of their love story. The final shot was of them clutching hands.

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Ellie Takes the Lead

This is why it was such a key moment when Ellie clasped Joel’s hand shortly before digging in to start sewing him up. Joel is the first person she’s let into her heart since Riley. Like him, she probably thought she’d hardened her heart enough to keep people at bay.

Not just in the flashback but in this brief present-day sequences, we got to see this franchise with Ellie firmly in the lead role. Joel is barely coherent, racked with pain, and it’s up to Ellie to be the strong one, now.

The hour ends with her sewing him up, a testament to how much she’s grown in strength and confidence. Last week, she was saying she can’t do this without him. That may still be true, but this week, she’s stepping up and doing.

When her back is against the wall, Ellie is proving that she’s stronger and more capable than even she knows. Her surperior at FEDRA had told her she’s smart and someone they see as a possible future officer and leader.

“There’s a leader in you,” he told her. “And one day, it could be your turn.”

In this episode, she began to prove that she does have that capacity within her. She may still need the security and confidence that having Joel by her side gives her, but she’s coming into her own. Her time is coming.

“The Last of Us” continues every Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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