What The Last Of Us Season Finale Changes From The Game
Contains spoilers for "The Last of Us" Season 1, Episode 9 — "Look for the Light"
As HBO approached the Season 1 finale of "The Last of Us," fans likely wondered if — or how — the series would divert from the game’s controversial final level. Though co-creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have adapted most aspects of the source material with refreshing fidelity, they’ve taken ambitious liberties with others, such as the inclusion of Bill’s (Nick Offerman) backstory or the placement of the DLC storyline "Left Behind."
For the most part, the series has stayed true to the game’s brutal climax. Having finally made it to Salt Lake City, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) are knocked out and captured by the Fireflies. When Joel awakes, Marlene (Merle Dandridge) reveals that Ellie will have to die in order for their doctor to develop a cure for the Cordyceps infection.
Enraged, Joel shoots his way through the hospital until he finds Ellie and kills the surgeon about to operate on her, an act that will change the course of their future irrevocably. He then takes her back to the settlement in Jackson, Wyoming, telling her that the Fireflies have given up on finding a cure. While the final scenes of the show are almost a shot-for-shot remake of the game’s, its creators did make a few changes in how they presented the closing chapter of "The Last of Us."
Marlene gets one final scene before the finale
It’s important for Ellie and Marlene’s relationship to be established early in the game because the player doesn’t get to see Marlene again until the very last chapter. In fact, after she entrusts Joel with Ellie, you only encounter her two more times: in Joel’s hospital room as Ellie is being prepped for surgery and in the parking garage where Joel fatally shoots her.
The series, however, has fully embraced its potential to explore perspectives other than Joel and Ellie’s. In the absence of gameplay concerns, Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin can explore flashbacks that would have been out of place in the video game, thus freeing the series up to include sequences like Marlene discovering and being forced to execute Ellie’s mom, Anna (Ashley Johnson, who voices Ellie in the video games). Not only does this give the audience more information about Ellie’s backstory, but it also helps emphasize Marlene’s personal stake in the finale.
Ellie doesn’t tell Joel about her dream
In the game, as Joel and Ellie are walking on an abandoned highway during the last stretch of their journey, it becomes clear that Ellie’s encounter with David (Scott Shepherd) has had a devastating effect on her mental state. She’s distant, distracted, and far less talkative than she’s been so far. While the series depicts this aspect of their journey almost identically, one revealing piece of dialogue is omitted.
Though she’s initially reluctant to talk, Ellie eventually tells Joel about a dream she had a few nights prior in which she was on an airplane that was about to crash. In her dream, she entered the cockpit only to discover that there was no pilot. Although she attempted to fly the plane herself, she didn’t know how to use the controls, waking up just before the plane crashed. Though the conversation was likely cut for time, the dream could be seen as revealing how Ellie feels about her purpose in the world.
While everyone else is panicking, succumbing to the existential terror and chaos of their situation, Ellie feels responsible to make things better — she just doesn’t know how. It’s a strong piece of evidence that, if she were given the choice, Ellie would have sacrificed herself for the chance of a cure.
Joel confesses something to Ellie
Though both the game and the series feature a heart-to-heart at the abandoned medical camp, the series takes things a step further by revealing something new about Joel’s character. In the game, he merely says that he wound up in a camp similar to the one they’re in shortly after Sarah’s death. It’s an important moment in the arc of their relationship since it’s the first time Joel is able to talk to Ellie about Sarah’s death.
In the series, Joel gets even more vulnerable with her, revealing that the reason he ended up in the camp was that he attempted to take his own life two days after Sarah’s death, leaving himself with a nasty scar and permanent hearing loss. Some gamers have theorized in the past that Joel may have made a suicide attempt, though it was only ever based on inferences from vague lines of dialogue. Whether or not this canonizes those theories, the scene effectively shows that Ellie and Joel are finally able to be open with one another.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Ellie doesn’t give Joel a gift
Joel opening up to Ellie in the game is likely what inspires her to finally offer him something she’d been holding on to since they left Wyoming: a photo of Joel and Sarah. When Joel is originally reunited with Tommy, his brother offers him the very same photo, explaining that he made the journey to Texas a year before the game’s events to recover what he could of their belongings.
Not yet ready to open himself up to that pain, Joel forcefully declines it. On the highway, Ellie reveals that she stole the picture herself after Maria showed it to her. In the series, neither Tommy (Gabriel Luna) nor Maria (Rutina Wesley) offers the photo to Joel. It’s possible that Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin had already decided to shift the focus of this scene to Joel’s suicide attempt rather than his relationship with Sarah (Nico Parker) and thus felt that building up to the photo reveal would be unnecessary or distracting.
Joel and Ellie are ambushed by Fireflies instead of Infected
One of the biggest changes HBO makes is the omission of Joel and Ellie’s final Infected encounter. In the series, a group of Fireflies ambushes Joel and Ellie at the medical camp, disorienting them with a smoke grenade before taking Ellie and incapacitating Joel.
In the game, the medical camp is actually the second to last environment players find themselves in before the final battle. Shortly after leaving, they see the only path ahead is through a flooded tunnel that also happens to be filled with Infected. Though the sequence mostly serves as a final test of skill before the more story-driven finale, it is no less harrowing to watch Ellie face her fear of water.
While trying to escape the tunnel, they both ultimately fall into the water and succumb to a strong current. Joel maintains consciousness and is able to drag Ellie out of the water just before a soldier strikes his head with the butt of a gun.
Ellie goes into surgery consciously
One of the more subtle changes the series makes serves to give Ellie a bit more agency in the finale. A common criticism of the game’s plot is that Ellie is essentially a prop for the entirety of the final act. After being rendered unconscious during their trek through the tunnels, Ellie is only shown waking up on their ride back to Jackson.
The series, however, shows that Ellie maintains consciousness when the Fireflies ambush her and Joel. It can thus be inferred that, while she is unaware that the surgery would result in her death, she is at the very least willing to undergo it. It could even be extrapolated that the Fireflies intentionally knocked Joel out to prevent him from interfering.
Though some may be thankful that Ellie has more of a say in what happens to her, others may see it as a potentially confusing plot hole. If she is awake when she enters the hospital, it seems unlikely that Joel’s story at the end of the episode could hold any water whatsoever.
Marlene has a clearer theory about the potential cure
The games are deliberately vague on the subject of whether or not Ellie’s immunity could actually lead to a cure. With little evidence, resources, or opportunity for research, it’s left up to the player’s judgment if reverse engineering Ellie’s mutated Cordyceps infection is even possible.
The series maintains this uneasy sense of uncertainty for the most part — it’s still difficult to tell whether Marlene is genuinely forward-thinking or blinded by grief to the point of delusion. What points toward the former, however, is the fact that Marlene does have an understanding of why Ellie is immune.
It’s shown in the flashback at the beginning of the episode that Ellie’s mom was bitten as she was giving birth, creating a suspicion that’s seemingly festered within Marlene since she was forced to kill her. Whether or not the Fireflies would have ultimately been successful, they have more to go on than the mere concept of reverse engineering.
We never see Marlene’s journal
Instead of the flashback seen in the episode, the game makes use of artifacts to reveal Marlene’s mental state and relationship with Ellie’s mom, Anna. As seen in Marlene’s journal, which can be found by players in the Firefly hospital, she was in bad shape by the time she arrived in Salt Lake City (a month before the final chapter, which takes place several months after Ellie’s encounter with David).
After losing several members of her team, Marlene makes it to the hospital only to find Joel and Ellie aren’t there. She writes that she regrets leaving Ellie with "smugglers" since her wounds healed faster than she expected and her soldiers proved more than able to defend themselves. Because of her perceived failure, Marlene feels ostracized by the Utah Fireflies, writing, "They look at me and I know what they’re thinking – that we’re a bunch of incompetent grunts." After some weak rationalizing, she concludes, "I failed you, Anna. I failed all of us. I am an incompetent grunt."
Later, in a recording directed at Anna, she stops just short of apologizing for allowing Ellie to be killed. She also reveals that the Fireflies wanted Joel to be executed, but she refused.
Joel kills a surrendering soldier
Joel’s rampage in the hospital is every bit as chaotic and messy as it is in the game — seriously, the Season 1 finale of "The Last of Us" may contain one of the single best adaptions of third-person video game combat ever presented in film or on television. Of course, the show’s ability to manage pacing, perspective, and progression allows for more deliberate choices with the sequence, leading to a particularly bleak kill.
Though Joel’s attack in the game is still darkly indiscriminate and unrestrained, the series shows him shooting a man clearly laying down his gun and putting his arms up in the air. Though both the series and the game show that Joel executes an unarmed Marlene, the soldier’s death feels less personal and for that reason, far more threatening.
Ultimately, however, it doesn’t reveal anything players didn’t already know about Joel. As he says when he kills Marlene, any survivors would only continue to hunt them down. In fact, the game features a similar scene at the beginning of the attack in which Joel kills a man even after he tells him where to find Ellie.
The show foreshadows Season 2
Contains spoilers for the video game "The Last of Us Part II," from which Season 2 of the HBO series will be adapted
For players who made it through "The Last of Us" back in 2013, killing the surgeon was a wildly uncomfortable but necessary act to complete the game. In 2023, his death carries even more meaning. Though the game shows a quasi-objective depiction of the surgeon’s death at the hands of Joel, the series lingers on the moment for longer than new fans might expect.
Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin clearly want the image of the dead surgeon to remain with viewers until Season 2, which Bella Ramsey thinks will follow the game pretty closely. Why? As gamers know, that surgeon is Jerry Anderson, the father of Abby Anderson, and his death sends Abby on a vengeful path in "The Last of Us Part II" that leads to the slaughter of dozens of survivors — including Joel.