The Last of Us episode 9 review: The season 1 ending explained, the significance of giraffes and Joel’s lie

Just like the computer game, The Last of Us season 1 has a shocking ending that left us gasping. We explain all the major talking points in our finale review.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 13 March 2023 - 1.44pm
Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us finale and ending of season 1
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When The Last of Us began in January, the early hype surrounded the supposed ‘computer game curse’. The fact that the series had finally managed what so many other TV shows and films had failed to do and captured the spirit and magic of the game, felt like a cause for celebration.

But after nine weeks of fungus-zombie fights, gut-punching moments of heartbreak and a thrilling exploration of the very best and worst of humanity, merely comparing The Last of Us to other computer game adaptations feels like a travesty of an undersell.

Season 1 of The Last of Us ranks alongside the greatest TV shows of all time. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey gave the show a beating heart and frequently broke ours. Episodes 2 (Tess), 3 (Bill and Frank) and 5 (Henry and Sam) could all make an argument to be considered among some of the best hours of TV you’ll ever witness.

And in this week’s finale, the series managed to twist and reconfigure the Ellie and Joel dynamic and posed some hefty philosophical questions which are going to have us anxiously counting down the days for season 2.

Here are the main talking points from The Last of Us finale and the surprising ending…

1. The Last of Us finale - the ending explained

Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us episode 9

The past eight episodes had got us well versed in heartbreak. We thought we were well drilled for the Last of Us finale, but the closing 15 minutes pulled the rug from underneath us again.

After being captured by Marlene and the Fireflies, Joel discovered that their plans all along with Ellie were to remove part of her brain to create a cure for the virus.

Marlene and the doctors had made Ellie comfortable and sedated her, but didn’t give her the option to choose whether to sacrifice herself to save everyone else.

Joel was unable to stand down and let Ellie die, ruthlessly taking out the Fireflies’ soldiers, doctors and even Marlene herself to protect the girl he has grown to love just like his daughter.

His regrets and pain over Sarah and love for Ellie overwhelmed him. The rational and emotion-free approach of the Fireflies couldn’t change Joel’s mind as he methodically killed everyone in his way. Even as a wounded Marlene begged for mercy, Joel returned to deliver a final shot to prevent her coming back to find them again.

As Ellie slowly woke up from the anaesthetic, Joel lied to Ellie that the doctors had tried various experiments on her, but they had all failed to deliver positive results. He also lied to her that there were more people like her, immune from the disease. He added that Raiders had attacked the hospital, killing all the Fireflies and Marlene.

Pedro Pascal The Last of Us episode 9

Ellie is too perceptive and knows Joel too well to believe everything he tells her. She’s also noticed how, after finally talking about the regret and pain he has lived with since Sarah’s death, he has started comparing her to his daughter.

After making him swear that he’s telling the truth, Joel looks her in the eyes and swears that it’s all true. The finale ends with Joel delivering a whopping lie to the most important person in his world.

Ellie looks crushed by the weight of everything that has happened. She’s deflated by the failure to find a cure, the sense of guilt she feels about Riley, the extinguishing of a glimmer of hope. And she’s also struggling with a sense of unease around Joel.

The fact that Ellie even asked Joel to swear he’s telling the truth suggests that she doesn’t entirely believe his story. That unease in their relationship, the recalibration of their dynamic and the huge moral questions that this episode posed around family, love and selfishness, will keep us busy while we twiddle our thumbs waiting for season 2.

2. The first cracks appear in Ellie and Joel’s relationship

Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us episode 9

At the start of the episode, we watch Joel attempt to care for Ellie in a new way. After episode 8’s meeting with the cannibals, Ellie needs emotional support rather than a physical warrior.

The fierce protector side of parenting comes easy to Joel. The comforting side feels a little less natural, but there is something fuzzy and heart-warming about his clumsy attempts to make Ellie smile again, whether it’s getting her to reopen her joke book or challenge her to a game of Boggle.

But after the hospital shoot-out, the first cracks in Ellie and Joel’s relationship begin to surface. Joel’s outpouring about Sarah and the pain he’s lived with since she died frees him up to speak more truthfully about his emotions and it lifts a weight off his shoulders.

But that sense of Joel being a surrogate father brings a new awkwardness to their previously unshakable bond. We suddenly get the sense – as does Ellie – that Joel could potentially be using her as a crutch to help him through his pain.

You can see the early signs of unease from Ellie. She’s always known about Sarah, but now Joel is finally opening up about his daughter, you could forgive her for feeling like a replacement figure.

3. Who played Ellie’s mum in The Last of Us?

Ashley Johnson as Ellie's mum in The Last of Us finale

In the finale’s cold-open, we meet Ellie’s mum, played by Ashley Johnson. Johnson famously played Ellie in the original computer game series, so its feels like a more than appropriate bit of casting for the cameo.

The short story reveals that Ellie’s mum was best friends with Marlene and that she was bitten by an infected as she was giving birth.

The computer game’s creator Neil Druckmann revealed to Variety that this story was originally designed for the game.

“I had written a short story after we had shipped the game already. It was supposed to be an animated short, but it fell apart and didn’t come to be,” he said.

“There was a moment where we almost made it as downloadable content, but it fell apart. In our conversations, I brought it up to Craig [Mazin, The Last of Us' showrunner] and he was immediately excited by it, or as he would say ‘activated’.”

4. Joel’s hospital shoot-out - Is he no longer the show’s hero?

The ending of The Last of Us computer game created a huge range of opinions from gamers and proved controversial with those who had grown so emotionally invested in Ellie and Joel’s journey.

The TV series is destined to create similarly diverse views, most notably on Joel’s actions in the hospital. Unwilling to let Ellie die for what the Fireflies positions as ‘the greater good’ of the world, Joel unleashes a still and cold onslaught on everyone standing in his way.

The contrasting views of Joel and Marlene, who has her own distressing and personal connection to Ellie, leave viewers with plenty to discuss. Is Joel still the show’s hero? Or was this an act of selfishness that goes against what Ellie would have wanted?

5. What was the significance of the giraffes?

Joel and Ellie look at the giraffes in The Last of Us finale

It’s one of the most famous scenes in The Last of Us computer game, which has been highly anticipated by fans throughout the series. And the giraffes didn’t disappoint.

Despite Joel’s best efforts to cheer her up with a game of Boggle, Ellie is still a shadow of her former self at the start of this episode. Her final shreds of innocence and optimism appear to have been burned by David and the cannibals.

That is until the herd of giraffes turn up in Salt Lake City.

Bella Ramsey’s cheeky smile (“You can't deny the view, though”), her wide-eyed innocence and the stark contrast between the beauty of the animals and the wreckage of Salt Lake City, made this a heart-swelling moment that partially remedied the bleakness of this episode.

Despite all the pain, heartache and all the worst parts of humanity, the giraffes symbolise a world still filled with wonder that is worth fighting for.

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