Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Last of Us Breaks My Gay Little Heart

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Welcome back to our continuing coverage of HBO’s new television series, The Last of Us, starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. 

We’re barrelling into our finale episodes with six already done, and now number seven comes in to absolutely destroy us emotionally. This episode shined with good writing and direction, and absolutely excellent acting from Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid, while again leaving me confused about pacing decisions. 

At the outset, I must disclose that I am biased in favor of this episode. This is my kind of media – a lesbian first date story between two people who are finally realizing their feelings for each other. This is basically the plot of Heartstopper, which I admittedly watched five times consecutively when it premiered (and all the comic books are right here on my desk as well). I’m also a person who likes romance, and I like doomed romance; Titanic was apparently a formative experience for me. So this is my favorite episode of the season thus far. 

That said, my main form of engagement with media is through critique. So let’s get into the recap and talk about how flashbacks fit in our stories!

SPOILERS for Episode 7 and game content up to the plot of Episode 7!!

Episode 7: “Left Behind” Summary

Right out the gate, killing me with the title here, Neil. 

Our episode opens with a snowy neighborhood. Ellie has secreted Joel away in a basement of a house, and is trying to staunch his stab wound. Joel is not doing so hot. He tells Ellie to leave, giving her instructions to head north and find Tommy. Ellie hesitates, then heads up the stairs. Joel sheds a tear as she leaves.

THE DRAMA!

At the top of the stairs, Ellie stops for a beat, then takes the handle of the door and opens it. Remember this moment – it’s important, and we’ll come back to it later. 

The screen then cuts to a completely new scene: Ellie running laps in what looks like a gym class. Now, as a person who played the games and the DLC, I understand what’s happening in this episode. But for a show-only watcher, this cut is confusing. One could assume it’s a flashback. It is somewhat unclear though where we are in time and space – even a little caption on the screen that said “Boston” or maybe “six months ago,” anything to place the visual along our continuous timeline, would have been helpful. 

Turns out this is Ellie at the FEDRA school. She gets bullied and sent to basically the principal’s office. He tells her to come into line so she can get the benefits of being an officer. What we see and hear about FEDRA isn’t so bad – they sound like the military. This is an interesting contrast to earlier episodes. 

Ellie sits in her room reading comics (same), brooding because her girlfriend isn’t there (also same). Ellie stares at an empty bed across the room, which the audience understands is where her friend Riley used to sleep. Ellie falls asleep and is woken up in the middle of the night by someone who snuck into her room – and it’s Riley!

YASSS let the queer adventures begin!

Riley (Storm Reid) tells Ellie that she joined the Fireflies (gasp!!), and invites Ellie to sneak out with her. Ellie refuses, but then agrees. While Ellie is changing she makes Riley turn around. Here is where Bella Ramsey’s acting really starts: as Ellie is changing (a personal and vulnerable act), she glances at Riley suspiciously. Throughout the episode, Ellie’s expressions continue to soften as she opens up to Riley. Bella Ramsey really kills it in this regard. 

Ellie and Riley head out for their night on the town, parkouring across buildings in the QZ. There is some interesting dialogue here as the girls debate FEDRA and the Fireflies. Unfortunately, all the dialogue establishes is that the two groups are similar, just depending on your point of view. That’s great and everything, but what I needed here was some word-building to establish that the Fireflies are actually capable of making a vaccine or cure. So far this is entirely missing in the show, and this would have been a good place for it. 

Along the way the girls come across a dead body of some guy, and they take his alcohol. Ellie, our littlest psychopath, thinks the dead body is the surprise. The body then mysteriously falls through the floor ??? And I’m still confused ???

Anyway, the girls reach their goal: the mall!!! The mall is, in fact, the best place to take a girl on a pseudo-date while you’re trying to figure out if she likes you. I may have some expertise in this area. In fact, so many things in this episode are straight outta my life, it’s like Mazin and Druckman looked directly at me and said: “You want representation? Hold my beer.”

Riley turns on the electricity and the whole mall lights up! Ellie is stunned. Riley reveals that she has the whole evening planned with activities for them to do. Ellie looks at Riley and says, “You planned stuff?” This is one of those excellent moments when Bella Ramsey’s acting skills really shine. You can see in Ellie’s face and hear in her tone that she’s simultaneously excited and cautiously optimistic. Her thought process is clear (at least to me): Riley did this for me, does that mean she likes me too? Ugh, the feels!

Ellie is first astonished by the functioning escalator, giving The Last of Us writers a chance to shine again with their humorous interpersonal writing skills. Also during this scene the song “Take On Me” is playing in the background, and I LITERALLY DIED. 

Neil please stop hurting me!!

The girls then stop by an old Victoria’s Secret, and AGAIN Neil Druckman put me directly into the script. Riley fishes for information from Ellie, testing the waters by laughing at the idea of Ellie in lingerie. Ellie flirts back by telling Riley to shut up. After Riley walks away, Ellie fixes her hair in the reflection of the glass, and we see Ellie opening up to the idea that maybe Riley does like her. As a former mid-2000s Mall Gay™, I can personally confirm that bringing a girl to Victoria’s Secret was an excellent way to determine her fruitiness. It had a very high success rate (from my limited sample group). 

Next, the girls head further into the mall and Riley makes Ellie close her eyes for a surprise. Riley then takes Ellie’s hand to lead her and THE SIGNIFICANT GAY HAND HOLDING destroys me even more. The director did what (basically) every other gay-teen-romance story does with hand-holding: the camera focuses in tight on the hands, the music gets significant, and Ellie’s face is nervous and pained. I really feel like I should be getting some royalties from all the scenes from my life that are appearing on screen right now, tbh. 

When Ellie opens her eyes, they’re looking at a lit-up carousel. Riley starts it up, and the girls get on. And OH MY LORD friends, Bella Ramsey’s acting is just awesome. Ellie’s guard is almost completely shattered here. She stares longingly at Riley, the micro expressions absolutely spot-on. 

I wish someone would look at me like Bella Ramsey looks at Storm Reid.

Ellie tells Riley that she can still come back to FEDRA, that she doesn’t have to be a Firefly. Riley explains that she left partially because she wasn’t given an officer assignment – she was given guard duty for sewage, for the rest of her life. Ellie understands why Riley would leave. Riley says Ellie was the only thing she missed from FEDRA. I’m not crying, you’re crying!!

Riley then takes Ellie to a classic mall photo booth. Now I’m like okay, they’re clearly on a date, c’mon Ellie get your game up! Riley is super flirty in the phone booth, and Ellie tries to match her energy, but you can tell she’s intimidated by what’s happening. Ellie’s walls continue to crumble as she gets more and more comfortable with her feelings. Her face and mannerisms tell the whole story – as do Riley’s. Riley, the slightly older character, is being more flirtatious and physical with Ellie; but Storm Reid’s performance also includes that hint of uncertainty under the exterior confidence. The two together are a lovely combination. 

As another side note, again, taking girls into photobooths is a stellar way to make an outing into a date – 10 out of 10, nicely done Riley!

The next stop on their mall adventure is a full-on, completely functional arcade! Ellie is astonished. Riley reveals that she spent hours cracking open the coin machine so the two of them could play together. It’s obvious now (or should be to Ellie!) that they’re on a date, given how much Riley prepared. The girls play Mortal Kombat (classic!), and they’re having such a lovely time that definitely nothing bad at all will happen. Definitely no zombies in my zombie apocalypse show. 

Nothing bad to see here!

We are given a shot of one lone zombie in the mall, who wakes up at the epic awesome sounds of Mortal Kombat. I mean in fairness, I too would wake up from a decades-long slumber if I heard an arcade nearby. 

Riley tries to take Ellie to the final location, but Ellie stops her. Riley reveals that she’s leaving Boston the next day for a Firefly base in Arizona. The two argue about Riley joining the Fireflies, and Ellie storms off – temporarily. She turns around and comes back to find Riley inside a Halloween store. Ellie accuses Riley of abandoning Ellie again, and that she doesn’t even know what the Fireflies are. Riley challenges that, saying that Ellie doesn’t know everything, and that being part of the Fireflies reminds her of being in a family and belonging. The girls reconcile, and Riley shows Ellie her last surprise. 

Riley puts on music, and both girls put on Halloween masks and dance on the countertop. At this point my gay little heart is ABSOLUTELY DYING. I’ve played the DLC, so I know what happens, but damn is this scene still so good! As the girls dance and the music crescendos, Ellie suddenly stops and takes off her mask. You can see in her face the desperation, anxiety, uncertainty – but also the compulsion to do something about how she feels. When Riley takes off her mask, Ellie asks her not to leave, almost crying. Riley agrees not to leave, and Ellie FINALLY kisses her. 

KISSSS

After the kiss Ellie, a proper Baby Gay™, apologizes. But Riley reveals she likes Ellie too. The girls laugh in this wonderful moment – AND CERTAINLY NOTHING BAD WILL HAPPEN NOW!

Of course at that moment, the zombie we saw earlier appears and attacks them. Both are bitten. They decide to wait it out together instead of committing suicide. The scene ends with Riley holding Ellie as they both cry. 

Cut back to Ellie in the house in the winter, while she rummages through the kitchen. She finds a needle and thread, and returns to the basement to do some fun surgery on Joel. Ellie sews up his wound, and the episode ends!

Analysis: Flashbacks Are Friends, Not Food

If it wasn’t obvious from my gushing so far, let me say it plainly: I love this episode. I’ve watched it multiple times as of this writing. But that’s because it’s my kind of story, not because it’s a flawless piece of media. Like most of The Last of Us franchise, both show and games, I’m compelled by the narrative but confused by the structure. 

This is a flashback episode encased in a dying-Joel-sandwich. We barely get any time with Joel in the modern timeline, while most of the episode is with Ellie and Riley. When I first watched it that split felt odd. I didn’t see a connection between the two things in the way it was shown on screen. Indeed, we go from Ellie pausing at a door handle, to a whole arc with Riley, to Ellie looking for thread in the kitchen. The whole memory takes place in maybe a moment for Ellie. Fortunately, HBO made Neil Druckman explain it to me – Ellie has this memory now because Riley didn’t leave Ellie or let Ellie kill herself, and so now Ellie won’t leave Joel. Um, what?

So first of all, if that’s what they were trying to convey, they failed. That wasn’t in our dialogue or on screen. Especially the Ellie suicide part – Riley didn’t stop Ellie from committing suicide since Ellie was never trying to. As for Riley not leaving Ellie meaning that Ellie now won’t leave Joel – that’s the kind of mental gymnastics that requires a much stronger parallel than we’re presented. 

In order for Ellie to make that kind of connection, Joel and Riley would need to be parallel players in Ellie’s life. But they aren’t at all. Joel is a father figure; Riley was a first love. Everything about them and their relationship to Ellie is different. So this explanation is just stupid.

And honestly without that connection, the placement of this flashback is wrong. I know this is where it happens in the game – but that’s not enough to justify doing it in the same place in the television adaptation (and also the game section is very different). Putting this so late in the season, too, I think was a mistake because it so deeply humanizes and characterizes Ellie. The audience needs that humanization to care about her in order for the last two episodes to be impactful.

Also, it’s temporally weird because it’s not true to how human memory works. One way to use flashbacks that I find very effective is to have them split up into shorter scenes over the course of a few episodes, and to have those flashbacks appear during events that would naturally remind the character of the memory. For example, in episode three when Ellie encounters the zombie in the basement, she undoubtedly would have thought about the last zombie she fought: the one that attacked her and Riley. Ellie staring at the zombie and inspecting it would have been more meaningful if we as the audience could see some of her memories of being attacked and bitten at that time. It also would’ve been a natural flow of images on our screen to mimic the way people experience memories. 

Working the Riley story through episodes three to six, and then giving us the connective tissue and climax to it in episode seven would have been a more dramatically satisfying way to tell that backstory. It could have also helped us understand Ellie’s resistance to leaving Joel – if it had been done correctly and the dialogue in this episode had been re-written. 

I’m not a fan of full-on flashback episodes specifically because of this structural problem. If you want to see what I mean in terms of properly used and constructed flashbacks, check out season two of Black Sails

Analysis: Representation Matters

Anyone who’s read my pieces or heard me speak on a podcast or stream for more than thirty seconds will know my main reason for loving this episode: representation matters. And while I do feel personally victimized by Neil Druckman with all these feels, I fully support this storyline within the series. The tragic end, too, in my opinion, is what makes it so important – because tragedy and trauma that isn’t about being gay can also happen to gay characters, and that’s important to see. 

I personally feel an intense nostalgia and sadness with this episode. As an adult lesbian, the experience Ellie is having in this episode is one I had many, many times as a teenager. But when I was a mid-2000s Mall Gay™, there was nothing like this on my screen. I didn’t have a movie, a show, hell even a scene like this. Depictions of this experience were absent from the media I saw. And that felt isolating. 

Seeing an episode of television like this when I was fourteen would have completely rocked my world. I’m sad I didn’t have that, but I am so wildly excited that LGBTQ+ youths now do have it. To see yourself – your feelings, your relationships, your experiences – validated through media is a formative experience that affects the rest of your life. So for anyone who doesn’t know why everyone on TV is gay now, it’s because representation matters. 

There’s also the representation of Black queer women with Riley. Intersectional representation is extremely valuable for the same reason. We will, however, return to the representation of Black characters in The Last of Us after we get the last episode – as of this moment, four of our six Black characters have died, and that is not a good look my friends. 

For the above-stated reasons, on my completely subjective and arbitrary rating scale, I give this episode an 8 out of 10. 

Images Courtesy of HBO

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