This piece contains spoilers for the finale of HBO’s The Last of Us and the first The Last of Us game. If you haven’t caught up on the series yet check out our spoiler-free season review now.
It’s all been leading to this. Over an impactful first season we’ve followed Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) through the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Cordyceps infected America in the hopes of finding the Fireflies and their potential cure. Gamers were likely fully aware of what was to come in the heartbreaking finale, but it was a violent ride that shifts our expectations of heroes and the sacrifices they’re willing to make for those unfamiliar with the source material. In the wake of the shocking final episode, we’re here to break down the ending and break down the burning questions we have headed into the next season — with as few game spoilers as possible, of course!
The Last of Us Finale Ending Explained
After making their way to Salt Lake City, Joel is feeling pretty good. He’s committed to his new life with Ellie and even suggests that they just head back to Jackson and give up on their quest. We get some iconic moments from the game, including the awe-inspiring scene when Ellie discovers a giraffe and Joel helps her feed it. But nothing soft can last in the apocalypse and things are soon turned on their heads. After being waylaid by the Fireflies, Joel awakens in the facility. Marlene (Merle Dandridge) explains that Ellie’s already being prepped for surgery.
In an expansion on what we learn in the game where Marlene’s reasoning behind Ellie’s immunity is vaguely suggested to be “a mutation” here Marlene explains to Joel that the scientists believe that Ellie has been immune since birth, due to the Cordyceps “growing with her.” That’s led to the Cordyceps in her body essentially sending out a message to others saying she is Cordyceps. The good news? The doctor thinks that they can create a cure from that. The bad news? The operation will kill Ellie — and it turns out the girl wasn’t brought up to speed on the whole dying thing before being put under.
As expected, Joel takes the news quite poorly. He plays possum just long enough to get the drop on the Fireflies, and then shoots his way through the hospital to get to Ellie before ultimately facing off with Marlene in the parking garage. Just like in the game this represents the central moral conflict of the story: Is it worth sacrificing one life to potentially save millions? To Joel the answer is clearly no. But, seeing as he just slaughtered a bunch of Fireflies and maybe the only man able to make a cure, this isn’t a decision that’ll be without ramifications. It also raises massive questions about agency. The Fireflies didn’t give Ellie a choice whether to sacrifice herself or not, though the show has led us to believe she may have taken it. But while Joel saves her, he also lies to her about what happened, once again ignoring Ellie’s right to make the decision for herself.
As we look to Season 2, it’s clear that Joel’s choice here will be a major source of conflict. Though he took out all the witnesses it makes sense that other Fireflies will eventually head to the hospital and discover what he did. Pitting Joel and Ellie against the group would make a lot of sense and Joel would have the added stress of having to keep the truth from Ellie while protecting her. Whatever happens, this is a choice that will haunt the pair going forward.
Was Ellie’s Mom Being Bitten What Gave Her Immunity?
In its final episode, Season 1 of The Last of Us brought back a fan fave franchise actor and confirmed a massive fan theory. Ashley Johnson — who played Ellie in the original games — appears as Ellie’s mother, Anna. The episode opens with Anna heavily pregnant, running through the woods. She prepares to give birth in an abandoned house, but just seconds before the baby is born she’s attacked. Killing the infected, Anna realizes she’s been bitten just as Ellie arrives.
For years fans have speculated that Anna was bitten before Ellie was born, allowing Ellie to essentially be inoculated against the virus, and the show seems to confirm that here. While Anna tells Marlene that she cut the cord before she was bitten, we know the truth. This huge moment also confirms that Marlene has always had reason to suspect Ellie had some kind of immunity, as she was the one who found Anna in her last moments and took her child. And, as we find out this episode, it pays off because according to the Fireflies, Marlene was right.
Why Did Joel Kill the Fireflies? Was He Justified?
Since the game was first released in 2013, this moral question has been at the center of The Last of Us’ most shocking twist. Just like in the final episode of the series, the game ends by sending Joel — and the player — on a murderous rampage through the Firefly lab after discovering that to create the cure the scientists will have to kill Ellie. While in the game Joel’s brutality is no surprise, his choice to save Ellie at the expense of a potential cure is shocking. As the player we’ve killed hundreds of people by the time we reach the hospital but they’ve all been “threats” in the way of his mission to get Ellie to the Fireflies and ostensibly save the world. That makes the final chapter of the game and your complicity as a player a truly shocking twist. Players thought they were on a hero’s journey but ended up murdering the very people they were supposed to be helping and choosing one life over the lives of millions.
In the show, though, it feels less like a shocking choice and more like a pretty well seeded and organic decision for Joel to make. Joel’s love for Ellie shines through this episode and we’ve seen the lengths that he’ll go to protect her. So when Marlene shows up and reveals Ellie is about to be killed with nothing less than a theory to back it up, Joel’s choice feels a little less villainous. There’s no proven science to back up their plan, they didn’t give Ellie a choice in the matter, and there was no conversation or option given to the pair. Instead, that choice was taken from them. Of course, we know from what Ellie said earlier in the finale she would likely have chosen to be operated on. But Ellie’s agency here wasn’t respected at any point by Joel or the Fireflies. Which leads us to the next big question that this episode leaves us with.
Will Joel Tell Ellie the Truth?
Joel is given the chance to tell Ellie the truth when the (sharper than he thinks) young woman asks him to swear that the version of events he told her was true. He doubles down on the lie in the moment, but whether or not he tells her as she grows older is the big question. It would, of course, deeply change their relationship and reveal the brutality Joel has tried to keep hidden from Ellie throughout the season, but the fact that they’re heading back to Jackson makes the truth coming out feel more likely. Maria (Rutina Wesley) tells Ellie she should be careful trusting Joel earlier in the season, so it would make sense that if Ellie suspects something is up she may end up confiding in her later in the series. That could introduce an interesting and unexpected new alliance between Ellie and Maria and cause a chasm between Ellie and Joel.
If the truth of what Joel did was to come out it would obviously cause huge problems between Joel and Ellie, especially as he murdered the one other adult who had ever been there for her: Marlene. Is there a world where Ellie grows to understand what Joel did? Perhaps, it’s a bleak violent existence after all, but she’ll only be able to do that if he tells her the truth. So as Season 2 looms, a conflict between the show’s surrogate father and daughter seems ever more likely.
What Happens to the Fireflies Now?
Marlene tells Joel that the Fireflies lost half of their number relocating across the country. And then Joel murders every Firefly in the hospital (including their aforementioned leader). So where does that leave the group? We know that there are pockets of the radical organization across the country, but it does seem like this was one of their last true bases. With Joel apparently killing all witnesses, it’s unclear if the truth of his crimes will come out. This will keep him and Ellie safe for a while, but it seems likely that the remaining Fireflies will find out and come for the pair.
How Will The Last of Us Season 2 Deal With the Game’s Time Jump?
If you want answers about what happens next, your best bet is to play The Last of Us Part II. We won’t be getting into any of the events of the game here because of how closely the first season stuck to the original. But this is the one big non-spoiler question we can ask. The sequel is set seven years after the end of the first game. And while in real life Bella Ramsey is closer to the age of Ellie in Part II, Pedro Pascal is already playing a fair few years older as Joel. Aside from those logical questions, there’s also the fact that Season 2 could potentially be used to fill in the years between the games, given that Part 2 will likely take more than one season to complete. But, we’d probably bet on that big time jump and another near-direct adaptation of one of the most popular video games of all time.
Rosie Knight is a contributing freelancer for IGN covering everything from anime to comic books to kaiju to kids movies to horror flicks. She has over half a decade of experience in entertainment journalism with bylines at Nerdist, Den of Geek, Polygon, and more.