The Last of Us Podcast recap – Episode 9 Finale

The final episode of The Last of Us Podcast for Season One dives into how the cast interpreted the intense themes of the ending.
ellie mother spin-off the last of us video game

Episode 9 of The Last of Us concluded the HBO series by depicting the final events of the first video game. Joel (Pedro Pascal) carried out acts of violence after discovering Ellie (Bella Ramsey) was set to undergo an unsurvivable surgery, in order for the Fireflies to reverse engineer a Cordyceps vaccine. It was a finale that divided audience opinion, mirroring and re-sparking conversations that first took place when The Last of Us game originally launched in 2013.  

Ashley Johnson, the original voice and motion capture actress for Ellie in The Last of Us Part I & II, returned for the HBO adaptation to portray a highly anticipated character – Ellie’s Mother Anna. The intense cold open for the episode provides an explanation as to how Ellie first gained her immunity, and briefly explores Anna’s relationship with supporting character Marlene (Merle Dandridge). 

In this recap of HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast Episode 9, we’ll dive into how the cast interpreted these intense themes and pivotal relationships showcased in the series. We’ll also discuss this episode’s more emotional and impactful moments as discussed by Showrunners Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), Neil Druckmann (Creative Director on The Last of Us Part I & II), Ashley Johnson, and host of the podcast Troy Baker, as well as compare and contrast the HBO adaptation to the base games. You can find the podcast on most streaming services.

HBO’s The Last of Us Podcast Recap – Episode 9 – ‘Look for the Light’ 

Presenting Anna’s character and backstory 

Ashley Johnson joined this episode of the podcast to discuss her experience portraying the role of Ellie’s Mother Anna in the HBO adaptation, as well as her thoughts on the series’ wider themes. 

Druckmann mentioned that Anna’s backstory had been created whilst working on the first video game, as more of the world and its characters were being defined. Shortly after finishing production on the title, Naughty Dog had been approached to create an animated short which would centre around the day Anna gave birth to Ellie. Druckmann had completed this story, but plans for its development were shelved alongside a potential live action short depicting these same events.

Druckmann had presented this story to Craig Mazin during pre-production for the series, and Mazin jumped at the opportunity to adapt this, adding that they were immediately drawn to approaching Johnson for the part. Anna is never depicted in either The Last of Us Part I & II outside of a note and switchblade she had left in Ellie’s possession, so it was an exciting opportunity to see this pivotal character showcased in the series. 

Johnson was obviously innately familiar with the story, and said jumping into this new role was a very emotional experience for her. She mentioned that whilst preparing for the role, she had written out the in-game note shown in Ellie’s gameplay section of The Last of Us, and kept it in her jacket pocket whilst filming the episodes’ cold open. 

Johnson also spoke to Bella Ramsey’s portrayal of Ellie in the adaptation, saying that with every possible iteration The Last of Us went through in potentially being adapted to screen, nothing felt ‘right’ until Ramsey was presented. Druckmann added that Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal’s portrayals of Ellie and Joel are now equally as much the ‘DNA’ of the characters as he considers Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker to be. 

Mazin spoke to the importance of including Anna’s story at the end of the first season, saying that audiences needed time to meet Ellie and identify with Joel by understanding his previous traumas. Mazin said this cold open communicated a way to contextualise Ellie in a moment where audiences are ‘the most concerned about her’, referencing the scenes between Ellie and David (Scott Shepherd). 

Druckmann said this opening also spoke to the differences in philosophy between Marlene and Joel, as they have both accepted they will do anything in order to protect Ellie. However, Marlene shows a much more ‘outward and broad’ love for humanity and is willing to ‘sacrifice her own morality’ to save the masses, whereas Joel is the exact opposite. 

Mazin remarked this cold open was an opportunity to present maternal love and the act of nurturing, and also invited questions as to how Joel would approach fatherhood beyond the episodes’ conclusion. He also noted that this opening scene set the stage for so many parallels within the series, pointing to the connection that both Anna and Joel had lied for Ellie in order to protect her. 

Interpretations of the giraffe scene 

Mazin spoke to the iconic giraffe scene depicted in the first video game, saying that the team saw no reason to alter any sections from the original cutscene, as it was presented perfectly. 

Mazin mentioned that as this moment takes place in the midst of Ellie experiencing ‘some sort of post traumatic stress’, this scene communicated to Joel that Ellie was going to be okay, and that she hadn’t lost herself completely. He said that as a parent himself, seeing your own child in any kind of pain brings up the panic that it may not ever go away, and these thoughts were running through Joel’s mind before the interaction with the giraffe put both characters at ease. 

Troy Baker interpreted this scene as a parental moment ‘spawning’ in Joel when he had first filmed it. He noted that Joel wanted to show Ellie something ‘pure and innocent’, as there was a sadness in him at the realisation so much of her innocence had been lost throughout the story. 

Johnson echoed this sentiment. She said that by this point in the story, Ellie had lost so much trust in people and the world, and that her reaction to seeing the giraffe conveyed a much more dampened excitement to what it would have initially been.

Druckmann weighed in, saying that Ellie had been ‘muted’ for so long and that this ‘natural’ and ‘magical’ moment was what pulled her out of her lowness after Joel had attempted to do this with trivial conversations about board games and playing the guitar. He said it was also a ‘lightbulb’ moment for Joel, as he had seen Ellie lose so much of her humanity and he began questioning what was at stake in escorting her to the hospital.

Marlene and Joel’s connection to Ellie 

The team discussed Marlene and Joel’s relationship to Ellie, and how these connections were brought to light in Episode 9. 

Mazin spoke to the ‘utilitarian’ nature of Marlene’s character, saying this was a quintessential quality she needed to possess in order to achieve her goal of saving humanity. Druckmann added that because of her leadership she was able to reconcile Ellie’s death during the procedure more readily than Joel.

Mazin added that though Marlene had carried out her duties in keeping Ellie safe, she had never raised her, whereas at this point in the story Joel and Ellie had saved each other ‘in every way you can imagine saving a life’.

Johnson added that Anna also understood the severity of the situation during the episodes’ cold open, adding that she didn’t necessarily see Marlene as the most maternal in nature as her primary focus was to lead the Fireflies. She mentioned her request to Marlene to find someone to protect Ellie rested on the morals of their friendship, and that by asking her to hand Ellie over to someone else, it gave Marlene an opportunity not to develop an attachment to this child. 

Though Marlene’s love for Ellie is not removed entirely, as Mazin added Marlene had taken her to the Fireflies’ most notorious enemy FEDRA in order for Ellie to receive the utmost level of care. Mazin added that whilst Marlene didn’t believe Anna’s statement in saying she had cut her umbilical cord before she was bitten, she chose to take the lie at face value as the alternative was ‘unthinkable’.

Mazin said that the moral dilemma of the episodes’ conclusion presented ‘the trolley problem at large’, and there are a number of arguments as to why Joel and Marlene were justified in their approaches.

Druckmann noted that whilst Marlene’s decision intellectually made sense for the betterment of humanity, the hospital sequence wasn’t particularly an intellectual exercise. He said players were divided in their opinions of Joel whilst conducting playtests for the first video game, adding that every parent who had played through this section agreed with Joel’s decision with ‘zero exceptions’.

Mazin noted that the moment Joel had opened up to Ellie about his suicide attempt, it was a scene where these two characters were essentially saying ‘I love you’ to each other, just not explicitly. Druckmann added that Joel asking Ellie to read puns immediately after this interaction communicated that both characters were ‘a little allergic to being overly sentimental’.

The team also expanded on the mirroring themes presented throughout earlier episodes in the series, referencing Bill telling Frank that he was his purpose and couldn’t imagine a life without him in Episode 3. Mazin spoke to Joel’s love trumping the situation, adding that ‘human instincts are not perfect… they don’t always fire off in ways that make sense’.

Implications of Joel’s final decision 

The team spoke to this episodes’ controversial final scenes, speaking on the wider implications Joel’s decision presented. 

Druckmann said it was important to treat the hospital sequence in the adaptation as a sad moment. He noted that this scene aimed to communicate Joel’s headspace in disassociating from humanity, and they didn’t want to glorify the situation or create an ‘adrenaline pumping’ sequence.

Mazin stated that this moment presented Joel as a utilitarian, only in an opposite way to Marlene. He added that this scene also spoke to Maria’s remarks to Ellie in Episode 6, as Maria (Rutina Wesley) had warned Ellie of Joel’s violent instincts, whereas Ellie had no intimate knowledge of his past actions.

Druckmann added that it’s reasonable to root for Joel in this scenario, and there are arguments as to why his actions were unjustified due to him murdering people who had dedicated their lives to saving the world. In his opinion, Joel murdering Marlene after she had lowered her gun was when he had gone ‘too far’, but he added Joel was correct in thinking Marlene would have continued her search for them and this event would not have stopped her.

Druckmann also noted that Marlene had no knowledge of how Joel had specifically lost Sarah. He added that as Joel had held Sarah while standing in front of a soldier making a decision in the sake of humanity’s best interest, the situation with Ellie directly paralleled this, and Joel wasn’t willing to ‘fail again’.

The team also discussed Ellie’s final ‘okay’ at the end of Episode 9, and spoke on the interpretations of this line. Johnson says this line in particular sets up the events of The Last of Us Part II very well, as Ellie is accepting Joel is not being truthful with her, but is deciding to continue their journey back to Jackson knowing the trust between them has been altered indefinitely.

Johnson also pointed to the notion that Joel’s decision has ultimately left Ellie feeling at odds with her own purpose, as her immunity gave her the belief that her life could have mattered in a grander sense, and this opportunity was taken away from her. She added that it left Ellie asking questions about her own sense of self, as well as why someone she trusted so dearly would lie about such a dire situation. 

Druckmann said that it was never a thought to Ellie that she believed the lie Joel told, saying she had already concluded he was being dishonest while thinking of everyone who died at the hospital. Mazin added that Ellie’s final line of dialogue communicated her saying, ‘I choose to believe you, not I believe you’. 

Notable quotes

  • Neil Druckmann – (Referencing Joel asking Ellie to read puns after opening up about his past) ‘Both characters are a little allergic to being overly sentimental’. 
  • Craig Mazin – (Referencing Bill and Frank’s story relating to the rest of the series) ‘The notion that there is no such thing as life without you, that I don’t even understand what life would be without you. It’s a pointless life without you, is set up in Episode 3’. 
  • Craig Mazin – (Referencing why Marlene was willing to sacrifice Ellie) ‘Marlene didn’t raise Ellie. Marlene did what she said she would do, which is she would keep Ellie safe, she would find somebody to bring her up and keep her safe… Marlene is not there day in and day out. Marlene is not repeatedly saving Ellie’s life. Ellie has never saved Marlene’s life… By the time we get to [the hospital], that’s what Joel and Ellie have done with each other in every way you can imagine saving a life’. 
  • Craig Mazin – (Referencing Joel’s decision at the hospital) ‘The reality is, it’s a dilemma… it ain’t easy and there isn’t one right answer… I can make an outstanding argument that Joel should have done exactly what he did and said exactly what he said to Ellie after, and I can make an outstanding argument that he shouldn’t have done any of that… That’s kind of the point… As flawed human beings this is one of the prices we pay for loving people. Loving people tends to trump simple morality, and that’s where Joel finds himself with Ellie’. 
  • Craig Mazin – (Referencing Joel’s decision at the hospital) ‘It makes people upset. I think it makes people uncomfortable. I think people want to concretise the choices and justify the choices one way or another because it’s comforting to them. But I would suggest to people that they ought to sit in the discomfort and uncertainty of the choices that were made because that’s kind of the point’ 
  • Craig Mazin –  ‘Human instincts are not perfect. Human instincts are designed to protect… but they don’t always fire off in ways that make sense’. 
  • Craig Mazin – (Referencing the meaning behind Ellie’s ‘okay’ at the end of Episode 9) ‘It was I choose to believe you, not I believe you’. 

For further analysis and reading on the HBO adaptation of The Last of Us, you can check out the following articles: 

Episode recaps and analysis: 

Behind-the-scenes podcast recaps:

The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO Max in the US, and Binge in Australia.

Emily Shiel is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia who is passionate about all things accessibility, mental health and the indie games scene. You can find her on Twitter at @emi_shiel