'The Last of Us' season finale recap: Betrayal cuts deeper than zombies

Kelly Lawler

Spoiler alert! The following contains details from the Season 1 finale of "The Last of Us."

It's hard to know who the enemy is anymore. 

Throughout the first season of HBO's superb post-apocalyptic tale, "The Last of Us," Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) have been fighting their many adversaries. Sometimes those foes are the clicking, bulbous "infected" fungal zombies of this particular dystopia. But most of the time, Joel and Ellie are battling the surviving humans: people who are desperate, hungry and lawless in a world that has traumatized them for two decades. 

But Joel and Ellie's real worries are closer to home. 

After a season that has seen violence on a huge scale, plus some disgusting-looking zombies and devastating death, "Us" ends on a quieter but no less heartbreaking note in a finale that reminds us that we can sometimes be our own worst enemies.

Once more, the pair is in danger, and once more they shoot their way out, but it doesn't mean their relationship will survive. It is lies and betrayal – not infected or insurgents or cannibals or the bitter winter – that might undo the parent/child-like bond that developed between Joel and Ellie. They may yet be torn apart by their differing values, guilt and responsibility, but not by violence or death. And in many ways, that's a scarier fate to contemplate than a zombie apocalypse. 

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Ellie’s cordyceps immunity explained

The finale begins by revealing the likeliest cause of Ellie's immunity to the deadly cordyceps fungus that has infected the world. In what we later learn is a flashback, a pregnant woman runs through the woods, pursued by something unseen, as she starts to go into labor. She takes refuge in a house as her water breaks, but she is only safe for moments when an infected attacks her. She defends herself with a very familiar knife, and in the moment that the infected falls dead to the ground, a baby is born. The only problem is the mother was bitten. 

Ashley Johnson as Ellie's mother in a flashback in the season finale of "The Last of Us."

She cuts the umbilical cord as fast as she can and cradles her child, whom she calls "Ellie," while weeping. Some time later, Marlene (Merle Dandridge), the rebel leader who, in present day, tasked Joel with protecting Ellie in the first place, arrives with other Fireflies. Marlene takes the baby after the mother swears she was bitten after she cut the cord. But considering what we already know happens to that baby when she's 14, it seems that some of those cordyceps cells got into Ellie's system, but remained benign. 

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The Fireflies lie to Joel and Ellie

"Us" is full of gloom-and-doom imagery, from its water-damaged and crumbling cities to the eerie network of cordyceps destruction branching out from the infected. So it was pleasant, if ominous, to see a moment of light. Ellie and Joel, both still reeling from their encounter with the cannibals in the previous episode, come across a pack of giraffes in the middle of a city that seemingly escaped from a zoo after the outbreak and are thriving in a landscape reclaimed by greenery. 

Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie in the season finale of "The Last of Us."

So some good things can come from the destruction of life as we know it, like herds of giraffes and a bond between an orphan and a father who lost his daughter. Joel and Ellie have a fierce love for each other now. If Joel's cold-blooded determination to rescue Ellie in the penultimate episode didn't make this clear, his willingness to be vulnerable now does. Joel reveals to Ellie that he tried to die by suicide at the beginning of the outbreak, because his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), was killed and he saw no point in going on. 

Knowing what he did after losing his biological daughter, it's predictable what happens when the Fireflies threaten his surrogate daughter. Joel and Ellie have finally made it to their secret medical facility, where they reunite with Marlene. Ellie may be set on using her immunity to create a cordyceps cure, but Marlene didn't tell her that her donation to science would lead to her death. When Marlene tells Joel that Ellie won't wake up from surgery, he acts just as you would expect: He does whatever and kills whomever he needs to (including Marlene) in order to keep Ellie alive.

Before he kills Marlene, she begs him to think of all the people Ellie could save, but Joel doesn't care about fixing the world. He cares only about the people he loves. 

And then Joel lied to Ellie

So "Us" ends not with the violence that has characterized so much of the nine-episode season, but with something that can cut as deeply: A lie. 

When Ellie regains consciousness in the back of a car, she has no idea what happened. Joel spins his own fairy tale: There are lots of immune kids, they tried to make a cure and failed and Ellie wouldn't have been able to help. And they had to flee the hospital because raiders attacked while Ellie was unconscious. 

Bella Ramsey as Ellie in the season finale of "The Last of Us."

Ellie is clearly skeptical, and as she and Joel hike back to Tommy's (Gabriel Luna) Wyoming town, everything Ellie has seen and done is weighing on the teenager. She stops Joel and asks him directly if what he said about the Fireflies was true. Joel swears to her it was. 

And that's the moment when the episode cuts to black.