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Spoilers ahead for episode 7 of The Last of Us.
There’s a point at which, in the 2014 PlayStation game expansion The Last of Us: Left Behind, 14-year-old Ellie Williams takes a fall. She’s sprinting to escape the infected runners on her heels, but the scaffolding she’s climbed isn’t stable enough to support her weight; the structure leans, then tumbles. She drops with it, hitting the ground hard enough to knock the air from her lungs. The zombies are on her in an instant, and she screams for her best friend, Riley.
If you’ve watched tonight’s episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, you already know how this story ends. Ellie and Riley both wind up with war wounds from their zombie battle, which—in the cordyceps-infected world they inhabit—means certain death for their minds and, eventually, their bodies. I watched this PlayStation scene again recently and was struck by a YouTube comment left by another viewer: “Imagine if Ellie never fell off that railing in the last part. She would have never gotten bitten, so she wouldn’t have met Joel … Woah, this one small moment set the entire story forward.”
Episode 7 is grounded, in almost every scene, by similar acts of imagination. When Riley (Storm Reid) drops into her bedroom unannounced, Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is furious enough at her former roommate’s disappearance that she spends many of the remaining scenes questioning Riley’s devotion to a dream. At 16 years old, Riley has recently taken up with the Fireflies, a group of revolutionaries intent on overthrowing the fascist government that deploys FEDRA, the Federal Disaster Response Agency, which in turn controls the major quarantine zones across the country. Ellie thinks Riley’s idea of a better world—one run by these protestors—is a fantasy, and a dangerous one. As Riley coaxes Ellie into the night, the two sip from a whiskey bottle, debate politics, and trade “bullshit propaganda”: Riley is intent on visualizing radical change, no matter what it requires; Ellie digs her heels in, sure that the best path forward is to climb the FEDRA ladder and change the corrupt system from within.
In the abandoned shopping mall where Riley brings Ellie by way of late-night adventure and going-away party, the two get to visualize an alternative childhood, one where their teenage years took place before the outbreak. They ride escalators and carousels; they sneak pulls of bad booze; they stare, puzzled, at lingerie; they play old arcade games; they giggle at Ellie’s infamous book of puns; they trade secret, longing glances. They argue, Ellie hurt that Riley is leaving her to fight for a cause “I don’t even think you understand,” and Riley frustrated that Ellie can’t seem to understand it.
Ellie then discovers the homemade bombs in Riley’s food-court-turned-camp, and her disappointment is visceral enough to prompt Riley to reveal the truth: The Fireflies are asking her to leave town. This night is the roommates’ last together.
Underneath the flickering neon signs, Ellie confronts her friend: “Why did you bring me here?”
“Because I wanted to see you,” Riley says.
“And?” Ellie adds, her eyes scanning Riley’s face with a sort of wild, desperate hope. After watching the way she interacts with Riley—the bashful smiles, the handholding, the prolonged looks—we know what she’s wanting to hear. But how can she allow herself to admit it? Even at this point in the story, weeks before she meets Joel, Tess, or Sam, Ellie has endured so much loss, so much disappointment. Who can blame her for keeping her dreams small?
“And I wanted to say goodbye,” Riley finishes. This is all the confirmation Ellie needs. She whirls around and storms off, only returning to Riley’s side when she fears the Firefly cadet is under attack from infected. In actuality, the screams are coming from cheap Halloween decor in search of a good jump-scare. Ellie is almost angry all over again, except this time she’s ready to listen.
“You don’t know what it was like to have a family, to belong,” Riley explains to her. “I belonged to them. And I want that again. Maybe the Fireflies aren’t what I think they are, but they chose me. I matter to them.” The line is eerie foreshadowing of Ellie’s own soon-to-be encounter with Joel, who also—perhaps—isn’t exactly who she thinks he is. But he chose her. She belongs. That’s something she’s never allowed herself to imagine for herself before. Except, of course, when it came to Riley.
Outfitted in what I suspect must be disgusting-smelling monster masks, they twirl on the glass countertops of Spirit Halloween, swinging their arms to the rhythm of “I Got You Babe” by Etta James. But the verve only lasts long enough for Ellie to slowly remove her werewolf face and stare at her friend, her hair wild, eyes enormous and pleading. “Don’t go,” she begs.
Riley, finally, is convinced. “Okay,” she says, and Ellie lurches forward for a kiss. It lasts only a moment, but it’s convincing enough to send the two into fits of nervous laughter, as they realize—with a surge of joy—that the feelings between them are shared. There’s a future here, a real one. They can picture it. They can face it together. But as with so many moments in The Last of Us, the happiness is ripped from its source with a rush of brutality. A stalker, revealed to us earlier in the episode hibernating in the American Girl Doll store, leaps from under a stack of merchandise, and the friends race for their lives.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.