[Warning: This story contains spoilers for The Last of Us episode 7.] “It’s a hopeless situation” isn’t just a lyric in Pearl Jam’s “All or None”: it’s what starts Sunday’s episode of The Last of Us. “Left Behind” begins with Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in a hopeless situation: Joel is bleeding out and will die if Ellie can’t save him. “Leave,” the weakened Joel tells Ellie, verbally and then physically pushing her away with orders to return to the safe haven of Jackson, Wyoming. “You go to Tommy. You go.” As Ellie decides whether to leave Joel behind in the basement of an abandoned home, she doesn’t see the single tear he sheds. The screen goes black. Cue Eddie Vedder.
Most of the hour-long run time focuses on Ellie’s pre-Joel life at a FEDRA military school in the Boston QZ and her fateful trip to an abandoned mall with best friend Riley (Storm Reid). There’s no cold open, and scenes of Joel and Ellie in the present bookend the episode written by series co-creator Neil Druckmann.
“I think we were thinking about the opening of the show as to-taste, basically every episode: ‘What does it want?’ Some episodes want [the cold open], and this one just didn’t,” co-creator Craig Mazin explained on the official HBO podcast. Added Druckmann, “Sometimes you use that opening to create almost like a reset. ‘This was its own story, reset, now we’re starting another story.’ These two stories are so intertwined. That edit is really important of going from one directly to the other.”
Druckmann also wrote The Last of Us: Left Behind, the downloadable content that inspired the episode of the same name. In it, players take control of Ellie as they learn about her past with Riley while trying to save a wounded Joel in the present.
Because the past informs the present, Mazin explained, “Ellie reaches for the doorknob, the screen cuts to black, and we start to hear Pearl Jam. We could have cut to the credits there and used that as a cold open, then when we come back, suddenly she’s back in FEDRA school. I think Neil’s absolutely right: we want to understand that she’s reliving a lifetime moment in this second, and that’s why we did it. I don’t think there was even a debate.”
Joel’s Fate in The Last of Us Episode 7
But in one version, Joel didn’t appear in episode 7. The episode would have flashed back to Ellie and Riley’s story — leaving viewers on a two-week cliffhanger without answers about Joel’s fate. This change was the decision of HBO executives, who previously suggested the creators combine the show’s first two episodes into one to end the series premiere on Joel and Ellie escaping the quarantine zone together.
“HBO, in a very smart way, suggested to us — this wasn’t originally the plan. Originally, this episode was gonna play entirely as Ellie’s story with Riley,” Mazin revealed. “And one of the things that HBO strongly suggested, and they were absolutely right, was to connect it back more to the story at hand, which is how it was in [the Left Behind DLC].”
Mazin continued: “That’s when we talked about seeing this image of Joel dying on this mattress in the basement with this very iconic blanket on, and I loved the way this starts with Joel telling her to go. There’s this moment where… what else can she do? Why wouldn’t she go at this point? He’s dying. That’s clear. She’s not a doctor. They’re not anywhere near civilization. There’s nothing that can be done. It is a hopeless situation.”
Hence the Pearl Jam.
“I love that tear … is he mourning his own impending death? Is he mourning the fact that she has to leave him, or that she is? Is he mourning that the only way he could get her to go, to save her, was to push her away, and the last memory she’ll have of him is something rejecting? Will she survive?” Mazin said. “That’s the best part of this: any of those could be true. What matters is the depth of his connection to her. No matter how you slice any of the interpretations we just offered up, all of them come back to the same thing: there is this remarkable depth of connection between the two of them.”
New episodes of The Last of Us premiere Sundays on HBO and HBO Max. Follow for more The Last of Us on ComicBook.