HBO’s adaptation of the standalone prequel to Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us in ‘Left Behind’ follows the story of Ellie and her friend Riley in a touching backstory that shaped her character for what’s to come.
Picking things up from last week’s devastating cliffhanger, Ellie frantically tends to Joel’s stab wound as Joel continues to implore her to leave. Having been confronted with the difficult choice, Ellie’s mind flashes back to the period in her life prior to Joel.
The sequence of events begin with Ellie, sporting a Walkman, jogging in PE before engaging in a physical altercation with another recruit at the FEDRA training school. Ellie is subsequently given a reality-check from the FEDRA captain who presents her with two options: rising up the ranks like him or being killed in the field by the likes of the Fireflies.
Following this, Ellie’s previously alluded roommate, Riley, played by Storm Reid, makes her first appearance by creeping through a window and muffling Ellie in her sleep before being kicked to the ground.
The fact that the two care for each other is made obvious in Riley’s response to Ellie’s fresh black eye. From the get-go, Riley commands a degree of respect and perhaps a smidge of admiration in Ellie’s eyes and it is the very same mutual sense of esteem that compels her to sneak out with Riley for the night.
As the two proceed in their midnight adventure, they discover a corpse, indulge in a swig (or two) of alcohol, fiddle with Riley's firearm, and survey the Quarantine Zone from atop the roofs.
As Riley promises Ellie the night of her life at the abandoned shopping mall, the briefest mention of the possibility of infected is our first hint of anxiety. With all that The Last Of Us has put us through thus far, the question now remains not whether the infected would make an appearance, but rather when and how.
The most striking aspect of this episode is its ability to use environmental storytelling to enhance the narrative. Throughout the episode, the two encounter a range of objects and locations, some of which Riley aptly dubs “the wonders of the mall”, that tell a story in their own right.
The abandoned stores and restaurants in the mall provide a glimpse into the lives of those that once were - lives that now feel almost alien to the post-Outbreak generation. They serve to highlight the contrast between the world before the outbreak and the world that Ellie and Riley now inhabit, emphasizing the harshness and brutality of their current reality.
The production design on the series beautifully realises this vivid and detailed world, adding depth and texture to the narrative and creating a rich and immersive world that feels both authentic and lived in. The graffiti-covered walls of the military school, ruined buildings, abandoned stores of the shopping mall and the overgrown foliage that has taken over the world all contribute to a sense of the old world that has since been devastated by the outbreak.
The game's environmental storytelling is particularly effective in creating this sense of a world shattered by catastrophe. Ellie and Riley encounter ransacked stores that are filled with the detritus of the lives that were once shopped here.
From Ellie’s wide-eyed fascination with the “electric stairs” to the two standing puzzled at the concept of a screenshot - time and time again, the show’s creators prove their capacity in crafting believable, accurate worlds with the little details in their writing.
For the very first time for her character, Ellie seems preoccupied with her appearance as Ramsey adjusts her hair in the window of a lingerie store - a moment that seems to be hinting at the obvious. When Ellie proceeds to make the most adorable googly-eyes at Riley while the two go round on a carousel set to The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”, they needn’t say anymore.
Ellie's relationship with Riley is a key aspect of her development. The two characters have a complex and nuanced friendship that is both supportive and challenging. Their conversations and interactions reveal their hopes, fears, and vulnerabilities, and their relationship serves as a counterpoint to the harshness of the world they inhabit.
Riley plays a crucial role in establishing Ellie's sexual identity because she is the person who Ellie shares her first romantic experience with. Throughout the game’s 2014 add-on source material, it becomes clear that Ellie is attracted to Riley, and their relationship evolves from a close friendship to a romantic one, which unravels itself quite beautifully in the series.
Riley's presence serves as a catalyst for Ellie to explore her own sexuality. Ellie has always known that she is attracted to women, but her feelings for Riley are more intense and intimate than any she has felt before. Through her relationship with Riley, Ellie is able to come to terms with her own sexual identity and fully embrace it that culminates in a climactic first (and sadly final) kiss.
For the most part, videogames were criticized for their lack of diversity, particularly when it comes to queer narratives. Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us: Left Behind DLC was one of the few games that portrayed a lesbian relationship in a positive and nuanced way, and as such, was a significant step forward for representation in the medium.
But more importantly for the overarching narrative, Ellie’s brief poignant trip to the past with Riley establishes her character’s growth ever since. Though Ellie is a teenager who has grown up in a harsh and unforgiving world, she is tough and resilient, but also vulnerable and compassionate, with a fierce loyalty to those she cares about.
It is with this that the past and the present are seamlessly interwoven, as we cut to Ellie frantically raiding the abandoned house in search for anything that could help Joel. With a reaffirming clutch of hands, a single tear of relief trickling down Pascal’s cheek and Ellie proceeding to stitch up the wound, Left Behind leaves us slightly more hopeful for the future.
Though once more, we’ve endured yet another traumatising state of affairs with The Last Of Us, we’re trading a life that could have been to a life that is. Darkness lies ahead as for Ellie and Joel as the series nears its culmination. But at the very least, they have each other. And for now, that’ll do.