Contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Season 1
Season 1 of HBO’s “The Last of Us” is now behind us. While it was a tad shaky at times and notably lacking action, most will likely agree that showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann produced a worthy adaptation of the popular 2013 video game from Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey delivered strong performances as fungi outbreak survivors Joel and Ellie on a quest to save humanity. She is immune to the infection, and Joel must transport her to a group known as the Fireflies so scientists can study her blood and hopefully discover a cure.
Throughout their journey, Joel and Ellie met good and evil characters and engaged in adventures that impacted their relationship, building to a shocking climax that left viewers reeling and eager to see what happens in Season 2.
From its agonizing first episode to its stunning conclusion, “The Last of Us” took us on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, packed with tragic moments that cut deep and will stick with viewers for some time. Which moments hit hardest? Read on for our list of the most heartbreaking moments from “The Last of Us – Season 1,” ranked.
Ellie Sees An Airplane
The opening 30 minutes of Episode 3 follow Joel and Ellie as they traverse the dangerous countryside en route to meet up with a man named Bill (Nick Offerman). They encounter a crashed airplane nestled atop a nearby hill during their expedition. “Holy s***,” Ellie says. “You fly in one of those?” “A few times, sure,” Joel replies. “So lucky,” she says.
As the adage goes, we only appreciate what we have when it’s gone. In this case, the wrecked airplane is a sad reminder of how amazing the world used to be before the infection took hold and halted all of humankind’s progress. It is unfortunate for a kid like Ellie to miss out on the many things we take for granted daily — warm showers, comfortable beds, abundant food, clean water, automobiles, and the luxury of air travel. Moments like this peppered throughout the series make even something as mundane as driving to work feel more significant.
This is more of a magnetic element of the show rather than a powerful emotional beat. Still, viewing the remnants of a once-thriving empire through Ellie’s innocent eyes stirs some intense feelings.
FEDRA Murders An Infected Child
After the shocking death of Joel’s daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), in the premiere episode, we leap forward 20 years to find another child wandering alone through the woods. Limping, he silently stumbles about in ratty clothes, his hair unkempt and shaggy. Eventually, he happens upon a FEDRA facility and collapses. Moments later, a FEDRA soldier confronts him and asks about a wound on his leg. At the same time, another soldier uses a device to check whether or not the kid is infected.
The machine flashes red, which means the child will turn at any instant. The first soldier comforts the boy and offers him food, new clothes, and toys. Then, the other soldier pricks him in the arm with a needle. “You’re safe,” the first soldier says.
We cut to a massive bonfire where Joel and a group of workers toss corpses. A truck pulls up with more bodies, and we see the kid nestled among them, a hood over his head. Joel cradles him in his arms and dumps him into the flames, a vacant expression on his face. Thirty minutes into this episode, we’ve already witnessed the gruesome death of two innocent children. You would think this selection would rank higher, but this is merely a taste of the tragedy to come.
Kathleen Bites The Dust
Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) was a fascinating character. While people like Bill and Frank (Murray Bartlett) represent the kinder side of humanity, Kathleen stands as a symbol of unfettered rage and despair, a woman so consumed with revenge that she ignores serious dangers and leads an entire unit to certain death. In Episode 5, Kathleen, flanked by a squadron of soldiers, corners Henry (Lamar Johnson), the young man responsible for her brother’s death, along with Ellie; Henry’s brother, Sam (Keivonn Woodard); and Joel. Things go south when a group of infected, led by a bloater, emerge from beneath a burning house and attack the group.
Kathleen’s group fights back. Despite the considerable risk, she continues to pursue Henry and finally gets close enough to stick a gun in his face. Before she can pull the trigger, an infected child attacks and rips Kathleen apart.
In Kathleen, fans of the game will see shades of “The Last of Us Part II” Ellie, who is also driven by revenge after a personal tragedy. Her actions lead to countless deaths that do nothing to quench her thirst for blood. Violence begets violence. Sadly, Kathleen learns this lesson the hard way.
Still, the character deserved better. Kathleen led several people to salvation and even ransacked a FEDRA compound. I’d rank her death slightly higher if she didn’t point a gun at Ellie and Sam. That’s a deal breaker.
Ibu Ratna Realizes There’s No Hope
The first two episodes of “The Last of Us” start with a prologue set before Outbreak Day. In the first, a scientist named Dr. Neuman (John Hanna) sits before a talk show audience and warns about the dangers of fungi. In the second, a professor of mycology, Ibu Ratna (Christine Hakim), is escorted to a lab in Jakarta to examine the body of a dead woman. The deceased, it seems, lost her mind and started killing people under the influence of a fungus known as cordyceps (which is a real thing). Taking a closer look, Ibu is shocked to discover what appears to be tentacles reaching from the corpse’s mouth.
Later, sitting on a couch, Ibu tells a soldier, “I have spent my life studying these things. So please listen carefully. There is no medicine. There is no vaccine.” “So what do we do,” the terrified soldier asks. “Bomb this city and everyone in it,” she says.
Can you imagine a scenario where the only answer is to kill thousands, if not millions, of people? Ibu’s tearful request to be driven home to spend time with her family hits hard and speaks to the larger narrative about protecting those we love until the bitter end. We don’t see Ibu in future episodes, which makes it hard to place this entry above others featuring our main characters. Still, the point is clear: There is no hope. Are you crying yet?
Joel Shoots Bryan
In a scene ripped right out of the game, Joel and Ellie drive into Kansas City in a pickup truck and happen upon a stranger needing help. Joel immediately senses trouble and accelerates the vehicle. Gunfire erupts. During the excitement, Joel crashes the truck, and a brutal firefight ensues. One of the attackers (Juan Magana) jumps on Joel, and the two engage in hand-to-hand combat, concluding when Ellie shoots the man in the back with a pistol.
The intense moment gives way to sadness as the man pleads for his life and implores Joel and Ellie to take him to his mother. “I don’t know what to do. My legs don’t work,” he cries before extending his hand. “I’m Bryan!” Of course, Joel can’t let Bryan go after killing several of his compatriots. Brian apologizes profusely and shouts, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” as Joel silences him for good with a thrust of his knife.
It’s interesting how this show makes every death feel consequential. From a distance, the various factions inhabiting the world seem like faceless, soulless thugs. Up close, we see scared people desperately trying to survive. Bryan’s death is one of many in Season 1, but his pleas for mercy are enough to send chills down my spine.
Joel And Ellie Find Ish
Another glum moment occurs when Joel, Ellie, Sam, and Henry venture into the maintenance tunnels below Kansas City to avoid Kathleen’s crew. The group enters a hidden domain resembling a school with toys, chalkboards, books, and games. Joel says he heard about settlements like this, built after Outbreak Day to serve as protection for survivors. In an excellent allusion to the game, a drawing on the wall suggests two men named Ish and Donny served as the locals’ protectors.
Sadly, the occupants died after one of Ish’s group accidentally left a door open, allowing the infected to enter and kill everyone. Such details are relayed to players in the game via a series of letters littered about the site. We learn that Ish began the outbreak alone but allowed a small family to enter his abode and later transformed the area into quite the community.
The show doesn’t go as deeply into the backstory. Still, we learn enough to envision the happiness Ish and company enjoyed during the glory days — and the horrors they experienced at the end. This also indicates to Joel and Ellie that saving everyone is impossible. All they can do is protect those closest to them.
Tess Dies Her Way
Poor Tess (Anna Torv). She enters and exits the show so suddenly that I forgot about her until I went back and rewatched all the episodes. While she enjoys some time in the spotlight by saving Joel and Ellie from some nasty shriekers, Tess gets infected and is forced to make a difficult choice: Go out with a bang or let a hoard of infected devour her alive. Thankfully, she chooses the former, but not before offering a tearful goodbye to Joel. In her final moments, Tess implores our hero to complete the task of guiding Ellie to the Fireflies and gives him a nice head start by blowing the bejesus out of the approaching army of infected.
This is the first main character death viewers witness after Sarah, which is probably why it doesn’t leave as great an impact. At least Tess got to live much of her life, right? Aside from the nasty kiss she endures in her final breath, it’s hard to get too choked up over her explosive exit.
Joel Begs Tommy To Take Ellie
No adaptation is perfect. For better or worse, changes must be made to accommodate different media. “The Last of Us” TV series stays relatively close to its source material but occasionally deviates in frustrating ways. An excellent example of this is Joel’s character. In the game, Joel is a stoic, soft-spoken, capable man stuck inside a thick shell of sorrow. His time with Ellie melts away his rugged exterior and restores him as a dutiful, albeit imperfect, father whose sole purpose is protecting his child.
In the show, Joel is far more emotional and prone to fits of rage. While speaking with his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), in Episode 6, titled “Kin,” Joel explains his nightmares. “I’m failin’ in my sleep. That’s all I do. It’s all I’ve ever done is fail her again and again,” he says through tears, reflecting on his inability to protect Sarah. He then begs Tommy to take Ellie, noting that he can better protect her.
Don’t get me wrong, Pedro Pascal is remarkable in this scene, so it deserves its place on the higher end of this list. However, as one who enjoyed the game for years, I’m curious why they changed Joel from a strong and sturdy man to an emotionally unstable person. This iteration of the beloved character should stay far away from Ellie, as he displays none of the characteristics needed to keep her safe.
We all knew it was coming. Yet, Joel’s hospital massacre somehow produced audible gasps, mainly due to its brutality. A somber musical track from composer Gustavo Santaolalla underscores the sequence. Director Ali Abbasi bathes Joel in darkness and doesn’t shy away from the violence or gore. We get the gist: Joel refuses to lose another child, even if she can possibly save humanity.
The game doesn’t say whether Joel’s decision is the right one. Players execute the Salt Lake City hospital shootout and are left questioning the morality of Joel’s decision. I always felt he did the right thing in the wrong way. Killing is never the way to go. However, nothing during my 15 hours of gameplay suggests this world deserves a cure. I’m sure others think differently, but that is part of the game’s brilliance.
HBO’s “The Last of Us” perfectly clarifies that Joel is wrong and protecting Ellie for selfish reasons. His hospital rampage is handled matter-of-factly. It’s not showy or exciting, just violent and sad. I half expected him to murder the other doctors in the operating room. So while this scene is brutal and well executed, it lacks the various shades of gray the game brings to the table, ethically speaking. Therefore, I’m ranking it bit lower on the list. It’s good, but the video game did it much better.
The final episode of “The Last of Us” opens with Ellie’s mom (played by Ellie voice actor Ashley Johnson) giving birth to — well, Ellie — while getting attacked and bitten by an infected. Thinking quickly, she cuts the umbilical cord, which plays into Ellie’s immunity to the virus. Hours later, Marlene (Merle Dandridge) arrives and finds Ellie’s mom, her friend, clinging to the baby with one hand, a knife pressed against her own throat in the other.
“She needs to be fed,” Ellie’s mom says, “and I didn’t want to nurse her.” She pleads with Marlene to take the child to Boston. “So you pick her up right now, and then you kill me.”
At first, Marlene appears to resent her friend for asking such a favor. “I can’t kill you,” she says, walking to the hall. After thinking about it a little more, however, Marlene hands little Ellie over to a nearby soldier, pulls out a gun, takes a breath, walks back into the room, and shoots Ellie’s mom. The sound causes the baby to cry, and we cannot help but note that this is the first of many tragedies Ellie will experience throughout her life.
Despite the season finale’s shortcomings, this opening scene strikes all the right chords. It’s sad to see a child born into this life and sadder still to think about everything Ellie must overcome in the years ahead.
Bill And Frank’s Last Supper
Many viewers will find the lower ranking of the famed Bill and Frank episode slightly controversial. While the episode is solid, it also stops the story dead in its tracks to spend an hour with a pair of characters who contribute nothing to the plot save for a slice of on-the-nose morality.
Regardless, the scenes between Bill and Frank are handled well, and the couple’s demise makes for heartbreaking drama. After years of living together in peaceful bliss away from the dregs of humanity, Frank succumbs to a debilitating disease. As such, he asks Bill to enjoy one final dinner with him, after which he intends to kill himself. Not content to let his lover go into that cold, dark night alone, Bill drinks a lethal dosage of pills mixed with wine with Frank and then carries him into their bedroom, where they die together offscreen.
Episode 3, while sad, nevertheless provides a glimmer of optimism. Despite the endless barrage of violence, revenge, and hate, love still blooms in certain sections of the world. But, of course, this is a far cry from Bill and Frank’s morbid outcome in the video game. As one who enjoyed the original rendition of this particular plot line, I still found Bill and Frank’s love story poignant and moving. I wish they’d found a way to better tie it into the larger narrative.
Ellie Kills David
What would a post-apocalyptic world be without a bit of cannibalism? In Episode 8, Ellie bumps into religious zealot David (Scott Shepherd), a mysterious man presiding over a group of oppressed citizens too afraid to oppose his will. A series of violent encounters place Ellie before this villain, and it’s only a short time until the two are battling one another in a burning structure. By this point, Ellie knows that David and his cohorts are cannibals, but she also realizes the man has, um, a lot more in store for her.
So when it comes time to square off against David, Ellie doesn’t beat around the bush. Instead, she brutally attacks the man, hacking the psychopath to death with a knife. In the game, Joel stops her mid-hack and carries her to safety. The TV show lets Ellie unleash her wrath unabated, and she stumbles into Joel’s arms minutes later. “It’s okay, baby girl,” he says, echoing what he said to his daughter, Sarah, in the premiere episode.
Watching Ellie devolve into a violent monster is difficult to watch, no matter how justified her actions are. She was barely hanging on to her sanity, and her vicious execution of David marks a turning point of sorts or a descent into madness. This devastating sequence has repercussions that affect Ellie and Joel later, which is why I rank it near the top.
Ellie And Riley’s Mall Adventure
In Episode 7, “Left Behind,” Ellie reflects on her final night with BFF Riley (Storm Reid) a few weeks before the events on the show. The two girls head to an abandoned mall, where they ride a carousel, take photos, play video games, and comment on Victoria’s Secret before sharing a kiss. They make their way to a Halloween shop and continue their adventure. Soon, an infected arrives and literally kills the party. The attack leaves both Ellie and Riley bitten. Enraged, Ellie smashes everything in sight while Riley quietly accepts her fate. The sequence ends with the pair embracing one another, unsure of what will happen next.
We know Ellie survives the ordeal, but we’re never shown what becomes of Riley. We must imagine the cruel ending to this blossoming relationship and its psychological impact on Ellie. Everything about this show is bleak, but this moment reaches insane levels of pathos. What begins as a light, innocent escapade morphs into darkness and despair as quickly as turning off a light. Ironically, this mishap also sets up Ellie’s role as the savior of humankind, a burden she’s not fully prepared to carry.
The only thing keeping Ellie and Riley from ascending to the top of the pack are the various changes from the game, which presented a stronger, more exciting version of these events. As is, “Left Behind” succinctly allows viewers a peak inside Ellie’s tormented soul with superb results.
Henry And Sam Go Out With A Bang
In Episode 5 (the MVP of the season, if you ask me), Joel, Ellie, Henry, and Sam escape from Kathleen’s clutches and lie low in a nearby hotel. Once there, Ellie discovers that Sam has a bite mark on his leg. Frantically, she cuts her hand and tries to fuse his wound with some of her “magic blood” (as she calls it), and the two kids fall asleep, hoping for the best. In the morning, Ellie finds Sam staring out the window. She recoils when he tries to kill her because of his infection. In a panic, the two stumble out of their bedroom, and Henry shoots the boy in the head.
Dark, right? Henry then turns the gun on himself, and Joel and Ellie are too stunned to say anything.
I hate watching kids — particularly young kids — go through torment. Sam was as harmless as they come, and Henry was just a boy looking out for his little brother. Though I knew what to expect going into this episode, Sam’s death still left me shaken. Mostly, I felt terrible for Ellie. She didn’t need to see another friend killed so abruptly.
What keeps this moment from reaching the top? The final entry is the key to unlocking the entire season and is far more significant to the overarching plot. Even so, the sad demise of Sam and Henry is a tale I won’t soon forget.
Sarah’s Brutal Death
The first half of “The Last of Us” follows Joel’s daughter, Sarah, as she performs a few basic tasks. She heads to the city and fixes Joel’s watch, then visits her elderly neighbors to provide some cheer. Through it all, we see the steady rise of Outbreak Day — gunshots in the distance, police sirens, stores closing early, and people behaving oddly. Sarah makes nothing of it and heads home to celebrate Joel’s birthday, gives him a present, falls asleep, and awakens alone. Suddenly, Joel bursts in with his brother, Tommy, quickly tosses Sarah in his truck, and speeds off through a chaos-riddled Texas. Homes burn, planes crash, people run to and fro, and traffic blocks the interstate. Eventually, the three exit their vehicle and escape on foot, but a soldier stops them. An intense standoff ensues, and Sarah is fatally shot, leaving Joel to weep over her bloody corpse.
As in the game, this moment kicks the series off on an appropriately grim note and sets the stage for all that’s to come. Moreover, having viewed the entire season, it’s hard not to see Sarah’s death as the catalyst for Joel’s actions in Episode 9. Everything that follows — Tess’ death, Henry and Sam, Bill and Frank — only contribute to Joel’s final resolution. Considering the death and destruction throughout the season, it’s impossible to rank Sarah’s startling demise as anything less than the most heartbreaking moment in “The Last of Us.”
Read this next: 12 Things We’d Like To See In HBO’s The Last Of Us
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/Film – The Most Heartbreaking Moments From The Last Of Us Season 1
Author: Jeff Ames
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March 13, 2023