The Last of Us’ Lesbian Lead Is a Light in the Darkness

Hello and welcome to this review of HBO Max’s The Last of Us, a tale of a world ravaged by a pandemic that turns people into monsters, centered around a teen lesbian named Ellie, played by gender fluid actor Bella Ramsey. This review is presented to you by two gay nerd friends who love gay nerd games and the gay nerd content that spawns from it. Nic and I (Valerie Anne) had a very intertwined experience with The Last of Us franchise, so it feels right that this review is coming from both of us at once. This review will contain spoilers for the first episode of TLOU the show, but we’ll do our best to quarantine the video game spoilers to one specific section (and keep those spoilers relatively light), so those of you who haven’t played can still be surprised.


The Outbreak

Let’s get right into it: how did you like the episode???

Nic: How did I like the episode? HOW DID I LIKE THE EPISODE?! Valerie, my friend, I don’t know the last time a pilot got me THIS excited. And you’ve watched me watch A LOT of television.

I got to see it early at a screening in NYC, and did I cry at the opening credits? MAYBE. Did I cry at the first notes of Gustavo’s beautiful score?? YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT.

Sorry sorry, let me rein it in. In all seriousness, my hopes were high and somehow the episode managed to surpass them. The moments they chose to lift directly from the game integrated seamlessly with changes they made to better fit this medium. There were times while watching when I wanted to reach for my controller in anticipation of making the next gameplay decision. I joked with you while we watched that maybe the show represented the “optimal” path of game completion, but it truly just felt like I was doing another playthrough in the best way. Pedro Pascal’s portrayal of Joel is so spot on that there were times when I was convinced that Troy was dubbing.

And Bella?!?! They are the PERFECT Ellie. Everything from their body language to their inflection to the way they subtly shift from asshole teen to vulnerable kid, was better than I could have imagined.

The Last of Us Show: Ellie looks forlornly out a window

Look at this little lesbian! LOOK AT HER!

Valerie: Yeah, it’s definitely a surreal experience to know exactly what’s going to happen and also have no idea what’s going to happen. It was also surprisingly nice to sit back and enjoy the story in a different way than when I played the game. I haven’t watched anyone else’s full playthrough yet, just snippets here and there, so I’ve never gotten to experience the full story without actually having to participate in it. Also from a nerdy writer perspective, thinking about aspects of the story that they either have or that I’m anticipating them having to tweak a little with the change of format. When you and I were watching together, and there was that scene of Joel getting Sarah out of the car, you pointed out that it’s almost shot for shot from the game (the whole ride there was, honestly) except he didn’t kick the window out, which in the game is the first time you get to control Joel. (For those who don’t know, you control Sarah up to that point, for extra devastation, I guess.) In the game, it’s to learn how to kick; but Joel knows how to use his own legs, so that extra step was unnecessary. From little things like that to bigger things like how we learn about the fungus and the pandemic, the little storytelling changes are really fascinating to me.

And obviously we’re both biased, but I feel like even without the context of the game, it was still a really excellent episode of television. Maybe especially amidst a pandemic, the cold open talking about the possibilities of humanity losing to a virus, seeing the day it all went to hell, then jumping into the future. Seeing Joel go from a hard-working single dad who loves his daughter and makes corny jokes to a hardened shell of a man with nothing to lose was just heartbreaking to watch. Ellie is a teenager who knows nothing BUT the horrors of this new world so she finds it harder to take anything too seriously moment to moment. Ellie’s sarcasm and wit make her immediately charming, and exactly what you said – the way her face shifts now and then, lets down the facade, you know she knows how dire things are and can be. She’s seen some things. Bella is a star and I can’t wait for them to continue to charm and devastate me.

Also can we talk about how Anna Torv and Merle Dandridge are here being apocalypse mommis?! I hope we get more Tess and Marlene because I am a big, gay fan of theirs.

Nic: TANK TOPS!!

Valerie: EXACTLY.

The Last of Us: Marlene in a tank top

If this woman came up to you during the apocalypse and was like “wanna join my group?” how on Earth could you say no?

Valerie: Okay hard question: if you had to pick one thing/line/moment/scene as your favorite of the episode, what would it be?

Nic: Ellie: “You my fucking mom or something?” Marlene: “…do I look like your mom?” I screamed. Bella Ramsey, I bow to you.

TLOU: Marlene looks at Ellie in disbelief

A solid mix of comedy and tragedy makes for a great dystopia.

Nic: What about you??

Valerie: That was an amazing moment. The delivery on both parts was top notch. This is definitely hard because every time Ellie made a joke it was my new favorite part BUT to kind of shift gears: as a horror fan, I loved the scene where Sarah is in her neighbor’s living room looking through the DVDs on the shelves and over her shoulder, out of focus, you see Nana start to twitch and her mouth contorts open unnaturally but then when they cut back to her a few seconds later she’s just sitting there, quiet and unmoving, like she usually is.

Sarah looks through DVDs while a blurry Nana twitches and contorts behind her

PS. If you were wondering why this wee child you’ve never seen before looks familiar, it’s because she is, indeed, Thandiwe Newton’s child.

Flashback

Let’s take it back a bit and talk about our history with the game.

Nic: I’m going to try my best not to make this entire review a love letter to our friend Taylor, but as you well know, she introduced me to two things that make up probably 42% of my entire personality – Critical Role and The Last of Us (Thanks Taylor!!). I didn’t play a lot of RPG or long-form story games growing up; it was Madden and Crash Bandicoot all day in our house, so I missed TLOU when it first came out on PS3. Crash was the entire reason I even bought a PS4; RPGs were so far from my radar despite having a deep love of stories in general. I don’t remember the exact details of every conversation about starting the game, but I do know that Taylor must have used my love of Ashley Johnson to trick me into starting a HORROR game, because in June of 2018 I met Joel and Ellie and fell head over heels in love with my Grumpy Dad and Murder Daughter. As soon as I loaded the game, I knew it would be different than any other gaming experience I’d had up to that point. I mean, the cold open is one of the most emotional scenes I’d ever seen in any form of media, let alone a video game! The concept itself was terrifying and intriguing enough, but add in the emotional elements of found family and morally gray characters you can’t decide if you want to root for? I was HOOKED. Plus, I love a good “pew pew” game. Taylor was heavily involved in you starting the game too, yeah?

Valerie: Yes! She actually did the same thing to me with TLOU as she did with Critical Role, which was just slowly giving me fun facts about it, or clips of Ashley Johnson talking about it, or gifs of people playing it, until I suddenly couldn’t resist checking it out myself. Though I think I might have been an easier sell than you, because I love the horror genre and I love story video games. I had taken an accidental break from console gaming in college (though I was still playing some mobile and PC puzzle games) and the game that got me back into it again was the first Life is Strange. That game is also what inspired me to start streaming, because I was yelling at/about Max and Chloe alone in my room and decided I wanted to share that experience with strangers in future games. So I started streaming with Horizon Zero Dawn but as soon as I was finished, I queued up The Last of Us, which was very fun for me both because I loved the story and because my friends who had played were so excited for me to meet Ellie because they knew damn well how much I’d love that girl. So much attitude packed into such a tiny person. The game does such a good job of stressing you out and making you feel like the stakes are high while you’re playing, and even though I didn’t play it until 8 years after it came out, the graphics were stunning.

Before the Outbreak

Given our experiences with the game, what were our expectations going into the show, our reactions to trailers and casting news, etc.

The Last of Us: Ellie sits alone, small in a big room, with the words "WHEN YOU'RE LOST IN THE DARKNESS..." scrawled across the wall in red spray paint.

The cinematography of this show is outstanding.

Nic: Okay look, we both know I can be a little dramatic, but when the news of a television adaptation dropped, I lost my ENTIRE mind. We were in the throes of announcements and then delays for the second game, and I needed that sweet sweet TLOU news. Once the excitement died down though, I started to get a little nervous about how faithful the adaptation would be. At that point, I had played through the game twice, and was emotionally attached to those characters in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated. It had become more than just a game to me; it joined the ranks of the best stories that question the very nature of humanity.

Valerie: Yes! That’s the part that fascinates me the most. How they found a new form of currency, how new groups form, how people’s morality changes. My brother texted me while he was watching “who was having babies during an apocalypse,” and it’s a great question. And this story does such a great job of exploring that.

Nic: It’s a FANTASTIC question! I had the same thought because like, do we let humanity die out and cease to exist? But then also how do we subject new generations to such danger and horror? But back to my expectations, not only is the world of The Last of Us massive from a geographical sense, but there were also huge acting shoes to fill left by Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker (Ellie and Joel in the game, respectively). Honestly though, finding out that Neil [Druckmann] would be heavily involved put me incredibly at ease.

Between the two of us, I’m definitely the trailer/casting news goblin, so I was EATING UP every piece of news that dropped. Every casting announcement got me more excited than the last, so to say my expectations were high is probably the understatement of the century. The one that really got me, though, was hearing that Storm Reid was cast as Riley, because that meant the emotional devastation of the Left Behind DLC would play out in front of our eyeballs, and I’m still not sure if my heart is ready to watch everything I know is coming, unfold between our tiny gay murder babies.

Valerie: Yeah, my first reaction was “oh no” because I don’t tend to trust adaptations. But the second there was a leaked photo from set of Ellie and Joel walking through the rubble that looked like it could have been a realism artist recreating a scene from the game, I knew it was going to be okay. I was also excited that we were going to get the Riley backstory folded into the first season.

Looking to the Future

A slightly spoilery look at what we hope the TV show will do either the same or differently from the game, for others that have played it. If you haven’t played the game, consider skipping this section!

The Last of Us: Joel, Ellie and Tess stand with their hands up

This is your last warning to get out before you get spoiled! Proceed with caution!

Valerie: I won’t lie, within the first ten minutes of the episode, I felt my shoulder muscles loosen. Any fears or worries I had vanished; I trust this show now more than I did before I started it. I trust that they will stay true to the heart of the story, and I can tell that any changes they make will be purposeful and well thought-out. Plus, it seems clear we’re going to get more canon queerness even faster than in the game. If my memory serves me correctly, Ellie’s queerness was revealed eventually and subtly, but it took a while to get there and it was left a bit to interpretation. It wasn’t really until the DLC that we knew for sure that Riley wasn’t just an intense teenage friendship but canonically something more. But it’s clear this show is going to give that to us in a more obvious way, and we’ve already had our first mention of Riley in the very first episode.

My biggest fear right now is the…let’s call him the “man from the restaurant scene” in the game in case any non-players cheated and are reading this. Those scenes were the right amount of terrifying in the game and I could easily see a TV adaptation (especially if it were in the hands of some other shows on HBO…) taking it too far, but for now I’m just going to trust that they know where that line is and they won’t cross it. I also hope they do a better job of explaining some stuff toward the end that I felt the game kind of glossed over, but I have a feeling this won’t be the last time we’ll be talking about this show on Autostraddle dot com, so I’ll let that one sit for a later date.

When we watched the episode together, I asked you if you thought they would do one season = one game, because I think that would make the most sense. Even though it seems like they’ll be adding more flashbacks, it will just fill the time in gameplay that you, the player, are looting around or taking 87 tries to get through a dark abandoned train station full of clickers. (Or maybe that’s just me.) I’m doing my best to enjoy this as an entity separate from the game, but I also wouldn’t want them to change too much to the “present-day” stuff from the game. I’d love more fleshed out backstories from as many characters as they want, but there are some really great moments that I’m hoping they keep.

Nic: Oh, I completely agree about the “man from the restaurant scene!” *shudder* One thing I didn’t expect (though maybe I should have) is the extra time we got to see Joel as a dad and by extension, we form a deeper attachment to Sarah now that we’ve spent more time with her. That made for additional levels of devastation in the pilot, but it also got me wondering who else we might get more of in the show vs. the game. Personally I’m really hoping we get some more quality time with Riley and Tess. Because I’m a masochist.

Are we allowed to make specific references here? I’m almost afraid to put this into the ether, but my pie-in-the-sky-but-it’s-okay-if-it-doesn’t-happen dream would be to see a certain long-necked animal make an appearance. There are also several cameos that I’m very excited for, but I won’t name them here in case folks are avoiding casting announcements!

Valerie: I think that is the perfect amount of reference because if you know, you know. And I agree, I would love for that scene to happen. And I usually do avoid casting announcements but yes I did hear of some familiar voices popping up, so that will be fun!

Nic: Like you, I think that pilot did a wonderful job establishing trust with players of the game while also getting a brand new audience to care about these characters and their stories. Despite having played this game multiple times, I’m already on the edge of my seat waiting to see what our apocalypse pals get up to in episode 2. Look for the light, my friend.


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Valerie Anne

Just a TV-loving, Twitter-addicted nerd who loves reading, watching, and writing about stories. One part Kara Danvers, two parts Waverly Earp, a dash of Cosima and an extra helping of my own brand of weirdo.

Valerie has written 434 articles for us.

Nic

Nic is a Senior Product Manager at a major Publisher and lives in Astoria, NY. She is way too attached to queer fictional characters and maintains that buying books and reading books are two very different hobbies. When she's not consuming every form of fiction, you can find her dropping it low on the dance floor. You can find Nic on twitter and instagram.

Nic has written 43 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. So glad to see AS covering this show! I have no background with the videogame, other than some vague stuff I’ve seen floating around the internet. Nevertheless, I can say I don’t think I’ve ever been so taken in by a pilot episode. The setup is brilliant and I adore how it leans in to the gross body horror of the creatures. Bella Ramsey is absolutely brilliant, you can’t help but root for Ellie as soon as she’s on screen. Can’t wait to see more adventures of Murder Daughter!

  2. I am not a gamer so I only learned of this series from AS. I love post-apocalyptic fiction (can it stay out of real life some more, though, please?) and if it has queer characters, YEEEEEESSSSSS!!!!!!!

    I really loved the trailer. My husband kept saying, “This is really well done. This is really well done” because he can’t shut up while watching anything. I agree.

    They are wise to make us wait for each new episode because otherwise we would have finished the entire thing already.

    So sad to lose Sam!
    Hooray, Ellie!

  3. Alarmingly unpopular opinion here, but I’m just not sold on Bella playing Ellie. Not yet. I’m not denying their delivery was fantastic, I’m just not entirely sold on Bella as Ellie.

    • Genuinely curious, if you don’t mind answering, what wasn’t landing for you? I have admittedly not played the games, so is there some disconnect between the game character and the show so far? Most of the folks I’ve seen in other places not liking the casting have been the gamer bro types I tend to side-eye, so I’m curious to hear from anyone that might have a more balanced opinion.

      • Don’t mind at all, appreciate you asking so politely as this hasn’t been the case most else places!

        Overall, I’m just not seeing Bella as Ellie. Does Bella have the attitude down? Sure, but that’s not just reliant upon the acting. There’s something soft about Bella that doesn’t suit the character, certainly not who Ellie becomes across the first game.

        This is again just how I feel, and I certainly have nothing against Bella, even if I can’t see her as Ellie I still appreciate how much Bella is giving herself to this role. Thank you again for asking, Elisabeth!

    • They’re absolute perfection, the moment Ellie kicks her dinner across the floor to the firefly I knew, the attitude, the body language, the tone of voice.. they could literally not have done any better. I’m literally so relieved because the haters have been so angry that the teenager isn’t as fu*kable as the video game character.

      • I fully appreciate what you’re saying! I definitely think that although they aren’t who I’d have picked, they are still doing an amazing job and the haters can stick it up their backsides. I’ve played both games and you’re right about the attitude (I’ve watched the episode again!) which I saw more on a second viewing.

        Whether or not I’m invested in Bella as Ellie, I still support them, if that makes sense?

  4. They nailed it, I thought it would be impossible but so far they’re succeeding, Bella as Ellie was a stroke of genius as well, people were bewildered by the casting at first but you could immediately see why they were cast. I can’t wait for Sunday night.

  5. I am glad you are covering this! I have been a more casual gamer most of my life, meaning I have picked up and played tons(TONS) of games across many consoles, but can count on 1 hand the number that I have played from start to finish. Two of those are TLOU(Part 1 and Part 2).

    I was soooo into Part 2 that I had to buy a special ergo controller because playing it so much was injuring my hands. That is how much I love this franchise lol.

    I am excited for Bella as Ellie. I like that there is a softer side to their performance that we got to see this episode, and I also know they can give us the bad ass Ellie later on based on their kick ass Game of Thrones character!

    I also CAN’T WAIT for the PC release of the remastered Part 1 that is coming out in March! I have a steam deck and can’t wait to take Ellie on the go with me. This is a great year for TLOU!!

    I do have a feeling that they will drag out the seasons a bit since they only have 2 games worth of source material to pull from (though they can spend a good amount of time filling in the blanks of what happened between the games, maybe accompanied with some well timed DLC for Part 2 to also give us some of that to play through?)

    I am thinking probably 2 seasons on the first game, maybe 1 for the in between games timeline(maybe ending with the significant event that starts the second game?) And then probably another 2 seasons at least with the second game.

    I am really curious how they will handle the significant gameplay shift in the second game (I am trying to be real vague here to not spoil!) in the medium of TV…

    • To start, I won’t lie that when I saw the title and the genre of thriller, I immediately associated it with other films.
      For example, “ The day of deaths” “Zombieland” or “Extermination”. These movies have the same plot and the zombies are very common, but “I’m legend” changes the thematic because they are mighty, aggressive and fast. In some parts of the movie, I felt tension.
      If my memory serves me correctly, the environment is in New York, I can notice that the city ( one of the most popular in the world with millions of people) here seems isolated. However, I thought that the plot is slow and I needed to be pacient.
      The main character constantly looking for a way to survive, Will smith makes the movies not boring.
      In my opinion this apocalyptic movie helped the film industry.

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