This story contains spoilers for Episode 7 of HBO’s “The last of us‘ and corresponding moments from the 2014 Naughty Dog video game ‘Left Behind’.
Loss marks everyone in the brutal post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us.
The HBO drama kicked off with the image of Joel’s (Pedro Pascal) daughter killed in the chaos of a mutant fungal outbreak that is turning humans into mindless, cannibalistic monsters. Sunday’s seventh episode finally chronicles the love and loss Ellie (Bella Ramsey) went through just before meeting Joel for the first time.
With Joel severely injured and incapacitated following the events of Episode 6, a distraught Ellie recalls the events that changed her life. Just weeks before she embarks on her journey with Joel, Ellie sneaks out of her dorm room at her military boarding school to spend a night with her best friend (and crush) Riley — the same Riley first mentioned in the series premiere.
“I just love that this episode focuses on the younger characters’ perspectives,” said Storm Reid, who plays Riley, during a recent video call. “It’s a bit refreshing to see Ellie’s story… You see two best friends… loving each other, caring for each other. They are two young women trying to figure it out and trying to grow up in this crazy post-apocalyptic world.”
It turns out that while Ellie was working at the school after Riley’s disappearance, Riley dropped out to join the Fireflies – the rebel militia opposing the oppressive military government that has been in charge since the outbreak. To make up for her radio silence, Riley plans an extravagant date night for Ellie at a relic of yesteryear: the mall.
Those familiar with The Last of Us video games will recognize that Episode 7 is an adaptation of The Last of Us: Left Behind, a supplemental chapter of the game originally released in 2014. “Left Behind” was acclaimed for its storyline and for centering on a queer teen romance that was groundbreaking for mainstream video games at the time.
The “Left Behind” expansion – or DLC in game jargon – jumps between the present, where Ellie is searching an abandoned mall looking for medical attention for a badly injured Joel, and the past, where Ellie is hanging out in an abandoned mall with Riley .
The Left Behind DLC “gave a moment of fun in a really heavy world,” said Ashley Johnson, who portrays Ellie in The Last of Us games. “See[ing] these insights into [Ellie] becoming a kid and… being carefree and those first moments of having a crush on someone. Being next to someone and [thinking] ‘Oh my god I want to kiss her so bad.’ You and Riley are having this beautiful moment in this really rough world – it’s a wonderful thing.”
While Riley’s name is mentioned in the original game, The Last of Us, Left Behind marked her screen debut. But Riley’s official introduction preceded that — she first appeared in the prequel comic book series The Last of Us: American Dreams, published by Dark Horse Comics in 2013.
Written by The Last of Us creative director Neil Druckmann and cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks, who also illustrated the four-part series, American Dreams (colored by Rachelle Rosenberg and written by Clem Robins) tells the story of Ellie and Riley first meeting and Be friends.
Hicks — who Druckmann wanted to work with after reading her graphic novel Friends With Boys — says when she got the job she was only told the series would be a prequel about Ellie.
“Right from the start we knew it was going to be set in that kind of military school where Ellie was basically dumped as a kid, and she was going to meet another young woman,” Hicks said during a recent video call. “We didn’t know where that would lead. So the story kind of progressed from there.”
Reid describes TV-Riley as “a young girl who is compassionate and outspoken [and] who loves life, no matter what the circumstances.”
“She’s badass and she will stand up for what she believes in and she will protect Ellie at all costs,” Reid said.
Hicks explains that she wasn’t given too many parameters when developing the character for the comic.
“Neil was basically like, ‘Ellie is my character, I created Ellie. So you write Riley and do whatever you want,'” said Hicks, who was only shown the game’s original script and some cutscenes in preparation for the comic. “I’ve always seen her as this tough older girl, but then she starts to break apart and this very soft middle comes out. As in the end [of the comic]she kind of breaks down because she adores fireflies and then she discovers they aren’t the people she wants them to be.”
Riley’s visual inspiration, Hicks recalls, came by accident. She was watching the 2012 Olympics while drawing one day when Canadian jumper Jennifer Abel was performing on TV. (Abel is also Riley’s last name.)
“I did sketches of a character that I thought might end up being Riley, kind of inspired by Katniss from The Hunger Games,” Hicks said. “And then I saw this synchronized jumper, this Olympic athlete, and I just thought she was so amazing and started drawing her and then [thought]”Maybe that could be Riley.” So I sent the sketches to Neil and he really liked them.”
Because Druckmann and Hicks began collaborating on American Dreams while The Last of Us was still in production, elements of the comics influenced aspects of the game, including the ending. The comic also reveals the origin of Ellie’s switchblade and how the firefly leader, Marlene, is connected to Ellie.
Druckmann, who is also the co-creator and executive producer of the TV series, has mentioned in previous interviews and even in the featurette about the making of Left Behind that American Dreams was instrumental in the conception and creation of the expansion.
In the HBO series, Ellie visits the mall with Riley for the first time in Episode 7. But the abandoned mall that Riley takes Ellie to in the game Left Behind is the same one that she first showed Ellie in American Dreams. Even the arcade and Ellie’s interest in a particular fighting game are part of the comic’s story.
Hicks explained that one of the discussions she, Druckmann, and other The Last of Us creators had during the development of the comic revolved around video games as a whole and how some of the early reactions to the game’s trailer were critical of its violence.
“We’ve only talked about instances in our childhood where a video game was actually used to depict violence,” Hicks said. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘Why don’t we let them go to the arcade? And they can play Mortal Kombat and it’ll be a fun little commentary on video game violence in the ’90s and video game violence in 2012-2013.”
But, as Druckmann pointed out at the time, rights issues prevented Mortal Kombat from appearing in the comic. So Hicks created a fictional fighting game called The Turning and the character Angel Knives for American Dreams. This arcade game appears in both the original The Last of Us and Left Behind.
It is fitting that in Episode 7 the game Ellie and Riley play together in the arcade is Mortal Kombat II. Reid, who mentioned that she had never been to an abandoned mall before filming this episode, explained that the arcade scene was “really, really fun.”
“We [improvised] this whole scene,” Reid said. “We really played the game, it was a lot of fun.”
As the episode progresses, Riley and Ellie’s night turns into about as sweet a date as post-apocalyptic times could get. (Hicks laments that Ellie and Riley’s eventual romance wasn’t something she and Druckmann discussed while working on the comic.) And Reid appreciates that the show’s creators “didn’t try to romance them [Ellie and Riley’s] Romance too much.”
“They just let it be young, let it be fresh, kind of let it grow into what it was,” Reid said. “But I think Riley saw it coming few a little… Despite her feelings and her inkling of ‘Ellie might like me a little’… she might not have thought that Ellie would have the courage to kiss her, so I guess that’s the surprise.”
Their budding romance makes one of the more heartbreaking reasons why Riley and Ellie are attacked and bitten by walkers at the mall that night. The events are crucial in understanding why Ellie’s greatest fear is being alone.
Still, Reid found the ending both emotional and poetic, even if Ellie and Riley didn’t go insane together.
“I think it’s nice that we picked up where it ends and we don’t have to see … what happened to Riley,” Reid said. “This scene is important to bring us back to what the world is [of the show] is and brings us back to [understanding] this is beautiful and they are experiencing love and joy, but we live in times when your time is running out. We saw that in different ways in every episode.”
Alexandra Del Rosario, a Times contributor, contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2023-02-26/the-last-of-us-hbo-episode-7-ellie-riley-left-behind-american-dreams How The Last of Us Episode 7 Changes Video Game Backstory