The latest episode of HBO’s The Last of Us is full of standout scenes. While episode 8, “When We Are In Need,” is full of tension, drama, and even a bit more action than the show typically gets into, the moment that has viewers in a chokehold right now is one of its quietest: when Pedro Pascal’s Joel calls Bella Ramsey’s Ellie “baby girl.” It’s just one line, but in the overarching story of The Last of Us, it means everything.
In both HBO’s show and Naughty Dog’s game, the relationship Joel and Ellie have fostered throughout their cross-country odyssey doesn’t culminate until winter sets in. At long last they’ve finally moved past their initial grievances about traveling together, and have started to really open up about their pasts and their hopes for the future. While the specifics of when and where differ between the show and game, Joel and Ellie have talked about grief, shared the things they wish they could have done in a world not overtaken by the cordyceps fungus, and openly shown care for each other. They’ve fought and survived together for a long time, but now seem able to drop their guard. Ellie finds the companionship she’s been missing in this desecrated world, and Joel opens himself up to care for someone in a way he hasn’t in 20 years.
He finally acknowledges this with words when he calls Ellie “baby girl,” which was a term of endearment he used for his daughter Sarah before she was killed by the military during the initial cordyceps outbreak, as seen in the first episode. Before this week, The Last of Us made several references big and small that suggested Joel’s initially guarded attitude toward Ellie was deeply rooted in his own grief. Consider his occasional glances at his broken watch, which Sarah gave to him the night she died.
While Joel and Ellie shared some brief moments of connection before, Joel’s already loved and taken care of a young girl once in his life, only to have her ripped away in the most traumatic way possible. The show made this explicit in episode six by having Joel and his brother Tommy discuss how his growing attachment to Ellie made him fearful for her life and his ability to protect her. This was to the point where Joel was ready to leave her in his brother’s care because he feared he would fail Ellie the way he feels he failed Sarah.
By the time we get to the final scene of this week’s episode eight, Ellie has protected Joel in the same way he protected her. The gap between them has been fully bridged, and Ellie has had to survive the traumatic events of fighting through a group of cannibals and predators without Joel’s help. So when Joel finds her bloody and scared in the winter cold, he holds her and calls her “baby girl.” In a simple nickname, Joel and Ellie’s burgeoning relationship becomes indelible.
Meanwhile, fans are having a moment about it.
And who could blame them? Pascal and Ramsey put their entire The Last of Ussy into that scene. They both sold that shit. Now that all The Last of Us newcomers watching are properly invested in Joel and Ellie’s relationship, I’m excited to see how these fans feel about the events of next week’s finale, which I’m sure will be universally accepted and not at all divisive.