Everyone’s talking about the ending of The Last of Us again. With the final episode having aired just this past weekend, and tons of folks who had never experienced Joel and Ellie’s journey together seeing it for the first time, the brutal actions that unfold and the moral dilemmas at their heart provoke natural debate and conversation. But according to a recent interview with show creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, that much-discussed ending was almost tweaked for the TV adaptation in a subtle but interesting way.
As you may have guessed, we will discuss the ending of The Last of Us here. So if somehow you’ve still managed to avoid spoilers nearly 10 years after the game and basically a week after the show’s finale, you have been warned.
The Last of Us ends with violence and dishonesty. Unwilling to allow the Fireflies to kill Ellie in their pursuit of a cure, Joel goes on a violent rampage, killing everyone in his path to prevent Ellie’s death. After rescuing her, he lies about everything he just did, painting an entirely false story of what went down in the hospital. After the violence, Joel and Ellie stand alone facing one another. Pressed to be honest about what happened, Joel swears that his fabricated story was true, Ellie offers up an ambiguous, meaning-rich “okay,” and then the game, and the show, abruptly end. But according to series’ co-creator Craig Mazin, the episode’s director had been considering a slightly different framing for those final moments.
This change wouldn’t have involved, at least as far as we know, any alterations to the actual events of the ending. Rather, according to Mazin, the camera would’ve hung around a bit after Joel’s final lie. Speaking to GQ, Mazin said of the considered change:
Ali Abbasi, our director, had been playing around with [...] this slightly longer and sadder version where Ellie says, ‘okay’, and then she turns and walks away. And Joel looks after her. We see the two of them walking, not really together but apart, down towards Jackson. It lingers and then fades. There was something beautiful about it.
That’s a pretty neat idea. While the sudden close of the game and show after the lie adds to the actual emotional impact of everything that happens, which Mazin says allows “that moment [to be] suspended permanently,” there’s something thought provoking about a shifting of the scene that maybe lasts a bit longer, hinting at the distrust and distance that’s growing between Ellie and Joel after the lie. It also feeds, some might say, more naturally into the events that follow.
Mazin shares that there was some internal back-and-forth about this potential alteration to the end, but that ultimately, the weight of how the game originally ends was too important to mess with.
Everybody was like ‘what do we do?’ And there was that meta-discussion of, are the people that played the game going to be more annoyed that they didn’t get it just the way it’s supposed to be, or are they gonna be more annoyed that they only got what they had before? And then how will everybody else feel? In the end, there’s something very specific about ending on that close-up of Ellie. Not knowing what comes next. Not knowing what she does. Does she walk away from him, does she walk with him, how does she feel? That moment gets suspended permanently.
In the same interview, Neil Druckmann said that knowledge of there being a season two on the horizon might also influence how people feel about the ending. A follow-up game wasn’t something that many had thought was guaranteed back when the ending first played out on the PlayStation 3 in 2013.
When we made the game, and that ending hit, no one knew if we’re gonna make another game. So I think it was easier for people to accept it’s not a cliffhanger, it’s a proper ending. Here, they might say ‘Oh, you left us with a cliffhanger’ as they know season two is coming. So that’ll be interesting to see if that means people have a different reaction.
There’s no denying that the choice to hit the credits right after the lie leaves the viewer or player in an unresolved, liminal space. I think it’s safe to say that sticking close to that ending was the right choice for the show, but I can’t deny that I would like to get a sense of what this tweaked ending would’ve felt like while watching.