‘The Last Of Us’ Ending, Explained: Does Joel Kill Marlene? What To Expect In Season 2?

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“The Last of Us,” HBO’s latest big hit, finally comes to an end for its first season with the release of an emotionally charged episode 9. The previous episode, 8, had been one of the darkest runs in the series, as Ellie was forced to go through experiences that shaped her character for the future. This new episode now focuses on Joel and Ellie’s final leg of the journey as they go over to the Firefly camp at St. Mary’s hospital in Salt Lake City, where the promised vaccine from Ellie’s blood is supposed to be made. After having cast Troy Baker, the actor who played Joel in the video games, as James in episode 8, the show now casts Ashley Johnson, the actor who played Ellie in the games, in “The Last of Us” Episode 9 as well, creating a satisfying connection between the two pieces of work.

Spoilers Ahead


‘The Last of Us’ Story so Far

On a fateful night in 2003, the world as we know it changed with a deadly fungus outbreak that made people lose their minds and turn into aggressively infected beings, biting others and turning them infected as well. Amidst such times, Joel loses his young daughter Sarah when she is shot dead by a soldier, thinking that she might be infected. Twenty years later, in 2023, Joel continued to live, but as a shell of his former self, now in Boston. Working as a smuggler of goods and drugs, he and his companion Tess often venture out of the quarantine zones built around them by the military organization FEDRA. Joel’s brother Tommy had been out of communication for the last few weeks, and fearing danger for him, Joel intends to go out to the west and look for Tommy. While preparing for such a plan, he and Tess come across the anti-FEDRA organization known as the Fireflies. It is the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, who first introduces Joel to a young teenager by the name of Ellie, whom Marlene wants Joel to safely transport somewhere, just like precious cargo. The reason for this is astonishing, for Marlene is convinced that Ellie is immune to the effects of the fungal infection, and therefore a vaccine could be developed using her blood.

Despite having hesitations at first, Joel and Tess decide to take Ellie along to the west but find that one Firefly outpost after another has been abandoned or wiped out. Tess loses her life early on in the journey, as she is bitten by an infected and has to kill herself before she turns as well. Joel takes Ellie to the camp of Bill and Frank, two lone survivors who lived by themselves outside any quarantine zone, but the two have already passed away. After moving to Kansas City, Ellie, and Joel are attacked by the local revolting community members, led by Kathleen, who also keep looking for two brothers, Henry and Sam. The protagonist duo made acquaintance with the brothers during their plan of escaping the city, but more heartbreak followed as Sam turned infected and Henry had to shoot him before killing himself out of guilt. Joel eventually does find Tommy at a rebuilt community in Jackson, but the brother refuses to leave the place, having now been married and expecting a baby soon.

Joel and Ellie leave Jackson in search of the Firefly camp at the University of Colorado, but they find only danger there, as Joel is stabbed by a raider and is left gravely injured. Ellie has to take charge of keeping themselves safe from here on, and the girl desperately searches for food and medicine to cure Joel. She does seem to come across some luck when she meets a man named David, who happens to be the leader of a nearby community. But as it turned out, David had been feeding his followers human flesh, and the vile man then tried killing and then raping Ellie. In an effort to protect herself, the girl violently murders David. Joel recovers to some extent with the help of penicillin shots but has to get up on his feet sooner than he would have wanted to. He goes out in search of Ellie and meets with her only after she has just survived the horrible attack, comforting the girl just like a father would do to his daughter.


Why Was Ellie Immune Against Cordyceps Brain Infection?

“The Last of Us” finale episode begins with scenes of a pregnant woman, Anna, running frantically to save her life from a group of infected. Anna runs into a house and covers the door to a room she takes shelter in with a chair, but unfortunately, that is not enough. As the woman huffs and heaves from the physical toil and the mental pressure she is going through, an infected person rushes into the room and tries to attack her. Anna keeps trying her best to fight it off at the same time that her water has already broken, meaning that she is very close to giving birth. The woman had been carrying a switchblade with her, and she now uses it to stab and kill the infected, but not before mighty harm has been done first. Just as Anna gives birth to her baby, she also notices that she has been bitten by the infected on her thigh.

Protecting her child is the very first instinct of the mother, and she cuts off the umbilical cord joining the two bodies as soon as she can. Anna then holds up her baby with love and tenderness, naming the child Ellie. This is indeed a flashback to the moment Ellie was born. Later that night, as Anna sat waiting to turn into an infected or for some much-needed help, a group of Fireflies managed to find her. Led by Marlene, they find the mother and the baby, and it seems that Marlene and Anna have known each other all their lives, probably because they used to live in the same area in Boston. Showing her bite wound, Anna claims that she had already cut Ellie’s umbilical cord before the infected bit her, and asked Marlene to help her out. She tells the Firefly leader to take Ellie to the Boston quarantine zone and keep her somewhere safe, where the child could grow up and have a healthy life. This was how Marlene got hold of baby Ellie and admitted her to FEDRA school. Before they leave the house, though, Anna begs Marlene to kill her before she turns infected, and Marlene has no choice but to agree.

Later on, in “The Last of Us” Episode 9, we learn that this very unusual and dangerous circumstance surrounding Ellie’s birth was the reason for her immunity against the devastating fungus. The Cordyceps that infect people in the world of ‘The Last of Us’ are living beings that communicate with each other. In the case of Ellie, though, the Cordyceps had already entered her body at the very moment when she was born. This was because, although Anna had lied to Marlene, she had already been bitten by the time she cut off the umbilical cord. This meant that the fungus, which had already entered her bloodstream, had quickly entered her baby daughter’s body too. The Cordyceps had grown in Ellie ever since she was a baby, in a very normal sort of way, unlike the foreign element, which wreaks havoc in the bodies of others when they are bitten. All this is explained by Marlene later on “The Last of Us” Episode 9, based on the diagnosis run by the Firefly doctors on Ellie. She further says that the naturally growing Cordyceps inside Ellie’s body produces a chemical message of sorts that informs the other Cordyceps living in the bodies of the infected that her body already has the fungus growing in it and, therefore, that there is no need to infect her blood further. This is why Ellie’s body does not turn when she is bitten: the foreign Cordyceps from the Infected’s body get the message that Ellie is already infected, and therefore they stop growing. This is what makes Ellie immune.


How Do Joel And Ellie Reach The Firefly Hospital In Salt Lake City?

Following the horrific events of “The Last of Us” episode 8, Joel and Ellie’s temperaments reverse for a while, as Ellie becomes the more silent and mentally absent of the two. The young girl is still clearly shaken by the haunting memory of a man trying to sexually violate her and her own subsequent violent outburst against the whole situation. Joel clearly takes notice of this and tries to be extra cheerful or humorous in order to make the girl feel better. It is not confirmed whether Joel knows exactly what happened in David’s camp, but the man keeps making jokes and lighthearted comments, trying to help Ellie out of her state. The two make their way through old, abandoned buildings to the Firefly hospital in Salt Lake City, and a sight on their way most definitely heals Ellie for the time being. After having earlier seen monkeys for the first time, Ellie now stumbles upon a majestic giraffe grazing on the wild vegetation that has been growing on buildings. In fact, there is an entire group of giraffes, including young ones, too, as the animals seem to have been from a zoo in the city and have managed to survive in the wild for all this time. It is this view of the animals that makes Joel propose a different option than what they have been pursuing so long. He tells Ellie that if she does not want to go ahead with the plan of going to the Firefly hospital to get a vaccine made from her blood, then the two can immediately return to Jackson and live together as a family. But Ellie understandably does not want to give up on the many sacrifices they have had to make on their way on this journey, and she intends to help get the vaccine made.

It is after this that Joel finally opens up to Ellie completely, freely talking about Sarah and the time when he lost her. The man had earlier spoken of someone having shot at him and missed, and he now reveals that this person was himself. On the second day after the outbreak, after Joel had lost his daughter Sarah and, therefore, the world around him, the man attempted suicide. Having flinched right before taking the shot had saved Joel, and Ellie admits that she is happy that events had panned out in such a manner. In an emotionally moving scene, Ellie talks about how time supposedly heals all grief, and Joel clearly says that it was not time that had healed him. For the twenty long years after the outbreak, Joel had still been extremely bitter and broken by the loss of his daughter, and it is only now that he openly speaks about his grief for the first time ever. There is no doubt that Joel admits that it has been Ellie who has healed him and who has managed to help him rejoin his broken self once more.

The duo soon bring back their casual selves once more as Joel asks to be read out Will Livingstone puns, and just as they are about to enter the hospital premises, a group of menacing soldiers sneak up on them. A stun grenade rolls out, and Joel is struck at the back of his head, with the man losing consciousness. When he wakes up sometime later, Joel finds himself lying on a hospital bed inside the Firefly outpost, and Marlene is with him. To his questions about where Ellie is, Marlene tells him about the doctors running tests on Ellie and the exact plan to make a vaccine. The doctor was sure it was possible to extract the Cordyceps-infected cells from Ellie’s body and artificially multiply them in a medical lab. These multiplied cells would then be injected into the bodies of people, and this would act as the vaccine. Since Ellie’s cells were used to co-existing with the Cordyceps fungus, the vaccine would teach the bodies of others not to react to the fungus brought in from bites of the infected, and therefore all would be immune to such bites.

Although the plan does sound good enough to give it a try, Joel quickly points out its negative side and the horrible dangers involved. In a stunned and disbelieving tone, Joel reminds Marlene that the Cordyceps grow inside the human brain, and the woman agrees. This means that extracting the infected cells from Ellie’s body would surely kill her, for the brain would be operated on. Marlene had anticipated that she would have to have such a conversation, and she reminds Joel how Ellie would indeed die but save the lives of everyone else with her sacrifice. Joel still cannot fathom the plan, though, as he angrily tells Marlene to find someone else, to which the woman says that there is simply nobody else like Ellie. She then instructs her men to escort Joel out of the hospital facility and onto the highway, adding that he is to be shot dead if he does anything suspicious. As a last memory of Ellie, Marlene gives Joel the switchblade that the girl has often been using so far, the very same one that Anna had once left behind with baby Ellie.


‘The Last of Us’ Ending Explained: Why Does Joel Kill Everyone At The Hospital? Is Marlene Dead?

Perhaps the most convincing part of Joel as a character in “The Last of Us” (both the series and the games) is the fact that he is not painted in any heroic light. From the very beginning, Joel has never tried to be in the spotlight or at the center of things, and he definitely did not want to be anybody’s savior. When asked to take Ellie across the country, even with her miraculous immunity, Joel outright denied doing so. When he eventually set out on the journey, he made it brutally clear to Ellie that she was just cargo to him and not family. With no other choice but to kill, Joel has murdered before, despite his apparent guilt for once having been a merciless raider earlier in life, killing people very casually. Joel hates his brother Tommy’s “savior complex,” which compels the man to go around saving people and to play the hero. Therefore, when, at the very end, Joel sees two options in front of him, it is not really surprising which one he chooses. On one side is the possibility of Ellie dying and creating a successful vaccine in the process, but this would mean that Joel would lose one more extremely crucial and invested bond. The series has also, in a way, been about the gradual loss of close and loved ones for Joel, something that has broken him further each time. His bond with Ellie is perhaps the strongest that he has had since the apocalypse, and Joel now genuinely places himself in the role of a protective father in terms of Ellie. If he loses Ellie, just like he had lost Sarah, then it is the end for Joel as well.

Therefore, the man sees the other option—to save Ellie by hook or by crook and escape the place. Besides everything, Joel is also a mostly bitter man, not easily believing or looking at the positive possibilities of situations. Not only is he not convinced about the possibility of a successful vaccine, but he also does not want to give it a chance, at least not at the cost of losing his daughter once more. In his most brutal form, Joel shoots through the entire hospital, killing all Firefly soldiers, including those who surrender as well. This scene is shot exquisitely, too, with background music taking over and the camera often going close into the faces of the dead men, reminding viewers of the horrible tragedy that this also was, along with being a desperate father’s attempt to save his daughter. Joel even shoots the doctor dead before carrying an anesthetized Ellie in his arms, exactly like how he once carried Sarah on that fateful night in 2003. Taking the elevator down to the parking area, the man intends to drive off from the place in an operational car but has to deal with Marlene still in his way. When Joel angrily tells her that it could not be her decision whether to sacrifice Ellie for the greater good or not, Marlene responds that it could not be Joel’s decision either. The true choice, if it could be made, in such a context would be Ellie’s alone, but the fact that she was just a young teenager makes it more complex than that as well. Either way, Joel is resolute in his decision, though—he wants to save Ellie and be a perfect father to her, even if that comes at the cost of keeping the whole world’s population vulnerable to the Cordyceps fungus. After shooting Marlene dead, Joel places Ellie in the backseat of a car and drives away.

On their way back towards Jackson, Ellie wakes up for a few minutes and asks confusedly what had happened back at the hospital. She last remembered being at the hospital with Marlene and the Fireflies. Joel now fills in that the doctors had been running some tests on Ellie, along with a few others just like her. There were dozens of others who were immune to the fungus just like Ellie was, but the doctors could not eventually do anything with their immunity. Unable to find a solution, the doctors and the Fireflies had given up on their search for a vaccine. The hospital had then been attacked by raiders, who killed off all the Fireflies, including Marlene, and he had to escape with Ellie. All of this was obviously a lie, as Joel had made up this story, seemingly with a lot of caution, to make himself sound convincing. Later on, after a couple more days of their drive, the car breaks down, and Joel and Ellie have to continue toward Jackson on foot.

Joel talks about how Ellie and Sarah would have liked each other, but Ellie is clearly concerned with a certain thought of her own. After all, she had known how rare her immunity was, and even if there could have been a few more like her, the fact that the doctors had given up so easily must not have sat well with her. She now directly tells Joel about the first time she had killed– having shot Riley at the shopping mall because her best friend had already started turning while she did not, even though they had been bitten at the same time. Ellie is evidently still scared of ending up alone, for everyone else around her could be dead because of the fungus. Ellie is suspicious which is probably why she makes Joel swear that everything he has told her about the events at the hospital is true. Having acted solely out of personal love and affection, Joel knows that the young girl would not be able to comprehend what it means for a father to lose his daughter. Joel lies and says that everything he has told Ellie about the events at the hospital is indeed the truth.


What Should We Expect From ‘The Last of Us’ Season 2?

While the grand success of this first season of “The Last of Us” has led to its second season already confirmed by HBO, there will sadly be quite some time to wait for it. Season 1 sums up excellently, even if not in the most satisfying or happy of ways, but had a vaccine actually been made at the expense of Ellie, then that would have been the end of the story too. Instead, “The Last of Us” Season 1 ends with a point that is sure to be a dilemma for the next season. Despite his love and care for Ellie and the decision to save her at all costs, Joel lies to the girl in the end about what really happened. As they return to Jackson and the girl grows older, how she might take such a revelation when it comes would be very interesting to see. Although Joel has his reason for lying, Ellie would clearly not be pleased to know that others around her were suffering from the fungus only because she was alive. Just like “The Last of Us” season 1, the next season will surely bring in new characters who will affect and shape our protagonists further.


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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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