And just like that, the Season 1 finale of HBO’s The Last of Us has come to a close. The first nine episodes of the series stuck pretty close to the events of the 2013 game, with some important changes along the way to deepen character development. In the end, though, those of us who have played The Last of Us know how it has to end. And even with some added context in the Season 1 finale, the series beautifully landed the story’s conclusion.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Season 1 finale of The Last of Us, as well as the events of The Last of Us Part II. If you haven’t seen the episode yet or don’t want to be spoiled on the 2020 game, turn away now.
A true standout in this final episode is a returning Marlene (Merle Dandridge), who not only got pivotal moments with Pedro Pascal’s Joel throughout the episode but was also explored via her own flashback, which is an incredibly important piece of her story–and allowed for the return of a fan-favorite performer from the games.
GameSpot sat down with Dandrige to discuss all of Marlene’s major moments in the finale and the emotion that went into the episode.
The birth of Ellie
The episode opens with the introduction of Anna, played by Ashley Johnson, the actor who portrays Ellie in the games. Now, though, she’s in the role of Ellie’s mother. While in labor, about to give birth to Ellie, Anna is bitten by an infected and just like that, we know her fate is sealed. However, we also learn that she is Marlene’s best friend with the two having a connection that stems back to before outbreak day.
Speaking about the moment and her reunion with Johnson, Dandridge admitted, “When I first read that episode and that scene, I do believe I might have clutched it to my chest and sighed and cried… Working with Ashley has always been an absolute joy.”
What’s more, though, this long opening scene allowed Dandridge the opportunity to explore a piece of Marlene we’ve never really seen before. “I think if you had really delved deep into the game, you might have heard some more of the backstory or the interaction between Marlene and Anna,” the actress said. “And for those fans, those old-school, deep-dive kind of fans, they’re getting that payoff, but for us–I can’t speak for Ashley, but for me–the fundamental pieces around what and who I built Marlene to be, you know, through this vehicle of Merle, were steeped in this relationship and who she was before outbreak day.”
Interestingly, this particular story was almost explored more deeply before. During a conference call with the press, The Last of Us co-creator Neil Druckmann revealed that he’s had an idea for a story based around Anna that he’s tried to explore as a comic book, a game, and even a short film previously.
“I wrote this short script about Ellie’s mom and how she gave birth to Ellie, was bitten at the same time and wasn’t sure if she was infected during that birth,” he explained. “And it just became this little character drama that felt like it spoke to the same themes of parental love for their child and how much you’re willing to do even when you’re on death’s door.”
While that never came to fruition previously, it works as a centerpiece moment for the HBO series. And even though Dandridge didn’t know it would be showcased until she read the Season 1 finale script, it was on her mind from the start.
“In my first conversations with [showrunner] Craig [Mazin], Anna was such a part of that,” Dandridge said. “She’s inherent to why and how I have been relating to Ellie and perhaps why she’s chosen to keep her safe and the way that she’s chosen to keep her safe.”
Ultimately, Joel rescued Ellie from the Fireflies’ doctor, whose procedure would have killed her in order to successfully extract what he needed to develop a potential cure (if you call dooming the rest of the world a rescue). But before he escapes with her, Joel comes face-to-face once more with Marlene, who attempts to reason with him.
A huge moment in this scene is when she tries to impress upon Joel that she understands why he feels the need to save Ellie. Let’s not forget that before Joel came into the picture, it was Marlene caring for the young girl after her time in the FEDRA training camp. What’s more, now that we know her connection to Ellie’s mother, of course, she cares for the girl. Still, that has to be balanced with the possibility of a world-saving cure.
If you’ve played The Last of Us Part II, you know that Marlene did not make the choice to sacrifice Ellie lightly. “You see that she is rigorously questioning and pushing back on this doctor’s technology and science that there has to be some other way,” Dandridge said. “There has to be another way and only after exhaustive time and understanding and work and explanation and testing has she come to the realization that this is the only way. And that realization when she sees that come over Joel, ‘I do get it. I have been in the exact place of denial that you are right now. And I can confidently stand in front of you and say, I have loved her longer and more. And this is still the right choice.'”
At that point, though, Joel simply doesn’t care. After killing the surgeon, and everyone else in sight, he shoots Marlene as well. After all, he knows–as does Dandridge–that if left alive, Marlene would never stop her search for Ellie.
“She is unrelenting in her sense of purpose,” Dandridge said. “Yes, she would follow Joel to the ends of the Earth if he had Ellie in his arms. And, there is a world in which a better outcome could have been reached–a better understanding.”
Was Joel right?
That’s the ultimate question at play here, and one The Last of Us fans have been debating for a decade. Joel essentially destroyed any possibility of finding a cure for the infection just to save one person. However, that one person is the thing he cares about keeping alive the most. It’s hard to know if he’s definitively right or wrong in this situation. Dandridge has an opinion on the matter, though.
“My breath catches when I just think about it. If there was someone that I loved in harm’s way, I would do everything in my power to keep them safe to protect them from harm’s way,” she explained. “And fortunately, I’m not making those kinds of credit decisions for the sake of humanity. My goodness. But would you sacrifice that? I mean, that’s a biblical kind of question. It is so large in scope, that it’s overwhelming to even consider. So [as] Merle, I could not even put my mind to consider [it].”
Unfortunately, this looks like the end of the road for Marlene. We know she doesn’t survive Joel’s bullets in the games. However, it’s not as if changes haven’t been made to the games so far. Even Dandridge doesn’t know Marlene’s fate. One thing’s for sure, she knows it’s her need for Joel to understand the good that comes with the sacrifice that has to be considered.
“This quality of hers ends up being her demise,” she said. “Or is it? I don’t know.”
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