‘The Last of Us’ Star Merle Dandridge on Marlene’s Gutting Finale Decision and Reuniting With Ashley Johnson

The actress also teased what the finale’s ending could mean for Season 2 of HBO’s acclaimed drama series

Merle Dandrige as Marlene in "The Last of Us" season 1 finale

Note: Spoilers for “The Last of Us” Season 1 finale follow below.

HBO’s “The Last of Us” ended the first season with a bang on Sunday evening as Joel and Ellie’s journey finally came to a close… or did it? Merle Dandrige, who reprised her role as Marlene from the video game, spoke to TheWrap about reuniting with Ashley Johnson, Marlene’s big decision, how Joel’s choice may impact Season 2.

The opening of the episode flashes back to Ellie’s mother Anna (Ashley Johnson) giving birth to her. In addition to hinting at how Ellie possibly became immune, audiences also see a glimpse of the bond between Anna and Marlene. She ultimately becomes tasked with taking care of Ellie and is forced to kill Anna after she gets bitten by an Infected.

Dandrige recalled watching the pivotal moment where Anna gives birth to Ellie.

“The way this woman rambled through that door and onto my dear Ashley [Johnson], who was my Ellie for the past 10 years, I let out the most visceral howl and I hope I didn’t ruin the take, but it was overwhelming,” she said. “So before I even set foot on set, I watched them filming that.”

According to Dandrige, Anna is the “last vestige” of who Marlene is and what she had before the outbreak and the Fireflies.  

“The fact that she has to let that go by her own hand just crushes me,” she said.

She emphasized that the Anna scene is “integral to understanding what [Marlene has] given up and how important she finds this banner and a beacon of hope that she’s holding up to everyone.”

“It was emotionally fraught because of the subject matter and all the backstory I had created around Marlene. What a gift to be able to actually show that off and let the audience experience it in real time juxtaposed and bumping right up against her current conundrum that she’s in. That part was interesting, difficult, fun, great to play out and then how sweet to be able to do it with Ashley because she and I have history and we have history with this game in this world and it means a lot to both of us,” she added. “Being able to look at each other eye to eye in the moment that Ellie was born, this character that both of us have protected for a decade, was so good.”

After their long journey, Joel and Ellie arrive at a hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the Fireflies are believed to be working on a cure to save what’s left of humanity. The pair is quickly knocked out and when Joel awakes, Marlene informs him that Ellie is being prepped for surgery to develop a vaccine – a decision that would kill her.

“We get to see just how much Ellie means to her. She’s the only physical manifestation of her life before. Her lifelong friend’s dying wish was for her to protect this child and we can see just how painful this decision is,” Dandrige said. “She has exhaustively pursued every iota of research around this, making this unquestionable in the science of it that this is undeniable research, undeniable facts on paper…they have done the exhaustive testing and research and they know that this is possible. There is that element of that 1% unknown — things could go wrong — but all the evidence has been convincing enough that she believes that this will be the way out.”

Before a vaccine can be developed, Joel bursts in and pulls Ellie out of the Firefly hospital, killing the doctors and anyone else blocking his path. Marlene proceeds to confront Joel at the last second to give him a chance to change his mind.

“She is one of the reasons his relationship with his brother is so pained, Tommy and Marlene having had a relationship around her recruiting him into the Fireflies but also recreationally…and he holds that against her,” Dandrige said. “There’s this unspoken thing that they’re both very dangerous people in the Boston QZ and they have agreed to disagree, walk their parallel paths and try not to disturb each other too much. And then in the first episode, when she is confronted with this is her only choice, he’s the only one and she knows he can do it. We have to intersect here and I can get him what he needs and I know that he knows that I have that ability as well. And the fact that she is the one that puts this love back into his life, she is the catalyst for this love in his life and she proposes to take it away for a very meaningful reason that hurts her perhaps more than it hurts him and that she chooses selflessness and he chooses selfishness… there’s so much packed into this moment that it’s not just a negotiation — it’s a negotiation within both of themselves.”

Marlene is ultimately killed by Joel before he loads Ellie into a car to head back to Tommy’s settlement.

Earlier this month, Bella Ramsey told Vogue the show’s finale would “divide people massively.” Actor Troy Baker disputed that assessment in an interview with TheWrap, calling it “truthful.” When asked how she sees the ending, Dandrige replied: “It is conflicting and divisive because everybody is working out of their truth.”

“You can argue every facet of this emotional World War III that they’re contending with but it’s not for us to say who is right. The argument and the facts of both Marlene and Joel’s situation and heartbreak around this moment are both valid and I think that they both say things that are right on the money,” she added. “The difficult part is we are making these decisions on Ellie’s behalf and she has no agency in this.”

In the final minutes of the episode, Joel lies to Ellie, telling her that the Fireflies have stopped working on a cure. Upon returning to Tommy’s, Ellie is suspicious and asks Joel point blank to swear that everything he said about the Fireflies is true, to which he does, setting up a potential conflict for Season 2.

“Something about it is not truthful and she knows it. That is poisonous in a relationship in which they’ve learned to trust each other so much,” Dandrige said. “That question mark of why he chooses now to not be straightforward with her… I don’t know, we’ll see. I’m holding my breath just thinking about it.”

The Last of Us Season 1 is streaming now on HBO Max