‘The Last of Us’ Season 1 Ending Explained: Creators Say There Was ‘Never a Question’ of a Different Ending

Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann break down that potentially divisive finale

Pedro Pascal in "The Last of us" (HBO)

The first season of “The Last of Us” has come to a close on HBO, and the acclaimed series ends the same way the game does – with a conclusion to this particular arc of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie’s (Bella Ramsey) story that many fans may find divisive. For creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, however, there was never any serious consideration made to changing the ending from how the game ends.

“I don’t think [Neil] was ever the guy who said, ‘No, we have to do it the way it was in the game.’ I was that guy because I’m a fan,” Mazin said to TheWrap and a small group of reporters at a press conference about the finale. “There was never a question, that was the ending. I mean, as a player I got to the end, why would I ever want to change that? It’s awesome.”

In the final episode of the season, Joel and Ellie make it to Salt Lake City, only to be subdued and abducted by the Fireflies. Joel awakens in a hospital and is confronted by Marlene (Merle Dandridge), who tells Joel that Ellie is being prepped for surgery. The Fireflies believe Ellie is the key to creating a worldwide vaccine against cordyceps, but in order to find out, they have to remove the part of Ellie’s brain that’s infected – the part which they believe is responsible for making her immune. By doing this, Ellie will die.

Joel is, unsurprisingly, aghast, and Marlene expresses her empathy but stands by the difficult decision. As Joel is being escorted out, however, he overtakes his guards and goes on a rampage throughout the hospital, killing everyone in his path including the one doctor capable of performing the surgery on Ellie.

Joel and an unconscious Ellie are confronted by Marlene in the parking garage, and despite pleading for her life, Joel kills Marlene.

When Ellie finally wakes up, she asks Joel what happened. He lies and says they were unable to find a cure, saying the Fireflies have given up. Ellie later asks Joel if he lied, and he says no.

And that’s how it ends.

“[Unconditional love] is the highest form of love,” Mazin said of the show’s underlying theme. “Unconditional means literally no conditions, including conditions whereby you really ought to be doing something that is not within the best interest of the person you love, at least according to some sort of moral code or a standard of ethics. And I’m not suggesting that I have a hard opinion about how things go at the end. I don’t. I’m confused about it morally, I think it’s a difficult choice. I go back and forth. And I think a lot of people will go back and forth on it.”

Ultimately, Druckmann – who also created the video game on which “The Last of Us” is based – sees Joel’s dark turn as sad.

“I think for the most part, viewers have been in alignment with Joel. As far as what he’s trying to do and protect Ellie, that’s such a noble cause,” he said. “And then how do we show this really sad thing? It’s sad more than anything else, to see the darkness he’s capable of.”

That theme of unconditional love was something Druckmann hit upon when making the game in the first place.

“That was the concept of the story, both the game and the show, which is it started with — for the game – how can we make the player feel the unconditional love parents feel for the child, and this worry and fear and love and joy that can come with it?” he said. “But then sometimes, when you love something unconditionally, logic goes out the window, and you will do really horrible things to protect the ones you love.”

This is seen throughout the story not just with Joel and Ellie, but also with Bill and Frank and with Henry and Sam.

“There are a lot of examples worldwide of this happening all the time. So for us was just like, OK, here are all the different pieces that we have, the tools that we have within this story,” he continued. “How can we, with each episode, thematically touch on that in some way? Both the beautiful and the joy that can come out of like a story like Bill and Frank, and a fate worse than death when a man has to kill his own brother because he’s turned. And then, ultimately, the greater and greater sacrifices Joel has to make for Ellie. And likewise, what she’s going through to protect him.”

“The Last of Us” will return for a second season, which will be based (at least in part) on the sequel game “The Last of Us Part II.”