Skip to main content

The Last of Us season 1’s ending explained

Warning: this article contains major spoilers for season 1 of The Last of Us (2023).

In the season 1 finale of HBO’s The Last of Us, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) finally reach the destination they’ve been journeying toward ever since they met. Before they make their final trek to the Salt Lake City hospital where the Fireflies have made their new base, though, Joel asks Ellie whether she wants to turn back. Ellie, in response, tells him that they’ve both lost too much to not finish what they’ve started. She adds that it will only be after they’ve met with the Fireflies and her immunity has been used to create a cure that she and Joel will be able to truly build a new life together.

In the aftermath of Ellie’s comments, Joel reveals that the scar on his forehead isn’t the product of a gunfight, but a failed suicide attempt. However, rather than still feeling weighed down by the death of his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), Joel tells Ellie that their bond has made him glad to still be alive. Together, these emotional moments not only bring Ellie and Joel even closer together, but also set the stage for the second half of The Last of Us’ violent season 1 finale.

Moments after Joel’s confession, he and Ellie are stunned by a flash grenade and knocked unconscious by a squad of Fireflies. Joel wakes up in a hospital bed hours later only to find himself surrounded by a number of Firefly soldiers, as well as their leader, Marlene (Merle Dandridge). After expressing her shock that Joel was able to successfully escort Ellie across the country, Marlene reveals that Ellie has been drugged and unknowingly sent to an operating room. The Firefly leader then reveals that Ellie’s immunity will only be able to produce a cure if her brain is removed and dissected.

Joel and Ellie stand on a rooftop together in The Last of Us Episode 9.
Liane Hentscher/HBO

Joel, understandably, doesn’t react well to this news. Instead of letting the Fireflies go through with their plans, he proceeds to systematically kill every soldier that gets between him and Ellie’s operating room. When Ellie’s would-be surgeon brandishes a scalpel at him in protest, Joel shoots him in the head before carrying Ellie back down to the hospital’s parking garage. There, he comes face-to-face again with Marlene, who tries to convince him to give up and leave Ellie with her. Marlene insists that, despite what it would do to Joel, Ellie would want to die if it meant humanity would be saved.

Joel doesn’t listen to her, though. Instead, he shoots Marlene and drives Ellie back to the Jackson, Wyoming, settlement where his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), has settled down. On the way, Ellie wakes up and asked what happened while she was unconscious. Joel tells her that the Fireflies were testing dozens of other immune people like Ellie when they arrived and that the group had already given up on trying to make a cure. When Ellie asks why she was taken out of the hospital without her normal clothes, Joel claims that the building was attacked by raiders and that he was forced to get her out of there as quickly as possible.

The Last of Us then catches up with Joel and Ellie several weeks later as they near the end of their return trip to Jackson. Near the settlement’s outskirts, Ellie stops Joel and asks him to swear to her that everything he said about the Fireflies was true. When Joel does, Ellie hesitantly responds with a bittersweet, “OK.” A moment later, The Last of Us finishes its first season with one final cut to black.

Joel stands with a bleeding neck in The Last of Us Episode 9.
Liane Hentscher/HBO

As those who have played the original Last of Us video game will know, the HBO show’s finale remains incredibly faithful to its source material. In both the 2013 Last of Us game and its HBO adaptation, Joel makes the decision to single-handedly wipe out the Fireflies and save Ellie’s life despite knowing, deep down, that she wouldn’t have wanted him to. In doing so, Joel not only complicates his and Ellie’s relationship in a way that neither of them will ever totally be able to fix, but he also effectively sets the stage for the events of The Last of Us Part II.

Even more importantly, Joel’s actions in the Last of Us finale help tie together the HBO show’s various themes about love and grief. For a show that is so intent on exploring how love has the power to both save and destroy us, it’s only fitting that the ending of The Last of Us season 1 sees one girl’s surrogate father choose to disregard the fate of the entire world in order to not only save her life, but also spare himself the pain of her loss.

The Last of Us season 1 is streaming now on HBO Max.

Editors' Recommendations

Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
Renfield’s ending, explained
A scene from Renfield with Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult in Renfield

Renfield, Nicolas Cage's vampire comedy, has swooped into cinemas, and audiences have sunk their teeth into quite a special treat. As a modern reimagining of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Renfield follows the count's titular servant (Nicholas Hoult) as he tries to break free of his oppressive master and live a normal life.

Written by former Rick and Morty actor/writer Ryan Ridley, this film is a smart and hilarious analysis of Renfield and Dracula's toxic relationship, and it's chock-full of over-the-top violence that should satisfy fans of grindhouse horror and hardcore action flicks. Now that the movie is out, here's a breakdown of the film and what its ending means for Renfield's future.

Read more
5 questions we have after The Mandalorian season 3 episode 7
Bo-Katan stands near her fellow Mandalorians in The Mandalorian season 3 episode 7.

The Mandalorian really didn’t hold back this week.

The penultimate episode of the Disney+ series' third season, titled The Spies, takes more than a few shocking turns. Not only does it open with the long-awaited return of Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito), but it also ends with the Imperial warlord taking Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) hostage and launching a deadly ambush on Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff) and her Mandalorian followers. In case that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also revealed in the episode that Moff Gideon has been hiding out on Mandalore all along — mining its precious resources and building a secret Imperial base.

Read more
8 actors who could play Abby in The Last of Us season 2
Abby stands in the rain in The Last of Us Part 2.

It's been only a month since the show ended, and audiences are already clamoring for more. If you’re recovering from the finale of the premiere season of HBO’s The Last of Us, chances are that you’ve never played the epic video game the series is based on. Or, perhaps, you simply can’t wait to see the live-action realization of the sequel story. Undoubtedly, Pedro Pascal’s Joel Miller had to make an impossible choice. No matter which side of the fence you stand on with regard to the moral alignment of the situation, Joel has blood on his hands.

Like any gritty survival journey, blood often begets more blood. Abby, an imposing protagonist from The Last of Us Part II, will be an ominous harbinger of dark days yet to come. Though just like the ethical grey area Joel often finds himself in, Abby is just as conflicted. As far as survival in a post-apocalyptic landscape, Abby is absolutely built for it. Any actress up for the role must have a commanding presence, but ultimately be capable of peeling back the layers of Abby’s complex world.
Anya Taylor-Joy

Read more