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 in the head 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, “Okay.” 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 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.

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