"What is desire?": "The Last of Us" director on the apocalyptic wonder of a trip to the mall

Salon spoke to Liza Johnson about adapting the game's exploration of Ellie's backstory and what she lost

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 26, 2023 10:05PM (EST)

The Last of Us (Liane Hentscher/HBO)
The Last of Us (Liane Hentscher/HBO)

The following contains spoilers for "The Last of Us" Episode 7, "Left Behind."

Society's collapse would wipe out most of what we take for granted, but one substance that isn't so easily erased is the spirit of a teenage girl. The much anticipated "Left Behind" episode of "The Last of Us" demonstrates this by providing a peek into Ellie's past, and a fateful 24 hours buzzing with adolescent intensity that begins with her squaring off with a bully and ends with her losing her best friend Riley (Storm Reid).

Squeezed between those slices of acid and agony, and in the spirit of other iconic works involving zombies, there is a trip to the mall. Why wouldn't there be? In the before times, the mall served as girlhood's town square and its temple, selling all the trappings of unrealistic beauty standards alongside distracting games, scented candles and junk food. For director Liza Johnson, it's all part of the balancing acting between horror and marvel "The Last of Us" walks through the perspective of Ellie (Bella Ramsey).

The Last of UsThe Last of Us (Liane Hentscher/HBO)Throughout her cross-country quest with her protector Joel (Pedro Pascal), Ellie encounters mundane items from the past that she ogles as if they're precious relics. To her a plane's wreckage isn't a horror but proof that in the recent past, humans took to the skies as a matter of course. Imagine, then, not how she responds when Riley shows her a working escalator but the thrill that giggles through her veins.

"That can only happen after the apocalypse," Johnson told Salon in a recent video interview about the episode.

"The throughline ... was to try to hold on to the spirit of discovery," Johnson said.

"Left Behind" is a close adaptation of the 2014 expansion to series co-creator Neil Druckmann's original video game, which introduces Ellie's memory of Riley to inform a mission in which Ellie is forced to forage for supplies in a Colorado mall to help a gravely incapacitated Joel.

The series sticks with that impetus while expanding our view into the part of Ellie that hungers for family and true care. Before Joel came into her life, Riley was all Ellie had. From a barren house in wintry Colorado where Ellie brings her caretaker, who has been stabbed in the gut by roving raiders, we leap to the memory of the government-run school where Ellie was raised. Riley has disappeared, leaving Ellie on her own. Tougher girls think she's an easy bullying target, which she disproves by putting one of her tormentors into the infirmary.

Late one night, Riley returns to let Ellie know she's joined the resistance. But her other reason for coming back is to surprise Ellie with a clandestine trip through an abandoned mall located within Boston's quarantine zone. The other denizens assume it's crawling with infected. Riley assures Ellie it isn't. Even better, some of its electrical power has been restored.

Malls can and do represent assorted degrees of relevance and meaning in our culture. In a post-apocalyptic world, depending on who's doing the speculating, they are hulking, largely useless monuments to doomed decadence too sprawling to defend, as George R. Romero posits in his 1978 classic "Dawn of the Dead." Another cult favorite, the campy 1984 flick "Night of the Comet," imagines one as an arena for predatory adolescent debauchery.

The Last of UsThe Last of Us (Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Druckmann, who wrote the script for "Left Behind," takes another view, seeing Ellie and Riley's destination as one stage in a festival of what Johnson describes as the "universally uncomfortable" experience of that time in our lives.

"For me, the real attraction of the story is just the things that are anxiety-producing, but also wonderful, about discovery," she said. "And I think it's quite a different tone than much of the series where you experience these discoveries and hints of joy and fear around that joy . . .  that are reasons why you would want to stay alive. So, for me, that was really the throughline, which was to try to hold on to the spirit of discovery."

The 2003 version of the mall is a fantasyland beckoning shoppers with luxuriant versions of necessities and frivolous impulse purchases. To Ellie, who steps into this capitalist Land of Oz at the other end of a rebellious run across rooftops and down dark, slimy hallways, it's a true spectacle of electric lights and vintage magic. There's a carousel. There's that second edition of "No Pun Intended" that becomes one of Ellie's most prized possessions after this excursion with Riley. 

There's a photo booth and an arcade where Riley and Ellie battle each other on a stand-up version of Mortal Kombat II. Any gamer who was their age or close in 2003 might be hit with a pang of envy, since the two have endless quarters to feed the game's coin slot that Riley liberated from a change machine. In a world destroyed by a fungal outbreak, their only value is to buy extra fantasy lives for two girls with limited choices.

"I don't think that sexual desire and shopping are identical, but they're also not unrelated," Johnson said.

And there are boutiques, most of which have been picked clean by looters. But others, including its requisite Victoria's Secret – of course Victoria's Secret would survive the apocalypse – still lure with their threads or lace and ribbon, including a thong on a window display mannequin.

The Last of UsThe Last of Us (Liane Hentscher/HBO)

"In a way the Victoria's Secret sort of speaks to, what is the meaning of the location?" Johnson said. "What is desire as you experience it with a person that you want to go on a date with, but also . . . . desire for stuff? That you want lingerie or you want other stuff you can buy in a mall, like objects and clothes. In my own mind, and sometimes with the cinematographer or with Craig, we would talk about, well, what does it mean to want something when there's no one there to advertise it to you? What does that actually mean about your whole experience of what you want, interpersonally and sexually?"

She clarified, "Obviously I don't think that sexual desire and shopping are identical, but they're also not unrelated. But even in its very original form, in the game, [the story] raises those questions and I think it does it in a really elegant way that's not too pointed. But you have to wonder what you would want if no one tried to make you want it for 20 years."

They're all players in the freedom Johnson evokes in juxtaposition with Ellie's morose, rigid existence inside the FEDRA school. Ellie's time with Riley is miraculous and dangerous, twin magnets for kids searching for a place they can be themselves by themselves, and an ideal place for their first date and their first kiss.

Johnson carefully captures their uncertain dance between the fervency of close friendship and pulsing attraction in each scene by channeling the reality of where they stand, physically and figuratively. Ramsey's and Reid's faces flush with a separate feeling as they share that carousel ride lit with soft golden glamour in the middle of the mall's hollowed-out ruin.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Many episodes of "The Last of Us" either reference or recreate cutscenes from the original game. But in adapting "Left Behind" Johnson, Druckmann and the actors have a fully released script that is in many ways only slightly expanded upon.

Johnson says Druckmann and co-creator Craig Mazin encouraged her and cinematographer Ksenia Sereda not to overthink replicating the experience, leaving them the liberty to foreground the wonder Ellie and Riley share despite the ever-present threat of an infected monster finding them.  

The human element makes all the difference, impressive as the digital graphics of the playable "Left Behind" are. There's simply no replicating what Johnson refers to as the "fugitive traces of what's happening in their relationship on their face and their bodies." 

The Last of UsThe Last of Us (Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Johnson, who directed the first season finale of "The Sex Lives of College Girls" along with episodes of "Physical" and "Dead to Me," says she didn't have to press Reid or Ramsey on anything related to how their location amplifies the whirl of profound feelings they have for each other. The actors accurately and honestly play out that sarcastic response parents use to dismiss their teen's tantrums, that at this age every moment feels like the world is ending. For these two it has, and it is.

All enchantments end, and this one, lamentably, ends with Ellie and Riley having their private dance party to Etta James' version of "I Got You Babe" interrupted by an attacking infected who dooms them both. And in one of the many small details Druckmann changes between the 2014 game and the series, instead of Riley rallying Ellie to fight for every remaining second together before the Cordyceps overtakes their brains, she quotes "Thelma & Louise," perhaps inadvertently. "Let's keep going," Riley says as she and Ellie stare over the edge of their cliff, and in that second, they're heroes. They're also too young to deal with all of this.

Johnson couldn't confirm whether that change was intentional, although she imagines it was. She is watching the rest of the series with a director's eye, taking in its balance of survival horror and Ellie's veneration of all the novelty our forgotten past holds. And though "Left Behind" ends in tragedy, what strikes her more fiercely, she says, is the way Ellie's various firsts are reminiscent of seeing Greta Garbo drink champagne for the first time. "And she's like, is this good? Is this good? I'm not sure. Oh, it is. Oh, it is."

New episodes of "The Last of Us" air 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Apocalypse Bella Ramsey Hbo Interview Liza Johnson Pandemic Pedro Pascal Storm Reid Teenage Girls The Last Of Us Tv