Left Behind is, in my mind, the best of the episodes so far and mostly because it not only manages to capture the incredibly good storytelling of the DLC of the same name. It was controversial at the time of its release due to the fact it was a positive LGBT portrayal of a character in a time when that was still fairly rare. Sadly, like all relationships in The Last of Us, it ended tragically.
The premise for the episode is that Joel has been stabbed and is close to death. Joel tells Ellie to abandon him so she doesn’t have to see him die. Ellie does her best to tend him but the ability to tend to a knife wound is beyond her skill set. This causes her to flashback to when she was still a student at FEDRA’s military academy.
Ellie is an excellent potential soldier and someone they want to elevate to being an officer but she has authority issues as well as sadness from her friend, Riley (Storm Reid), disappearing. After receiving an interesting speech from a FEDRA employee that she needs to be looking out for herself, Ellie discovers that Riley is alive. Riley ran away to become a Firefly after discovering she was destined for sewage duty.
I actually like the depiction of FEDRA here because it doesn’t attempt to argue the moral high ground with its teenage recruits. It’s all well and good to say they’re the last best hope for humanity to recover but that’s not going to be relevant to someone who only grew up in the squalor of the Quarantine Zones. It also puts a humanizing face on their soldiers because he just wants to make sure Ellie doesn’t get stuck with a life she doesn’t want.
Riley proceeds to lead Ellie on a magical adventure through an abandoned shopping mall and enjoying the kind of life that was routine for people like us but completely impossible for those growing up in the shadow of the infected. The two actors have great chemistry and are believable as a pair of teenagers on their first date (even if that’s not entirely clear to either party at the start).
There’s a few minor changes from the DLC but nothing that really matters in the long run. Ellie and Riley play Mortal Kombat, play with a bunch of Halloween masks, and debate the morality of the conflict that is going on beyond them. Ellie is right that the Fireflies are not nearly the anarchist paragons they claim to be while FEDRA is not the fascist Nazis the show has vilified them as being (which I felt was a mistake). We also get the biggest point to the Firefly’s moral superiority: the fact they are recruiting child soldiers like Riley in the first place.
Much of Ellie’s character becomes clearer when you realize she’s suffering intense survivors guilt for the fact she was infected in the same incident that (not really a spoiler) claims her friend. She wants her life to mean something after a seeming miracle spares her but takes away her only remaining human connection. It also shows why she’s so desperately attached to Joel.