The Last of Us review: Superb finale caps finest series of the year

The Last of Us (Sky Atlantic, Monday) is, to employ an overused simile, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get from one week to the next.

o far, every single episode has offered something different from the one that preceded it. The rightly revered third instalment turned expectations dimmed by years of terrible video game adaptations upside down and inside out by audaciously taking leave of the main narrative to relate a tender, deeply moving gay love story that unfolded across a 20-year timespan.

Last week’s — by far the most violent so far — plunged us into full-on, gut-churning horror as Ellie (Bella Ramsey), desperately seeking medicine for the wounded Joel (Pedro Pascal), found herself a prisoner in a community ruled by paedophile preacher David (a skin-crawling Scott Shepherd), who’d been feeding his flock human flesh and telling them it was venison.

Having fended off a rape attempt by Scott, Bella battered him in the face with an axe over and over again. For the first time, we saw the ferocious rage she’d been bottling up all this time.

Monday’s season finale threw another curve ball our way. A pregnant woman (Ashley Johnson, who voiced Ellie in the game) runs through woods with one of the infected in pursuit.

She makes it to a cabin and gives birth on the floor, just as the infected bursts in on her. She kills the creature with her knife, but not before being bitten. The woman, we learn, is Anna, a member of the Fireflies, and the newborn is Ellie.

When Fireflies leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge) — the person who 14 years later would entrust Ellie to Joel — shows up, Anna begs her to take the child, saying she’d already cut the umbilical cord before she was bitten. Marlene has no choice but to kill Anna.

Back in the present, Joel is expressing a new tenderness and openness toward Ellie. He talks about his daughter Sarah, and about how she and Ellie would surely have got along.

He also confides in her about how, following Sarah’s death, he came within a whisker of killing himself. In a pitch-black irony, this deadliest of marksmen somehow managed to bungle shooting himself in the head.

Ellie, clearly still traumatised by the events of the previous episode, is unusually quiet and introspective. She perks up, though, when they come upon the extraordinary sight of a group of giraffes serenely feeding on foliage amid the rubble of a ruined city. It’s a surreal and beautiful scene in a series filled with unexpected turns.

The happiness is short-lived, however. They’re ambushed and Joel is knocked out. When he awakes, he realises he’s in the hospital the Fireflies have been using as a base, the very place he and Ellie had been searching for. Marlene tells him that Ellie is being prepared for surgery. The doctor will be operating on her to extract Cordyceps from her system in order to develop a cure.

It takes a moment for Joel to absorb what he’s being told. Cordyceps attaches itself to the brain. If the human race is to have any chance of long-term survival, Ellie has to die on the operating table.

Marlene tells him this is the price Ellie, if she was standing there with them, would accept. It’s not one he is prepared to accept, though.

Joel overpowers and kills the two guards assigned to escort him far away. In the first scene in the series to truly mimic a first-person shooter game, he prowls through the hospital, gunning down everyone who stands between him and Ellie — including Marlene, who he shoots in the head.

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This is the Joel other characters have talked about but the viewers have never seen before: the ruthless, cold-blooded killer.

How will Ellie react when Joel tells her he’s killed the people whose side they’re supposed to be on?

That’s a question for the future. For now, he’s opted to lie.

When Ellie wakes up in the shiny new car Marlene had promised Joel for delivering her safely, he tells her the Fireflies no longer needed her. They’d found other immune children, yet failed to extract anything of use.

It sets things up for an even more morally complex second season. The Last of Us is the gold standard by which every other drama series this year will be judged.

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