Editor’s note: The below contains spoilers for Season 1 of The Last of Us.Although she doesn’t get much time in the spotlight, Marlene (Merle Dandridge) plays an integral role in The Last of Us. In fact, the Firefly commander’s decisions are arguably the most consequential of the season, including the previously unseen choice she’s forced to make in the finale’s surprise cold open. The game and show both imply Marlene had a close relationship with Ellie’s (Bella Ramsey) mother, Anna (Ashley Johnson), but the details surrounding their history were kept cleverly vague until Episode 9 could deliver a well-timed emotional gut punch and tie up several loose threads with a single scene.
Revealing this part of Marlene’s backstory not only recontextualizes her motivations; it recontextualizes the entire story. If viewers follow those seemingly loose threads, it becomes clear that several key moments can be traced back to her efforts to protect Ellie. Her scene with Anna also causes viewers to look at Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie in a new light by mirroring some of the most tragic moments of their lives and showing what Marlene chose to do in their shoes. There are plenty of moments to unpack, so let’s get into why Marlene makes The Last of Us a satisfying story.
Marlene and Ellie Have Parallel Paths
As viewers learn in the finale, Marlene was charged with finding someone to take care of baby Ellie. Despite being a Firefly, Marlene knew FEDRA’s Boston base was the safest place for her. There, she would be fed and educated with a minimal risk of danger, and Marlene could keep tabs on her from a distance. Despite her efforts to keep Ellie away from the Fireflies, FEDRA is where Ellie falls for a newly initiated member. Although Riley’s (Storm Reid) subsequent relocation appears to be unfortunate and coincidental, she does mention that it was Marlene herself who ordered her to leave Boston. At the time, Ellie didn’t know who Marlene was, but if she had, she may have suspected an ulterior motive behind her best friend’s scheduled departure.
Ironically, it was Riley’s goodbye trip to the mall that put Ellie in danger, which wouldn’t have happened without Marlene reassigning her. The outing resulted in the uninfected bite that proved that she was immune to cordyceps. In Episode 1, Marlene said that she’s the one who prevented Ellie from getting shot after being bitten at the mall, so Ellie likely contacted the Fireflies on Riley’s radio after she turned. While it’s not shown onscreen, it can be inferred that Ellie almost surely had to kill Riley. Notably, Marlene kills her childhood best friend, Anna, similarly during the cold open, which creates a new parallel between the two.
The final episode showcases parallels that carried over from the game. In both versions, Ellie says that the journey to the hospital can’t be for nothing, which is a sentiment that Marlene later unknowingly reiterates. Both suggest that maybe it was destiny that got them this far because they need to believe there was a reason for all the loss and trauma they’ve endured. This is why Ellie chooses to believe Joel’s lie about what happened at the hospital, and why Marlene chooses to believe Anna was bitten after she cut the umbilical cord; they need it to be true, so it is.
Marlene and Joel Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Marlene’s new addition to her backstory also creates more points of comparison between her and Joel, which ultimately gives their final showdown more weight in the end. Marlene and Joel, first and foremost, will do whatever it takes to get the job done, which is why they were each entrusted with Ellie’s safety. In fact, Marlene was the one to put Ellie under Joel’s care, so she clearly recognized that in him. What she failed to consider is what would happen if Joel’s determination was turned against her.
Marlene and Joel are both unstoppable forces fighting for unwinnable causes. As proven several times over during the events of the story, Joel can’t always save his daughter. Whether it’s a cunning cannibal or a hoard of infected, Ellie is always going to be at risk in the world of The Last of Us. Similarly, Marlene’s plans for the Fireflies have failed repeatedly. After two decades, FEDRA can still outgun and outnumber them at every turn, and they still have the infected to contend with. Yet, Ellie gives both of them enough hope to keep trying anyway.
With the new level of connection the show gives Marlene and Ellie, viewers understand that the decision to sacrifice her best friend’s child didn’t come easily. Marlene has to go back on her word to keep her safe, which was the last thing she promised Anna before her death. In the same vein, Joel goes back on his promise to Tess (Anna Torv), who used her last words to tell Joel she believes Ellie is the real deal and to get her to the Firefly doctors. Although their final wishes weren’t honored, Anna and Tess got to die on their own terms, which is more agency than Ellie is given by their respective companions. Marlene and Joel each lie to Ellie about what was going to happen to her in the hospital. They tell themselves the lies were for her benefit, but it seems that both doubt Ellie would’ve made the choice they wanted her to if given the option to decide for herself. Marlene can’t lose her chance to save the world, and Joel can’t lose the girl who’s become his world.
Marlene’s decision to send Ellie to surgery and Joel’s choice to gun down anyone who would let that happen are both played somberly, and it’s because they’re both tragic. Marlene isn’t triumphantly swooping in to save humanity, and Joel isn’t an action hero taking righteous revenge on the bad guys. They’re both deeply flawed people repeating history’s mistakes, and that’s what makes The Last of Us worth watching.
Find out more about how to watch Season 1 of The Last of Us on HBO and HBO Max.
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