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And reveals the 'devastation' of playing out Ellie's origin story with Ashley Johnson on screen
[Warning: The following contains spoilers from the Season 1 finale of The Last of Us. Read at your own risk!]
If you came into The Last of Us finale thinking that it would end with your heart not in complete turmoil, we have to ask: What kind of rock have you been living under? (And can we join you? It must be nice there.) Once again, the show managed to reach new levels of devastation without a single Cordycep in sight.
The top of the episode was a flashback to Ellie's birth, with Ellie's mom, Anna, being played by none other than Blindspot's Ashley Johnson, the voice of our favorite foul-mouthed teen in the video games. We learned that Anna was bitten right as Ellie was being born, and Anna's best friend Marlene (Merle Dandridge) showed up a few hours later to find Anna holding the baby and a rapid infection spreading from the bite on her leg. Anna instructed Marlene to keep her daughter safe and to kill Anna so she didn't become a mushroom zombie monster. At first, Marlene refused, but then she took the baby and put her friend out of her misery by shooting her in the head. Why do we put ourselves through this every week?
How to Host a Mushroom-Themed The Last of Us Finale Watch Party
Back in the present timeline, Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) made it to Salt Lake City, saw some giraffes (we are allowed ONE nice thing, apparently), and headed out to the Fireflies so that Ellie could be used to find a cure. Marlene was already there and took over after her troops overzealously knocked Joel unconscious. When he woke up, he discovered that Ellie was being prepped for surgery. The Fireflies believed that Ellie's immunity came from Cordyceps that had been growing in her brain from birth and that messaged her cells that she was already a Cordycep whenever she was bitten, preventing any infection from spreading. They wanted to take the Cordyceps from her brain and replicate them for a cure. Of course, you can't take Cordyceps that have been growing in someone's brain for 15 years without killing the host.
Joel found that solution unacceptable and began a killing spree throughout the hospital, killing every Firefly in sight, including the doctor who had come up with the plan. He took Ellie and killed Marlene on the way out as well, even as she begged him to let Ellie make the choice. On the way back to Tommy's (Gabriel Luna), Joel told Ellie the Fireflies found a bunch of other kids who were immune and didn't need Ellie anymore, and he left out the part where he murdered everyone to get her out. It's unclear whether Ellie fully believed Joel, but he doubled down on the lie as they made it back to Jackson, and the season ended with the pair heading back to live in the idyllic wilderness town, with Ellie unaware that she is still the only chance humanity has at overcoming the Cordyceps invasion.
Merle Dandridge spoke to TV Guide and GameSpot about the final episode, filling in Ellie's backstory, and whether Marlene was really willing to give Ellie the choice to save the world.
What was it like to reunite with Ashley Johnson and tell a part of this story that isn't widely known, even to video game fans?
Merle Dandridge: When I first read that episode and that scene, I do believe I might have clutched it to my chest and sighed and cried... Working with Ashley has always been an absolute joy, so knowing that we were going to be able to tell this origin story of character that we both love for different reasons [was amazing] — to bring to the screen things that have only been hinted at in the game. I think if you had really delved deep into the game, you might have heard some more of the backstory or the interaction between Marlene and Anna, and for those fans, those old school, deep-dive kind of fans, they're getting that payoff. But for us — I can't speak for Ashley, but for me — the fundamental pieces around what and who I built Marlene to be, through this vehicle of Merle, were steeped in this relationship and who she was before outbreak day. Who she was connected to. And watching in real time, or in this case in this flashback, the actual crossing over of everything that she loved, the last vestige of the things that were her tethers to her former life being taken from her. I mean, you already see that she's started to become a leader and a soldier, but who she becomes in the time period that we've gotten to know her now is steeped in this experience — and what her relationship is to Ellie. So it was wonderful to be able to play that that out.
I came to set early that day, because I knew Ashley had been filming some other stuff that day. And I sat in [video] village thinking, 'Oh, I'm gonna get to see Anna on screen,' and suddenly I didn't know what was happening, but there was a door that was pulsing. And I was like, what's going on, and here comes the clicker through the door, and pouncing onto my dear Ashley Johnson. And the way that I screamed, I hope I didn't mess the take up. But I screamed and perhaps crumbled to the ground. Because I was not expecting to see what I saw. Just in my spirit, I've always connected with Ashley as someone I want to protect, because you know, she's her, but then also she has been my ally for so long. So to see [her] attacked like that, I was like, 'Oh. I don't know what kind of day this is going to be. But it's gonna be rough.'
How much did you and Ashley talk about what Anna and Marlene's friendship was before Anna was bitten? How much did that play into the flashbacks?
Dandridge: This came up when I first came to the set for the first episode, in this unspoken understanding of who led us to Marlene. In my first conversations with [showrunner Craig Mazin], Anna was such a part of that; she's inherent to why and how I have been relating to Ellie and perhaps why she's chosen to keep her safe and the way that she's chosen to keep her safe. But now that there's this added element of hope for humanity, they become in conflict with one another. So it was important for there to be a shared understanding of what Anna does mean to her, and why Ellie is so fundamentally important to her. It's the last vestige of who she was. And Anna understands who Marlene was before she became this resistance leader. She understands the softness of her, she understands she was a mother, she was a wife, who she was before. No one else can perceive her in that way. So for Marlene to have to actually lay to rest the last tether to her former life is, I think, a breaking point in her spirit.
To be faced with something that echoes that, again, for the sake of — she's the only one who's willing to do this difficult work of holding up his banner of hope for the entire world that we will see another day beyond this, this oppression and this ugly ugliness that we are in — we can have our former lives back in a new form. To hold that light up with no tangible evidence that it actually is true takes some real grit. And that is something that I really admire... Anna was the last bit of her former humanity and she had to basically shoot her own heart, and that is beyond devastation
Marlene refuses to shoot Anna at first. What is it that made her change her mind?
Dandridge: I need to give my friend some kind of mercy. You know, we did so many different versions of this. And I'm getting emotional just thinking about it because my first gut reaction is just to be emotionally overcome. It's too much to handle. And I remember, this is the first time I've ever bawled my eyes out in ADR, when you go back and you [re-record audio]. I watched this scene, and I had to get past sobbing to be able to do the work. And then I was curious because the takes that they used were less emotional from Marlene. She was so much more pragmatic and there is a moment where she can't help but let the emotion rise up. But that's her final act of loving her friend that again. Marlene [goes from choosing her]self... which is "I can't. I can't kill you. I can't. Perhaps I can even find a cure in this moment. But I will not take your life," to rising above and setting [her]self aside as she does as the leader of the Fireflies, as a leader of the resistance, as you see everything that she becomes in this post-apocalyptic world. [At] this moment [she is] setting self aside and giving mercy to the dearest part of her heart.
The Last of Us Season 2: What Game It Will Cover, Cast, and Everything Else to Know
Let's jump ahead to the hospital. Marlene has a moment with Joel where she tells him that she is the only one who can understand what he feels about Ellie. Given that connection, what makes Marlene so confident that using Ellie as a cure will work?
Dandridge: In my understanding and research and preparation to play Marlene, I talked out those scenarios in which she investigated it and understood and made sure that she knew as much as her non-biology scientist mind could understand the science.
[Light spoilers for The Last of Us Part 2 ahead.]
Dandridge (continued): [In the second game] you see that she is rigorously questioning and pushing back on this doctor's technology and science that there has to be some other way. There has to be another way, and only after exhaustive time and understanding and work and explanation and testing has she come to the realization that this is the only way. And that realization, when she sees that come over Joel, [she] does get it. "I have been in the exact place of denial that you are right now. And I can confidently stand in front of you and say, I have loved her longer and more. And this is still the right choice." Oh, God, man, I can't. I can't, it's too much. It's just too much. And I think the thing that audiences are connecting with is: What do you have to sacrifice in your life for the sake of what is I guess perceived right? Or good? For the whole? Will you sacrifice it? And is it wrong if you don't? Those are a lot of questions that I think the story poses, and it doesn't presume to answer it for you. It just lays the question out there, and gives you the gift of consideration and watching both sides of that play out.
[End of The Last of Us Part 2 game spoilers.]
On that note, do you agree with the choice Joel makes here to protect Ellie? Is he a man damning the world to stay in the state that it's in for the sake of one person, or is he a man protecting someone who has become his daughter from being sacrificed for something that may not work?
Dandridge: My breath catches when I just think about it. If there was someone that I loved in harm's way, I would do everything in my power to keep them safe to protect them. And fortunately, I'm not making those kinds of decisions for the sake of humanity. My goodness. But would you sacrifice that? I mean, that's a biblical kind of question. It is so large in scope, that it's overwhelming to even consider. So [as] Merle, I could not even put my mind to consider [that]. It is overwhelming.
Later, Marlene tells Joel that Ellie should be given the choice to decide what she wants to do. Does she truly believe that, or is it just a last-ditch effort to get Joel to not take Ellie? If she really believed that Ellie should have the choice, why didn't she give it to her in the first place?
Dandridge: I think it's both of those things. And [at] this moment, she's in a negotiation. Any way that she can make him pause and consider, or think of it from a different point of view. "OK, let me play to your love of Ellie in this moment because you're clearly not going to listen to me. OK, let's talk about what she would do because Ellie is the kind of girl from — my understanding is that she would want to do what's right. She would want her life to have a big purpose, a big moment of meaning. Joel, you know this about her so stop for a second. Get out of yourself because it's you talking about caring about the child, you caring about Ellie, so care about what she cares about too." I just think it's a last-ditch effort and negotiation.
Do you think it was a viable option for Joel to let Marlene live, or was he right that she would never stop coming after Ellie?
Dandridge: I feel cleaved into by that question, because I do believe it's like, "Yes, she is unrelenting in her sense of purpose. Yes, she would follow Joel to the ends of the Earth if he had Ellie in his arms." And there is a world in which a better outcome could have been reached — a better understanding. And yet this quality of hers ends up being her demise. Or is it? I don't know. That is such a great question, but it also takes me in half because I'm like, "Don't do it, girl. Don't do it. You've got all these other people who need you, and don't," but she would still pursue them without question.
The Last of Us will return for Season 2 on HBO.
Additional reporting by GameSpot editor Chris Hayner.