Spoilers ahead. Going into The Last Of Us, a series about a zombie apocalypse, you expect it won’t be a lighthearted romp. And yet, we’re six episodes in and showrunner Craig Mazin has already delivered two epic love stories — Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), and now Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Riley (Storm Reid). Both are queer love stories which take place in an America that crumbled before the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, which in 2015 made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
Love in the apocalypse is never easy, but starting a gay relationship in a world of military authoritarianism when gay marriage was never completely legalized is something else entirely. “We talked a lot about what it meant for Ellie and Riley to just live and exist in this time,” Ramsey tells Refinery29, though she makes clear she hadn’t made the Obergefell connection until she saw it on Twitter. “The idea that it wasn’t legalized is mind blowing to me. I forget now that it’s still not legal — not even just marriage but to be gay — in so many countries.” She adds, “We’re not nearly as progressive as we think we are. And it’s important to remember that.”
It’s possible that some fans might point to Sunday’s “Left Behind,” largely based on the same-titled expansion pack of the original Last Of Us video game, and say the very same thing. The episode tells the brief love story of Ellie and Riley, her FEDRA military school roommate and best friend. In episode 2, Ellie tells Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Tess (Anna Torv) that she had been alone when she was bitten by a Cordycep in the abandoned mall on the outskirts of the Boston QZ, but, as we learn in episode 7, that wasn’t the whole truth. She wasn’t alone that fateful night; she was with Riley, who, after running away to join the Fireflies, returned to give Ellie a night she won’t forget in the most rom-com way possible: an after- hours adventure in an empty mall.
But of course, this is The Last Of Us, and just after the two teenagers share their first kiss, they’re bitten by a Cordycep and must brace for certain death. Riley doesn’t survive the bite, but Ellie does, and her tragic ending echoes that of Bill and Frank. It could be seen as another entry in the “bury your gays” trope. And, yes, Riley’s story is not a happy one. But the character herself brings something brand new to the show: joy and hope.
In the episode, Riley introduces Ellie to the joys of the “electric stairs” (the escalator), the photo booth, the carousel, the arcade, and, of course, a Halloween store stocked with creepy rubber masks and a tape of Etta James’ “I Got You Babe.” They laugh, and fight, and dance, and kiss, and even start to dream of a future together. It’s a rare moment of light in a show that is, to put it gently, bittersweet on a good day, which made it a welcome change for star Ramsey. “So much of the stuff we shot already was so dark,” Ramsey tells Refinery29. “It was a really nice pocket of fresh air to just be like, ‘Let’s have fun and walk up and down escalators and go on a carousel and be in a photo booth for a month.’”
The chemistry between Ellie and Riley is critical to the episode; the audience has to believe they are the kind of friends who would die for each other so Reid and Ramsey set the foundation for that deep friendship off set while filming in Calgary for a month. “We saw each other every day,” Reid says. “We had no choice but to create a bond.” On set, “I had the best time,” Reid recalls, adding that the easy and playful tone created the kind of “messy moments” of laughter that made playing Ramsey’s best friend easy. The two even got to improvise a bit playing Mortal Kombat in the arcade. “That was fun,” Ramsey recalls. “To do that every time and surprise each other with things that we’d say. I enjoyed that.” It’s safe to say the two got comfortable with each other. “One take, I called Bella ‘Mom,’” Reid says, laughing.
Of course, this is still The Last of Us, where no one can really be too happy for too long, and the episode stays true to the tragic story of Left Behind, reinterpreting the scene in which Ellie and Riley both get bitten right after their first kiss, and Riley tells Ellie that she thinks they should spend every last second together and “lose our minds together.” It’s a heart-wrenching scene that defines Ellie and Riley’s relationship, and both actors felt the pressure of fan expectations while filming. “I definitely felt the pressure, ‘cause I know how important it is to so many people,” Ramsey says. “But I think the more that you think about it on the day, it stunts any emotions, it stunts the feelings. So, It was just a matter of letting that go a bit and just trusting each other.” Reid agrees, saying that while she wanted to “do the project justice,” she also wanted to be “open” to change.
The resulting scene is absolutely heartbreaking — and truthfully one of the most hard-to-swallow moments of the show thus far — but Riley and Ellie’s love story isn’t all tragic. It’s also strangely optimistic. The Ellie we’ve come to know is lonely, disenchanted with both FEDRA and the Fireflies. But she is also willing to keep going, to stay alive in the face of certain death because she has hope for a better future. As we see in “Left Behind,” a lot of this faith comes from Riley, who was hopeful enough to join the Fireflies and dream of belonging to a family again.
Reid admits she personally wouldn’t be as optimistic in the face of a Cordycep outbreak, but she admires Riley’s outlook. “She’s not trying to ignore what’s going on. She’s very aware of her surroundings, very aware of what could possibly happen,” Reid says. “But what she does is try to find beauty in everything.” And although Reid herself still isn’t sure about our chances of surviving an impending apocalypse, there’s one thing she does know. “Bella makes me optimistic about the future because I just feel like she’s a brilliant person, a brilliant talent, but I think an even better human.”
Excuse me while I go sob again.
The Last Of Us airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.