The Last of Us 2's story can be confusing thanks to its winding, non-chronological structure--here's what goes down and why, and what we think it means.
Warning: This post contains massive spoilers for The Last of Us Part 2. If you're not finished yet, we recommend you turn back now.
The Last of Us Part 2 is a story about obsession, anguish, trauma, and vengeance. It centers on the inability of some of its characters to let go of their pain, and the massive harm they do to themselves and others as a result. But even though the revenge aspect of The Last of Us Part 2 is pretty straightforward, its structure is anything but.
The game uses multiple flashbacks to alter your perception of characters and events as they unfold. Revealing which people know what information and at what time changes a lot about how players see and interpret the story and characters throughout The Last of Us Part 2. Most of the twists in the story are flashbacks that work to change your perception of the characters when given new context.
Here's what goes down in the ending, and what we think it all means. And while you're here, check out our review of The Last of Us Part 2, spoilers and all.
What Happens At The End Of The Last Of Us 2
The final act of the story begins after the confrontation between Abby and Ellie in the theater. By this point, we've seen the two parallel revenge stories of the protagonists: Abby and her friends, former Fireflies who were part of the Salt Lake City group from the previous game, tracked down and killed Joel to take their revenge. In turn, Ellie followed them to Seattle and killed several of Abby's friends--while fighting and killing her way through a whole host of other members from the WLF, the Seattle group Abby and her friends joined following Joel's rampage at the end of the first game. Prior to the confrontation, Ellie has killed Jordan, Nora, Owen, and Mel, who was pregnant. When Abby arrives at the theater, she kills Jesse and shoots Tommy in the head before taking on Ellie.
Abby wins the fight, but is attacked by Dina before she has a chance to kill Ellie. Abby knocks out Dina and prepares to execute her, before Ellie reveals she's pregnant. Though Abby is prepared to kill Dina to get back at Ellie for Owen and Mel, Lev stops her. Once again, Abby lets Ellie go, telling her if Abby ever sees her again, she'll kill her.
A lot of time passes, as we see next. Abby and Lev track rumors of the Fireflies to Santa Barbara, California, where they successfully discover remnants of that group--but they're captured by the Rattlers, a vicious group of slavers who live in the area. Meanwhile, Ellie attempts to move on with her life with Dina and her baby, JJ, living in the farmhouse Dina had previously dreamed of having. But Ellie can't shake visions of Joel or the trauma she still carries. When Tommy shows up with rumors about Abby (he survived his gunshot wound but now visibly limps and can't go after Abby himself), Ellie finally decides she can't let go and heads to Santa Barbara.
Though Ellie's need for closure nearly kills her, she fights through the Rattlers and finds Abby. The slavers have doomed her and Lev to a slow death on the Pillars, a group of stakes they tie victims to, crucifixion-style. Ellie finds and saves the pair, with Abby guiding her to nearby boats where they can escape--one of which is the boat we've been seeing on the main menu screen this whole time. But despite helping them get away from the Rattlers, Ellie can't let her vengeance go, and threatens to kill Lev in order to force Abby to fight her. Even though both women are hurt, Ellie is armed and easily wins the fight (although Abby manages to bite off two of Ellie's fingers in the course of the battle). In the final moments, though, Ellie doesn't kill Abby. Broken and sobbing, she lets Abby and Lev leave.
At this point, we see the final flashback between Ellie and Joel from the night before his death. We already knew that Ellie learned the truth about what Joel did to the Fireflies when he took her out of the hospital at the end of The Last of Us. Ellie articulates more of what she's feeling here, explaining that she's angry with Joel for a lot of things, but not just the lie or the killings. Joel robbed Ellie of her agency and of purpose when he killed the Fireflies. But she also wants to try to forgive him, she says. We got hints of this early in the game, too, when Ellie tells Dina she's hoping to watch a movie with Joel after their patrol. It's the first step Ellie wants to take in repairing their relationship. Of course, she'll never get the chance.
In the final moments, Ellie returns to Dina's farmhouse, but finds she and JJ are gone, along with all of their possessions. All that's left in the house are Ellie's belongings, packed in the room where she did her art and wrote songs. Ellie lingers there a moment, taking up Joel's guitar and attempting to play a song--but missing two fingers, she can't really play it. As the camera lingers on the window, we see Ellie leave the farmhouse and set out into the woods alone, leaving everything behind.
There's one final tidbit: the menu screen once you've finished the game. Instead of showing the boat floating in fog as we see it in Santa Barbara, we see it on a brighter shore with the Catalina Casino visible in the distance. It seems that Abby and Lev made it to their destination and perhaps found the Fireflies waiting there.
What It All Means
Obviously, there's a whole lot going on in the end of The Last of Us Part 2. Abby fights for and perhaps earns her redemption, largely thanks to Lev, who helps Abby to let go of her anger and need for revenge and tempers her worst instincts. Ellie, on the other hand, can't let go of her obsession or her trauma. Trying to find a way to deal with both costs Ellie literally everything.
First, let's look at the final flashback between Ellie and Joel. Throughout the story, The Last of Us Part 2 has recontextualized Ellie and her motivations through flashbacks. At first, we think she's purely looking to avenge her surrogate father, about whom she cared deeply. It's also assumed that Ellie never knew about what happened in Salt Lake City, and therefore doesn't know what Joel did to the Fireflies or why Abby and her friends would be after him. Later, we discover Ellie does know that Joel, for all intents and purposes, deserved what happened to him--he wasn't innocent and probably didn't need or deserve avenging. We also discover that Ellie doesn't care what Joel did or didn't do; she cares about killing the people who killed him.
The final flashback gives us more insight into what's going on with Ellie. When Joel killed the Fireflies and stopped the procedure that could have created a cure, he took a lot from Ellie--her agency in making decisions for herself and a death that could be meaningful. The Last of Us imagines a world where everyone is waiting on what is very likely to be a horrific, painful, and most importantly, meaningless death. Ellie, on the other hand, was someone whose death could have helped others. She made being immune and potentially helping others a big part of her identity. Joel took that identity and the purpose that came with it away from her.
So Ellie's obsession with revenge becomes pretty nuanced, and there's a lot of trauma baked into it. Yes, Ellie cared deeply for Joel, in spite of her anger for him, but that's only part of what's going on with her. The implication in the final flashback is that being immune gave Ellie purpose. In the years following, she seems somewhat listless and despondent. Instead of fighting for something in trying to get to Salt Lake City and become part of a cure, Ellie is now just living, and having a hard time with that fact. Some of the things that marked who she had become, including being immune, are things she now has to hide. But perhaps, as she grows into her place in Jackson (and specifically finds the beginnings of a future with Dina), she's starting to let go of her former purpose and identity and adopt a new one. She was also beginning to find a way to forgive Joel.
That all ends when Abby shows up and kills Joel. Suddenly, Ellie's possible future is upended. As with her anger with Joel about the loss of the possibilities of the Fireflies, her rage at Abby is about the loss of her opportunity to fix things with Joel. And that flashback seems to suggest that Ellie's obsession with revenge might not even be about Joel so much. It's really about purpose and identity. Getting Abby becomes a defining part of Ellie and fills that need to find something to fight for. Giving it up means giving up that purpose, as much as it means giving up Joel (and on finding a way to forgive him), succumbing to grief, and admitting that everyone and everything Ellie sacrificed along the way was wasted. Ellie finds at the farmhouse that she's haunted by all that unresolved trauma. She can't live with it, and she doesn't know how to deal with it, except to succumb to her obsession once more.
So Ellie goes after Abby one last time, but she doesn't kill her. It might be that Ellie's grief at everything she's lost finally catches up to her, or perhaps that the act of actually killing Abby isn't alleviating any of Ellie's pain or need for purpose. Ellie's flashes of Joel in those final moments are pointed, as is the last flashback--to a moment that combines the pain and anger Ellie felt toward Joel with the beginning of healing. Ellie lets Abby go, and in so doing, lets go of her anger--at Abby and at Joel.
The tragedy is that coming to that point has cost Ellie literally everything. The return to the farmhouse shows all that Ellie has lost because of her obsession. Joel is dead, as is her friend Jesse; Tommy is a broken man who lost his wife; Ellie's chance at a family with Dina is over. When Ellie tries and fails to play guitar, she finds that her revenge has even (at least temporarily) cost her something that still allowed her to feel close to Joel, as we saw throughout the game.
So Ellie leaves everything behind and sets out on her own. It really feels like Ellie is abandoning who she was. She gives up her old identity, much of which has been lost or destroyed because of her actions. She walks off almost into the sunset in the last moments of the game. It's not clear where she's headed, but it's very clear what she's leaving behind.
There's one shining spot, though: after completing the game and returning to the main menu, you're treated with a new image of a boat on the bright, daylit beach of Catalina Island. The implication, of course, is that Abby and Lev reached their destination. But the shot also replaces the darkened image of the boat immersed in fog in Santa Barbara, and in the background, you can see storm clouds clearing away. Ellie and Abby both passed through the darkness and fog the old menu screen represented, and we're treated to a new, brighter one, where we can see the future in the distance.
Of course, that's one interpretation of the ending of The Last of Us Part 2. Let us know what you think Naughty Dog wants us to take away from Ellie's journey and its aftermath in the comments below.