They're hoping to potentially restore society by replicating her immunity to the fungal infection that's turned most of the world into deadly monsters. Before that however, Ellie's gotta stop Joel from bleeding to death.
The situation reminds her of a dark moment from her past, one that sticks closely to a memorable part of the game. Let's jump into SPOILERS for HBO's adaptation of the Sony PlayStation game.
Much of the episode takes place in the time before Ellie and Joel met, when she was living (and not getting along) with other kids in the custody of FEDRA, the Federal Disaster Response Agency, which runs quarantine zones with the remnants of the US military.
The song Ellie is listening to as she runs is 2002 Pearl Jam tune All or None, which alludes to repeating the same cycle and ending up in conflict. This is essentially what she's doing at this point.
After she gets in a tussle with one of her peers, a FEDRA officer presents her with alternative visions of her future in the zone: Continue messing about, end up a grunt with crappy duties, and likely die in some random accident. Or... show a little discipline, become an officer, and live a fairly comfortable life. She opts for the latter, but she doesn't seem wild about it.
After she stays up late reading an issue of Savage Starlight (a fictional comic book series you can collect in the game), her sleep is interrupted by runaway best buddy Riley (Storm Reid). Turns out Riley abandoned FEDRA care for the opposing Fireflies, but she isn't visiting to recruit Ellie.
"Come with me for a few hours and have the best night of your life," she orders her pal.
'80s style fun
After brief stops to check out a dead guy, knock back a little of the pre-apocalypse alcohol he left behind, and admire Riley's sidearm (highlighting Ellie's fascination with adventure and death), the pair head to -- where else? -- the mall.
It turns out FEDRA unknowingly restored power to the mall, giving Ellie a chance to get a taste of old-school consumerism. And run on an escalator to the tune of Norwegian synth-pop band A-ha's '80s classic Take On Me. (Ellie has a copy of the group's greatest hits in her quarters.) This tune makes a memorable appearance in the second game. Its iconic music video also shows a woman taking a comic book character's hand and getting pulled into an adventure -- Ellie has a similarly transcendent experience after metaphorically taking Riley's hand in this episode.
Bella Ramsey is so good here, with Ellie's awkwardness about the Victoria's Secret lingerie and stolen glances at Riley hinting at her feelings. Those looks get longer as the alcohol takes effect.
Wonders of the mall
Turns out the escalator was just a precursor to the real fun. The pair hop on a carousel that plays a version of The Cure's Just Like Heaven (specifically, one that sounds a lot like Rockabye Baby's Lullaby Rendition). Songwriter Robert Smith said this tune was inspired by the romance of a trip he took with girlfriend Mary Poole, who'd later become his wife.
"The idea is that one night like that is worth a thousand hours of drudgery," he told Blender magazine in 2003, which is likely how the show's characters would experience this adventure.
Ellie and Riley's evening continues with a trip to the photo booth, where they strike a few poses and get real cozy in close quarters.
Their next destination turns out to be "the most beautiful thing I've ever seen" -- a neon-drenched arcade. Through some miracle, many of the booths still work and they hop on iconic 1993 fighter Mortal Kombat 2 (a poster for this game is also visible over Ellie's bed, hinting at her fascination). HBO parent company Warner Bros. Discovery also owns the Mortal Kombat franchise, synergy FTW.
What did the frustrated cannibal do? He threw up his hands.
What did the triangle say to the circle? You're so pointless.
How does a computer get drunk? It takes screenshots.
What do you call an alligator in a vest? They're interrupted before Riley can read the answer, but it's "an investigator."
Ellie is briefly reminded of the reality of their situation when she discovers explosives Riley prepared. Riley admits that the Fireflies are sending her away to the Atlanta quarantine zone, and she wanted to spend this one last night hanging out with Ellie before departing. Ellie isn't at all happy with this but ultimately decides to continue onto the final wonder.
After sharing their feelings in a supercool costume shop -- since the outbreak occurred in late September 2003, it's still set up for the spooky season -- the pair don masks and dance to Etta James' cover of '60s tune I Got You Babe (you might know the Sonny and Cher original from the 1993 movie Groundhog Day). The lyrics allude to young people defying their elders to pursue love -- much like these teens are.
This is when the romantic tension peaks and Ellie decides to make her move, giving Riley a brief but passionate kiss. With their emotional and sexual cards on the table at last, Riley agrees to stay and it seems like things are gonna be OK.
Until a horrible infected attacks. Ellie manages to shank it, but they both discover they've been bitten. This will ultimately lead to Ellie discovering her mysterious immunity, but Riley isn't so fortunate. They both believe it's a death sentence, but Riley wants to live as long as possible.
"We can just be all poetic and shit, and lose our minds together," she says tearfully before they embrace.
We don't see what happens after this, but presumably Ellie was forced to kill Riley once the infection took hold. It's likely Marlene found her afterward.
Jumping back to 2023, Ellie maintains the spirit of refusing to give up hope -- she's determined to treat Joel's wounds rather than abandon him. She finds a needle and thread, so she goes to work on stitching him up.
The section covered in this episode wasn't in the 2013 game at launch, it was added the following year in the Left Behind downloadable content pack and came included with remasters on PS4 and PS5.
The show sticks closely to the events of the game, but the present-day section is much chunkier -- it sees Ellie hunting for meds in a shopping mall as a wounded Joel lies unconscious. Avoiding infected and human marauders along the way, she discovers the meds in a military helicopter that's crashed through the mall's roof.
During the flashback scenes with Riley, you play fictional game The Turning (which is basically Mortal Kombat) in the arcade... sorta. The cabinet doesn't work, so Riley has Ellie close her eyes and place her hands on the controls, and then Riley describes the action. Theater of the mind, indeed.
They also battle with water guns (a line in the show alludes to this) and share a brief kiss in the game. The flashback ends with Ellie and Riley fleeing the mall as hordes of infected chase them. Both end up bitten and decide to await their deaths together. Riley succumbs to the fungus, but Ellie's survival reveals her immunity.
You can also read a note from Ellie's unseen mom in this chapter (one given to her by Firefly leader Marlene):
I'm going to share a secret with you, I'm not a big fan of kids and I hate babies. And yet... I'm staring at you and I'm just awestruck.
You're not even a day old and holding you is the most incredible thing I've done in my life -- a life that is about to get cut a little short.
Marlene will look after you. There's no one in this world I trust more than her. When the time comes she'll tell you all about me. Don't give her too much of a hard time. Try not to be as stubborn as me.
I'm not going to lie, this is a pretty messed up world. It won't be easy. The thing you always have to remember is that life is worth living! Find your purpose and fight for it.
I see so much strength in you. I know you'll turn out to be the woman you're meant to be.