Sarah's Death Haunts Joel Through One Particular Musical Cue In The Last Of Us

This post contains spoilers for HBO's "The Last of Us."

From Linda Ronstadt to Depeche Mode, HBO's "The Last Of Us" knows a thing or two about emotionally devastating its audience with the perfect needle-drop. I have it on good authority (aka personal experience) that anyone who watches this show will never again make it through "Long Long Time" without needing a hefty kleenex box. Avoiding pain was never an option: Joel and Ellie live in a bleak world, where they've lost almost everyone, except for each other. Their journey across the country may have brought them closer together, but at least 50% of that boils down to shared trauma. Along the way, they've encountered so much more grief than they could have imagined. So really, how surprising was it when the sixth episode ended with a somber cover of "Never Let Me Down Again"?

The soundtrack has been instrumental (no pun intended) when it comes to the emotional highs on "The Last of Us", but so has the score — a carryover from the Naughty Dog game that the series adapts. The decision to have Gustavo Santaolalla (who composed the music for both video games) return as composer was key. His music is inextricably linked to the experience of playing through those games, so it wouldn't quite be "The Last Of Us" without him.

Sometimes sweeping, and other times tender, those achingly bittersweet compositions are embedded into Ellie and Joel's world. Perhaps the best example of this is made clear in "Kin," when Joel, for the third time in a single episode, is overwhelmed by fear — and Santaolalla's score kicks in to remind us why.

Cue the (sad) music

During the weekly companion podcast with co-creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, host Troy Baker highlighted this scene by calling attention to Santaolalla's work: "There is a particular cue from the score by our composer Gustavo Santaolalla called 'All Gone' that's repeated quite often throughout both the game and the series. And whenever it comes on, I think about loss. And it all starts with Sarah."

Those familiar with the games will recognize "All Gone" in a heartbeat — and six episodes in, the same can be said for anyone watching the show. It's the melancholic music cue that starts up when Joel and Ellie hit an emotional low, often harkening back to everything they've already lost. Including it in the show, and deciding precisely when to use it, was very purposeful according to Druckmann:

"I think beautiful scores and scores that are used well, it's a way into the subconscious. So, it's a way to trigger certain memories or feelings without being explicit about it. So that's where, in the game and similar in the show, we use that theme again to hark back to that moment when he lost his daughter. And it's a way to tap into that."

With three plucks of a guitar string, viewers are reminded of where Joel's story tragically began. Though we only spent half an hour with Nico Parker's Sarah Miller, her presence looms over every single episode of the series — especially the sixth. After months of being in denial, this is the point where Joel can no longer remain detached from his mission to protect Ellie. The more danger they encounter, the more he is plagued by his desire to keep her safe, and his fear of failing. Protecting Ellie just reminds him that he failed to protect Sarah.

A daydream believer

Fearful that the Jackson commune's Cordyceps sniffing dog will attack Ellie, Joel panics and freezes. Afterward, he's hyperaware of every mistake he's made thus far: falling asleep on watch, being too slow to take down a Kansas City attacker, etc. In an especially emotional moment, he stumbles outside, overwhelmed by the weight of it all. "He's having another panic attack," Craig Mazin explained on the podcast. "His hand goes to his chest. He can't breathe. He doesn't know why." And then this moment bleeds into something else entirely when Joel "looks up, and he sees a woman that might as well be his daughter."

"One of the things about Nico [Parker] is she has the greatest head of hair," Mazin said. Logically, the curls that Joel spots in the crowd can't belong to his daughter, but it's also not hard to connect the very same dots that he does, and realize where his mind has wandered when he sees them. "Here's this other woman, a grown woman, but he's looking at her from behind. She's got that hair. [...] It's this wonderful thing that Pedro [Pascal] does. He's blinking a lot, which we do when we're under stress. We tend to blink a lot. And so he's having this panic attack and his eyes are blinking and then he looks, and he sees this woman and he stops blinking. And he just stares, and he stops having a panic attack. He goes into something else."

Neil Duckmann put it simply: "He's daydreaming."

A blast from Joel's painful past

At that same moment, "All Gone" kicks in. Just as Joel looks at this stranger, his mind zeroes in on Sarah. Nothing more needs to be said: Between his painfully hopeful expression and the crushing melancholy of the music, we know what's happening before he does. In Craig Mazin's words:

"He knows it's not her, but it could be her. And then this little girl runs over, and it's like, 'And that could be my granddaughter.' And then the woman turns, and it's not Sarah, and suddenly he feels like the biggest idiot, like the most hopeless fool. That this is what he's still doing after 20 years. This is the moment where I think there is a snap in him, a break that will allow him, finally, to just tell his brother the truth."

Gustavo Santaolalla's composition carries so much weight that we join Joel on this mental journey — thinking back to Sarah and all that could have been if she had miraculously survived Outbreak Day. "Nico [Parker] did such a good job," Mazin added. "I would tell Nico, 'You are the point upon which this whole thing is built. It's you and your death.' When Joel is looking at this woman, and we hear that theme, we feel it. We feel the loss. I feel it every time. I understand Joel in this moment. I'm not watching somebody feel something. I'm feeling something with them because I get it."

"The Last of Us" airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO and HBO Max.