The Last Of Us Episode 7 Proves DLC Is Not Just An Afterthought

The post contains spoilers for "The Last Of Us" episode 7.

The time for headlines about how "The Last Of Us" broke the video game adaptation curse has passed. It was never really accurate anyway, as there have been great video game adaptations before "The Last Of Us," and there will be great ones after. But this week's episode of the series really does break new ground, doing something few if any adaptations have before: proving that not just games, but even downloadable expansion packs (aka downloadable content, aka DLCs), can make for excellent TV, too.

For newcomers to the series, the latest episode of "The Last Of Us" probably feels pretty in step with the rest of the show. Sure, it follows in the TV tradition of a latter-season flashback that singles out and deepens one character's storyline, but it's no more off the beaten path than the Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) vignette in episode 3. Episode 7 is all about Ellie's (Bella Ramsey) life in the QZ before she met Joel (Pedro Pascal), particularly a single formative night in which she reunited with her best friend and crush, Riley (Storm Reid). 

But as fans of the Naughty Dog video game series know, these events weren't actually included in the original game. They came along eight months later, in an expansion pack called "The Last of Us: Left Behind."

The Left Behind story is integral

Expansion packs have been around for decades. Before internet-based gaming made DLC the norm, tabletop and card games often included expansions that furthered gameplay in both minor and major ways. While expansion packs and DLC are typically a lot of fun, they aren't always quite as substantial as the main games. They're a bit like a version of an album with bonus tracks: a lot of the time you're getting less-than-stellar songs you'll only listen to once, but every now and again you end up with a Taylor Swift's "1989" situation, and the bonus content becomes as integral to the artistic experience as the main event.

"The Last of Us: Left Behind" has always felt like the latter: a rare bit of bonus content that feels not just well-made, but integral to the story at hand. While "The Last of Us Part II" explores Ellie's sexuality further, it's "Left Behind" that clues us in to the fact that she's a queer character, and a teen who experienced the confusing, fleeting joy of first love moments before having it ripped away. Viewers saw Joel's origin story in the show's pilot episode, and "The Last Of Us" has positioned him as a guarded cynic in contrast to Ellie's effervescent, borderline naive kid. But the fact that Ellie has loved and lost before re-frames their relationship and her character completely. Now we know that she isn't just naturally silly and upbeat: she chooses to be that way, despite having faced down brutal tragedies before she was even old enough to understand the world around her.

Video games are art, in long form or short

As DLC, "The Last Of Us: Left Behind" is an exceptional addition to a game franchise that never does anything halfway. The expansion won a WGA award, two Golden Joystick Awards, and plenty of other accolades. As an episode of television, Ellie's date with Riley is essential to our understanding of her as a person. Plus, as with many of the show's supporting and guest actors, it creates a fully realized character in Reid's Riley even as her life is cut unbearably short. The actress has proven herself an excellent addition to any cast after fantastic turns in "A Wrinkle in Time," "When They See Us," and "Euphoria," and this episode is no exception. Riley is a relatable character, one whose ideologies are more nuanced than Ellie's FEDRA-influenced worldview and whose passion for the Firefly cause is rivaled by her passion for the girl she loves — as a friend, and as something more.

As great as "The Last Of Us: Left Behind" is, around the time of its release, I remember initially being frustrated that the game revealed Ellie's queerness in what I saw as a post-script. But after experiencing the DLC and watching this week's episode, it's clear that this was never meant to be something as simple as a post-script. It's an essential part of both the game and the show, and an example of how video games can be a rich, cinematic creative landscape in both long form and short. The 2022 remake of the game, titled "The Last Of Us Part I," includes this chapter in its main story, just like the HBO series. "Left Behind" may have technically been an add-on, but it was never an afterthought.