How Ellie's Room Decor In The Last Of Us Points To The Larger Story

This post contains spoilers for HBO's "The Last Of Us" as well as Naughty Dog's video games, "The Last Of Us" and "The Last Of Us: Part II."

For seven weeks now, we've watched smuggler Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) fight to get teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey) safely to the Fireflies, but all along, we've also been watching him fight for something else: her right to be a kid. The HBO series set the stage early on with the death of Joel's own daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), familiarizing us with a world in which safety is far from guaranteed and the innocent are just as likely to die as the guilty. Ellie's own naivety perfectly balances Joel's cynicism, and it becomes clearer every week that he'll do anything to protect her as he would his own daughter.

But until now, we haven't actually gotten to see what being a kid looked like for Ellie before Joel entered her life. This week's episode of "The Last Of Us" offers a glimpse into what Ellie was like before the series started, and reminds us that, despite everything, she really is just a teen trying to grow up. Her youthfulness is obvious in her fumbling attempts to court Riley (Storm Reid) and her half-formed ideas about good and evil, but it's also splayed across the background of the episode, especially in a scene that takes us inside Ellie's Quarantine Zone bedroom. The walls of her post-apocalyptic refuge tell a story about the past, present, and future of a character we love.

A personality-filled time capsule

"The Last Of Us" has some pretty incredible set design, and Ellie's bedroom is no exception. Nearly every inch of her walls are covered with sketches, posters, magazine cutouts, and bits of paper. As a teen, I covered my own walls – and school folders, and desk, and laptop – with stickers and magazine clippings, trying to stuff as much of my burgeoning personality as I could into the space that trapped me as I endured the painful weirdness of growing up. It's clear that Ellie does the same here, making her room into a microcosm of found objects and visions of the outside world that might help her feel a little less fenced-in within the Boston QZ.

Lots of the purposefully arranged clutter on Ellie's walls harkens back to a time before the world ended, and she seems to have chosen it somewhat at random based on what was available to her. A poster for "Mortal Kombat II" sits alongside one for Joe Dante's 1987 flop "Innerspace." One flier even advertises The White Stripes' show at the Orpheum on 4/20/03, a real concert that in the show's timeline took place months before outbreak day. It's likely that Ellie, born post-outbreak, hasn't actually heard these bands or seen these films, but scavenged the posters somewhere because she liked the design. I like to imagine she thinks "Innerspace," the weird comedy about Martin Short being controlled from within by a tiny pilot played by Dennis Quaid, is actually about space.

Ellie's love of outer space is on full display

Ellie was born after a time in which pop culture could be used to signify taste or personality, yet she manages to infuse her surroundings with a strong sense of self nonetheless. It's clear from her decor that she longs for adventure, as she fills her walls with pictures of things she's never actually seen. Cutouts of cats, dogs, deer, bears, a plesiosaurus, and a T-Rex are taped alongside a postcard from Arizona's Antelope Canyon and a poster featuring phases of the moon. In fact, space is a major theme in Ellie's bedroom, a detail that will resonate with anyone who's played "The Last Of Us Part II."

In last week's episode, Ellie told Joel she wants to go to space and that she idolizes Sally Ride, who she thinks has the coolest name. The small exchange was quietly shattering for game fans, as the second video game includes scenes — made bittersweet in retrospect — in which Joel and Ellie go to the Wyoming Museum of Science and History for Ellie's birthday. There, they observe a dinosaur exhibit, walk by a taxidermist grizzly bear on display, and bond when they decide to climb inside a rocketship and geek out about space. Ellie even tries on an astronaut's helmet, while the usually-reticent Joel admits he used to love taking Sarah to museums.

A vision of the outside world

These are beautiful memories between the pair, some of the only times we get to see them fully embrace their relationship as father and quasi-adopted daughter before Joel's betrayal causes a rift between them that barely heals before his own story is cut short. On last week's episode of "The Last Of Us" companion podcast, series co-creator Craig Mazin explained that he and co-creator and game creator Neil Druckmann decided to include Ellie's love of space here after Druckmann showed Mazin the scene from "The Last Of Us Part II" before the game's release. "That's one of those times where I said, 'Hey, we have this opportunity that Neil didn't have when he was making the first game, which we know more now,'" he shared.

This week continued the mission to pre-break our hearts, as Ellie's love of space is on full display. While many of the cutouts on her walls seem semi-random, she actually has hand-made drawings of spaceships and astronauts, indicating that the idea of breaking free from the world that's holding her has been on her mind for a while. While she may never get to explore space, the game franchise has so far let Ellie witness a lot more of the big, strange world than she likely ever expected to see.

Savage Starlight makes an appearance

While some elements of Ellie's room help characterize her, others work as direct foreshadowing. The poster for the 2000 film "Red Planet," for example, calls to mind a sci-fi movie about a doomed space mission in which nearly everyone ends up dead and saving the world proves much more complicated than expected. 

Ellie's reading material, too, prominently features a duo on a mission that looks familiar. "Savage Starlight" is a fictional comic book that appears in "The Last Of Us" video games. It follows a character named Dr. Daniela Star who tries to save the galaxy after discovering a rare scientific breakthrough — a plot that mirrors Ellie's own quest to set the world right through the power of her immunity. As in Ellie's world, "Savage Starlight" also includes multiple powerful groups of people with competing, sometimes shady interests.

The games allow players to find issues of "Savage Starlight" as well as "Savage Starlight" collectible cards. The comic collecting is a low-stakes, non-essential part of gameplay, but it's still impossible not to see connections between the story and Ellie's own. In the glimpse we catch of the comic book page in this episode, an older man and a younger woman who seem to be on a mission kick to down a door. "Don't blink," the man tells the woman. "Got it," she says. There's not quite enough foreshadowing here for the world of "The Last Of Us" to feel eerily predetermined a la something like "Lost," but the ways in which Ellie's room hint at her future make it clear that she pictures the world as a place of adventure rather than danger.

So does A-ha

Of course, that worldview changes over the course of both games as Ellie encounters innocence-shattering danger and destruction again and again. Perhaps the most heartbreaking detail of Ellie's room is one of the most obvious: the cassette tape on her table featuring A-ha's "Take On Me." In the episode, it's a song she plays on her Walkman, and later, we hear a version of it when she and Riley explore the mall. The song also played in the season's trailer, but it was a part of "The Last Of Us" long before then, too.

In "The Last Of Us Part II," Ellie sings along to "Take On Me" while playing guitar for her girlfriend, Dina. At first blush, it seems like an odd choice, but there's pain in her rendition of the song that calls our attention to the song's lyrics in a way that poppy original version never did. "Today's another day to find you/Shying away/I'll be coming for your love, okay?" Ellie sings. It's a sentiment that calls to mind much of her journey, from waiting for Riley to return to her, to leaving the farm at the end of "The Last Of Us Part II," presumably in hopes of finding Dina.

'Slowly learning that life is okay'

The song also calls to mind Joel, who dies brutally not long before Ellie serenades Dina. He gave her a guitar, so she'll always associate music with him, and this song in particular evokes their tangled bond and the pain of his loss. "But I'll be stumbling away/Slowly learning that life is okay," the song says, and it's a pretty apt description of Ellie's journey through the second game. "Say after me," it continues, "It's no better to be safe than sorry." It's a line that reminds me of one that Ellie spit at Joel last week, when she told him she wouldn't be safer with someone else, she'd just be more scared.

Druckmann and Mazin have carefully introduced a few elements from the second game into the show's first season, and the inclusion of the A-ha song feels like one of their most quietly powerful choices. If we do hear Ellie sing the song in "The Last of Us" season 2, we'll not only have context for where she learned it, but we'll also know why it first resonated with her. Like so many other elements of Ellie's bedroom, it's a form of expression that she loves because it signifies the adventure-filled life she may one day live — even if that life will turn out to be a lot more bittersweet than she ever could've imagined.

New episodes of "The Last of Us" release Sundays on HBO and HBO Max.