Yes, Ellie Has Always Been Gay in ‘The Last of Us’
The first time I booted up The Last of Us: Left Behind, DLC for the first game, I was just excited to destroy more infected. About two hours later, I was crying – a tendency when it comes to this franchise. Nine years before the episode of the same name, Stay back revealed that Eli is gay. But it’s not simply the explanation of Ellie’s sexuality that feels revolutionary. Focusing first and foremost on the complexity of Ellie’s relationship with Riley, The last of us raised the bar for LGBTQ+ representation in video games — and did it again for television.
What’s remarkable about Ellie’s budding romance with Riley is that it’s not really a story of sexual discovery. Although Ellie has probably spent time wondering if Riley is attracted to women and to her, theirs is a classic friends-to-lovers story. Does the person Elli loves most in the world love her romantically? And if not, will admitting her feelings cost her Riley’s friendship? These are the questions that plague Ellie, not the more playful “Am I gay?”
This is exactly how their relationship develops The last of us projection. After disappearing to join the Fireflies, Riley (Storm Reid) reappears one night and demands that Ellie (Bella Ramsey) join her. As they enter an off-limits mall, it’s clear that Ellie is still mad at Riley for leaving. That’s when Riley breaks her trump card, promising to show Ellie the Four Wonders of the Mall.
With each miracle, the wall of pain and resentment between them breaks down and something much more intimate takes its place. While they’re on the carousel, Ellie can’t stop staring at Riley, even though she’s surrounded by a ride that’s supposed to be a technical marvel for her. In the photo booth, Riley hugs Ellie for a little too long. By the time they reach the arcade, their friendship has been repaired. This more than anything else is what makes what follows so painful.
“Left Behind” is reminiscent of what Maria (Rutina Wesley) said last episode: “Be careful who you trust. The only people who can betray us are the ones we trust.” The main sources of tension in their friendship have little to do with Ellie’s sexuality. Instead, they have to do with the fact that Riley has joined an extremist group that could attack Ellie and is expected to leave the next morning. It’s being abandoned by someone she loves and trusts that hurts Eli far more than any fear of rejection.
So when Riley agrees to stay behind, of course Ellie kisses her. With this one answer, Riley proves that Ellie means more to her than anything else in the world, including her own morals. That one kiss is a fairytale moment. And just like the story of Frank (Nick Offerman) and Bill (Murray Bartlett), it’s a romance that focuses on Ellie and Riley’s emotional arc rather than making their sexuality “A Thing.”
Of course, this happiness is short-lived. Riley is bitten by an infected and is implied to die at the mall that night. As Ellie mentioned in episode 4, she may have been the one to kill Riley. Although this story ends with a dead LGBTQ+ character, it doesn’t necessarily follow the Bury Your Gays trope. To Ellie, Riley wasn’t disposable, and her death certainly wasn’t used to motivate a straight character. As Sarah’s (Nico Parker) death haunts Joel (Pedro Pascal), so too does Riley haunt Ellie. Riley is just another victim of this unforgiving universe.
In the games, Ellie never comments on her sexuality. But The Last of Us Part II Co-writer Halley Gross confirmed in no uncertain terms that Ellie is gay. This aspect of her character is explored in more detail in the second game. While in Jackson, Ellie is harassed by a homophobic man for kissing her friend Dina. Of course, certified best dad and proud ally Joel immediately defends her. For the rest of the game you play as Ellie and your new partner is none other than Dina, Ellie’s now friend. They even raise a child together.
Even in 2023, there aren’t many mainstream video games that allow you to play as queer characters. Across all media, stories that take LGBTQ+ romances seriously are still an anomaly. This is especially true for romances between women who are not overly sexualized. And even more The last of us was there in 2014, confirming that one of the most recognizable characters in gaming history was gay all along and handled her first love as seriously as this franchise handled the death of Joel’s child. The last of us Episode 7 is an excellent episode. But Stay back it is a triumph.