But what gut punches hit hardest? Which moments left the biggest lumps in our collective throats? It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve attempted to rank each episode from least to most heartbreaking. (The lowest ranked episode features a moment in which a young girl has to shoot a man to save her only friend, and if that doesn’t say something about the level of heartbreak we’re dealing with here then we don’t know what does.)
Episode 4 is tense, but positively happy compared to the rest of the show. Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
The series’ introduction of revolutionary leader Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) and her militia group was intense, and yeah, poor ol’ Brian’s friends might disagree, but episode 4 wasn’t exactly a heartbreaker. In the episode, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) travel west from Boston to Kansas City in Bill’s (Nick Offerman) car, bonding over dumb jokes, Hank Williams, and Ellie punking Joel over a porn magazine. However, we don’t actually meet Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard) until the very end the episode — two characters responsible for a much, much bigger heartbreak. Episode 4 is more about establishing the Kansas City QZ as a new threat, as well as hinting at what’s in the basement and making literally shitty jokes. Emotional turmoil levels remain low here. — Shannon Connellan, UK Editor
8. Episode 2, “Infected”
Justice for Tess. Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
The Last of Us is such a sad show that a self-sacrifice is comparably less depressing than every other depressing thing that’s happened. Episode 2 saw Joel, Ellie, and Tess (Anna Torv) arrive at the old State House in a Massachusetts QZ, at what was supposed to be their end goal with the Fireflies, only to find a pile of bodies and hundreds of infected lurking outside. The trio try to quietly navigate the hostile scene, but alas, it is The Last of Us and the infected are drawn to their location. Revealing she’s been bitten by a Clicker, Tess insists on staying behind and setting the whole place (and subsequently herself) on fire, in order to let Joel escape with Ellie.
Now we know Tess’ death was heartbreaking, but she at least died a martyr — right? Right? I think there’s some solace in knowing that her death wasn’t in vain and served a larger purpose, which makes it somewhat of an easier pill to swallow. That still doesn’t detract from the pain, nor the importance, of her death. But in comparison to the show’s grander heartbreak, Tess’ death was on the milder side of things — purely because everything else has been so shockingly devastating. I believe in justice for Tess. And I believe she deserved better than that cordyceps kiss. If The Last of Us just didn’t have to be SO sad, maybe episode 2 would have been higher on this list. — Yasmeen Hamadeh, Entertainment Writer
7. Episode 9, “Look For The Light”
They’ve come a long way. Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Naturally, The Last of Us finale mirrors the game, hinged around Joel’s polarising choice to save Ellie instead of the world — whether a cure would have actually been possible or not. Cold, brutal death fuels episode 9, beginning with Ellie’s mother (fittingly played by Ashley Johnson, the original voice actor for Ellie). It’s a horrific, tragic situation: she’s giving birth to Ellie while being attacked by an Infected, and the sequence finally resolves the ambiguous emotional connection between Ellie and Marlene (Merle Dandridge), leader of the Fireflies.
Back in the present, the finale moves a broken but upbeat Joel and deeply traumatised Ellie from the horrific ordeal with David, back to Ellie’s favourite shitty puns for a fleeting second, then plunges Joel into a truly dark place. Set to the most sinister, moving, string-heavy version of the theme song we’ve heard all series, the final action sequence sees Joel systematically executing the Fireflies in the Salt Lake City hideout (including the shockingly swift death of Marlene) after he learns Ellie will not survive the procedure. It’s the ultimate utilitarian conundrum, and Joel doesn’t hesitate once, instead choosing his own heart and lying to Ellie’s face about what really happened. The core question is: what would you have done?
Episode 9, as a finale, is deeply emotional as the stakes are so incredibly high after such a violent, traumatic journey, and the cold change in Joel is deeply felt by both the audience and Ellie. As far as emotional devastation goes, though, there’s more where that came from. — S.C.
6. Episode 6, “Kin”
“You’re not my daughter.” Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
“Kin” lacks the bombastic deaths of other episodes, but don’t think for a second that that excludes it from the heartbreak zone. The grief here is quieter, from a memorial to lost children on Tommy (Gabriel Luna) and Maria’s (Rutina Wesley’s) mantlepiece to Joel’s worry that he’ll fail Ellie. He tells Tommy his age is catching up to him, and that he has dreams of loss. It’s all proof of his love for Ellie, as well as the fear that comes along with it — something remarkably similar to Bill’s notion that he wasn’t scared of anything until Frank (Murray Bartlett) showed up in episode 3.
But the centerpiece of the episode is a confrontation between Ellie and Joel about his choice to have Tommy take her to the Fireflies. The two candidly discuss grief, loss, and Joel’s daughter, and nothing is off limits. Between Ellie’s declaration that “everybody I have cared for has either died or left me” and Joel’s, “you’re not my daughter, and I’m sure as hell not your dad,” there’s not an unbroken heart in the house after watching that scene. — Belen Edwards, Entertainment Reporter
5. Episode 8, “When We Are In Need”
“It’s OK, baby girl.” Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
OK, so this episode is arguably the most disturbing one of the season — but is it really heartbreaking, too? I’d argue yes, but largely because of the final sequence. After a horrendously traumatic, blood-spattered escape from David (Scott Shepherd), Ellie stumbles outside into the snow only to be grabbed from behind by Joel. Without realising who it is she initially tries to fight him off, before finally looking into Joel’s eyes and collapsing into his arms.
“Look. It’s me,” says Joel. “It’s me. It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s OK, baby girl. I got you. I got you.” It’s a key moment not only because it marks (yet another) tragic loss of innocence for Ellie, but also because it’s the first time Joel calls her “baby girl”. It’s actually the first time he’s called anyone that in 20 years, because the last person he called “baby girl” was his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker). — Sam Haysom, Deputy UK Editor
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4. Episode 1, “When You’re Lost In The Darkness”
Sarah is the show’s first casualty. Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
While much of “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” concerns itself with establishing a post-Cordyceps world, it’s impossible to ignore the emotional damage of the first half-hour. We get a glimpse into Joel and his daughter Sarah’s loving relationship before the chaos of the apocalypse hits, at which point we are nothing but fearful for these two. Things take a turn for the devastating when a soldier shoots Sarah, leaving her to die in Joel’s arms. Major props to Pedro Pascal and Nico Parker for building such a wonderful dynamic in just 30 minutes: If this opening had fallen flat, recovery would have been almost insurmountable.
Sarah’s death is the first of many in The Last of Us. It sets the tone for the gut punches audience members receive week-to-week, and it also makes Joel the man he is when he meets Ellie. When it comes to The Last of Us heartbreak, this might truly be the most impactful loss of the show. — B.E.
3. Episode 3, “Long, Long Time”
RIP, Bill and Frank. Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Heartbreak was introduced early in The Last of Us, but it didn’t really ramp up until the introduction of Bill and Frank in episode 3. Their standalone story is in many ways a happy and hopeful one, as it shows that love and life are possible in a post-cordyceps world. The episode spans 20 years, from survivalist Bill fortifying his abandoned town after the outbreak to his chance meeting with Frank, their falling in love, and their growing old together while the world around them turns increasingly brutal.
The final section of the episode follows a terminally ill Frank requesting his ideal final day, shown in a deeply moving montage that includes the pair taking a tour of their small world, getting married, and having a final meal together, which replicates their first. At the end of the day, Bill and Frank die by suicide, Bill having no desire to go on in a world without Frank — and they ultimately pass away in each other’s arms. It’s a poignant end that’s made all the more moving by the haunting placement of Linda Ronstadt’s song “Long Long Time” — the same song Bill played for Frank on the piano the day they first met. — S.H.
2. Episode 7, “Left Behind”
Ellie and Riley’s night out at the mall has a tragic ending. Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Where do I even begin? Episode 7 gives us a glimpse of Ellie’s life pre-Joel, by taking us through her FEDRA military school days all the way to one fateful night spent at an abandoned mall with her best friend-turned-crush, Riley (Storm Reid). It’s a night of euphoria with our little Ellie beaming from ear to ear, as Riley takes her through all the mall’s many wonders. They dance. They play Mortal Kombat II. And they kiss, in a color-drenched portrait of what finding queer love looks like when you’re young and 13.
Riley and Ellie’s relationship tugs at every possible heartstring, with the episode briefly lingering on a promise that maybe the two can find some happy ending together…until they don’t. Watching an infected torpedo into their newly intimate safe haven is such a devastating, sinking feeling, that just feels so remarkably unfair because Ellie has finally found her person. Adding to the absolute devastation is Riley’s final monologue, where she says they can hold on for however long they have to before being “all poetic and shit” and losing their minds together after getting infected. “Left Behind” is one of the show’s most heartbreaking episodes, churning an emotional rollercoaster through a night of such affectionate love and agonizing loss. It’s a crude reminder that everything sacred is safe for a second in The Last of Us‘ universe, where rare hope (and young love) are always on the cusp of slipping away. I’m still crying about it. — Y.H.
1. Episode 5, “Endure and Survive”
Poor Henry and Sam. Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Television episodes don’t come much more devastating than this. After losing Tess, getting ambushed, and having to fight their way through vengeful rebels, tiny Clickers and blundering Bloaters, it finally looks like Joel and Ellie are about to catch a break in episode 5. They’ve made some new friends in Kansas City! Their little party is growing! Of course, it’s all too good to be true. The episode ends in absolute despair in two parts, first with the discovery that their newfound companion Sam (Keivonn Woodard) has been infected during their escape from the QZ. Then, Henry (Lamar Johnson) is forced to shoot his own little brother to save Ellie, and immediately dies by suicide.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the most heartbreaking moment of episode 5 because the reality of Sam’s fate and Henry’s actions are cautiously, then shockingly revealed in the final minutes. There’s Sam’s desperate question to Ellie (“If you turn into a monster is it still you inside?”) written on the magic eraser board he uses to communicate; there’s the way Henry repeats “What did I do?” over and over after he’s killed his own brother; and finally, there’s Ellie’s simple “I’m sorry” note she leaves on Sam’s grave.