By Brian Lowry, CNN
Editor's note: The following contains spoilers for Episode 7 of "The Last of Us," "Left Behind," which premiered February 26 on HBO.
(CNN) -- We again interrupt your regularly scheduled zombie drama with a touching love story, this time in the form of an extended flashback during a different phase of life.
"The Last of Us" continues to stretch its formula, as Joel (Pedro Pascal) remained gravely wounded from events at the conclusion of its sixth episode, leaving Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to tend to him in the seventh, subtitled "Left Behind."
The meat of the hour, however, flashed back to Ellie as the bad-attitude recipient of military training, who is dragged by her AWOL friend, Riley ("Euphoria's" Storm Reid), to an abandoned mall, which turned out to be not quite as abandoned as advertised.
The trip is ostensibly Riley's way of saying goodbye, as she has decided to join the resistance group the Fireflies. Yet as the hour unfolds, it pretty clearly becomes what amounts to a first date, with Riley exposing the wide-eyed Ellie to a host of wonders -- escalators, arcade games, photo booths, a merry-go-round -- before a spontaneous kiss that takes their relationship in a new and more romantic direction. Along the way, the show even identified the source of Ellie's book of stupid jokes.
This being "The Last of Us," nothing good can last for long, and a zombie intruded on their moment together, wounding both of them. The encounter will lead to Ellie's realization that she's immune to the zombie plague, while Riley's dire fate gave way to a return to Joel's situation, and Ellie finding a needle and thread to close his wound.
Although "Left Behind" added a bit to the ongoing Joel-Ellie dynamic, with her refusal to abandon him, its exploration of love and loss in this grim world evoked both the third episode, with its Linda Ronstadt-scored detour involving Frank and Bill; and the fifth, to the extent that during a zombie apocalypse, even the good die young.
"It ends this way for everyone sooner or later, right?" Riley says, by way of accepting her cruel fate. (As a footnote both actors are actually 19 even though they're playing younger, which likely made their scenes together more impactful.)
"The Last of Us" has two episodes to go in order to deal with Joel's condition and get back to its ostensible mission to ascertain what makes Ellie special, while its building popularity has fans obsessing over -- and occasionally nitpicking -- its every wrinkle, down to small details.
For a moment, though, the series offered a respite from that while depicting the dizzying effects of young love, underscoring how "The Last of Us" keeps defying expectations, and why so many viewers can't get off this merry-go-round.
(Like CNN, HBO Is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)
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