Fitting a giraffe into the first season of The Last of Us may have seemed like a tall order, at least to those unfamiliar with the game. Before that, the only place you could imagine seeing such an animal is as a plushie, probably cast aside and abandoned to the elements (as we actually did see, in an episode 2 Easter egg). But that was all setting the stage for the big — or, at least, a big — scene in the season 1 finale, where Ellie gets to pet a giraffe.
Like so much of the show, it’s a moment pulled almost directly from the game. Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is still recovering from battling her way out of a fundamentalist cannibal cult in episode 8. Joel (Pedro Pascal) can see she’s distant and not super excited — at least, until they’re exploring Salt Lake City. Here the scene plays out almost identically to the game, complete with Ellie passing Joel the ladder only to let it fall when she first spots the animal. The two look on in wonder as a giraffe grazes on the plants overtaking the abandoned structure they’re in.
The scene might seem bright, cheery, and even out of place in an otherwise overwhelmingly bleak post-apocalyptic narrative. But like so much of The Last of Us, the giraffe scene resonates on a more heartbreaking level, a final quiet moment between Joel and Ellie sealing in the violence to come later.
[Ed. note: The rest of this post contains spoilers for the finale of The Last of Us season 1.]
The whole of The Last of Us, as both a first game and a first season, builds toward Joel’s rampage: After so many chapters of Joel easily justifying violence — against infected or ruthless humans — the Fireflies’ hospital feels less clear cut. On the one hand, he understands that Ellie’s immunity might be the best chance the world has for a cure. On the other, Marlene says it “could” be a cure, leaving a lot of room for him to prioritize the more important thing to him, Ellie herself.
That bond gets sealed in the presence of the giraffes. After seeing her fight through so much, connecting with her through attacks from clickers and pun books alike, Joel had already stopped considering her “cargo” and started seeing her as more of a surrogate daughter. As he comforts her at the end of episode 8, “When We Are in Need,” he even calls her “baby girl,” just like he called Sarah.
The giraffe moment, then, is a way to solidify his vision of himself as a protective father. After feeling her distance and trauma, the way Ellie lights up as she chases the giraffe is a reminder that there’s a kid in there, with a whole world ahead of her. For Ellie, it’s a reminder that there is a peace and stillness in a world that (as we’ve seen it) has been so marked by violence and mayhem.
For Joel it’s a connection to his parental instincts (indeed, in the game Sarah even has that giraffe plushie in her room). You can almost see him deciding that he would do anything for her, anything to not lose her, even if it means murdering a whole team of medical professionals (or just a small battalion of Fireflies and a doctor).
The giraffes may seem out of place, but they’re a final reminder for the season that something innocent and kind could survive in this world somehow. For Joel that’s Ellie; for Ellie — well, it’s a fleeting glance at the trusting life that gets corrupted by Joel’s lie. She’ll have to deal with the ramifications of his actions in season 2, after they’ve returned to the idyllic Jackson compound. But at the very least, she’ll have pet a giraffe.