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Why Marlene Was Really Killed Off In The Last Of Us

The Last of Us featured an ending that shocked fans, leading to debates over morality spanning years and continuing into discussions of The Last of Us 2. Part of that conversation deals with Marlene's death. As the leader of the Fireflies, a rebel organization seeking to cure humanity of the invasive cordyceps, Marlene must make big decisions that impact the world, not just her organization. One of those decisions leads to her attempting to kill Ellie, who is immune to the cordyceps spores, in order to potentially craft a vaccine. Of course, that doesn't work out as planned, and the lead character of Joel ends up killing Marlene.

Marlene's controversial death led to years of discussions on online forums. One reddit user argues that the real problem with Marlene's decision to kill Ellie is that she has to betray Joel and dehumanize Ellie in the process. Another blogger writes that he, like Ellie, felt powerless after having the power of choice taken away. Because The Last of Us makes Joel's final decision for players, any agency the player might have had in that decision is gone. In a game that seems to offer choices, the last decision is already made by the game itself.

Major spoilers follow for The Last of Us and its sequel.

A more hopeful ending

In an interview with Game Informer, game director Neil Druckman discussed the original ending of The Last of Us, explaining that Tess was meant to be the villain of the game and Ellie would kill her in a climactic scene. Druckman said that the original ending was much more "hopeful," but that it "'it didn't feel honest anymore,'" leading to a new ending that casts doubt on if Joel and Ellie can mend the distrust growing between them.

Part of the wedge between Ellie and Joel's relationship is Marlene's death. Players are meant to feel conflicted about Marlene. On one hand, she wants to save the world by creating a cure for the fungi-infested people roaming the world, but on the other hand, she has to kill Ellie to do so. After spending time with Ellie, and barely seeing Marlene, players might choose to save the girl and leave the world to burn, but a choice is never presented. Joel kills Marlene, emphasizing that he is a fundamentally broken man. 

Ellie's experiences with the Fireflies are explored further in The Last of Us 2, and she has flashbacks throughout the game of the hospital where she almost died.

Setting up a sequel

While Marlene doesn't loom large in The Last of Us 2, her death still affects the relationships that begin the game. The Last of Us 2 begins with Joel and Ellie's relationship mending, but not healed. Ellie's feelings about Joel haunt the game, and there's little resolution on that front.

The Fireflies still exist in The Last of Us 2, although they don't directly appear. Video Game Sophistry speculates that the Rattlers, a militia group from The Last of Us 2, could be pretending to be the Fireflies in order to trick the characters Abby and Lev into coming to their slave camp. However, this theory hasn't been proven and it's very possible that Abby contacts a Firefly camp. Regardless, Ellie's emotions resulting from Joel's decision to kill Marlene — an act that also fractured the Fireflies — heavily influences events in The Last of Us 2, all the way to its ending.

The Last of Us 2 builds on the emotional drama of The Last of Us, with Marlene's death being a major factor.