Intense spoilers for “The Last of Us” below!
The actor, who rose to fame playing Chrissy on the 1990s sitcom “Growing Pains,” played the mother of Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in the Season One finale of the HBO drama Sunday night.
And in the video game from which the show is adapted, Johnson voiced a pretty significant character, series co-creator Craig Mazin explained in an “Inside the Episode” video for HBO Max.
“Here we are at the end,” Mazin said about Johnson’s opening scene in the season finale. “And we go all the way to the very, very beginning of Ellie. Which is her mother, Anna, played by Ashley Johnson, who is the true beginning of Ellie because Ashley played Ellie in the game.”
Yup, that’s right — Johnson voiced Ellie in the 2013 “Last of Us” video game, and got the opportunity to play the character’s mom in the HBO adaptation.
“There was a special level of it for me, to play the mother of this character that I care so deeply about,” Johnson told HBO Max in the same video.
“There’s this genetic connecting between the two Ellies we know,” Mazin told HBO. “And this moment connects them together.”
The opening scene of Episode Nine is a flashback sequence, where we see Johnson’s character pregnant and running through the woods, trying to evade a fungal zombie that’s chasing her.
At this point in the scene, the audience has no idea who Johnson is playing or what this flashback is about.
Johnson’s character eventually seeks refuge in an old farmhouse, and while walking up the stairs to find a place to hide, she realizes she’s going into labor. She finds an old nursery, barricades the door and holds a knife in preparation for an attack. When the infected breaks down the door, she fights for her life and eventually stabs the zombie in the neck, killing it.
Soon after, Johnson’s character gives birth. But she notices that she’s been bitten, which means she’s gotten the show’s cordyceps infection and will soon turn into a zombie. Realizing this, she quickly cuts her umbilical cord with the same knife she used to kill the zombie, in an attempt to keep the infection from spreading to her baby.
She then picks up her newborn, and as she holds the crying infant, she seems to instantly grasp her daughter’s personality. She says: “You fucking tell ’em, Ellie.”
This is when viewers realize they’re watching the story of Ellie’s birth, and that the scene might vaguely explain Ellie’s unique immunity to the cordyceps infection. This origin story is not included in the game, and introduces brand-new information to fans of the game and the show alike. Neil Druckman, the game’s creator and the show’s co-creator, told The Hollywood Reporter that this scene is a “hint” as to Ellie’s immunity, and provides “some theories as to why Ellie [is] immune, even though we don’t answer that conclusively.”
Later in the episode, Ellie’s mother’s name is revealed to be Anna, when her lifelong friend Marlene (Merle Dandridge, who voiced the same character in the game) finds Anna in the farmhouse’s nursery. Anna is holding baby Ellie with one hand, singing to her, and holding a knife to her own neck with the other.
Anna lies to Marlene and tells her Ellie’s umbilical cord was cut before she was bitten. Marlene then agrees to carry out Anna’s dying wish: that Marlene kill her, save Ellie and give Ellie Anna’s knife. Fans of the show and the game will know that Ellie grows very attached to this knife.
Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter that she was “shocked” and “burst into tears” when she was offered the role of Anna in the HBO adaptation. She explained that voice and motion-capture actors involved in video games “aren’t usually brought along to be part” of a TV or film adaptation.
“Being able to still be a part of this story and this world and to also be the first character that fights for this character to live means the world,” Johnson said.
Johnson also said it’s been a “surreal” experience watching someone else play a character she once portrayed. But she said she’s been “blown away” by Ramsey’s performance, and that the young actor’s personality embodies “the essence of Ellie.”
She told THR that she’s loved the way Ramsey has approached a lot of her scenes.
“There was a moment when Joel [Pedro Pascal] had finally given Ellie the gun,” Johnson said. “She gets this look on her face where she starts smiling because she feels so cool but she’s also trying to keep it under wraps. Like, ‘I’m chill about this.’ I took a video of it and sent it to Bella and I was like, ‘Dude, this is hilarious.’”