The Last of Us: HBO’s Merle Dandridge Goes Deep on Marlene as She Breaks Down the Season Finale
Spoiler alert: This interview contains full spoilers for both HBO’s The Last of Us Season 1, including the finale, and The Last of Us game.
Merle Dandridge doesn’t remember exactly when she found out she’d be reprising the part of Marlene in HBO’s adaptation of Naughty Dog’s beloved The Last of Us, in which she originated the role of the Firefly leader nearly ten years ago – but she does remember thinking, “what is this, Christmas?”
“It’s a character that I have loved for a very long time,” Dandridge says, adding that she’s been “emotionally attached” to Marlene. “To be able to bring this character – who is, honestly, put in such a horrible position in her life of great loss and a lifetime of terrible choices for the sake of the greater good – to be able to bring that to a prestige network like HBO was an honor and a thrill.”
Dandridge, too, is something of an outlier on HBO’s The Last of Us. While game actors like Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson have returned for roles in the hit series, Dandridge is the only one to reprise her exact role from the game. Dandridge acknowledges that it took the “stars aligning” for that situation to happen, from her maturing into the role physically to the mere aspect of her being available for production.
“And these artists that I respect so much thought I was the best person for the job,” she adds. “Hey, that’s awesome.”
And the results of the adaptation speak for themselves; The Last of Us has been warmly received by audiences and critics alike, with IGN giving Season 1 a 9/10 and viewership numbers climbing drastically from the premiere.
In a long conversation with IGN, Dandridge went deep about the finale, reuniting with Johnson, revisiting certain scenes from the game, and how far she’s gone into Marlene’s psyche.
Marlene and Anna
The Last of Us Season 1 has made several deviations from the game – from replacing spores with tendrils to devoting an entire episode to Bill and Frank – and the finale starts with another one: showing Anna for the first time. As players of the game know, Anna is not only Ellie’s mother, but Marlene’s lifelong friend, and prior to the show, the details of their friendship were only revealed through the game’s journal entries and recordings.
But, in addition to showing Marlene and Anna actually interacting for the first time, it was significant for another reason: as Johnson, who played Ellie in the game, was playing Anna, it marked the reunion of two important game actors.
After I point this out to Dandridge, she smiles and says, “all of my hairs just stood up when you said that.”
“The way that we met was through the tenderness of the Marlene and Ellie bond,” she goes on, referencing her work with Johnson on the 2013 game. “I just think it’s so beautiful that we can revisit why that relationship means so much in this way of Merle and Ashley getting to play this out.”
But that scene isn’t just about the sentimentality between two actors, she notes: “The horror of the loss of Anna is fundamental to who Marlene is, in the circumstances under which we meet her and why she’s so ride-or-die connected to Ellie.”
Seeing that play out in the show, Dandridge says, gives the audience important context as to why Marlene is the way she is, and how much emotional turmoil she had to overcome in order to get to where we find her in the finale.
When she says to Joel, ‘I do get it. I do understand it,’ it’s not just lip service,
“Taking such meticulous care of Ellie isn’t just rote,” Dandridge says. “It isn’t just something a soldier is doing. It is passionately, deeply connected to her heart or what’s left of her heart. And to know that – to know what she’s sacrificed, and how long she has watched over this child – makes the choices that she is being forced into now so much more painful and meaningful.”
“So when she says it to Joel, ‘I do get it. I do understand it,’ it’s not just lip service,” she goes on. “The audience can feel it with her too. And so just for me to be able to work out some of these pieces of Marlene that have only existed in my imagination, that was exciting. To do it with an old friend, even better. And then to get the audience’s deep inherent understanding of what she gives up to lead this rebellion, to lead this cause, to give people hope, gives a better understanding, full-360 holistic view of what this woman has been up against for so long.”
Speaking of imagination, Dandridge and I talk a little bit about the mystery of Anna and Marlene’s friendship. Even now, we still don’t know how the two met, most of what they went through together, or much beyond the fact that they’ve been friends their “whole lives.” So, Dandridge admits, of course she’s tried to fill in some of the blanks in her own mind in her pursuit to build out this character.
But Marlene’s relationship with Anna, Dandridge notes, also has a lot to do with her relationship with Joel. She, too, has had to make tough choices “that included at point-blank-range killing and shooting the last tether onto my former life, my best friend.”
“Marlene is trying to connect with him on a heart level with empathy and understanding of his pain, and there’s so much in that,” she says. “I get it. I understand what is happening.”
Marlene and Joel
One scene that does carry over from the game to the show is one particularly tense one. After Joel and Ellie finally make it to the Firefly hospital, they’re separated as Ellie gets prepped for surgery. Joel’s met by Marlene as she explains the circumstances to him: that there’s a good chance Ellie could be used to help make a vaccine but, since the cordyceps virus is in her brain, she wouldn’t live through the surgery.
The scene (which is also the one Dandridge was given to audition for the game) isn’t quite word-for-word pulled from the original source, but it’s pretty close. Still, that didn’t mean it was all Deja Vu for her.
“I had to approach it with completely fresh eyes,” she reveals. “I really had to forget what I knew about that scene.”
“This one was so different to me for a myriad of reasons,” she says. “First, her arguments are slightly different. She gets into the details of the science. She tells him a little bit more about it. And there’s also a different kind of resolve, rather than just giving him a little bit of space in that scene to make that decision. To give him room to have some understanding is something that she doesn’t necessarily have time for or need to do, but she wants that for him. She wants his buy-in.”
“Whether or not the outcome seemed to have echoes of similarity, it was a completely different approach,” she adds. “And perhaps that’s because of the circumstances, and being opposite Pedro [Pascal] in this unbelievably dank environment that they had found in this corner of this hospital, and also [my] years of experience around it, and a different script. The shifts in how she approaches him in this conversation are so subtle, but so meaningful in their difference. So yeah, it was a completely different scene for me.”
But those who’ve watched the finale know the result is the same all the while: Joel kills all of the Fireflies in the hospital, as well as Marlene after she confronts him (a particularly “intense” scene to shoot, Dandridge acknowledges), and later lies to Ellie about the whole ordeal.
Having had 10 years to think about the divisive end of The Last of Us Part 1, Dandridge – like so many fans – is torn on Joel’s actions.
“Whenever I think about Joel’s decision, I have to take a step outside of Marlene, for obvious reasons, but to look at him with empathy that he is fighting for this one piece of healing and love that he has, and that he has, as a now parent figure, chosen to protect his child at all costs,” she says. “Who can argue with that?”
“And yet,” she caveats, “there is another argument to be had, if we think about the sacrifices that Marlene has consistently had to make. And I love that we get an opportunity to more deeply understand her sacrifices, when we see her flashback and her having to say goodbye to the last vestige of her life before and who she was, that we have more empathy and understanding for what she has given up to bring people hope, to lead them into a possibly new future, past this terrible apocalypse.”
In the end, Dandridge is stuck on the issue: “Who is right? Who is wrong?”
Marlene and Merle
Dandridge acknowledges that her journey with Marlene has been a “unique experience,” to say the least – not only in getting cast for the game and watching it become a hit, but to be offered the rare opportunity to return to it nearly 10 years later.
Having carried this character with her for almost a decade, Dandridge admits the obvious: she’s not the same person she was when she first played Marlene, but that’s experience she could put into the role.
“I certainly have more confidence in my craft and my understanding of who Marlene is, but also the wisdom to release what I thought Marlene was,” she says. “I think, especially with something that you love so much, you could become too precious with it. And when certain scenes or moments in the story have become such canon that they have almost been immortalized, to be able to demolish that understanding and come to it with fresh spirit and give over to the discomfort of being in the space – wearing the clothes and honoring her in a completely different way – to be comfortable in the discomfort was good.”
All of those ingredients, Dandridge hopes, “brought a beautiful offering in who Marlene is now in this world.”
But, since she returned once, is there a chance Dandridge could return in The Last of Us again, given that it’s been renewed for a second season that will (at least begin to) tell the story of The Last of Us Part II? While it’s true that Marlene’s been killed, Dandridge points out that Part II does engage in non-linear storytelling, and she did return for that game in flashbacks.
Dandridge, however, says she hasn’t heard anything about Season 2 quite yet, adding that showrunner Craig Mazin and game creator Neil Druckmann are “probably stewing in the lab about it right now.”
“I leave that up to them,” she concedes. “And I’m excited to see what they do, and cheering from whatever vantage point for their success.”