Alone at the End of the World in The Last of Us
*Spoilers abound for The Last of Us below.*
The cut to black at the end of The Last of Us hits like a punch in the gut and a kick in the teeth all at once. For years it’s been unclear exactly what kind of reaction and effect Joel’s lie had on Ellie. With The Last of Us Part II finally due out next February we may finally get our answer but it may not be the answer we want. Anyone going into Part II with a knowledge of The Last of Us should know to expect the unexpected. The Last of Us Part II will answer long held questions but it probably won’t answer them in the way players and fans will expect or necessarily want.
The Last of Us focuses on hardened survivor Joel. His daughter’s tragic death, on the day of the Cordyceps virus outbreak, twenty years before left him emotionally broken and closed off. On a routine smuggling run in quarantined Boston Joel and his partner Tess are talked into smuggling a young teenage girl, Ellie, out of the city and into the hands of the rebel Fireflies. Ellie is the only living human immune to the Cordyceps virus. Over the course of the game Joel and Ellie survive together, fight together and live together. Slowly they bond until Joel is faced with the impossible choice of letting his newly found surrogate daughter die to save humanity or saving her and dooming mankind to a slow decline.
Needless to say Joel chose the latter; saving Ellie and eliminating most of the Fireflies in the process. For much of the game Joel and Ellie are unquestionably the heroes. They fight off Cordyceps zombies, opportunistic bandits and savage cannibals. But Joel is not the put-upon anti-hero he claims to be. He too is an opportunistic bandit, fury-fueled torturer and eventually the game’s greatest villain in a purely moral “greater good” sense.
It begins with Tess’ self-delivered eulogy of “We’re shitty people Joel!” before seguing into an off-hand confession about how he was once on the opposite side of the kind of ambush he and Ellie were just victims of. Eventually, after Ellie’s kidnap at the hands of cannibals, Joel beats a man for information and when that doesn’t work pops his friend’s kneecaps out with a knife. It ends, as it must, in heartbreak.
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The final scene in The Last of Us is devastating. Set in rain-sodden Wyoming Joel and Ellie are heading back to Joel’s brother Tommy’s fortified town. Relative safety awaits but it’s clear that all Ellie feels is uncertainty and even Joel can’t fully disguise his own doubt. Eventually it boils over and Ellie asks what happened while she was asleep on that operating table? Joel spins a lie without a flicker of unease or regret. It’s clear that Ellie knows that Joel isn’t telling her everything, that he’s trying to protect her from a truth more terrible than she can bear. And for the moment that’s OK in it’s own twisted way.
“Don’t tell me I’d be better off with someone else because the truth is: I’d just be more scared,” is what Ellie says at the climax of their argument. It’s a telling line because after all the grief and killing they’ve been through they at least have each other. It’s a story whose choices are almost impossible for players to comprehend because it’s set in an impossible situation and yet even though Joel is a torturing murderer who is likely leading Ellie down a similar path it’s hard not to feel sympathy for them. At the end of the world when all you have left is each other that has to be enough.
The Last of Us Part II has endured a great deal of controversy and criticism in the last two or three years. From relatively just accusations of violence against women for the sake of violence against women to more worrying implications of a queer woman’s death in order to push the story forward. It’s important to recognise that The Last of Us Part II isn’t out yet and it won’t be for another four months but that doesn’t mean we, as players and fans, don’t have a right to be concerned.
The term ‘fridging‘ is used to describe the narrative trope of killing a character in order to further the story or drive the plot, often in a revenge focused direction. Think Gladiator, think John Wick, think Star Wars. I remember seeing the trailer for The Last of Us Part II during Sony’s E3 2018 press conference and thinking “Oh cool a queer, female character. I hope they don’t kill her to push the narrative forward”. A few days ago I saw the newest trailer and thought “Oh no.”
At best it’s a tasteless, baiting marketing strategy. At worst it’s a major fumble from the accomplished writing team of Neil Druckman (The Last of Us, Uncharted 4) and Haley Gross (Westworld, Too Old To Die Young). The woman in question is Dina, Ellie’s best friend and love interest. We’ve seen a fair bit of her particularly in that beautifully animated kissing scene from 2018 and we saw some more in the most recent trailer. Now Ellie has always been hotheaded but even I doubt she’d travel all the way from the safety of Jackson County, Wyoming to a militia occupied Seattle to get revenge. There’s more to this, there always is.
Lead writer and director of The Last of Us Part II, Neil Druckman, said at the 2017 PlayStation Expo that the sequel would be “A game about hate”. Easy to see, easier to believe. After all The Last of Us was a game about going far beyond morality in the name of love. It’s easy to see that Part II would be about going to the darkest possible place in the name of love. The apocalypse is a lonely time and place to live in I’m sure and I’m almost certain I’d try and do whatever it takes to keep the people I love alive. Time will tell how well The Last of Us Part II dances the line between heartbreaking apocalypse story and violent odyssey. For now though it’s important to remember that the hero of The Last of Us was also it’s world’s unwitting villain. Don’t expect things to go as you think they will.