WARNING: This post contains heavy spoilers for Naughty Dog’s 2013 video game, The Last of Us.
In the pandemic-ravaged world of The Last of Us, emotional suppression seems like an appropriate strategy for a man like Joel.
Having endured an apocalypse and the death of his daughter, Joel now inhabits a nightmarish and inhospitable world that leaves little time for sentimentality. But when we finally step into his shoes post-prologue, it becomes clear that Joel has buried his past rather than making peace with it.
It’s been two decades, but Joel hasn’t found much time to mourn. Instead, he’s devoted his waking life to enduring the horrors of the world and — according to the game’s subtext — occasionally perpetuating cruelty himself for the sake of his survival.
But while Joel’s scrapes and bruises from decades of post-pandemic survival have healed, the same can’t be said of his psyche. Though bubbling beneath the surface, the death of his daughter still haunts him. And as the story plays out, Joel’s reluctance to address his pain will define his character – and, to me, solidify The Last of Us as a cautionary tale about the dangers of emotional suppression.
You wanna know the best thing about my job? I don’t gotta know why. Be honest with you, I could give two shits what you’re up to.
– Joel to Ellie
When Joel gets wrapped up in the Fireflies’ plan to smuggle Ellie, a cordyceps-immune girl, out of the city, he’s initially apathetic. But he begrudgingly accepts to play bodyguard/courier at the dying request of his partner, Tess, who is much more sympathetic towards Ellie’s plight.
At fourteen years old and five-feet-three-inches, Ellie closely resembles Joel’s deceased daughter. But the greater similarities between the two girls stretch beyond physical boundaries: Like Sarah, Ellie is intelligent, mature, and quick-witted, but also emotionally vulnerable. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Joel remains aloof towards Ellie. As resolute as he is, even her mere presence is a painful reminder of losing Sarah.
Listen to me — if I get in trouble down there, you make every shot count. Yeah?
– Joel to Ellie
Nonetheless, Joel and Ellie begin to bond over the course of their journey. Ellie demonstrates that she’s agile and capable of protecting not only herself, but others. About halfway through the game, she essentially saves Joel’s life by intervening as he’s about to be killed by an assailant. After the incident, and perhaps as a show of respect, Joel even entrusts her with a weapon — something he was unwilling to do previously. These events cement the notion that Joel is beginning to see Ellie less as a liability and a nuisance, and more as a capable partner or friend.
But the most startling indication of a shift in their relationship has little to do with guns, bullets, or other tools of destruction. Instead, it’s an emotional transformation that takes place during the quiet moments when gunfire is absent, and the world seems to stand still. Ellie is the instigator: as an innately curious and outspoken girl, she frequently stops to stare at environmental details and muse about a world she’s never known. Early on, Joel carries on the conversations to humour her. But eventually, he too finds himself reminiscing out loud about the older and better days behind him.
I guess no matter how hard you try, you can’t escape your past.
– Joel to Ellie
As seasons change, the bond between the two grows further.
During the Winter chapter, Ellie encounters a man who seems intent on grooming, abusing, or killing her — perhaps all of the above. Joel rushes to Ellie’s aid, but in a way, he’s still too late: In a violent fit of rage, Ellie turns the tide and butchers the man to pieces.
Joel greets Ellie with open arms as she bursts into tears, nestling her into his shoulder as he attempts to console her. The whole sequence is jarring, but, for Joel, the defining moment comes when he christens Ellie “baby girl.” Although seemingly inconsequential, these are the same words he used decades ago when he was putting Sarah to bed on that fateful night before the world went mad.
It’s a subtle bit of subtext that implies Joel is now fully invested in Ellie’s emotional plight, and that the two girls are inextricably linked in his mind. The scene — one of the most intense in the game — also signals the beginning of the end.
Why are you doing this?
– Joel to Marlene after learning that Ellie is being prepped for surgery
The final chapter of the game is the culmination of Joel’s transformative relationship with Ellie.
Curiously, Joel and Ellie both arrive at their destination — the Firefly hospital — unconscious, having nearly drowned. A couple of Firefly soldiers happen to find them and bring them back to the hospital. It’s an interesting bit of serendipity, and it’s likely written this way to rob both characters of their autonomy. When Joel awakes on a hospital bed, he realizes that the Fireflies seem to have evaded the whole conundrum of consent, and have already prepped Ellie for surgery to produce a vaccine, despite not having consulted him or Ellie. We’re less than a minute in, and already the circumstances are written to paint the Fireflies in an unfavourable, domineering light (keep this in mind).
Joel’s rude awakening is only made worse when Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, tells him that the surgery will kill Ellie. We don’t receive any other details: there’s no mention of the success rate, or the proficiency of the doctors, or an alternative method. I’ll remind you that this scene didn’t have to be written this way. It’s clear that the writers were working hard to ensure that the player has a growing, visceral sense of distrust for the Fireflies.
Understandably, Joel is enraged. He can’t accept the possibility of losing her, even though her death could save untold numbers of human lives. Marlene states that they have no choice, given what a vaccine could do for humanity. Noting Joel’s refusal to cooperate, she orders a nearby armed guard to escort him out of the building and shoot him if he tries anything.
The guard in the background of this scene doesn’t say a word during Joel and Marlene’s conversation, but his presence speaks volumes about the scene’s construction. An armed authority figure killed Joel’s daughter in the prologue. Now, a militia group that resembles an authority in this new, ravaged world wants to kill Joel’s adopted daughter. It’s a clever parallel and another indication that Naughty Dog really wants us to sympathize with Joel. The writers emphasize that Joel is being strong-armed here (literally) and that the situation has every right to trigger the rage that’s been brewing within him for twenty long years.
And boy, does that psychological bottle pop! After gunning down his armed escort, Joel murders his way through the hospital in pursuit of Ellie, who’s located in the surgery wing. After he guns down at least one of the earth’s remaining surgeons — who might’ve been one of humanity’s few remaining great scientific minds in a decaying world, I might add — he seizes a still-unconscious Ellie and escapes the hospital.
But just before he’s about the make his exit, he encounters Marlene, who attempts to convince him of her cause — of y’know, humanity’s cause. “It’s what she’d want,” she says, which solidifies that the Fireflies were going to conduct the surgery without consulting Ellie (Naughty Dog really doesn’t want us to like the Fireflies). “You can still do the right thing here.”
The moment harkens back to the beginning of the game when we first meet Marlene. Exhausted, bloodied, and reeking of desperation, she entrusts a stranger (Joel) with her cause out of necessity. Now, months later, the two stand yards apart — but the ideological distance between them is far greater.
Joel ponders her argument, but it doesn’t take long before the silence is punctuated by a gunshot. Marlene falls. It’s not the first bullet we’ve seen Joel dedicate to protecting Ellie. But it is the first that represents his inability to lose Ellie for a greater good.
They’ve actually st- … they’ve stopped looking for a cure. I’m taking us home.
– Joel stumbling over his deceit to Ellie as he distorts the truth about what transpired at the Firefly hospital
After escaping the hospital and the city by car, the player controls Ellie as she walks through a serene forest with Joel. By this point, we’re trained to hear Ellie do most of the talking. However, in a dramatic shift, Joel is the open heart here.
But instead of addressing the fact that he’s likely single-handedly reduced humanity’s chances of survival, Joel decides to get sentimental about his daughter. As the two pass through an idyllic forested landscape under a bright sky, he muses about how the two girls would’ve been good friends.
I think ah… I think the two of you would’ve been good friends. Think you really woulda liked [Sarah]. I know she woulda liked you.”
– Joel to Ellie
It’s the first time we’ve heard him speak so openly about Sarah. But given that the blood of a dozen or more people dedicated to the minimization of human suffering is still probably drying on his button-up shirt, his words sound self-indulgent and hollow. It’s clear that he feels little remorse for his actions, and to me, it’s one of the most disturbing moments in the game.
Even Ellie seems uncomfortable during this scene. Despite the scenic view and trees swaying gently in the wind, the moment is a thoroughly inconvenient emotional intersection. It forces Ellie to wrestle with the dark truth of what happened back at the hospital while simultaneously hearing Joel mention the two girls in the same sentence for the first time.
Don’t get me wrong: Joel’s decision is fully congruent with who he is as a character. He’s propelled by a kind of selfishness that’s warranted given the harsh state of the world. But I can’t help but feel that, had he found some time to reconcile his feelings (and possibly guilt) about Sarah’s death, the prospect of Ellie’s sacrifice might’ve been more palatable. He could’ve approached the notion of losing her with a clearer mind and soul. But, as he’s written, his suppressed emotional pain seems to blind him to this possibility and to the notion of a greater good. He seems incapable of recognizing that his actions can reduce the net suffering of the world or increase them.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who believes that Joel is blinded by his unhealthy love for Ellie. The game’s director, Neil Druckmann, said this about Joel’s motives: “His arc is all about this irrational love you feel for your kid. You would do anything to take away their pain and anything in the world to save them from harm. … He’s willing to put his soul on the line, damning the rest of mankind in exchange for this girl’s life.”
And that’s it, right there. Joel has an irrational love for Ellie that’s fueled by his displaced love for Sarah. Whether consciously or not, he attempts to remedy his sorrow by growing into the role of Ellie’s unlikely protector — but the plan backfires.
Over the course of the game, Joel successfully avoids contracting the pervasive and deadly Cordyceps infection. But, perhaps unbeknownst to him, he ends his journey with the same infection he began it with: grief. It’s an infection that, while seemingly asymptomatic, often causes us to act irrationally, to lie to the people closest to us, and, in some rare instances, betray our own species.