He let her down again.
There’s trouble ahead for Joel and Ellie as HBO’s mega-hit The Last of Us ends its first season, but it doesn’t come from the infected. Just like its namesake video game, the story’s true final act is an emotional knife-twist. The implications of Joel’s decisions will cast a shadow over the rest of the show, making the end of the world feel way less important than the possible end of a found father-daughter relationship.
Showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann promised a different kind of apocalypse story, one that was about “the beauty and the horror that come from love” and the season finale would’ve been its most tear-inducing episode yet if viewers hadn’t already ugly-cried during at least three different episodes already. And if the episode had ended with rescues and reunions, maybe it would’ve felt triumphant.
But this isn’t The Mandolorian and Joel’s body count in The Last of Us comes with sobering consequences and subtle shifts in allegiances.
[Major spoilers for the entire first season of HBO’s The Last of Us and Naughty Dog’s 2013 video game of the same name and its Left Behind DLC. No spoilers for season two or the game’s sequel.]
Child death has been a recurring theme since The Last of Us began, with Joel’s beloved teen daughter Sarah getting killed on Outbreak Day twenty years before he met Ellie (Bella Ramsey.) Kansas City’s Henry wouldn’t have become the quarantine zone’s most wanted man if he didn’t save his kid brother Sam’s life.
“Kids die all the time,” said Kathleen, the baddie played by Melanie Lynskey in episode five, casually cruel and ironically honest. Lots of kids die in the post-Cordyceps world; like the little boy who wandered into the Boston Q.Z. way back in the first episode, Henry’s innocent kid brother Sam, Ellie’s first love Riley, even the nameless Clicker girl who eventually kills Kathleen. And of course Joel’s own daughter Sarah was killed twenty years before The Last of Us’ present day, changing the trajectory of not just Joel and Ellie’s future days, but the fate of all humankind.
Maybe Kathleen was right and some children are fated to die, but certainly not Joel’s child. Not again.
As much as Joel and Ellie have become TV’s favorite pair, a Lone Wolf and Foul-mouthed Cub, Joel’s decision to take Ellie out of the Fireflies’ hospital and take out literally every Firefly in his way has doomed humanity’s last known hope for a cure to the fungal apocalypse. The showrunners have explicitly confirmed that if the Fireflies killed Ellie, the vaccine created from her brain would have cured the Cordyceps pandemic. TV-Joel knows even less about the previous vaccine trials and errors than Game-Joel, but makes the same decision. All Joel needs to know is that he cannot lose Ellie.
Pedro Pascal was justly lauded for his realistic depiction of Joel’s PTSD and anxiety, as well as the slow reveal of the massive broken heart beneath Joel’s stoic cowboy shell. A spark of the total goofy Dad he was is still there. But we close the season with Joel, our “hero,” systemically carrying out what is presented as—let’s be real—a starkly terrifying mass shooting, that most malignant symptom of toxic masculinity.
That’s certainly how the families of the people Joel mowed down in cold blood would see it.
The Last of Us may have lulled viewers into a trap: Joel has always had a violent heart, as last episode’s creepy cannibal/pastor David put it, when it comes to protecting those he loves. We’ve seen him kill to protect Ellie before, but on that smaller scale, it felt righteous, fair. The Last of Us was at pains to remind us that the people Joel and Ellie killed had names, people of their own. But there was no time for all that when Joel started methodically blasting his way through that hospital floor by floor, room by room. Okay, there’s the rationale that those Fireflies were armed and shooting at Joel, too. But the doctor that was starting to work on Ellie, the only person known to be working for a world-saving cure, was decidedly unarmed. Marlene, the Firefly leader that brought Joel and Ellie together in the first place, who made a promise to her best friend, Ellie’s late mom. Marlene even gave Joel an out to consider the larger picture. But she was shot dead, too.
Joel had a huge fear was of inaction and, well, he took action. Wouldn’t a parent do anything to protect their child if given the opportunity, if given a second chance?
Of course we want Joel to rescue Ellie; we know their story. Joel did it for his baby girl, so it’s okay with us, right?
But is it okay with Ellie?
Parents often tell children comforting lies to protect their innocence, but Joel’s lie comes right after Ellie’s devastating escape from David, who first wanted to force her into being his child bride, then almost chopped her into stew meat. She needed a real talk in that aftermath, and though Joel tries, her trauma is too recent and different from his own for him to know what to say. As huge as it was for Joel to voluntarily talk to Ellie about his own suicide attempt in the immediate wake of Sarah’s death, it was the appearance of that beautiful, unexpected giraffe that brought a bit of Ellie’s innocence and goodness back into the world, got her a little out of her head.
The subtle wash of about ten different emotions played over Ellie’s face before she said she believed the absolute fairy tale Joel spun for her, as she was sedated during Joel’s hospital rampage. Of course she’s going to say she believe he’s not lying to her because she wants to believe, because she’s the first to admit that she’s scared to end up alone. All Joel and Ellie have right now is each other and they both know it.
But Joel should’ve let Ellie decide her fate. He stole that choice from her and left her with an unfair emotional burden as he projects his own fears onto her. As their enthralling, gut-wrenching journey comes to an end, that’s how you know Joel is officially Ellie’s dad now: he just fucked her up in the way only a trusted parent can.
It hurts to see the distance between them now, the uncomfortable, weighted silence that can’t be cut with a bad pun. Ellie could’ve saved the world, but instead she saved one man.
Is it enough?
- Craig Mazin really knows how exciting unrelenting violence can be in a video game, but how exhausting it is for a passive TV audience. Joel’s torture victim at David’s camp might not agree, but we largely weren’t beaten over the head with it until the end. As faithful as the show has been to the game, it felt most like a video game in the finale, right down to Ellie lowering Joel a ladder and that over-the-shoulder shot. To say nothing of, you know, the “bad guys” going down like Star Wars’ Stormtroopers.
- The giraffe was one of the most tear-jerking moments from the game and I definitely got misty-eyed, but the giraffe kinda had nothing on Frank’s strawberries.
- My favorite bits from the game were the Winter chapters and the levels in Bill’s town, but in the show, it was getting to spend more time with Sarah Miller (Nico Parker,) to see the shy and tender queer romance bloom between Bill and Frank mirrored with Ellie opening up to Riley later on. How even just looking at a press picture of Sam (the massively talented and adorable Keivonn Woodard) made me tear up because I knew what would happen to him. Getting to see inside Jackson was a welcome early surprise, and after covering True Blood for too long, kudos to Rutina Wesley for actually getting an opportunity to be a well-written badass for a change. We love Maria and her Diva cups!
- I do feel the pace was a little too fast. Whereas The Walking Dead might’ve spent all season in the Kansas City QZ, I would’ve liked a little more time with some of the areas Joel and Ellie sped through, and especially just one more episode with Anna Torv’s Tess “Big Spoon” Servopoulos.
- Basically, I just don’t want this season to be over so soon. I want as much time with Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey together as possible and goddamn you, HBO, for taking so long between seasons. But it’s totally been worth the wait for such a pitch-perfect adaptation, so many rewarding expansion packs, on a game that meant so much to so many people.
- Next press junket, can we put a moratorium on calling Pedro Pascal “Daddy”? All the Emmys for him and his “I’m failing in my sleep” monologue. He deserves better than being reduced to a meme.
Theresa DeLucci loves stealth mode. Her fiction has appeared in Weird Horror, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed, with an Honorable Mention in Ellen Datlow’s The Year’s Best Horror Vol. 14. She’s also gotten enthusiastic about pop culture for Den of Geek and Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Find her sneaking past Clickers on Twitter.