The survivors (The Last of Us)
Warning: spoilers ahead.
I really liked The Last of Us and I was particularly pleased with the conclusion. To tell you the truth, I didn’t expect it. I thought for a moment, when Ellie and Joel finally found Marlene, that the game was moving toward an politically correct ending: the teenager sacrificed on the altar of the common good for the safeguarding of all mankind.
Naughty Dog’s narrative choice completely corresponds to the way I lived the adventure. Ellie’s character grew on me and before I even realize it, I was very fond of her. Arriving in Salt Lake City, it was unthinkable to even conceiving losing her. So, I was totally aligned with Joel’s decision. I am convinced that Ellie doesn’t have enough life experience to make a thoughtful decision. She is fourteen years old and, if she is much more mature than her age suggests, she remains nevertheless subjected to the impetuosity that characterizes any teenager. She has never known the world before the cordyceps plague, except by oral transmission, so she cannot make an informed choice. She ignores the fact that, infection or not, mankind would probably have ended up killing the planet in one way or another: overpopulation, any epidemic, climatic deregulation, nuclear winter… From this prospective, the sacrifice sought has no real meaning. Why save what is ultimately destined to disappear?
The fact is that Marlene simply put those great idealistic speeches in Ellie’s mind. Moreover, what Ellie said to Joel before being taken away by the doctors was something like: “I need a meaning for my life”. These are adult words, from an equally adult issue. A teenager does not think of giving meaning to his life since it just begins. It’s the kind of things you say to yourself when life beat you up, when you need to get your shit together. So, it’s not Ellie who talks but Marlene through her. The latter is not even wicked or manipulative, but reviving human civilization is the purpose of her existence, it’s her way of managing the cordyceps world. Probably because she is unable to adapt to the dreadful daily reality. So, to safeguard her own faith, she believes that sacrificing a child is not a too expensive price to pay. But, it’s an illusion and, perhaps, she is aware of it (on a subconscious level).
I also liked the fact that humans are not idealized in The Last of Us. To a certain degree the cordyceps epidemic is “Mother Nature” making all of mankind pay, indiscriminately, for the suffering endured. Inevitably, the price is high. When you walk around the remains of civilization, you see and hear that nature has regained its rights: lush vegetation, butterflies, birds, twirling insects… It is the third protagonist of the game, its presence is reassuring, an alternative to the horror that men delivered to themselves. It’s not a coincidence that the most agonizing moments of the game are always held inside human constructions. It is from this global pessimism that the game draws its emotional power: most of the humans encountered are revealed as they truly are when the thin film of sociability explodes. They are primitives, none of them deserve any sacrifice, and certainly not Ellie’s. The few benevolent beings that we meet are motivated by their personal interests: this is the case of Marlene, Bill the wacky and even Tess. The only real hope comes from Tommy and his community because they are trying to rebuild from scratch rather than hoping to revive a dead and buried civilization.
In this context, Joel is not such a bad person. He’s a lone wolf, he’s ready to go the depths of hell to save Ellie. During the prologue, he’s presented as a rather normal human being, a single father who works a lot (because of the late hour in which he returns home). He seems to have a good relationship with his daughter, Sarah. It is confirmed by the fact that she offers him a gift (the watch that he will look fugitively throughout the game) and by the birthday card she wrote to him (and forgot to give). It can be manipulated in her room right after Tommy’s panicked phone call and read: “You managed to be the best dad every year”. It is important information, given by Sarah no less. Contrary to some theories I’ve read, Joel is not a psychopath, he is rather a good father or, at least, tries to be.
Of course, by the end of the prologue, his daughter was murdered by a zealous soldier. To Joel, he embodies human authority and, by extension, this civilization The Fireflies want so badly to resurrect. It’s not the infection that killed Sarah, it’s just a human stupidly obedient to the instructions of his superior officer, without showing any critical mind, without taking the time to check if Joel and Sarah were really infected. During the same night, Joel loses his beloved daughter and all civilization goes down the drain. He developed some severe sequelae and when we find him twenty years later for the real beginning of the game, he looks cold, distant and detached. He must be to endure, as he said to Tess at one point: “We are survivors”.
Considering that life in a cordyceps world is not very interesting: living in quarantine areas under military control curfew, food rationing, not much to do to occupy his days, Joel (like most survivors) is not happy. Yet, and despite his emotional burden, he is in a relationship with Tess (who seems to share some of his beliefs) but, overall, he wants to get involved as little as possible with others. Besides, when Tess dies, he says nothing, no speeches, no tears. He swallows his anger and continues his path. The world in which he evolves, populated with infected, bandits, tyrannical soldiers, extremists and, in the midst, a few decent people, does not incite him to trust humanity or develop some idealistic beliefs. Furthermore, when one is psychologically broken and in a situation of survival, it is always easier to rely on oneself. The life philosophy of Joel (and Tess) is perfectly exposed during the sequence with Robert, just before the meeting with Marlene. No arguing, just eliminate the threat, even if it seems innocuous, just in case.
Joel opens himself in Ellie’s contact, step by step. At first, he does the utmost to resist, but it eventually yields. The unfolding is gradual. He just starts by lending a distracted ear to her jokes, chats a little with her and a relationship is being developed. One day, he feels totally invested in his role as a protector and, at some point, Ellie becomes Sarah. Right after the Winter chapter, it’s obvious that Joel won’t accept losing her, no matter what.
Joel learns how to be a father again. In the end, when he lied to Ellie, he totally assumed that role. He never lied to Ellie before, he always told her the cold hard truth about the world, even when it was horrible to hear. But sometimes, a parent must lie to his child to protect him or to prevent him from doing whatever he wants, for his own good. Joel’s experience of the world (both before and after the cordyceps plague) allows him to bring an informed judgement that Ellie is unable to have, not because she is weak but simply because she is too young to know everything. The fact that Joel prevents her from sacrificing herself by lying is a parent’s behavior. Furthermore, their relationship cannot be solely based on this lie. I think that Ellie is perfectly aware that Joel lies to her, but I also believe that she needs to hear it, because she is still a child. It is like when we’re looking for maternal comfort just to hear: “Don’t worry, everything will be fine” even if we know that it won’t always be true. We are conscious in some way that our mother is lying to us, but we remain reassured nonetheless.
This final lie concludes a relationship based on the raw truth and so Joel becomes Ellie’s father. By accepting this lie, she becomes her daughter. This is where the true beauty of The Last of Us lies. For her, it’s the last test before considering Joel as her true adoptive father. It’s a kind of happy ending in suspension, like a poetic breathing after the horror the player had to cross. It is not a comfortable ending but it is poignant. Mankind is worthless, it’s just a few individualities that are important, regrouping like electrons.