Justice, Freedom, and The Self: What Ellie Sacrifices (and Salvages) in The Last of Us Part II
A thorough exploration of the game’s narrative implications
I recently recorded an epic spoilercast for The Last of Us Part II with the VeteranGamers. As I said on that show, I was blown away by the parallax experience of playing as two combatants on different sides of the war, both equally justified in their quest for revenge. For the first time in a long time, a video game used the mechanic of “being” a character for purposes other than mere entertainment. By walking in Ellie’s and Abby’s shoes, we must think differently about war. Like the graphic novel The Other Side — as well as the literary masterpieces All Quiet on the Western Front and The Things They Carried — TLOU2 forces us to consider what we abandon when we call another human The Enemy.
Some of you also know that I had serious problems with The Last of Us part one, especially the ending. After playing it, I wrote:
[This game presents] a pessimistic perspective. We don’t have to shed our humanity or our integrity to survive, and the zombie holocaust backdrop is no excuse for confusing pessimism with realism. Because the reality is that survival requires sacrifice and self-interest. It requires pain and healing. It requires trauma and recovery.
The sequel confronts this paradox. (Maybe the writers at Naughty Dog read what I wrote!) Carolyn Petit from Feminist Frequency has written an excellent piece about these themes in TLOU2, and I recommend that you read it right away.
If art can do anything worthwhile, it can illuminate things in our own worlds, and make our own lives better. We can learn from the mistakes of fictional characters, and find ways to make little changes — or even big changes — for the better. I’ll try to demonstrate how TLOU2 fits into this ideal, with a few connections to my own life.
I also want to examine the final moments of TLOU2, because they offer a powerful rejoinder to the pessimism of the first game. Obviously it’s not a happy ending, or even optimistic. But it’s more balanced, and therefore more realistic. It’s even got some glimmers of hope, which the world desperately needs in this chaotic time.
What is Justice?
Ellie and Abby are both driven to seek justice for their fallen fathers. Like many classic works (Antigone, Things Fall Apart, Hamlet), the question at the heart of this text is the nature of justice itself. Does the death penalty bring justice for victims’ families? I don’t think so, and neither does Debbie Morris. When someone we love is taken away, it’s natural to want revenge, but TLOU2 reminds us that revenge and justice are not the same thing. (If they were, Israel and Palestine would be the places on Earth with the most justice. They’re not.)
As controversial as it is, I will also say that war is not a form of justice. Osama Bin Laden certainly had to be brought to justice after the atrocities of 9/11, but how do the deaths of 244,000 civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq weigh on the scales of justice? In TLOU2, consider all the people killed in the wars between the WLF and Jackson and the Seraphites. Have those deaths brought justice, or simply more misery and suffering?
True justice, I believe, comes when we break the cycles of violence and prevent others from experiencing the same grief that we endure. I think we glimpse justice best when the families of victims demand an end to the moebius strip of revenge. The quality of mercy, as Shakespeare said, is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Anyone who has been forgiven knows how much power it brings to both sides; it helps us become better people, and can help the world become a better place. (I’m going to devote a future SynCast to the topic of mercy. Watch that space.)
Of course mercy without change is not justice; it’s just makes you a doormat. Letting people abuse you endlessly isn’t healthy, and if the abuser never sees the error of their ways, one core purpose of your forgiveness is lost. This is why wars are so common; people believe that forgiveness alone will not change their conditions, and in some extreme circumstances that may be right. But human history has enough examples for us all to agree that the vast majority of violent actions taken — for supposedly justified purposes — actually make things worse. As I said on the spoilercast, preventing a war means one side giving up something to which they are morally entitled.
The other key ingredient to a discussion of justice (especially regarding TLOU2) is our obligations to our ancestors. Like Hamlet, Okonkwo, and Arya Stark, Ellie is driven by a sense of duty to those who came before her. She owes Joel. She has a responsibility to find Abby and make her pay. Until she does, she can’t sleep. She can never be happy. (Or so she thinks.)
The same impulse, of course, drives Abby. She believes that her soul will not find peace until she kills Joel to avenge her own father. It’s hard to tell, but I don’t think she feels peaceful even after she gets her revenge.
I think about this a lot in relation to my own parents. My father died from cancer when I was 16 years old, and I’m driven to be a good teacher and husband and son and brother and friend partly because I want to do right by my father. He gave me so much, and I need to honor his memory by living my life properly. He stressed knowledge, self-awareness, and compassion; these are core principles of my life today.
We can never know if our departed ancestors approve of us or not (unless we’re from Wakanda or Tatooine), but the burden of that responsibility weighs heavily on us, and rightly so. People who ignore their obligations to their ancestors are walking a horrible path. The trickiest bit is trying to figure out how to discharge those obligations. How does Hamlet reconcile his father’s need for justice with the lord’s clear message of “Thou shalt not kill”? How does Okonkwo reconcile his anger toward his father with his need to care for his family? How does Arya Stark reconcile her rage toward the Lannisters with her love for her family?
The biggest tragedy of Ellie’s story in TLOU2 is how long it takes her to figure out what her obligations to Joel really are. Fortunately, she does figure it out — eventually.
Kill Your Masters for Freedom
Despite the Old Testament commandment against killing, most people agree that a state of abject slavery is sufficient justification for taking a human life. Few would argue that the 1831 Southampton Insurrection — horrible as it was — was unjustified. Few would claim that the Treblinka uprising in 1943 — horrible as it was — was unjustified. I believe that violence tends to beget violence, and is used 95% of the time as a result of fury, revenge, and impulse. But I am not a pacifist because, as Cornel West said, sometimes you have no choice but to go down fighting. The rapper Killer Mike said, in Run The Jewels’ 2016 track “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters”: “El spits fire, I spit ether / We the gladiators that oppose all Caesars”.
Ellie and Abby are surrounded by people who wish to enslave and brutalize and dehumanize them. Therefore, in a narrow but urgent sense, they are justified in attempting to kill their masters.
But humans are ruled also by other things, a point Killer Mike explained in an interview in June of this year:
My master happens to be sugar. So I have to go work out, drink more water. I don’t have a physical master right now. I have to master myself in situations. I have to master my discipline. I have to master my need for powerful people to want me or to give me approval. So it’s self-mastery. That’s what I’m talking about.
Fear is a powerful master, the so-called “mind killer”. So is anger, and — perhaps most terrible of all our masters — the ego. We are driven by confusion, by ignorance, by ideology, to do things great and small, wise and foolish, compassionate and violent.
Ellie’s most dangerous masters are her regrets and her grief. She is afraid of disappointing Joel, just after they were starting to heal the wound caused by his betrayal. Even when she is living in paradise with her beloved, she cannot sleep. She is tormented by survivor’s guilt, and she believes (wrongly) that only vengeance will bring her peace.
Who Are You?
As with Barton Fink and Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Ellie’s biggest problem comes from not understanding who she is. In TLOU1, she believed she was the salvation of the human race. Her immunity could have led to a vaccine for the disease that was destroying civilization. When Joel took her away from the Fireflies, her purpose — her identity — vanished. (Even worse, he lied to her, which destroyed their bond of trust. I’m glad she demanded the truth in TLOU2.)
Ellie’s not alone here. Many people don’t really know who they are. Survivors of war have a particularly difficult time, due to PTSD and survivor’s guilt. (Joel addresses this at the end of TLOU1, telling Ellie: “You keep finding something to fight for.”) Many veterans come home from war to find themselves adrift, lost in a world that doesn’t understand their experience — and often doesn’t care. Anthony Swafford and Ishmael Beah wrote about this process in Jarhead and A Long Way Gone, respectively.
Joel is killed right after Ellie agreed to start healing the rift between them. She knew it would be a long, painful process, but she was ready to begin. She was willing to take the risk, and this provided a renewed purpose. Although the lyrics of Pearl Jam’s song “Future Days” are sung by Joel to Ellie — “If I ever were to lose you / I’d surely lose myself” — they mirror how she feels too, given their closeness and history and intertwined destinies.
When Abby kills Joel, then, she robs Ellie of this new purpose. Once again her sense of self is thrown into chaos. Ironically, Joel’s death gives Ellie a new purpose. Her vengeance is a new meaning for her, something to fight for. Unfortunately, she starts rebuilding her foundation of self on a bedrock of hatred and bloodlust. Such an edifice is bound to crumble.
Ellie’s End: Lost & Found
As Chinny said in the VeteranGamers spoilercast, Ellie loses everything at the end of the game. Dina and the baby are gone. Joel’s dead, and the gift of music he gave her through the guitar is gone, now that she’s lost the fingers on her left hand. She also doesn’t have her need for revenge driving her, so she’s lost yet another purpose.
But has she actually lost everything? For one thing, she’s still alive. So are Dina and JJ, and her Uncle Tommy. She has her memories, and although Dina said “I’m not gonna do this again” before Ellie leaves, she’s still out there — and we all assume Ellie’s going to look for her, right? As with the end of Good Will Hunting, the future of their relationship is uncertain, but then all futures are uncertain, and hope dies last.
And consider this: Ellie freed Abby and Lev. She killed their masters. As grim as her purpose was, if Ellie had not tracked Abby down, she and Lev would have died at the hands of the slavers in Santa Barbara. If nothing else then, Ellie can take some small comfort in the knowledge that her actions kept Lev alive, just as surely as Lev’s actions earlier kept Dina alive.
And this is one of the truly beautiful things about TLOU2. It speaks to the value of mercy and compassion. In a world of such horrors and tragedy, such value may be the only moral compass. When Lev calls Abby’s name to keep her from killing Dina, he’s trying to preserve whatever goodness still lives inside her. Whatever else she clings to, Ellie should remember what it feels like to set someone free in an act of mercy. (That, Oskar says in Schindler’s List, is power: “when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t”.)
In his 2006 novel The Road, Cormac McCarthy writes — in his trademark minimalist style, without even using quote marks around dialogue — about a father trying to protect his son from horrors similar to those facing Ellie and Abby:
[The son] sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes [said his father]. We’re still the good guys.
And we always will be.
Yes. We always will be.
But how do we know? Once you’re no longer willing to take your father’s word for it, how do you know who the good guys are? What makes a “good guy” good? Is it something we’re born with, or some series of stories we tell ourselves? Hitler and Bin Laden believed they were the “good guys”, right? As Nadia Van Dyne says in Ironheart Vol. 2: “Evil isn’t something you are or are not. Evil is something that any human can do or not do, given the circumstances. That’s why we have to choose. To do the right thing.”
Grand questions of life and death make “the right thing” hard to pinpoint, as Spike Lee proves in his 1989 film. I don’t believe Joel’s killing of Fireflies at the end of TLOU1 is the right thing. I don’t believe Abby’s killing of Joel is the right thing, either, but I have more sympathy for her. Ellie realizes — finally, just as she’s about to kill Abby in the water — that her murderous revenge is not the right thing. It’s not what Joel would have wanted.
Many gamers are furious with this decision on Ellie’s part, since it makes the previous 25 hours of revenge-questing feel pointless. But perhaps that is the point of the game — that Ellie was wrong to chase meaning in her life through vengeance. She was fixated on the wrong obligations toward Joel.
As Carolyn Petit wrote:
[When Ellie left Dina] she hadn’t yet heard what Joel had said to her that night, that she deserved to love and be loved, too. It was because she didn’t think she deserved to be there with Dina, getting a shot at happiness.
only now [can Ellie] understand, or finally be able to accept, that he wouldn’t want her doing any of this, that he’d rather she was safe and happy in Dina’s arms than seeking vengeance for his death.
Everything Joel did, he did to give Ellie a good life. She only understood how to accept this gift after (maybe) throwing it all away.
A Larger Sense of Justice
This, I think, is the best reminder from TLOU2, and it arrives perfectly to coincide with the global protests against police brutality and white supremacy in the US: Justice requires humans’ well-being. It’s not just the absence of death and pain and impunity, but the presence of health and joy. Our ancestors worked and struggled and sacrificed so that we could live better, happier, more fulfilling lives. If we spend them endlessly fretting about whether we’re shedding enough blood in their names — as Hamlet does — then we’re not achieving justice.
My father busted his hump to give my brother and me a good education, a loving home, and a strong sense of moral responsibility. to honor him, I have to give back to my community, which I try to do every day in the classroom. But I also have to enjoy my life. I need to love my wife and have a good time with friends. I owe him that.
This is difficult to accept, I think, because we don’t usually use words like “justice” outside of prison cells and electric chairs. But a larger sense of justice requires a world where no one is homeless. Where no one is poor. Where no one dies needlessly. Where everybody enjoys leisure time and games and fun comic books and movies about dinosaurs. You deserve these things. George Floyd deserved these things. Ellie deserves these things, and the next generation coming after us deserves them too.
So if you’re not able to enjoy these things, I want you to figure out why. I want you to do whatever you must, to reach a place where you can enjoy the good things in your life. I want you to kill your masters. Whether through meditation, therapy, medication, exercise, art, social connection, or some other method, you owe it to your ancestors to liberate yourself from the prison of your mind. I can’t tell you exactly how to do that, just as Joel couldn’t tell Ellie how to let go of her guilt and shame and rage.
But I believe you can, and I hope you will.