Episode Analysis The Last of Us: Look for the Light
The ninth episode of HBO's The Last of Us reveals what the story has really been about this whole time (and that's horrible).
Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us through episode nine as well as references to the same story points in the game. Read at your own risk.
Hey, guys! Welcome to episode nine of HBO’s The Last of Us. Did you know you were watching the story of the villain the whole time?
Yeah. There’s a reason why those who know the game have been saying pssst - it’s not a zombie story!
The Last of Us - game and show - isn’t a zombie apocalypse story. It’s a story about using the tropes of its genre - stealth survival in its game form, apocalypse in its TV form - to take the audience on a journey where, whether they realize this is what’s happening or not, they’ve come to understand and sympathize with the man who doomed humanity.
Now I get it - I get it. There are people whipping up hot takes in the comments as soon as I said that. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the debate about whether this is what Joel actually did. And to show I won’t leave you hanging let me just put it out there that I am not team Firefly by any means. It’s okay.
But the concept of the reality isn’t the same thing as the concept of the story. And the concept of the story is to challenge the audience on the assumptions that are made when you play games like this, or watch TV shows with protagonists like this.
Because this is the thing: whether you agree that Joel is the bad guy, the thing that’s indisputable is that Joel is a bad guy. As in he’s not a good guy. He is not the hero. And this goes right back to that core mission statement of the show, the thing that Craig Mazin himself said was written on the first page of the show bible, that I’ve been telling you has two parts and we would talk about the second after the finale aired.
Well we’ve had the finale so here you go:
Part one: This is a love story.
Part two: And that’s not good.
Does Joel love? Absolutely. Does his love inspire him to do good things? Oh fuck no. The Last of Us, the story of Joel and Ellie, is about how love can be bad. Love can bring destruction. Love can bring betrayal, and pain, and hurt, and, in fact, cause the downfall of humanity. And the show told the audience that. It told them from the very beginning and kept telling and people ignore it because video games like this and TV shows like this encourage the idea that being the big strong tough guy who single handedly murders his way across the country is the good one.
Because it’s an apocalypse, right? Only way to survive, right? And the thing we’re supposed to admire is the character who fires off a shot through someone’s head while maybe saying a perfect one liner and then moving on to his next kill, right?
Except no. That’s not how it works. Violence isn’t good. Murder isn’t good. Treating people like they are nothing but target practice just like you do in most video games isn’t good.
So what if someone tells a story that shows you that? Draws you in to a video game, or a TV show, and over the course of however many hours says hey, why do we buy into these tropes? Why do we so mindlessly agree with what these types of stories normally tell us? What if we took a step back and wondered what the big picture was?
And that is The Last of Us.
I could keep going but at this point we’re getting into the analysis, so let’s get into the analysis. I’ll talk about the story first and how the series, like the game, beautifully put its true story in plain sight the entire time while tricking the audience into not seeing it. Then we’ll get into my take on the debate of whether it was the right thing to do to take Ellie out of that operating room.
How HBO’s The Last of Us Hid Its True Story In Plain Sight
The thing about The Last of Us - and when I write it without the “HBO” let’s just take it as a given I mean both the show and the game unless I say otherwise - is that it repeatedly, and to some points even flamingly obviously, tells you its real story the whole time. I’ll give examples but trust me when I say once you see the pattern (assuming you didn’t pick up on it already by the time the credits rolled on Look for the Light) you will sit there and go “Oh son of a bitch!”
But to talk about what it hid we have to talk about what it showed. To that end we have to go back to the very beginning, which is that in the game Joel Miller looks like a good majority of male video game protagonists. They come in several types and Joel’s is “White man with a fairly good build and a scruffy beard.” When someone sits down to play The Last of Us and sees Joel, they immediately go oh, okay, I know this guy. He’s the hero. He looks exactly like video game heroes do. And if you noticed that I mentioned that he is white that is not a coincidence. In the world of video games, and especially with a certain kind of gamer, it matters that the person they’re supposed to be identifying with is a white dude.
To be clear, I am not saying all gamers are racist. I’m saying that of the subsection of gamers who could most benefit from being challenged in their assumptions of who the good guy is, racism is sure as hell one of the factors.
Now we notice that HBO’s The Last of Us did not cast a white guy for Joel. And yes, that same subsection of gamers did whine about it. But let’s notice how brilliant Joe’s casting was in terms of tricking the audience into assuming things. They didn’t cast just any random non white guy for “woke” points (as the nay sayers like to claim). They cast Pedro Pascal.
Pedro Pascal, who is not only an amazing actor, but a guy well known for playing a character of questionable morals who comes to love and care and want to protect a child who is not his own. A guy who, in fact, is arguably typecast in these dad type roles.
People saw Pedro Pascal get cast as Joel and, even if they knew nothing about The Last of Us except for that casting announcement, immediately went oh, cool. Pedro’s playing a role where a tough guy character protects and comes to care for a kid. Good to know.
Pedro “The Mandalorian” Pascal in this role was the fastest way to get people to turn their brains off when it came to applying any kind of “hey, wait a second - “ type analysis to Joel’s behavior. Because just as video games trained players to assume white guy with a scruffy beard = good, media as a whole has trained us to want to root for Pedro if there’s a child he cares about.
Then you throw in the fact that Pedro Pascal is an insanely good actor who could convey a thousand layers of Joel’s emotions and personality in a single eye blink, and frankly the audience doesn’t even stand a chance. Poor Joel! He’s hurt! He has trauma! His daughter Sarah was killed in his arms and he’s spent 20 years dealing with that pain. Then Ellie comes along and he feels love again! He has a daughter again! This is a beautiful story about a sweet man’s journey of healing!
Except…. nope. No it isn’t. Isn’t, wasn’t. Because that’s not Joel. That’s Joel as you see from his and Ellie’s perspective.
This then gets into what I started whispering at you guys back in episode six, Kin: what story is being told and whose point of view is it from?
Take a second. Think over the course of the entire series. How often were you presented with the concept of two sides? FEDRA vs Fireflies. Kathleen vs Henry. Even Jacksonville vs the sweet old couple. Each time it was the same thing: the villain of the story depends on who is telling it.
The Last of Us, even the HBO version which has the benefit of switching narrative POV occasionally, mostly keeps you on Joel and Ellie’s side of the story.
Joel isn’t the villain of his own story. Yes, Joel has guilt issues. He has nightmares about failing in his sleep. I’m not denying that. But on the whole Joel does not consider himself a bad guy. He’s a guy who had to do what he needed to in order to survive, but he doesn’t consider himself a villain.
This then gets into another theme of how The Last of Us works. Stories have to teach the audience what they are about. Now whether the story succeeds in its goals is another question. But in order to try to achieve its goals the story has to make it clear what the playing field is.
In Joel’s case, the story tells us Joel doesn’t consider himself a bad guy. This comes up again and again in conversations. Tess tells Joel they did horrible things that they should probably be sorry about and Joel doesn’t act like he agrees with her. Tommy flat out says they did unforgivable things and Joel in turn tells Tommy he’s wrong because they did what they had to in order to survive.
Sure, Joel doesn’t go around bragging about the times he killed innocent people as a hunter, but neither does he ever apologize. He either brushes it off, like when Ellie asks him about it in Kansas City, or he gets pissed at being challenged about it, like with Tommy in Jacksonville.
So the story has now taught us: Joel thinks what he did was justified.
But the other thing the story teaches us is: nobody else does.
There is not a single person who knows about Joel who considers him a good person. In episode one after the time jump the closest we come is Tess, and even with her it’s because she isn’t a good person and she knows it. It is also clear that Tess knows that while she is bad, Joel is worse.
And so does everyone else! In the interrogation scene with Robert what does Tess have to do? Not just argue for herself but insist Joel will not get involved. Robert is an arms dealer with multiple people working for him and he is scared shitless of Joel. When Marlene comes into the picture she makes it clear she doesn’t want to deal with Joel. Tess is bad, sure. She’s a smuggler and outlaw and all that. But Tess can be reasoned with. Joel is flat out dangerous.
This comes up again and again throughout the series. Even with people who have only just met Joel, like Kathleen’s people in Kansas City and David’s in Silver Lake, when they talk about Joel what do they say? He is incredibly dangerous. He is ridiculously dangerous, in fact. He’s a man who can single handedly take out lots of their people, holy shit!
But the audience doesn’t realize the implications of that because media has trained us to hear things like this and go “Yeah! Joel is a badass! Go Joel!”
But think about it. Take a second. Remember yet again that the story taught you what it is about. Joel is human. He’s not a Terminator. He’s a guy. He’s a guy in his 50s with a bum knee and hearing loss. The TV show makes sure to remind you that Joel is human so you judge him as a human. And a human being who has the skills to single handedly murder large groups of people even with a bum knee is not a guy who has spent the free time of his life honing his skills with meditation or macramé.
Joel is a dangerous man, Joel is a killer, Joel is not a good guy.
Let’s go yet another level here: Joel and Tommy. Tommy, the flighty brother who would follow a used gum wrapper if he thought it led somewhere interesting. Tommy, who Joel constantly has to bail out of trouble, oh my god. Tommy who maybe has some nice ideas about saving the world but they are impractical and wrong and what does he know, am I right?
Tommy… who told Maria stories about his brother Joel that were so bad Maria warned a 14 year old girl she didn’t know that she shouldn't trust him.
Think about it. Maria never met Joel. All she knows of Joel is what Tommy told her. What stories did Tommy tell that made Maria distrust Joel so badly? Tommy is Joel’s brother. How bad could those stories be, right? After all, Joel is the guy who keeps saving Tommy’s ass, right? Tommy should be grateful!
We hear the story of Tommy’s life from Joel. Joel is the one who thinks Tommy is flighty. But take a step back. What’s the common theme of those stories?
Tommy keeps leaving Joel.
Ever hear about the missing missing reasons? “My relative went no contact with me and I have no idea why!” Except when you ask you find out they were told why and ignored it.
Tommy told Joel he didn’t like what the two of them did. He told Joel he wanted to do things differently. He told Joel he wanted to help people.
And all those times Joel had to track Tommy down and bail him out? Well yeah, we see in episode one that sometimes this is true. Tommy got arrested and literally needed Joel to bail him out. But we’re also shown that this is sometimes false: Joel thought Tommy was in trouble and turns out Tommy’s happy as a clam over in Jacksonville and just not returning Joel’s phone calls.
(I know that the stated reason was that Jacksonville requires radio silence. But remember Jacksonville has been there for a while and Tommy only cut contact a short while before the events of episode one. Unless Jacksonville suddenly changed its rules, it was Tommy making the final decision there.)
Does Tommy love Joel? Absolutely. I’m not saying Tommy hates him. But after Tess, Tommy is the person who knew Joel best and Tommy repeatedly chooses to keep distance between the two of them. Tess and Tommy were the two people with the most reason to care for Joel in this apocalyptic world and they both agree that Joel is a bad person. The only difference is that Tess actually liked that about Joel, even as she felt guilt about the things the two of them had to do to survive.
Are you starting to see it? If you didn’t before, is this particular magic eye painting starting to come into view? Are you starting to pick up on how there was a pattern the whole time telling you that Joel was never a hero?
And for your “Oh son of a bitch!” moment: are you remembering back to the prologue? To Outbreak day? You know, before the apocalypse, and Sarah’s death which was supposedly the thing that set Joel on the path of being bad? Because, you know, trauma! Apocalypse! Totally reasonable excuses for becoming a little selfish and murdery!
And are you starting to remember now… oh wait, Joel beat his elderly neighbor to death super quickly. Like yeah she was infected but Joel didn’t hesitate. Didn’t even have to take a second to wonder how to aim and how much force to use for those killing blows directly to her skull. Just kinda… went at it there, huh.
And are you remembering how Joel didn’t stop to help any of his neighbors? Sure he told a couple to get back inside their house but otherwise didn’t give them any useful information about protecting themselves.
And are you remembering how while they were driving they passed a family with a hurt child? And how Joel said to leave them because they had a child in their car and that was more important?
And do you remember how both Tommy and Sarah thought that was a horrible thing to do?
Yeah. The Last of Us told the audience the whole time what this story was about. Right from the very beginning. Most just didn’t realize it because they thought it was a story about zombies.
The Decade Long Debate About Joel’s Decision In The Last of Us
We can’t get to the finale and not talk about the decision Joel makes. Now here’s the thing: understanding Joel’s decision is a separate thing from whether he did something horrible. Personally, I completely understand Joel’s decision. The entire story is about learning to empathize with what Joel does. But the thing is that even if you take out the whole “dooming the world” part, what Joel does is horrible. Horrible with a reason but, you know,
The issue of Joel’s decision is a trolley problem. It’s a thought experiment. Do you save one person and kill multiple or kill multiple to save one? Does it matter who the one is? Does it matter who the multiple are? There’s never going to be a “right” answer there because what’s right depends on your own sense of ethics. The debate is the point.
That being said, I’m going to do the discussion because what we can talk about is how the story presents it. And the story makes it clear what the characters think and what the worldbuilding supports. Which ties in to how well the show was made and that’s the sort of stuff we love geeking out about here at chez TBQTalks.
And sure while we’re on the topic I’ll give you my personal thoughts because why the heck not?
So, all that being said…
There’s no challenge to The Last of Us if the story believes that what Joel did is an objective good. There’s no point to The Last of Us if that’s the case. You don’t need hours of story (nine in the case of the show, around twenty in the case of the game) to be taught “Hey it’s a good thing to protect children.” You could’ve been taught that story by Joel and Ellie staying the fuck in Boston and eating chicken sandwiches.
So no matter what, something about what Joel does at the hospital is bad. It can be debated how bad, but it’s bad.
Now personally I agree that the premise of the whole thing is flawed. The premise in this case being that Ellie is the only person on the planet with the possible cure in her, the people in the Salt Lake City hospital are the only people on the planet who could make a cure, and that the Fireflies could somehow distribute a cure around the world (or, frankly, that they would even want to. I mean come on, you think they’re giving samples over to FEDRA anytime soon? Not likely.).
All of those concepts are frankly a big ask for audience buy-in, and that’s even before you get into how back in 2013 you could at the very least accept it as a given that if a cure or vaccine for a worldwide pandemic was made available people everywhere would be lining up to take it. Woo boy did no one expect that part to age like milk.
And that’s not even getting into things like holy crap did Ellie have to be flung on the operating table that quickly? Can’t take some blood samples or spinal fluid or something first? Because once Ellie’s dead she’s dead. You fuck up that option the first time you’re not getting a mulligan.
Buuuuuuuuuuuuut some of this we have to accept as the conceit of the game. Much like how in Romeo and Juliet it doesn’t matter if you believe in love at first sight, the story says it exists so you have to just go with it.
So to that end… yeah. Joel doomed the world. There was one option for a cure and Joel destroyed it. He picked the life of one little girl over however many millions of people are on the planet. That’s not just bad, that’s real bad. That’s Joel is unquestionably the villain of the piece. A villain with understandable motivations, but still the villain.
But for the sake of argument let’s allow that it’s not a given that the Fireflies could’ve cured humanity by killing Ellie. Could it still be argued that what Joel did was good?
To be clear, there are people who do this. They think that what Joel did was an objective good up to and including arguing that killing the doctor was an act of self defense in the service of saving an innocent child. To that end, let me briefly touch on the game because this is where you see the story beats that matter.
In the game things play out pretty much like they do on the show. Joel is told Ellie will be killed for the cure, he’s forcibly escorted out, he manages to subdue the men escorting him, and then he single handedly makes his way up to that operating room.
What is optional during the journey to the operating room is how much additional information Joel learns along the way, such as Marlene talking about the difficulty of knowing Ellie has to be killed for this and the doctors talking about their frustration in trying to find a cure, and how many people Joel kills. He does have to kill some, but it is possible to stealth your way up to the operating room and not kill every single person Joel comes across.
What is not optional is killing the doctor. As on the show, Joel comes into the room and demands they release Ellie. The doctor does grab a scalpel and says he won’t let Joel do this. You cannot progress in the game without killing the doctor. It’s up to you if you kill the nurses, but you have to push the button on your controller to kill the doctor. The doctor who is only standing there with a tiny scalpel in his hand while, in the game, trying to get you to understand how important it is to get the cure.
The rest then plays out exactly like the show, including how it’s revealed in flashback that Joel not only shot Marlene but went back to shoot her in order to make sure she was dead.
I say all this to point out that the unquestionable parts of the story are that Joel kills a doctor who is only armed with a scalpel and that Joel kills Marlene in cold blood while she is weaponless and helpless. I will point out that neither of these actions are necessary to accomplish the goal of getting Ellie off that operating table. Nobody but Joel is armed in that operating room. The doctor, I will remind you, is holding a scalpel. It’s a wee little blade up against Joel’s gun in the show and, if you’re in the game, Joel’s multiple guns, melee weapons, a bow and arrow, and a flamethrower.
The doctor isn’t even moving in Joel’s direction! In both versions he’s holding the scalpel defensively in case Joel moves forward but that’s it. Joel isn’t acting in self defense. He has multiple options for how to handle this situation before going to a gunshot to the head and he tries none of them.
(If you need help on suggestions here, there’s talking to the doc during this standoff, especially if Joel left a pile of corpses in his wake so nobody’s coming to interrupt them anytime soon. There’s firing a warning shot to see if that motivates the doc to step back. There’s shooting the doc in the foot. There’s bum rushing the doc and knocking him to the floor. There’s holding a nurse hostage. There’s starting to destroy valuable equipment to see if that’s a motivator. You get the idea. Killshot didn’t even have to be in the top 10.)
At this point we start getting into the “Okay, but…” of it all. Okay, but the Fireflies tried killing Joel first! Okay, but this is an apocalypse and you have to be violent to survive! Okay, but the Fireflies suck and threw Ellie on that operating table to die without so much as asking her!
Cool. Let’s get into it.
Yeah, in both versions Marlene makes it clear to the Fireflies that Joel gets shown the door and if he tries anything, kill him. Man, what a bitch, huh? She has hate on sight for our sweet Joel! Video game dad! How dare she!
Except… Marlene knows Joel. She knows Joel pretty well. She knows Joel for years, actually, since she knew Joel when Tommy was a Firefly.
So think about it: if Maria has a distrust of Joel based purely on hearing Tommy’s stories about what Joel is like, imagine Joel from Marlene’s point of view. She knows him. And what’s the thing we went over in the previous section? Joel is a bad guy who is extremely violent. Marlene even reminds us that Joel is the last guy she’d ever want to be in debt to.
“Awh, but Joel changed! He’s got Ellie! He’s soft dad now! Marlene should’ve given him a chance!” Yeah, except no. He’s not different! He loves Ellie, absolutely. He considers Ellie his daughter. Did he get less violent because of that? No! If anything, he got worse. That’s the entire point.
From Marlene’s point of view Joel is an extremely dangerous man. She can tell he’s grown attached to Ellie. Now we can argue the ethics of Marlene’s decision and in fact we will in just a second. But the wisdom of Marlene’s handling of Joel is spot on. She knows he is dangerous, that he is not to be trusted, and that if given half a chance he’ll start torturing and killing. Frankly the questionable wisdom choice - and an argument that Marlene is a bit of a softy herself - is that she didn’t have Joel shot in the head as soon as he protested.
(My guess here is that her mistake was not realizing how much Joel cared for Ellie. She was assuming he was the emotionless asshole from before. She had no idea that what changed about Joel on the journey from Boston was that his known propensity for extreme acts of violence had gained a whole new trigger point.)
Put all this another way: do you honestly think that if Marlene had said, “Joel, please leave?” Joel wouldn’t have grabbed the first gun he could get his hands on because Marlene was nice to him? He wanted Ellie. He was prepared to do whatever it took to get her. Everything else was details.
But apocalypse! Society’s rules have changed! Violence is the way of life!
Except no. And the show and game teach us that.
Sure, survival is harder. Life is harder. You don’t not have to do things to defend yourself from infected or raiders or what have you.
But is the only option to be Joel? Kill or be killed every moment of the day every day of the week?
Remember Bill and Frank? The supposed filler episode? That was an entire episode showing that violence and hate doesn’t have to be the way of life. You can have love and it’s a love that nurtures. It’s a love that can make you better than you are.
Yes, Bill and Frank had to deal with violence from time to time. They had to be isolationist, which is sad from a certain point of view (I suspect not Bill’s though). But they were happy. They lived life on their terms and died on their terms as well.
Remember all the parallels with Joel and Ellie that have been put up there again and again. How Bill in particular was a mirror to Joel, and how he even wrote a letter reminding Joel that the thing to do is find purpose in life with someone you love.
Now would Bill have gone on a killing rampage if Frank was on that operating table? Maybe. But the point here is that Bill didn’t make torture and killing his way of life like Joel did. Bill and Frank prove there’s another option.
Likewise the elderly couple who warns Joel about going west show this same option. Yeah, they live alone as far as we can see but they’re happy. They have love for each other. They defend themselves when they need to but otherwise they keep to themselves. Heck, when Joel holds them hostage he even gets offered soup. Violence didn’t have to be the answer.
Jacksonville is your next example. Yes, Jacksonville has to keep their settlement small and secure. They have to make shows of strength when infected or raiders come. But day to day it’s not a life of fear, it’s one of love and support. People help out around town. Elderly, disabled, and children feel safe there. There’s laughter and joy and movie nights. Jacksonville is not only surviving it’s thriving.
Compare that to Kansas City and Kathleen who ruled by fear. Kathleen is the “But violence is what you need an an apocalypse!” answer. How’d that work out? Yeah, she got rid of FEDRA but who was thrilled about that besides her fellow rebels? The citizens pretty quickly got terrified of her. Then it all became a moot point because ooops, turns out Kathleen’s obsession with killing someone who crossed her - her violence motivated by love for her brother - wasn’t the answer.
To go on a brief tangent here, this is why when I hear people go “Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone is a mirror to Joel and Ellie, I get it” I would say hmmm, but do you though? Because it isn’t just “One’s the protector! The other is the protected! They fight crime!” as a parallel every time this comes up. Yes, that’s the start of the parallel, but each time there’s been nuance both for the implications about Joel and Ellie and the implications for the story.
Case in point: Henry. He was motivated by love to save Sam’s life. Motivated by a need Sam had which connected him to a cure provided by medicine, just to make sure this comparison to Joel and Ellie was easy to see in the cheap seats. But remember the full end of Henry and Sam’s story: Henry’s actions doomed Kansas City and in the end Sam died anyway which made what Henry did to save him a moot point.
Ooo, yeah. Put a pin in that we’re getting back to it. But again, are you seeing how there’s been layers upon layers to Joel and Ellie’s story that have been in front of the audience the whole time? Once you get the decoder ring with the finale you start to realize how insanely good the story is and likewise how insanely good Craig Mazin and his team were at translating it for television.
(Also protip: If you think you know who Kathleen and her brother are the parallel to with Joel and Ellie, might be worth double checking if you remember which one of them was the protector in that relationship. Then think about that in light of the story we’ve seen so far and what pieces have been put in place. Just throwing that out there.)
Speaking of translating the story to television, I want to give a shout out here to editors Timothy A Good and Emily Mendez for how they translated the footage of Joel in the hospital (for which we also credit director Ali Abbasi and director of photography Nadim Carlsen) into something that especially made the sequence horrifying and not something to admire. Timothy and Emily gave interviews with The Editing Podcast on how they accomplished that which I’ll link down in Lagniappe. But point being that the sequence could have been done like an action movie. Shots fired! Joel the badass! And instead it was a nightmare of corpses left one after another as Joel didn’t even blink.
(Note: Cindy Mollo, who edited last week’s episode, is credited on IMDB for working on Look for the Light. However, her name did not appear in the credits of the episode itself, nor do Timothy and Emily mention her in the interview when they have no hesitation in sharing credit with anyone in production who contributed to the final results. So my guess is that this is an IMDB error. But I’m mentioning Cindy’s name just in case it wasn’t a mistake and she did work on the episode as well.)
Something I particularly loved about the hospital sequence was how it paid off the gamble of cutting down on the action in the other eight episodes. Craig and Neil have talked about that decision repeatedly on the companion podcast and in interviews, and what they say is that in live action death is different from video games. The hospital sequence proves that masterfully. In the game these are just NPCs. They’re in your way. You can stealth around them or you can kill them. It’s a video game, what does it matter?
On the show because this is the first time we see this level of violence we are reminded that no, it matters. These are human beings. They’re people who joined the Fireflies because they wanted to save humanity. They’re people with family and friends of their own. They’re people who - as Craig jokes in the companion podcast - might not have even been meant to be there that day. Maybe someone got sick and they’re subbing in. Who knows?
The point is that they’re humans. And Joel killing them isn’t treated as good, or wonderful. It’s horrifying.
So no, not “But the apocalypse!” The story, the game, the show all tell us violence does not have to be the way. It’s just Joel’s way.
Then we get to the “But the Fireflies are assholes!” defense. To which I say - yeah no, totally. Fuck the Fireflies. I am not on their side at all. And I’ll even point out to you why the story tells you that you’re not necessarily supposed to be on their side either. Remember back in episode one when I pointed out that our introduction to FEDRA and to the Fireflies was the same? We meet both of them via these organizations coming across an infected child.
FEDRA brings the boy inside, ties him down for safety, but treats him kindly and when the need comes they give him a gentle death.
The Fireflies take Ellie, chain her up in a room for three weeks without any company or information, and then tell her she’s being transported to be a cure.
Now I’m not saying this means FEDRA is good because the Fireflies are bad. FEDRA has all its own reasons for being awful, no question. My point is that it’s no accident that it’s the same introduction to the both of them and the way the Fireflies handle it fucking sucks. And that’s even before you take into account that Marlene is effectively Ellie’s godmother! Like holy crap you guys are the worst.
On top of that there’s the issue of agency. And you may recall a couple episodes ago I pointed out it was not a waste of time to pay attention to how often the idea of agency came up in the story. Who has it? Who offers it? Who is treated as worthy of being given it?
The Fireflies don’t give Ellie any agency. They treat her as a resource. The show differs from the game in that Marlene at least presents the reasons for this as being good ones - don’t worry, we didn’t tell her she was going to die, she didn’t have any fear - but the result is the same. Ellie is tossed on that operating table without being asked if she’s okay with what happens.
Now there is the argument that 14 year olds shouldn’t be asked. They’re still kids, their brains aren’t even developed enough to make these decisions (ironic, given that Ellie’s brain is the thing being operated on). And that’s a valid argument. Not one I personally ascribe to. I think Ellie’s opinion on her own life matters. But I understand the point of view. I mean if a five year old said they’re fine dying to bring a cure to all of humanity I’d be like hmm, okay sweetie, we’ll bear that in mind now go play with your toys. At what point in the aging process does the kid become old enough to have a say? Some say 14 isn’t it and that’s valid.
But the point is that if you do believe that Ellie isn’t old enough now then by definition she will be old enough to decide later. And therein lies the rub for our buddy Joel.
The Fireflies give Ellie no agency. That sucks. That’s absolutely a bad thing. But if the Fireflies not respecting Ellie’s agency is a crime then so is Joel when he does the same thing.
Joel doesn’t just take Ellie off the table. He murders the guy who could’ve figured out the cure. He also murdered Marlene on the odd chance she figured out a plan B for the cure later. Homeboy went full on scorched earth here. And what he didn’t do, same as what Marlene and the Fireflies didn’t do, is ask Ellie her opinion on the subject.
Even if you argue that Ellie can’t decide that now, what’s the harm in letting her decide later? Joel has escaped from plenty of dangerous situations with Ellie before, from hoards of infected to the Kansas City militia to Silver Lake after Ellie made pudding out of David’s face. It’s entirely in his skillset to get Ellie out of there to safety - in fact he was primed to do so when he put Ellie in the back seat of the car before going back to finish off Marlene - and let Ellie live long enough to have the maturity to make up her own mind and go find that doctor again.
But Joel doesn’t do that. Because he doesn’t give a shit about that. Ellie is his daughter now and he wants to keep her. End of discussion. Up to and including asking Ellie her opinions on the subject.
Let’s take a step back: what does the story tell us about how to approach this problem? We can - and I do - side eye the idea that Ellie really was the cure and that the setup the Fireflies and Dr Scalpel had could’ve manufactured that cure and saved humanity. We can side eye that idea until the sheep come home because actually it doesn’t matter for the purposes of the morality of what Joel or the Fireflies did.
And we know that because of what Tess tells Joel -and by extension us - in episode 2. It doesn’t matter if Ellie is a cure, it matters that people believe she is.
The Fireflies believed it. Ellie believed it. And even Joel believed it. Joel would not have taken Ellie on that journey if he didn’t believe it.
Now did Joel care about the benefit of humanity from that cure? Probably not. He was never an altruistic guy even before he met Ellie. But if nothing else he believed she believed it. I do think over the course of their journey together he started to get on board with how hey, maybe a cure wouldn’t be so bad to have. But again our overall point here is what did each character believe? Because it’s their belief that shaped their decision and which frames the morality of what they do.
Let’s put this another way: if you give me a button and tell me that pressing it will kill someone in the next room, it doesn’t matter if the button does kill somebody, it matters if I believe it will kill somebody when I push it.
This is why I pointed out earlier that in the game it’s optional for Joel to pick up things that provide more context about what was going on at the hospital before he got there. Because people try to argue that oh clearly Joel knew that the surgery was a fool’s errand and thus obviously he’s simply saving Ellie’s life.
Okay, great theory except 1) nothing in the supplemental material confirms that it wouldn’t have worked. It’s about how hard it’s been to find a cure but that’s just as easily evidence that Ellie’s surgery is more important than of it being less. And 2) do you actually think Joel was giving even a second of thought to how accurately they were following the scientific method and double blind studies at that hospital when he shot Dr Scalpel in the head?
No. Joel wanted Ellie. That’s it. New Sarah was being taken away from him and Joel did not approve.
Which brings us to what’s frankly all the proof we need that what Joel did was the wrong thing:
Ellie doesn’t like it.
If what Joel did is an objective good, if he is the protective dad saving the sweet innocent girl from the vile clutches of sadistic doctors murdering scores of children out of some pipe dream of saving humanity… why doesn’t Joel tell Ellie that? That’s pretty indisputable as a good deed, right? I mean you tell me you saved me from a serial killer and I’m at least buying you lunch for it.
But no. Joel lies. Because, as Marlene points out to him before he kills her, he knows that this isn’t what Ellie wants.
The companion podcast goes into the many interpretations of Ellie’s “okay” at the end, both for the game and the show. And it’s true that there’s many interpretations and there’s arguments for all of them. But the one interpretation that isn’t on the table is “Okay. I know what you did and I’m all right with it. Thank you.”
Now did Ellie know she was going to die when she went into the hospital? There’s arguments for and against. I personally like the theory that she did, because it adds a new light to how fascinated she was by the world before (i.e. the world she’s trying to give back to people through her sacrifice) and for her behavior when they arrive in Salt Lake City (yes, Ellie is suffering from PTSD thanks to David, but note how Joel even says she’s quiet today. It takes on a new light if you watch it with the idea that maybe Ellie understood she was living out her last moments.)
But regardless of whether Ellie knew going into it that she was going to die, she’s aware after the fact that something was up. She’s a smart girl with, as Ashley Johnson points out in the podcast, an expert bullshit detector.
Which gets back to that parallel I mentioned with Henry and Sam. Henry did a bad thing in order to save Sam’s life and in doing so he not only was instrumental in all of Kansas City being overrun by infected, but Sam died anyway.
Joel did a bad thing to keep Ellie alive and in the end he loses Ellie anyway. She doesn’t trust him. Even though she’s there with him physically, emotionally their relationship isn’t the same.
If what Joel did was heroic, Ellie would be the one calling him a hero. She’s not.
Joel might not be the bad guy, but he’s a bad guy. And that’s our story.
As always, things that don’t fit anywhere else
- A nuance that changed between game and show that I liked is that Joel’s attempts at bonding with Ellie during the hike to Jacksonville take on an even more desperate and insistent note. In the game the vibe is more about Joel still trying to coax Ellie out of her trauma shell and Joel even being a little vulnerable by sharing more about Sarah. In the show it reads much more like “You are my new Sarah and I’m going to say how much you are my new Sarah now and do you have an opinion on this? Because I’m not actually paying attention to how you don’t seem to like this, I’m just going to keep talking about how I’ve decided you’re my new Sarah.” It emphasizes more that while Joel will absolutely say he was motivated by his love of Ellie, the love in question is entirely selfish. He doesn’t care about Ellie’s feelings or wants. He cares that he’s decided Ellie is effectively his daughter and nobody - even Ellie - is being asked their opinion on the matter.
- The amount of people on the internet who try to argue that the doctor was a mortal danger to Joel with that scalpel, I swear to god. Must’ve been the deadliest fucking tiny knife in the land. Why are we wasting time figuring out how to kill bloaters? Just arm everyone with scalpels!
- On the topic of multiple parallels, in one of the supplemental interviews Troy Baker talks about the parallel with Joel and Maria. Both of them lost children due to the outbreak. Maria went on to become a respected leader who created a safe home for people. Joel… extremely did not. Like we’ve been saying, it’s not the apocalypse that did it.
- I know it’s a standard editing technique but even so it’s a nice touch that we hear Ashley Johnson, aka the voice of Ellie, before we see her.
- Hey, it’s Laura Bailey as one of the nurses! Laura played a multitude of background voices in the first game, including that nurse. But that’s not why she was brought in for this cameo. She was brought in because she plays a character with slightly bigger role in part 2.
- I won’t spoil you for part 2. However, there is the question about the spoiler of part 2 and whether or not you should avoid it. To that end I would say that if Craig and Neil make season 2 like they did season 1, I suspect the spoiler’s going to happen within the first episode. Moreover, given how much time will have passed since the game came out and how hard it will be to keep people from finding out the spoiler even if they don’t play the game, I wouldn’t be surprised if they even give up on this being a spoiler and just flat out made it part of the marketing. So if you want my opinion on this one you’ll be fine if you know it. (And if you need a point of comparison, though I love spoilers myself if asked I would tell people it’s worthwhile to at bare minimum not spoil yourself for what happens to Sarah in part 1 because that’s better experienced with no warning.)
- Me being me, I was wondering about poor Anna in those shoes as she was running. It can’t be easy getting any shoes that fit in an apocalypse, let alone ones that handle the swelling that comes with pregnancy. And then to run for your life on top of it? Woof.
- I loved the detail that Anna’s hand was too slippery to turn the doorknob.
- I found it interesting to discover there’s different interpretations of the giraffe scene. To me it was clear that this represented Ellie hitting the threshold of no longer being a child. She can have this moment of childlike glee, but it’s fading, which is symbolized by how at the end you see the herd of giraffes walking away. But to others, including Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, it was about Joel seeing that Ellie hadn’t been so traumatized by David that she was gone forever. She still had capacity for joy. As I say, interesting.
- (Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson agree with my interpretation though so obviously mine is the right one).
- Looking for stuff to fill your The Last of Us needs next? I got you! First up there’s the official companion podcast for episode nine. Ashley Johnson joins in to offer her insights about creating Ellie and sharing the character with Bella Ramsey now.
- Run, don’t walk, to The Editing Podcast which provides us not one but two in depth interviews with Timothy A Good and Emily Mendez on the editing process for the show. I am not lying when I say these two interviews are pure bliss for me. They show different takes on certain scenes, they get into how editors help shape the story, they break down that amazing sequence with Ellie and the SUV in Endure and Survive! GUH! Oh my god so good. The first interview is spoilery through episode 7 and the second covers through the finale. Seriously, watch them. Even if you don’t normally care about editing go watch them. Cannot recommend them enough.
- I’ve recommended him before but now that the first season is over I’ve no problem recommending him again: if you’re looking for a way to experience the game but, like me, you suck at playing survival stealth, head on over to lil indigestion’s playthrough of The Last of Us Part 1 and the Left Behind DLC. Not only does he play the game but he plays it with an eye for how the story is told. Thus you gain not only an appreciation for the game but for why it’s been such a beloved game for a decade and counting.
- Don’t forget The Definitive Playthrough, in which Troy Baker and various guests offer insight into the making of the game while Troy and Nolan “The Original David” North play it. Absolutely horrible if you want to see the game being played but great for all the behind the scenes information. Of particular note now that the finale has aired is part 14 where Troy, Nolan, and Merle Dandridge discuss the morality of what Joel did.
And that’s all she wrote! Or that’s all that I’m writing for now because I have to stop somewhere. I hope you enjoyed watching The Last of Us as much as I did. It was an amazing adaptation with skilled, talented people working on every level and it shows. God I wish all the shows I watched could be this good.
Now I’m going to go catch up on other people’s reactions. We’ve got a fresh group finding out the ending for the first time! This out to be good.
Thanks for joining me and I’ll see you with the next analysis!