If you don’t know how to feel about that ending of The Last of Us, welcome to the club.
The internet is ablaze with people feverishly debating the climactic decision that Joel made during episode 9 of The Last of Us. We here at The Mary Sue are part of the Joel Miller Fanclub, but other people aren’t on the same boat. They think that Joel was wrong to save Ellie from certain death at the hands of the Fireflies. Or at least that he went about it in the wrong way.
But here’s the thing, Joel didn’t make the right decision or the wrong decision. He made the only decision that he could have made.
It can all be explained mathematically with a simple equation.
Joel Miller = Daddy
Ellie = Babygirl
If x tries to hurt Babygirl, then Daddy will subtract x from the face of the earth.
This is just how parents work: Fuck you. Fuck your ideals. Fuck your organization. Fuck your cure. Fuck humanity. If you try to kill my child, I will kill you. It’s simply the natural law, baby! It’s what animals have been doing since the dawn of time! It’s why you and I are here! Because our ancestors totally merc’d a wooly mammoth or a sabertooth or some other guy who was trying to hurt them or your children.
Don’t buy it? It’s break it down from Joel’s point of view.
The Fireflies are already a shifty organization. They’re likely no better than the FEDRA fascists they’re trying to overthrow. They firebomb military outposts, execute soldiers, and operate according to their ideals only. I wouldn’t be surprised if a Firefly takeover resulted in a Kansas City situation like the one we saw earlier in the season. Enter Joel: lonely, grieving Murder Daddy. He survives because he’s just not ready to opt out, and so he ekes out a living using the only skills that matter in this day and age: survival skills. Then you give him something to protect. Something to live for. Something to bond with. Something to share shitty puns with. You give him a reason to be. You give him Ellie.
And then the shifty terrorist organization that you don’t trust decides to sneak up from behind and FLASHBANG YOU while you’re WORKING FOR THEM and separate you from your reason for being. They then tell you that they’re going to rip your baby’s brain out in the hopes of finding a cure. Did your baby consent to this? No, she did not. While the show is slightly more ambiguous, in the game Ellie is already unconscious when they decide to anesthetize her. This is made apparent in the show after Ellie wakes up in the backseat of the car you’re driving and has no recollection of her time with the Fireflies.
The Fireflies tell you there’s nothing you can do. The surgery is happening. They start to march you outside with orders to shoot you if you resist. But remember the equation: you are Daddy. Ellie is Babygirl. People who mess with babygirl get divided. In half. So you use the survival skills they hired you for to absolutely wreck their soldiers in order to get to Babygirl. Guys are fighting back? Kill ’em. Guy surrendering? Not a chance you’re willing to take. Kill him, too. Surgeon asshole forgets his “do no harm” oath and threatens you with the scalpel he’s gonna use to pop Babygirl’s head open? Pop his head open with a bullet. Marlene tries to talk some “sense” into you? She “knows” Ellie? She “knew” her mother? Is this what her mother would want? What does that even matter? You’re her father. Shoot Marlene. Still alive? Just like the guy surrendering, you can’t take that chance. End her for good.
What do you tell Ellie? That it was all for naught? Do you deprive your child of the last shred of their innocence? She’ll never find out. You didn’t leave survivors. Lie. Take it to your grave. Protect your child from the cruel truth of the world, like any loving father would do.
Does reading that logic feel ugly? It should. It is. And yet it’s the only decision that Joel is capable of making. The Last of Us game makes this even more apparent. How? Because they force you to actually DO the things that Joel does. In the game, YOU kill those soldiers. YOU pull the trigger on that surgeon. YOU flee the hospital with Ellie in your arms. If it still feels ambiguous at that point, then that is the very THESIS of The Last of Us as a story. It’s all in the name: The Last of Us. There are no more laws. No more governments. No more societies. No more structure. No more order. No more black and white decisions. The politics of The Last of Us has always been “take care of your own.” In this world, the privilege of being able to rely on a higher power to justify one’s own actions has been revoked. What is wrong to some is right to others. What is right to others is wrong to some.
This has always been a hard truth of the world, and one that affects our world today. After all, Shakespeare said it best: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Joel thought he was right, so he was. The surgeon thought he was right, so he was. Marlene thought she was right, so she was. But in reality, only one of them had the skills and tenacity to manifest their moral stance into the physical world. That’s just how the world works now. Dog eat dog.
And if you don’t think that moral ambiguity is a central theme of The Last of Us franchise, just wait until you get to the second game. For all you TV watchers, the second (and possibly third) is going to be even MORE morally ambiguous and difficult to watch. You are going to be FORCED to empathize with some characters you REALLY DO NOT LIKE. Characters who you THINK are evil, but who in reality are doing the ONLY thing they’re capable of doing. Just like Joel.
That is the great beauty and great tragedy of The Last of Us—that every single person who kills a soldier, takes a scalpel to a kid, or feeds their followers human meat is only trying to do what they think is best. No one in this world wakes up to do evil. We can only do what we are capable of doing based on who we are and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And if everything thinks that they are right, all that’s left to do is fight it out until there is only one “right” opinion left. After all, the last of us have the final say.
(featured image: HBO)
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