The Last of Us season one finale has fans divided as I don’t think newcomers to the series expected that ending. People were genuinely surprised about the turn, with Ben Travers from Indie Wire even going so far as calling it an inversion of expectations.
The show has differed in ways to make it more realistically grounded. With HBO’s The Last of Us focused less on the violent ways we survive, and more so, depending on the bonds established and the emotional laurels of its series protagonists.
In that regard, the show’s ending stayed surprisingly faithful to the video game. Given the lighter and likable version of Joel that the show has portrayed so far (much in due thanks to the charisma of Pedro Pascal), I genuinely thought they would change this ending.
My honest expectations were that they’d just skip to the operating room scene where Joel would shoot the doctor with a last-second hesitation and then escape with Ellie. The fireflies and Marlene? Left up in the air. But I was wrong. And I am happy I was wrong.
In the end, Joel proved to be exactly who this character always has been – someone hardened by the brutal realities of what it takes to survive, whose personal trauma became what defined him. From a games industry perspective, Joel as a protagonist is sort of the aftermath of a series of decisions in having Naughty Dog’s Uncharted-styled action hero, often a good boy and good-humored survivalist we’ve thrown into every impossible situation, and have it suddenly turn on its head.
Back then, the “What If?” idea was what if Naughty Dogg’s new IP character wasn’t a hero? In fact, what differentiates the label when it comes to matters of how far we go to protect your family? Less right and wrong and more about, as the show’s theme, provides in those easter egg Savage Starlight comics: Endure and Survive. Yet at what cost to our own humanity?
Yes, this is a popular trope in the survival horror genre. One that a decade later, feels exhaustive, as we’ve had so many post-apocalypse genre adaptations and are currently even living one out in real life. But where the Last of Us differed was that it was a series built in a way to get you to root for Joel. Not realizing, whom you were playing as, bonding with, and were experiencing this journey with all along?
He was actually, the bad guy.
Did Joel Make The Right Decision
Whether or not Joel made the right decision was one of the hottest topics of debate since 2013. In an era where Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead dominated the air, moral ambiguity and the purpose of right versus wrong were very popular themes to explore. Especially, in a Pre-Pandemic, and more importantly, a pre-politically charged world, where things like QAnon and the very nature of truth… didn’t feels as shockingly ungrounded as it does today.
By all means, weighted on a Thanos-level scale of saving lives versus losing them, then yes, Joel is absolutely the bad guy as there are now millions of deaths on his hands by destroying humanity’s final hope. Mind you, it isn’t just killing the doctor. Joel goes out of his way to murder multiple fireflies including killing its leader. Coldblooded and calculating, but also, seeing Joel as the monster we kept saying he was the entire time. In something that I think the TV version was afraid of depicting… until now.
If you weigh the decision by how far will people go to save their family, earned-step-daughter title or otherwise, then yes. Joel here is also the enemy. Because he’s really not doing any of this for Ellie, as they confirm in the HBO aftermath show and podcast. He’s doing it for how Ellie makes him feel again: like a father. Someone who didn’t fail at protecting his daughter. This has less to do about Ellie for Joel and more to do with Joel being a selfish asshole. Not really any different than any of the other villainous characters you’ve met in the last decade of television, antagonists like Breaking Bad’s Walter White. The understandable bad guys.
Worse, is that taking away that choice to make was always a selfish act. It’s obvious Ellie would have wanted to make that decision herself. And Joel? His reaction is to outright lie about it preserving the thing that makes him happy. Having a daughter again.
The Last of Us Problems in the Game versus TV Show
There are actually a lot of differences between the two, which is why I didn’t cover the season. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it until now and there was a lot about the TV show decisions I’d disagreed with.
Much like The Sandman, I’m one of the largest critics of The Last of Us given that it’s my favorite video game of all-time. I’ve even written essays about how The Last of Us 2 was about letting go and even reviewed the sequel for the website, HeyPoorPlayer which is also up on Metacritic. I’ve platinumed the games, read the comics, and beaten the original over a dozen times. In just so many ways, The Last of Us was one of those IP’s that changed my life and helped inspire so much of my own writing. Like its characters, I’m someone who’s been through a lot of trauma as well. To the point where I can depressingly relate to Ellie.
If there was one thing that had to be stressed regarding the adaptation is that you had to experience it first through Joel’s eyes. You needed to build that trust because if you couldn’t land that emotional bond between Joel and audience: you’d lose the purpose of the series. In the game, you’re forced to make violent decisions as Joel, killing infected, but also, a plethora of humans. It’s the philosophy behind endure and survive. Keep Ellie safe as she may be humanity’s last hope.
This is why that ending does in fact hurt so much: it breaks our trust in Joel and all of that violence really does prove to be for nothing. While the TV iteration focuses on the bonding moments of dad/daughter, the important thing audiences need to take away from it is that by the story’s turn, where Joel is out of commission, Ellie is in fact handed the narrative torch. You just don’t realize it at the time. It’s then that the story becomes about her. As who she is now as a person having gone through this journey.
Personally, I think this is where the TV show sort of failed, as the pivot away from the violence (for the sake of TV as it’s easier to do this type of brutality in a game) on Ellie’s end, makes her a bit more responsible when she acts out on it. Where the game has Joel teach Ellie on the horrors of surviving against other humans, with so many close calls, we’re accepting of the idea of this little kid being violent. Especially, considering that it’s Joel teaching her (whom at this point, we don’t fully realize, isn’t a good person).
The TV show doesn’t do that. And this is why I avoided reviewing it. For production’s sake, sure, this is good decision as it saves on budget. But for the series’ longterm themes? Cutting away from Ellie and Joel survival moments kind of ruins how this works. We should stress that this journey has imparted a lot of skills that make Ellie a mini-Joel. It’s seen in her actions, not her cutaways that she show is more focused in on. Which is overall, pretty fucked up and why The Last of Us can be seen as a tale about bad parenting.
HBO Joel hasn’t taught Ellie much regarding the series’ harder themes of violent survival. The part of him we do not see until the finale. This will be concerning for me in The Last of Us Part 2… Which goes full-on Count of Monte Cristo in theme and gets even more violent.
If Joel is the Bad Guy. Ellie is The Hero
For those who know what’s to come, Joel’s actions do have consequences. They always have since its beginning. As I’ve outlined in most of my Last of Us 2 Reviews: The Games are really about a history of violence. That the violent legacies we bequeath to our children for the sake of preserving love and family, carries on in inherited trauma and PTSD.
What I love about the games then, are not in its violence, but what it finds in the hope getting out of it. It’s the most prominent themes of finding a reason to live. To not just survive, as violent legacies imply, but to find a life of your own to build and thrive.
Thus, Joel is sort of the series antagonist because his philosophy about life sort of leads to a legacy of violence. It’s in turn then, Ellie, where we find hope. Her journey is an adventure of self-discovery taking what Joel taught her, and compartmentalizing a place for it, but more importantly, finding a place for herself. Thus leaving behind this legacy after so much death…
I think these themes were very important for today’s world. Especially, right now given the state of the everything between a pandemic, a Ukraine War, and a nuclear global conflict that feels all-too-real. See, in the end, we’re all just like Ellie. We’re children responsible in saving the planet, inheriting a violent world. Just looking for ways to make the most of it.