Note: My name is Gene Park. I’m a reporter covering gaming culture for The Washington Post. I’m following “The Last of Us” from the perspective of someone who has played all the games (more than once). This entire story discusses end spoilers for both the game and the show.
Joel Miller commits a mass shooting at a hospital to “save” his adopted daughter Ellie Williams from being killed during a surgery that could’ve potentially resulted in a cure for the fungal infection that devastated human civilization. Back in 2013, for those who played the game, this was a shocking end to a story already defined by so much human death and misery. The expectation might’ve been that either Joel or Ellie would die — especially in light of other zombie-related stories popular at the time. Instead, we saw the hero of the story become a monstrous villain, all in the service of saving one girl’s life.
This ending has caused a decade-long debate that’s never quite been settled. Just in January, an article titled “Do you need to be a parent to understand Joel” published on TheGamer, a gaming news site. Now, a new audience can ponder the moral ramifications of Joel’s decision, thanks to showrunner and writer Craig Mazin’s HBO adaptation of the story.
To quickly recap: Joel and Ellie finally reach the Firefly hospital located in Salt Lake City. The Fireflies throw a stun grenade at the duo on sight, with Joel waking up to hear that Ellie is being prepared for surgery. He’s given no other choice but to accept this. Instead of accepting, he murders his escorts out of the hospital, takes their guns and proceeds to shoot almost every person in the facility — even those who give up their weapons and beg for their lives. He enters the pediatric surgery area, shoots the surgeon and takes Ellie to the garage. Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies — who we learn in this episode’s cold open has known Ellie since birth — begs Joel to “do the right thing here.”
Instead, Joel murders Marlene, and lies to Ellie about what happened at the hospital. He says there are other immune people, that the attempt to find a cure had already failed, and that the hospital was attacked. While the show and the game never say this outright, players and viewers can read the doubt on Ellie’s face as Joel swears by his story.
Throughout discussions with many people over the last decade, I have found that parents almost always agree with Joel’s actions. A mother I spoke with recently told me, “Oh I would do the same. Screw humanity, that’s my baby.” Then there are people who condemn Joel for stealing that decision away from a young woman, arguing that his lie was simply manipulation to keep Ellie in his life. It gets complicated when you consider Ellie’s admiration for Joel and their understood but unspoken love for each other. Ellie is not Joel’s biological daughter, but after a year of hiking through the hellscape of the post-apocalypse, they’ve bonded in ways that exceed the qualifications for a “found family.”
Ellie also tells Joel that after they’re done finding the cure, she would follow Joel wherever he goes. Ellie can picture a future living with Joel and going on more adventures. Joel internalized this and made this future a priority over everything else — including potentially saving humanity from the brink of extinction. But she also said that all that they’ve been through, and the death and trauma they’ve experienced “can’t have been for nothing.” Her attempt at saving Sam’s life in episode 5 echoes in the finale; she feels determined to save who she can save.
Regardless of how you feel, it’s pretty clear that what Joel did was selfish. He could say that it was to ensure Ellie has a future, no matter the cost. But it’s undeniable that he had Sarah, his murdered daughter, in mind as he “rescued” Ellie. In episode 6, HBO laid the groundwork with his new confession (not featured in the game) to his brother Tommy: Joel struggles with the possibility of losing another young girl in his life. His biggest fear is being unable to “protect” her. In the season finale, we learn that Joel failed to take his own life after Sarah’s death. If Ellie died, he would see no further point in living. He reiterates this point in his penultimate words of the season: You find something to fight for. He thinks this line might be good advice for Ellie, but really, he’s just telling on himself. Ellie is the something he found; that’s how he’s able to keep going.
The show adds new wrinkles to arguments both for and against Joel’s decision.
A new scene added for the show hints at how Ellie might have gained her immunity. Ellie’s mother, Anna Williams, played by the original Ellie from the games, Ashley Johnson, was bitten by an infected as she gave birth. It’s all zombie magic and biological fiction, but infecting pregnant women could’ve been a conceivable way to replicate Ellie’s condition. The Fireflies chose not do this, despite Marlene’s knowledge of what happened to Ellie.
In the game, it was never clear whether Ellie gave consent to the surgery. The show, by contrast, does make it clear: She did not. Instead, the Fireflies told her nothing before sedating her. Marlene says this was done to avoid scaring Ellie. Still, I think it’s fair to assume the Fireflies did this not out of concern for Ellie’s mental health, but to avoid granting her a chance to make the decision herself.
Joel also murders Fireflies who beg for their lives. In the game, every Firefly soldier was an aggressor. But in the show, there’s a man who lays down his weapon and puts his hands up. Joel fatally shoots him with even less sympathy than the soldier who gunned down Joel’s daughter 21 years ago.
In the end, it’s clear that Ellie’s agency in this decision was taken away from her by all the adults in her life, Marlene included. It’s a dark, tragic twist on the protagonist who could’ve saved the world. In “The Last of Us,” the protagonist has that choice stolen from her completely.
Ellie’s journey ends with Joel’s lie. The final tragedy of “The Last of Us” is that Ellie probably feels she has no choice but to accept the lie. Her greatest fear is ending up alone. As she says, after all that’s happened — even after the lie — it can’t have been for nothing.
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