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The Last of Us: Love and Compassion at the End of the World

Last of Us: Love and Compassion

Portrayal of Something that Can't be Explained

Understanding Loss 

Loss is something that can almost never be explained properly. But if anything has come close within the last decade, it’s The Last of Us. The Last of Us came out in 2013, and since then, it’s been hailed as a hallmark in video game storytelling, and for very good reason. Right from the beginning, you are thrust into a world in which everything is taken from you, and, when there is nothing else left to lose, you suddenly find meaning in one of the most fundamental of human relationships: the love between a father and his daughter.

 In The Last of Us, it’s that relationship between a father and his daughter that’s stripped away from Joel, our main character, right at the start of the game. Within an hour of its introduction, his daughter Sarah is shot by a soldier who is complying with the order of his superior to kill all civilians outside the perimeter of what they deem to be the danger zone of Austin, Texas. Sarah screams, cries, and dies in the arms of her father, and a title card tells us that 20 years have gone by by the time we regain control of our main character.

In The Last of Us, a mutant strain of the Cordyceps virus has gotten the better of the world, and an apocalypse has decimated the earth’s population in the 20 years that have gone by since the initial outbreak. That outbreak is the reason why Sarah was killed, and it’s the reason why Joel has become a shell of his former self, devoid of the life and humor that once filled his interactions with his daughter. He has now instead become filled with apathy for the world around him and concerned with survival through any means necessary, be it murder or otherwise. That is, until he meets Ellie.


Ellie, a 14-year-old girl who is immune to the virus, becomes Joel’s lifeline. Tasked with her safe arrival to the Fireflies’ (a civilian group who wish to restore balance to the world) base in Salt Lake City, Joel and Ellie develop a bond throughout the course of the game that mirrors the one between a father and daughter in all but blood, and Joel begins to see her as a reason for him to continue living in this godforsaken world. So, once he does deliver her to the Fireflies and discovers that Ellie needs to be killed in order to create a cure for mankind, he refuses to let another child of his die and proceeds to take matters into his own hands. He does so, and Ellie awakes from her drug-induced sedation to find herself in a car with Joel at the wheel. She questions him and asks about what happened with the fireflies, and Joel lies to her about what happened after she was put under that sedation. She takes in his words, lets them sit in her head for a while, then questions Joel on the hill overlooking his brother Tommy’s settlement in Jackson, Wyoming. Ellie, understanding that something isn’t right with Joel’s version of events, makes him swear that everything he said about the Fireflies is true. Joel takes a breath, looks Ellie straight in the eye, and promises that he swears.

What Joel Did

Now, let’s talk about what Joel did at the Firefly base. Once Marlene, the leader of the group and the one who tasked him with bringing Ellie to the base, informs Joel that Ellie needs to die in order to produce a cure for the virus, she orders her men to escort Joel out of the building and to kill him if he tries to fight. They begin to lead him out of the hospital base until he’s suddenly able to get the upper hand and steal their guns. And what happens next is exactly what he lies to Ellie about: he goes on a rampage throughout the hospital, killing everyone in his path to the operating room where Ellie is being prepped for surgery. He enters the room, kills every doctor in there (canonically speaking), and heads to the parking lot to take the car that Ellie found herself in when she awoke. However, not before Marlene confronts Joel, gun raised and willing to use it if she needs to. She instead tries to plead with Joel, however, and begs him to reconsider. He feigns sympathy and shoots Marlene in the head, killing her instantly.

Understanding Joel 

Now, let’s talk about why Joel did what he did. Throughout the course of the game and the TV show, for that matter, Joel and Ellie become dependent on each other—for strength, stability, and, eventually, love. Their initial relationship as nothing more than simply cargo and carrier transforms into something neither of them can really express or understand but that they can acknowledge exists. So, with that being the case, Joel eventually does find a way to express his love for Ellie, but in perhaps the darkest way possible that someone can express their love for someone else. But, at the end of the day, can you really blame him?

Joel lost his daughter to a senseless, hopeless violence that came about as a result of, for all intents and purposes, the “end of the world”. Consequently, he lived his life without any purpose; unable to kill himself, as the TV series revealed, and unable to cope with the loss of his daughter, he lived in a constant state of flux, unable to see what the point of living was yet unable to end it all due to his inability to just pull the trigger. Until, of course, he found Ellie. Of course, any logical person would be able to see that, at the end of the day, Ellie isn’t his daughter and that Joel had no right to make a decision for her that she wasn’t able to consent to. However, what has to be acknowledged is that Joel doesn’t care about that. To him, Ellie is his daughter, and God help anyone who tries to take her away from him. You have to realize that this is a broken man who’s already lost a daughter before and isn’t willing to lose another one—blood or not. His massacre of the Fireflies exemplifies the dark side of his love for her—the part that brings out the inherent murderer in him who will stop at nothing to protect her from any and all forms of harm. And while you can agree or disagree with his actions that day at the hospital—in fact, that’s exactly what the creators of the game and the TV show, for that matter, want you to figure out for yourself—what you cannot disagree with is that Joel loves Ellie and that, in his shoes, any parent would’ve done exactly what he did.

So, while his actions may exist in a gray area that may never truly be able to be colored in with a definite right or wrong answer, what cannot be argued with is that love will make you do crazy things in life, and that Joel is a prime example of that.

The Last of Us (2023) | HBO MAX | Official Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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CUNY-graduate with a BA in Journalism. Dedicated to taking complex ideas and turning them into engaging and easy-to-understand stories.