Warning: This piece contains spoilers for the season finale of The Last of Us.
For the entirety of January through March, it was nearly impossible to walk down Locust and not hear someone talking about HBO’s hit TV show adaptation of the popular video game of the same name, The Last of Us. Set in a post–apocalyptic world, the show follows 14 year–old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and 52 year–old Joel (Pedro Pascal), as they travel across America together in the hopes of eventually helping to create a cure for the disease that ended civilization as it once was. Ellie, as it turns out, is ostensibly the cure for that disease, as she seems to be immune to the virus, and could be the key to saving humanity. Although Joel and Ellie don’t start out on the best terms—Joel even refers to her as “cargo” at one point—they build an unbreakable bond that mimics that of a father–daughter relationship. Ellie, who grew up an orphan, and Joel, who lost his daughter when the apocalypse began, both fill that void for each other.
Craig Mazin, who created the show, pitched it to HBO as “a love story about how love makes people do terrible things.” He certainly pulled that vision off. Each of the first season’s nine episodes was more heartbreaking than the last, but none caused quite as many tears as the finale, entitled “Look for the Light,” which is undoubtedly a nod to the series’ famous saying, “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.”
During the finale, Joel and Ellie finally make it to the hospital where she will reportedly be studied and used to make a cure, but it turns out that using Ellie to make a cure would kill her because of invasive brain surgery. Joel has grown so attached to Ellie that he murders everyone in the hospital in a blind rage and saves Ellie’s life. This scene, along with being horrifically violent and unsettling to watch, caused a lot of controversy among fans, even though many fans who were also players of the video game knew it was coming. The finale provoked the same reaction among players of the video game in 2013 when it was first released, so this ending has been a point of contention for years. And yet, Mazin chose to boldly stick to it.
The ending was a hard pill to swallow for many reasons. Not only did Joel act extremely selfishly, putting his desires above everyone else’s and ruining what seemed to be humanity’s only hope at revival, but he also likely disrespected Ellie’s wishes and then proceeded to lie to her about what really happened in the hospital. An added layer of complexity has to do with agency, and while Ellie didn’t explicitly consent to the procedure which would kill her, she likely would have wanted to go through with it. Throughout the season, she continuously expressed survivor’s guilt (her best friend was killed when bitten but she wasn’t) and a need to find a purpose in life. Odds are, she would have wanted to save the world, even if that meant sacrificing her own life, but Joel didn’t give her that opportunity. On the other hand, she is only 14, so some may argue that she isn’t old enough to make that decision for herself anyway, and that Joel did the right thing by saving her.
So, it seems like for the most part what Joel did was absolutely horrific and inexcusable, right? Well, that’s what’s so hard to come to a definitive conclusion about, because when you really think about it, if it came down to it, wouldn’t you at least consider doing the same thing (minus the mass murder, of course)? Joel’s act was selfish, there is no way to sugarcoat it. But, he did it to save the one person he cared about most in the entire world, and given his past of losing one daughter already, his instinct makes sense for his character. This moral complexity that underlies the situation is what makes it such a genius way to end the show—it forces the viewer to contemplate what they would do if they were put in the same, admittedly impossible situation. Earlier in the season, Joel’s partner, Tess, told him to “save who you can save.” How can someone make the decision to save one or to save many, especially when the stakes are so high and no one person is truly neutral?
It also makes you question what it really means to be the hero or the villain in a story. Does that binary even exist when it comes to a situation like this? How do we define justice and evil in a post–apocalyptic world? The people Joel killed all believed they were doing the right thing by killing Ellie to make a cure; yet at the same time, we also develop understanding for Joel as the protagonist even if some may not fully agree with what he did. It also seems likely that players of the video game would have more empathy for Joel and his decision in the finale because “for much of the game, we are playing as Joel and seeing the world from his perspective. We may not always agree with Joel’s actions, but we have the illusion of control over them, and as we propel Joel through the narrative, we develop a deep sense of empathy and a level of attachment to him.” This sense of control doesn’t exist as much in the show, but because we follow Joel and his journey, from the day the outbreak began all the way to the end, we feel for him at least in some capacity. This makes the finale even harder to swallow, as it provokes deeper thought about the moral dilemma posed at the end. What is the right thing to do? Is there even a right thing to do?
While the season finale’s title is “Look for the Light,” the season premiere is actually entitled “When You’re Lost in the Darkness.” This makes the season come full circle in terms of its overall messaging—especially when thinking about the saying, “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.” In yet another display of brilliant writing and attention to detail, the name Ellie literally translates to “light.” For Joel, Ellie is his light, and when he was in his darkest place, he looked for her and he found her.
The finale provides a sort of ambiguous commentary on human nature. In so much of the media we consume, we like to identify with the protagonist and see ourselves as someone who has solid morals and acts on one’s ideals. But this show, on the other hand, exposes the fact that morality is more complicated than we like to admit when certain situations are presented where our most intense emotions are involved. In this case, the decision for Joel came down to asking the question, “would you reject your own humanity to save humanity?” That is the biggest question that The Last of Us leaves us with, and exactly what makes it such a compelling narrative.