When I finished The Last of Us video game for the first time back in 2018, I cried, and then immediately played it again.
Upon the announcement of HBO’s live action adaptation, I was nervous about their ability to translate my favourite narrative of all time. It seems my worries were for nothing, as Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann delivered the right emotional punches and complex story that sparks the decade-old debate: How far is too far to go for the ones we love?
Warning: spoilers ahead.
The Last of Us TV show follows protagonist Joel Miller 20 years after the outbreak of cordyceps: a deadly fungus that controls the brain and takes over the body like a puppet. Like many, Joel struggles with finding something to fight for, but it eventually arrives in the form of Ellie, a fourteen-year-old girl who he delivers to the Fireflies, an organization trying to save the world.
The protagonists, Joel and Ellie, are complex. They’re bonded by shared trauma. They feel everything they go through—the people they lose and the people they kill—would be justified if they had a purpose, which is a strong theme the show excels at delivering.
This theme allows the audience to contemplate what reasons drive our own actions—reasons that vastly differ for characters in this story. When we commit violent acts and experience trauma, we cope by telling ourselves it was worth it. Ellie says it herself in the final episode: “It can’t be for nothing.”
These complications are exacerbated when Joel learns that researching and creating a cure requires an extraction from Ellie’s brain which would kill her. To the Fireflies, this is a necessary sacrifice. To Joel, nothing is worth Ellie’s life, even saving the world. Joel proceeds to ‘rescue’ Ellie by slaughtering every last Firefly.
This act ignites the life-long debate of utilitarianism: the good of one versus the good of
many. There are many arguments on both sides. Some people think one must be a parent to understand what Joel did, and others think what he did was monstrous and should never be accepted.
This debate is more present in society than you might think. All around the world, people suffer from being less fortunate than others. As students at one of the best universities in the country, sometimes we forget this, or misunderstood it due to a lack of experience.
Joel’s experience of losing his first daughter is what shapes his decision to save one girl over the entire human race. Those without the experience as a parent or losing a loved one may feel differently about his decision.
On a lower scale, if someone who’s starving steals to feed their family, is it okay to pin them as a criminal? Only those who have experienced poverty would understand this decision, yet the other side of the coin is always quick to judge.
Everyone who watches shows like this one feels the need to justify why a decision of such magnitude is right or wrong, but they’re missing the point. The answers to philosophical questions like this—as hyperbolic as this situation is—are not black and white. Rather, they’re shaped by personal experiences that differ drastically from person to person.
We need to put ourselves in other people’s positions and accept we have no right to tell them what they’ve done is incorrect without knowing or experiencing first-hand the reason they did it. It all comes down to empathy, which is something The Last of Us’ plot and characters teach us to feel on a grand scale.
Only once the audience looks beyond themselves and attempts to feel empathy for both sides will they truly understand Joel’s actions—and the actions of everyone around them.
The Last of Us has already been renewed for a second season, and I cannot wait to see the
continuation of the masterful narrative and, of course, the fresh debates it sparks.
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