In The Last of Us finale, Joel unleashes the monster hiding in plain sight: a man who can’t walk on the right path because he’s wrong – but he’s not a villain.
“If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself,” Joel croons in The Last of Us Part II. In the show, those words define him. His grief over Sarah saw him abandon goodness and mercy, and his head was once fogged by the sonic anxiety of failure. The vaguest threat to Ellie’s life, the mere thought of being responsible for her harm, boomed with the pitch of a stun grenade.
Ellie was a slow balm for his heart, and in restoring a part of his soul, she became the one thing he couldn’t stand to lose again: a daughter. In Episode 9, his devotion begets violence that’s unforgiving, abhorrent, and justifiable to him and him alone. This doesn’t make him a villain: in all its ugliness, it’s love that makes him human.
“I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and I fear no evil because I’m blind to it all. And my mind and my gun they comfort me, because I know I’ll kill my enemies when they come.”
Spoilers for The Last of Us to follow…
The Fireflies sacrificed Ellie, so Joel sacrifices the world
The Last of Us finale follows Joel and Ellie on the last steps of their pilgrimage for a cure. After reuniting with Marlene at the Fireflies hospital, there’s one last twist of the knife: the operation to develop a vaccine from Ellie’s immunity will be fatal. “Find someone else,” he fearfully, angrily pleads, but there’s no other way – her sacrifice would literally save the world.
Joel refuses to see the bigger picture. With little hesitation, he carries out a floor-by-floor massacre; even when men throw up their hands and beg for their life, he puts a bullet in their head or tears them open with a knife. He murders the doctor, kills Marlene – “You’d just come after her,” he says, coldly, before pulling the trigger – and lies to Ellie about the whole thing.
“Swear to me, swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true,” Ellie demands, standing underneath the sun of their new life, overlooking Jackson. “I swear,” he responds, to which Ellie says: “Okay.”
Joel has always been violent
If you’re shocked by his actions, you haven’t been paying attention. In Episode 1, he beat a FEDRA guard to death to protect Ellie, and they’d met just hours prior. Death wasn’t a consideration to him, nor a last resort: it was the obvious means to an end.
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In Episode 4, he shot and killed two Hunters, before stabbing a young man in the chest as he cried for his mum. In Episode 6, when ambushed by one of David’s cannibalistic scouts, he breaks his neck. In Episode 8, he gutted a man who gave him the information he wanted, before whack-a-moling his duck-taped pal with a lead pipe for the inconvenience.
Joel is a man who deals in extremities, but there’s no giddiness to his viciousness on the screen. Players had the benefit of the video game buffer: we were forced to indulge in the violence a little bit. Nobody felt shame about shattering an enemy’s skull with a brick, unhinging their jaw with a pipe, or using a bow and arrow in a bid to dismember the doctor at the end – we all consciously pressed those buttons, but without that hand-eye agency, we’ve been forced to confront the horror of his brutality.
Ellie may have already had a “violent heart”, but that part of her only matured under Joel’s wing. Pedro Pascal has made him even more likable than in the game, and his charisma may have pulled the wool over some viewers’ eyes and distracted them from the truth: Joel is not a nice person, but that’s okay.
Joel isn’t a hero, nor is he a villain
Inevitably, some will feel the urge to cast Joel under the black-and-white distinction of “hero” or “villain” after the finale (even David, a paedophile preacher and cannibal, has more complexities than that). For those who condemn, there’ll be others who support his rampage. Neither is correct – I implore you to consider the idea that characters can exist in the grey, where the notions of right and wrong aren’t as simple as two words on a page. In The Last of Us, there are no villains, only survivors.
It’s no coincidence that Joel is holding Ellie just like he held Sarah in the seconds before her death – only this time, he pulled the trigger. Marlene didn’t want to kill him, but she – and everyone else – needed Ellie to die. Ask any parent what they would have done; the scales will never be tipped in the favor of the masses when it comes to the life of someone’s child, adopted or not.
The world stole Joel’s daughter from him, and had the cheek to try and do it again, so he stole its only hope in return – but don’t mistake his love for vengeance. Robbing billions of a cure to save one person is the pinnacle of selfishness, and his killing spree was carried out in cold blood, but what was it for? He may be the villain of someone else’s story, but he’s not even the hero of his – he was in a hell of his own making, but he went on nevertheless, because there’s nothing else for him to do.
He wants his happy ending, whatever the cost. And what good are his future days without his baby girl?
The Last of Us Season 1 is available to stream in its entirety now. You can find out more about Season 2 here.