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The Last of Us Finale - Was Joel in the Wrong?


The first season of The Last of Us has officially finished airing on HBO, and if the experience has taught us anything it’s that this network has no intention of slowing down their Emmy-winning production line. It has been 9 episodes of a nuclear-powered emotional rollercoaster filled with masterful storytelling, unforgettable characters, and a zombie kiss we’re simply never going to mention again. Ever. The Last of Us didn’t just break the curse of terrible video game adaptations, it raised the bar for television across the board, and solidified Pedro Pascal’s acting resume as one of the most exemplary of all-time. The show wasn’t just great in its own right, but a faithful rework of the revolutionary game that came before it, including the jaw-dropping ending. Joel’s morally gray choices at the end of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part I is a topic fiercely debated by fans of the series even a decade after the game’s release, and the same discussion is now being rebooted by the tens of thousands who experienced the story for the first time through the new hit show. It was a conclusion that left audiences wondering if Joel made it to the end a hero or lived long enough to see himself become the villain. Questions of this nature are usually loaded ones, and The Last of Us is no exception, but like a clicker on cocaine we’re going to tear apart this quandary bit by bit and attempt to answer it anyways. Major spoilers for The Last of Us season 1 ahead.

What Happened in The Last of Us Season 1?

To recap, The Last of Us opens with Joel, a single father living with his teenage daughter, Sarah, in Austin, Texas in 2003. The show takes more time to explore the relationship between Joel and Sarah than the game allowed for, letting us glimpse into additional moments of warmth and camaraderie between the pair. We follow a typical day in their life together. Sarah wakes up Joel for work, they eat some breakfast, and after school she heads into town to repair Joel’s watch as a birthday gift. Before we know it night falls, and the gates of hell open loose. A dangerous strain of fungus called Cordyceps, capable of burrowing into the brains of ants, controlling their every movement, and programming in them the sole purpose of spreading the infection to others, has gained the ability to do the same to humankind. While up to this point Cordyceps was not able to survive the internal temperature of the human body, global warming has given it reason to evolve to withstand greater heat. Now when this organism, no longer harmless to people, taints the global food supply network, there’s nothing stopping its blanket migration of all civilization. With their city being quickly overrun by bloodthirsty cannibals who were friends and neighbors just hours before, Joel, Sarah, and Joel’s brother, Tommy, try to make a break out of the area. Joel and and Sarah, who’s sprained her ankle, get separated from Tommy and are cornered by a heavily armed soldier. After some ominous radio chatter that feels like an eternity, the shadowed trooper confirms he’s received his orders and shoots them both. The soldier walks closer to finish the job, but is gunned down by Tommy at the last second. Sarah has gotten the worst of it, and is only able to cling to a few more moments of life before she fades in Joel’s arms.


The show cuts twenty years later, to 2023. The U.S. government has devolved into an abhorrent military state controlled by FEDRA, the Federal Disaster Response Agency. FEDRA began as a partnership between the U.S. military and the CDC to preserve order while discovering a cure for the Cordyceps fungus. Two decades onward it appears FEDRA is more focused on maintaining authoritarian control over the last few pockets of metropolitan civilization called “Quarantine Zones”, or QZs, where jobs and the food supply are strictly regulated, and acts of insurrection are punishable by death. Joel has carved out a life in the Boston QZ as a cold-hearted smuggler who’s not afraid to kill, alongside his partner-in-crime and companion, Tess. Their next job involves transporting a mysterious teenage girl named Ellie to a group known as the Fireflies, a band of rebels bent on toppling FEDRA and returning the U.S. to its former democratic system. Tommy, who’s been living out west, has gone an uncommonly long time not sending any radio communications to Joel. The Fireflies promise to give Joel and Tess the vehicle and supplies they need to go out and find him, if they only bring Ellie to their base at the other end of Boston.

It’s soon discovered that Ellie is immune from infections by the Cordyceps fungus, and that the Fireflies want to use her as a research template to create a Cordyceps vaccine, the Boston base likely being a launching point to transport her to a working lab. When they arrive, the base is found to be compromised, with all of its inhabitants dead. Facing a horde of infected coming their way, Tess stays behind to cover Joel and Ellie’s retreat. It’s revealed she’d been bitten by a clicker some hours before, and decides to give her death some meaning. She tells Joel to “save who you can save”, and waits till him and Ellie are clear before igniting the grenade fueled inferno that ends her life and stops the horde dead in its tracks. With the vehicle and supply payment promised by the Fireflies up in smoke, Joel undoubtedly concludes he’s safer terminating his babysitting duties and making it out west on his own. Tess’ last words echoing in his head gives him reason to reconsider, and he keeps Ellie tethered to his side in hope of finding the remaining Fireflies. Tommy, being a former member of the group, may know where they can find some more.

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The trail of Joel and Ellie’s journey ends up being one with many deadly winds, and they save each other’s lives in more ways than one. Together they face the darkest and most decrepit remnants of civilization the god-forsaken earth has left to offer, from infected big and strong enough to rip the skull off a man’s shoulders to a cult of cannibalistic child abusers who try taking Ellie as a wife. The only bright spot on the perilous trek is a collectively governed community in Montana called Jackson, where Tommy and his wife Maria are found residing. After nearly a year since leaving Boston they arrive in Salt Lake City, Utah, where they believe a major Firefly base is operational. Joel and Ellie’s bond at this point has strengthened well beyond a package and its courier. Ellie never got the chance to know either of her parents, so a parental figure is something she’s long learned to live without. Though, as she expresses to Joel in Jackson, everyone she’s ever cared about has either ended up dead or abandoning her, save for him. Joel could never find someone capable of filling the hole Sarah’s death left behind, and he didn’t go looking. In Salt Lake City, though, he confides in Ellie she’s the reason he’s been able to get over the pain of losing his daughter. The sweet calm of the moment erupts at the sight of a concussion grenade tossed at their feet. The two are taken captive and Joel is knocked unconscious.

Joel awakens sometime later to the face of their captors. Not a group of brigands or FEDRA, but the Fireflies. Marlene, the Firefly leader who gave Joel and Tess the job of transporting Ellie in the first place, is there to greet Joel as he regains his composure. Ellie is nowhere in sight. Marlene explains that Ellie has been put in a comatose state and is being prepped for surgery. Their doctors believe Ellie was infected with a minor dose of the Cordyceps fungus through the umbilical cord at birth, since her mother was bit shortly before going into labor. It produced a unique type of chemical messenger inside her brain that signals to other Cordyceps no further spread through her body is required, making her effectively immune from infection. They plan to cut into her brain, replicate and mass produce the chemical messengers, and inject them into others. Ellie would not survive the procedure. Marlene and the others put her to sleep without informing her of the fatal consequences, according to Marlene so she’d be free of any further “fear or pain”. 


We don’t get a well-crafted monologue from Joel to justify the reasoning of his actions. All we see is his expression of utter horror at the prospect of reliving his life’s most traumatic moment, his desperate pleas for the Fireflies to find another way, and the deaf ears they fall on. Marlene’s mind is set, and her only condolence left to assure Joel with is that she knew Ellie’s mother, promised to keep her safe, and understands the weight of the sacrifice they’re about to make. Two guards draw the short straw and are tasked with escorting out of the building the swirling mass of grief and rage that is Joel in this moment. After a few paces of seeming compliance he manages to snag their guns and begins roasting through Fireflies like a human bug zapper. Not even the surgeon who planned to operate on Ellie is spared the bullet. Though he did threaten Joel with a scalpel. 

Ellie doesn’t regain consciousness until the car ride out of town, and was blind to all the events that had transpired. This includes Joel’s execution of a wounded and unarmed Marlene begging for mercy. Believing Ellie’s recapture inevitable if Marlene was spared, it was one loose end he couldn’t leave dangling. Joel tells the confused Ellie that their attempts to use her to produce a vaccine were unsuccessful, but that there are others with her immunity still left to study. This both conceals Ellie from the truth and degrades her uniqueness, which may have encouraged her to push their quest further until they found a way to achieve positive results. He additionally makes up a story about raiders attacking the hospital that they escaped just in time, in case word of the massacre ever got back to them. They continue back to Jackson, where Tommy and his wife Maria told them they’d be welcome, and their story continues.

Did Joel Make the Right Choice?

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When the jaw-dropping end of this story was first unveiled via the 2013 video game, fans were immediately split. Not by the quality of the writing, which was near universally adored, but on whether Joel was portrayed as the good guy or bad by the adventure’s conclusion.

The Last of Us' universe post-Cordyceps is a substantially brutal one, where impossibly difficult choices are an everyday part of life. The rules of this world are not something many can relate to, and while we don’t have to like this alternative morality scale, we should at least find a way to sympathize with people caught up in its unfathomably dark standards. Take a scene from episode 1, when FEDRA agents discover a child that’s been infected and puts them down without a second thought. For all FEDRA’s flaws and evil doings, was the choice to sacrifice a child as malicious as it seemed, or a tough decision to prevent further infection at the cost of a life that could no longer be saved? “Good” and “bad” don’t have conventional meanings in this universe, so it’s important we keep that context in mind and try to put ourselves in Joel’s duct taped boots before we go passing judgement.

One perspective that finds Joel undeniably in the wrong is the philosophy of utilitarianism, which adheres to the belief that it is always better to save more people rather than save fewer, regardless of who is saved. This logic is an efficient process to deploy when there’s little time to make a life and death decision. While it sounds pretty straightforward, the reality, as you can imagine, can get a lot more complex than that. It’s an uncomfortable truth to admit, but many of us would have a tough time coming to grips with saving a bus load of strangers if it meant sacrificing a close friend or family member. It doesn’t make us heartless, and in a complicated way makes us more loving, because it means we have the capacity to feel a sense of responsibility and care over someone we’ve come to know and love, rather than reduce them to just one more cog in the human machine. True, when weighing Ellie’s life against quite possibly millions of bus loads, the water gets a bit muddier, but could those lives have actually been saved?


Let me get this perfectly straight…a rag tag bunch of rebels calling themselves the Fireflies, whose rankings are dwindling fast after a pretty unsuccessful crusade to topple FEDRA for over a decade, are now right on the cusp of saving the world? Yes, apparently, because they’ve managed to recruit the one doctor in the zombie torn hell scape which is now our existence who can produce a vaccine for this deadly fungus. This is regardless of the fact that there’s never been a treatment for Cordyceps produced, let alone a cure, and that there’s never been a vaccine produced for a fungus period, even back when medical facilities were fully-functioning 21st-century operations. All he needs to do is cut open the brain of a child who he knows little to nothing about other than her immunity and presumably the fact her mother was bitten by an infected shortly before giving birth. And just in case your doubts weren’t strong enough, the Fireflies will be able to mass produce and distribute enough of the vaccine for the entire population. I mean, there’s not any sort of manufacturing industry remaining, or any reliable supply lines, except for maybe those controlled by FEDRA Joel used to smuggle in drugs. But I’m sure they’d be more than happy to help, those Firefly bombings hardly ever hit their mark anyways. Honestly…don’t worry…everything is fine.

Imagine, for a moment, someone less dignified than Marlene was explaining this plan to you. Imagine it was an unwashed, doomsday prepping cave-dweller with his plan laid out in carvings on the wall and a volleyball in the corner named Wilson who has a face painted in blood. It doesn’t make the plan any more or less crazy than the one Marlene was about to throw her eggs into, and maybe Joel simply didn’t need an insane-looking wild man to see the insanity in the plan itself. When a story unfolds and characters lay out to the audience what’s going to happen next, something no other character corrects, we’re somewhat conditioned to go along with the ride. It’s not bad writing, it’s just sometimes the point of a narrative is more about the moral dilemma than probability factors. Whether the writers of The Last of Us meant for us to believe in the Fireflies’ plan absolutely or question their strategy, we have to accept the possibility that Joel would have been betting Ellie’s life against a very small chance of it amounting to anything. Maybe to him it was never a question of saving the world or setting Ellie free, but saving Ellie from this group of armed and delusional psychopaths or fending for himself. Was it ever really a choice?


All of these points might be mute. Ultimately it’s Ellie’s decision what to do with her life. If she wants to donate her brain in service of this harebrained scheme and ascend into the realms of heroes in a way Savage Starlight can only dream about, then so be it. Too bad the Fireflies never gave her the chance to make that choice. Marlene tells Joel in her last ditch effort to keep hold of her hostage that Ellie would have wanted this, but the words coming out of her mouth must have sounded like a complete sham even to her. If she was so sure of this then deception would have been wholly unnecessary, and the “fear and pain” she was trying to protect Ellie from is a paper cut next to the inability to decide whether or not to end your own life. To be fair, Marlene might have actually believed her own rhetoric and locked herself in a mindset of ignorant bliss. She may have been self aware enough to know she wouldn’t have had the heart to sedate an Ellie who’s screaming in terror. If the choice was Ellie’s Joel might have stood down. He wouldn’t have took it in stride, but could have found acceptance in the understanding that Ellie’s wishes were beyond his control. Instead, Marlene crafted circumstances that positioned Ellie as nothing but an unwitting pawn in the Fireflies’ ruthless gamble, rather than an invaluable member of the team meant to put society back on track.

There is no way to label the level of righteousness of Joel’s actions, there is only outcomes and our subjective judgements on if the means justified them. At the cost of not giving the vaccine development a chance at succeeding, an innocent child avoided being murdered. The fungus will continue its onslaught of humanity at more or less the same rate, and while we need to recognize the possibility that Joel standing aside could have prevented many more deaths than just one, laying those lives at his doorstep would be grossly unfair. At the cost of a quick and brutal rack up of his kill count, Joel fulfilled the promise he made to Ellie. After pulling a distressed Ellie out of David’s burning cabin, Joel wraps his arms around her and says “I got you baby girl”, just as he told Sarah in her final seconds. It was not just some comforting words to calm her in the moment, but a solemn vow to be her protector, and a phrase that will forever challenge our ability to fight the feels. There’s not an answer to if Joel was right or wrong, if he’s a good man or bad, but great stories like these have never been about answers. They’ve been about questions. What would I do to save the ones I love? What morals would I continue to stand for in a world that seems devoid of them? If the only way to survive is to become something I hate, do I bother surviving at all? The Last of Us has given us reasons to ponder all these questions and more, and hopes are high for the inquisitive qualities season 2 has in store.

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