Last of Us Finale Undercuts the Game's Biggest Moral Question
Joel Miller is the Jay Gatsby of video games.
The post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us is no paradise, as every episode of HBO’s adaptation has made clear in the constant barrage filled with tragedy and ethical grey areas. The finale took that to the extreme in adapting the iconic ending of Naughty Dog’s original game, leaving the audience questioning whether Joel is a fundamentally good or evil person. But the show has subtle changes to the original video game that tip the proverbial scales of judgment and paint Joel as a righteous hero. In doing so, it undermines the larger message of the story.
Spoilers ahead for Episode 9 of HBO’s The Last of Us.
After traversing half the United States and dealing with incredible obstacles in the form of infected and other humans, Joel and Ellie finally reach their journey’s end in the final episode of Season 1, “Look for the Light.” At a Firefly hospital in Salt Lake City, Ellie’s immunity will be studied in hopes of creating a cure. This is when a gut-wrenching rug pull happens.
Marlene tells Joel (and the audience) that the doctors need to remove Ellie’s brain to study in the hopes of finding a cure. Refusing to accept the end of yet another daughter figure in his life, Joel goes on a shooting spree through the hospital and rescues Ellie for surgery, bringing her back to Jackson to live out the rest of their lives together as a family. The show’s final moment cuts to black without clearly telling the audience where the two characters stand, yet this ambiguity is undercut by the show’s subtle changes to Joel in the show versus the source material.
Despite early dialogue in the season suggesting that Joel is a dangerous man and a bad person, this is shown to be a facade that protects a man suffering from PTSD and mourning the loss of his daughter. Druckmann stated in an interview with Polygon that the casting of Pedro Pascal also influenced changes to Joel, making the character softer than in the video game. Early shifts to Joel’s motivation at the beginning of the show portray him as inherently kind: on HBO, he wants a car battery to find Tommy; in the game, his initial goal is a cache of guns to sell on the black market.
Overall, the game is be less hand-holdy throughout the narrative. The interactive nature allows players to explore the world and the characters in it on their terms, even in small moments that give players the choice to guide Joel around — or directly into — violent conflict. The climactic hospital scene requires the player to pull the trigger on the doctor holding the scalpel — whether or not you want to. The show leaves less up to interpretation by not leaving you with even the illusion of choice.
Joel murders, tortures, and lies throughout both versions of The Last of Us. He removes Ellie’s agency by taking her away and lying to her. It is a choice motivated by a selfish desire to not lose a daughter figure again, despite the possibility that it could save the world. The game makes this murkier by putting the action in the hands of the player and confronting them with the question of whether they would do the same thing.
Joel isn’t a good guy because he’s the main character. A protagonist need not be a hero. It is the same problem found in mainstream interpretations of The Great Gatsby. Gatsby wants to recapture a nostalgic vision of the past, no matter what the human or monetary cost. Sure, he’s charming, he’s handsome. (Who doesn’t like Pedro Pascal?!) But more than anything, he is selfish.
Characters like Joel and Gatsby, can be considered tragic heroes as defined in classical Greek theater. Tragic heroes are protagonists of a story whose actions inevitably lead to harm being caused in the world around them due to a specific tragic flaw they cannot escape. For Joel that flaw is the self-righteous desire to save Ellie to not suffer the loss of a loved one again. Joel knows this deep inside him, which is why he lies to Ellie.
He does not care what was right or wrong, he cares about what he wanted. By making Joel a more likable character throughout the season, HBO undercuts the game’s most meaningful moment.