Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.
You learn early on that Ellie has been bitten by an infected, but unlike everyone else who gets bitten, she hasn’t turned. She’s somehow immune to the cordyceps, and that means a cure can be extracted from her. The mission for most of the game is to get Ellie to the Firefly lab out west so the medical team can use her blood to make a vaccine.
If only it were so simple. When Joel and Ellie arrive, unconscious, at the Firefly lab, Joel is woken by Marlene and given grim news: Ellie’s brain has to be destroyed in order to culminate the vaccine. She won’t survive the procedure.
This is perhaps another plot twist visible from far away. What isn’t, or at least wasn’t for me, is how Joel reacts to it.
Marlene essentially tells Joel to sit back and grieve, as she surely will, and take solace in the fact that Ellie’s death will save mankind. Joel does the exact opposite: He goes on a murderous rampage through the Firefly facility in attempt to save Ellie’s life.
This was difficult for me to play. I saw before me a messed up situation with no good outcome, but surely the one Joel was working toward wasn’t the lesser of two evils. I agreed with Marlene: It was terrible, but Ellie’s death meant survival for everyone else. Every Firefly that came at me and I had no choice but to destroy as Joel made me cringe. It all felt so wrong. Joel was supposed to be the hero! He’s supposed to help save mankind!
Well, I had come this far, so it was time to see what else The Last of Us had in store.
Joel reaches the operating room, kills the lead surgeon, and takes Ellie away. Carrying her the same way he carried Sarah in the game’s beginning, whispering to her that everything will be okay, Joel escapes to the hospital’s exterior, where Marlene confronts him. Marlene disarms herself, begging Joel to reconsider what he’s doing. As she says, this is what Ellie would want, and Joel knows it.
Joel kills Marlene and leaves with Ellie. When she awakens, he lies and tells her that they found the Fireflies, but there were dozens of other immune people, and a cure wasn’t possible.
The game transitions once more to Ellie’s perspective, and she and Joel hike through the woods toward Joel’s brother Tommy’s town. Before they enter, Ellie stops Joel and makes him promise her that he wasn’t lying. Joel does, to which Ellie replies “Okay.”
As the credits rolled, my only thought was that it was definitely not okay. Everything went south so fast. I was sure there was something I was missing, something that propelled what started out as a wonderful experience but turned sour back onto the track I was convinced it was on the whole time.
The answer came from a behind-the-scenes skit with several actors from the game. I won’t spoil it, but at one point, Troy Baker says something to the effect of “her brain is worth more alive than dead.” He was joking, but that’s what made it click for me. Everything fell into place.
It starts with the waves of uninfected people Joel has sent to the grave on his journey. While some of them attempted to evoke sympathy, it’s pretty clear that they’re overall not very nice people. Even Joel and Tess, our “heroes”, begin the game by hunting down and murdering a former business associate. This is the first clue.
The second is Ellie. Throughout the game, Ellie is different. Even after meeting Sam and Henry, two characters closer to Ellie’s age, it’s clear that Ellie sees a different world than everyone else. She hasn’t forgotten how to experience life, how to see beauty in an uncaged animal or find fun playing random pranks on the people around her.
The key comes from Marlene. Before Joel guns her down, she says, “It’s what Ellie would want… and you know that.” The look in Joel’s eyes says it all: he does. Joel is well aware that Ellie is willing to die to save the rest of mankind, because Ellie is a good person.
So what does it mean to “save mankind”? Does it mean finding a cure? What is a cure in this world? Joel comes from inside the barricades, where there are no cordyceps or infections, and everything is shitty in there. He should know; his journey started when Tess killed an unarmed man he was pinning down. Humanity has an infection, but it’s not a fungal one.
In everything Joel has done, everywhere he’s been from Texas to the Capital to Salt Lake City, everyone is terrible. People are just terrible to each other. But Ellie is a good person. So how can he kill the last good person in the world to save every terrible person out there?
Ellie means so much more alive. The trick here is that Joel is saving mankind, by saving one of the only good people left among them. He’s not curing the cordyceps, but he’s staunching that other infection plaguing mankind. And he’s paying the ultimate price for it.
Ellie isn’t easily lied to. She can read Joel like a book. She’s well aware that he’s lying to her about what happened when they found the Fireflies. Ellie understands him, and she might even forgive him, but things are definitely going to change. Joel loves Ellie as much as the daughter he lost, and in lying to her, he’s losing that relationship all over again. In a tricky, trip-wired, round-about way, Joel is saving humanity after all, and he’s sacrificing what he loves the most to do it.
The Last of Us is heavy, dark, and gritty, and it’s the way it makes you wade through that to find beauty that puts it on a pedestal most games can’t hope to reach. There are details some people won’t notice—the twitch of an eye, the barely-there caress of a broken watch, the way a withdrawn, possibly traumatized Ellie stands a few inches farther away from Joel than usual during a certain segment of the game. Like those collectibles I somehow overlooked, I can’t help but wonder what else I missed out on, but I know the bulk of the experience is there. I’m glad I didn’t miss this one after all.