Nonetheless, Joel wakes up in a dilapidated hospital, and is told the news by Firefly leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge): the Cordyceps fungus that has taken root inside Ellie’s brain holds the key to saving mankind, but there is no way to remove it without killing the host. As we’re shown in the opening flashback – starring the impressive Ashley Johnson, the original voice of Ellie, as the character’s mother – Marlene was there when Ellie was born. Which, no matter the size of the big picture, makes her decision to sedate Ellie without giving her a choice feel ruthlessly pragmatic. Yet that arguably pales in comparison to what comes next.
There is something about the brutal, nihilistic nature of post-apocalyptic fiction that makes it particularly susceptible to reactionary politics. These are cruel worlds where conservative values reign supreme; macho Wild West fantasies where only the strong and self-interested survive, and where men reclaim their place as gun-toting hunter-gatherers. Despite its ostensibly liberal politics – episode three’s tender gay love story being the prime example – The Last of Us has not exactly proved the exception to the rule (for that, you should seek out another HBO series, last year’s sublime Station Eleven). Although the scene where Joel rampages through the hospital, killing everyone as he goes – a man with his hands up in surrender, a relatively harmless surgeon, a pleading Marlene – before dooming the world to misery and death, does at least subvert the idea of the noble strongman.
Much like in the game, you start out rooting for Joel, because you want him to save Ellie, but the knotty nature of his choices (including lying to her about what happened), even if they are perfectly understandable, ultimately challenges your sense of right and wrong. It’s an ending about the difficulty of love at all costs, and what it means to find something to live for amid the ashes. The original voice actor of Joel, Troy Baker, once rationalised the character’s decision: “People have asked me, ‘why would Joel do that when he could have saved the world?’, and my answer to them is always this – he did, he did save the world. It’s just that the world was that girl, and that’s it.”
Still, it’s an act that will have consequences. This will no doubt become more obvious in the next series, an adaptation of The Last of Us: Part II, a sequel that explores how Joel’s actions, from another character’s perspective, are indefensibly selfish and obscene. It is a lengthy, meaty story about how there is no such thing as heroes and villains, how everyone is simply the protagonist in their own story. It is about as bold and interesting as sequels get.
In the meantime, we have the first series of The Last of Us. The show has become a staggering success. Ratings are high. Buzz abounds. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my mother would know what a Clicker is. It is, by far, the greatest video-game adaptation ever made, even if it falls short of truly great television. What was fresh and exciting in video games in 2013 can often feel derivative and well-worn in 2023 TV. But none of that matters much when the characters are this absorbing, the performances this strong. Joel’s choice might not have saved the world, but it has bought The Last of Us a long, shocking, harrowing future. We should be grateful to him for it.
You can catch up with The Last of US on HBO Max in the US and NOW in the UK
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