[Ed. note: This post discusses the finale of The Last of Us, so it definitely contains spoilers for the end of The Last of Us season 1 and The Last of Us Part 1.]
HBO’s The Last of Us adaptation takes some liberties with the source material, but throughout season 1, it’s followed all the most important story beats from the game. The finale is perhaps the most faithful adaptation out of all nine episodes, re-creating famous scenes down to the grisly specifics of its oft-discussed ending.
In both the show and the game, the entire purpose of Joel’s trek across the country is to deliver Ellie, with her mysterious immunity to Cordyceps, to a Firefly hospital so doctors can start work on a cure. But upon arriving, Joel discovers that the doctors will have to operate on Ellie’s brain, killing her in the process. So Joel does what Joel does best: He grabs a gun and shoots his way through the hospital, killing nearly everyone present, to “save” Ellie from surgery.
This ending sparked a lot of discussion after the game’s original 2013 release, in part because a lot of players very willingly went along with Joel’s rampage. After spending hours bonding with and protecting Ellie, fighting through clicker-infested buildings and universally antagonistic humans alike, rescuing her from certain death once again was an easy sell. But in the show’s version of this world, does it make as much sense? We assembled a roundtable of Polygon’s The Last of Us fans to discuss whether Joel made the right decision — in the show or the game.
Austen: I’ll kick things off with what might be an unpopular opinion here and say that the decision almost makes sense to me for the character Joel is in the show — and it’s worth noting that I haven’t played the game, but I did know the story and twist ahead of time. But I still can’t fully get behind his actions, mostly because the show just won’t let me. On the one hand, I actually do feel like HBO’s series gave us solid-enough justification for Joel’s complete distrust of the Fireflies and any system. What has authority ever done for Joel? In the show alone, there’s no credible case for the Fireflies, we’re told horror stories about FEDRA, and Melanie Lynskey’s band in Kansas City doesn’t seem great either. It’s nothing but empty promises on every side.
So Joel reaching his destination only to have an eleventh-hour crisis of faith when Marlene explains that this procedure doesn’t even seem likely to work (at least based on my read), and that it will cost Ellie’s life either way, does make a ton of sense to me. The problem is that the show doesn’t quite do enough to sell me on Joel and Ellie’s relationship being all that close and important. We’re left to fill in too many blanks on our own to convince me of the level of violence Joel has to commit here.
Kallie: I agree that the show takes shortcuts with Joel and Ellie’s relationship — I think it leans on the strength of the acting as well as the audience’s presumed familiarity with these characters, who don’t actually spend that much time together on screen. But I actually felt the opposite about the procedure; in the show, it seems much more likely to work than it does in the game. And while I’ve never thought Joel did the “right” thing, I thought the game was much more effective at getting you to buy into it anyway. The whole point, if the game works on you as intended, is that you willingly go in there and shoot up the hospital to save Ellie, because the smallish chance of a cure is not worth her life, and then you think about how fucked up that is afterward.
But you don’t see Joel commit nearly as much violence as he does in the game, so the ending just felt like a zero-to-60 thing to me. I know what kind of guy Joel is, but purely as a viewer of the show, I don’t think there’s enough there to make it not jarring. Marlene seems a lot more confident in the chance of success here, and Joel’s seen the tragedies of Tess, and Sam and Henry, thanks to the infection. He’s a gentler version of Joel, and one you can sort of believe would make better choices than his game counterpart, and then he just… doesn’t. He never did the right thing, but he especially didn’t do the right thing just based on what’s in the series.
Joshua: Both Joels suck, if you ask me! And the reason why is right there on the operating table: Ellie.
The one thing that’s consistent between both versions of the story, to me, is that Joel makes the decision for himself. Just prior to FEDRA finding the pair, Joel tells Ellie about a suicide attempt he made out of despair over his lost daughter, saying that while he’s still alive, he’s never had anything to live for since. Ellie gives him that, and he goes on his rampage because he just cannot let that go. He does not care what she might want.
The video game version of Joel is also selfish, but like you said, Kallie, you can buy his breakdown because the dude has been through so much with her. However, to my eyes, going on the rampage itself as the player just underlines the wrongness of Joel’s decision, and how big a lie it is when Ellie asks him point-blank to tell the truth in the end.
So Kallie, Austen — how do you feel about Ellie’s part in all this?
Austen: I actually think that’s another point in the show’s favor for me, even if it’s a cheap one: Joel’s understanding of Ellie is pretty rooted in the idea that she thinks this is an experience she’ll survive. The two have their brief bit of dialogue where they talk about what they’ll do after the procedure, and Ellie makes it clear that once it’s done she wants to stay with Joel. So Joel suddenly feeling like he has the rug pulled out from under him, and worrying that Ellie didn’t technically consent to dying for the cause here (and our own cheating knowledge about how she felt about Riley sacrificing innocent lives with the Fireflies), actually does give him a bit more leeway for me.
Maybe more importantly, setting Joel up as removing Ellie’s agency without realizing it does seem like one of the very few examples of the show accomplishing what it intends to. The real problem with the Ellie question, to me, is that even if she didn’t want to die and would have wanted Joel to save her, the show’s depiction of Joel’s rampage, with its hyper-stylized action, kind of ruins any moral ambiguity the scene might have held.
Kallie: That’s a good point, in that everyone involved here is denying Ellie any agency at all, and Joel could probably make the argument that he at least gave her a chance at life, and at maybe exerting control over that life going forward. That’s a pro-Joel reading I could get behind, largely because I love Pedro Pascal’s portrayal of the character. But yeah, I think the intensity of the rampage is what shatters that for me. It’s not surprising in the game, after hours and hours of killing people and infected in various brutal ways (and watching the two of them die plenty of times), but it’s a bit sudden here.
It feels weird to say that maybe the show would have benefitted from more violence, but I really did feel that we were rushed toward this ending, and even simply more time could have helped.
Joshua: Yeah, the compressed nature of the adaptation really puts the ambiguity of the characters’ decisions on shaky ground — we just don’t know enough about them to really come away with anything solid, I think. It feels like we are guessing at the intent of the writers, and not interpreting it, if that makes sense.
And frankly, it’s the writers that make me so hesitant to get on board with what this show does. Neil Druckmann, who was the creative director and writer for the game version and co-writes with show creator Craig Mazin, often talks about Joel and Ellie’s relationship as this beautiful thing, like a love story. I don’t agree with that!
To be clear: This is why I think The Last of Us is good! It is about a man who truly believes he loves someone and tries to take care of her as best he can, but ultimately is broken by this world and its violence and is only trying to heal himself — and in turn, he irreparably damages any chance Ellie has at having a better life in this terrible apocalypse than he. That’s powerful, fucked-up stuff that makes you stare at your hands and say damn, which is a feeling I wish the show left me with. But to me, it’s not what Mazin and Druckmann believe to be the point of their story, and they are buffing out the complexity of the source material.
I don’t know, do you folks feel that the HBO show leaves you with as many possible answers as the game did? Or was the game always clear to you and this feels faithful to that?
Kallie: My interpretation of the game was always more nuanced than just “this is about love.” Like, yes, it is about love, but there are all sorts of shades within that — how love can be incredibly selfish, how love can be about what a person gives you rather than who they are — that I think the game is better at portraying. You spend so much time with Joel in the game, because you are him, and there is a selfishness to being the protagonist of a video game. The only goals that matter are yours; the only person who needs this loot is you; your immediate world is ultimately the world you care most about.
I think that’s why the original game is so highly regarded. If you buy into it, like I did, it’s so easy to justify anything Joel does until it’s way too late, and then you’re left to think about what that all means after the fact. Do you really care about all those nameless people around the world getting a cure that might not even work, or do you care about Ellie, who you’ve been through everything with? Is it bad that you care more about Ellie? You did play as her, after all. But then you think about all the notes you’ve found, and how all of those people were also individuals who loved someone, and about Henry and Sam and Bill and Tess, and on and on, and it’s a whole Thing.
I’m not anti-adaptation by any means, but I think this is one of those cases where it was adapted too closely, and the storytelling method didn’t translate well between mediums. The fact is that this ending, as it’s told, works better as a game, and without adjusting the ending to fit the show’s own changes to the game’s storytelling, it feels much emptier. It doesn’t have the same impact on an outsider, viewing this man doing these horrible things rather than embodying him and feeling his selfishness in the specific way the game can enable. We just didn’t get the full weight of that in the way this story was told, and in the time allotted to it.
Austen: As someone who didn’t play the game, I really did assume that the show was mostly relying on game knowledge and feelings to carry a lot of its heaviest emotional baggage, so it’s very interesting to hear that none of that quite worked for you all either. But I think both of your points about adaptation really get at the heart of the issue. It seems clear that the show has a really deep respect for what the game was doing with its story, without really engaging with how it was doing it — or why that method was uniquely well-suited to a video game. And I think that gets into my biggest problem with the ending. It’s such a big swing and a radical shift, given how comparatively low the show’s violence up to that point is versus the game’s, that the entire structure of the season has to carefully build us to this moment. And it doesn’t.
Instead, The Last of Us’ first season is built around small moments in an attempt to fill out the larger world and its themes. Druckmann and Mazin want us to believe Joel’s rampage is a terrifying byproduct of the darkness that can exist in unconditional love, so they provide us other versions of that in characters like Bill and Frank and Henry and Sam and even Kathleen. But by focusing so much energy on its one-off side characters, The Last of Us neglects its main pair and never manages to prove that Joel really unconditionally loves Ellie.
The best version of the show’s ending would feel like an inevitability, a perfectly measured concoction of love and fear mixed inside a violently broken man that could only ever end in tragedy. Instead it feels like a plot twist brought about because its two main characters never got the time they needed to really bond.