Over and over again, Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, the storytellers behind HBO’s The Last of Us — based on the PlayStation game by Naughty Dog that Druckmann co-directed alongside Bruce Straley — assert that their story is about love. Love that is most clearly shown in the connection that Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) forge in a world of discord. They also argue that, in addition to acts of care and altruism — Bill and Frank’s romance in episode 3, or Henry and Sam’s brotherhood in the show’s Kansas City arc — there is a dark side to love that’s worth exploring. Like Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), who leads the Kansas City resistance to fascism in a long-simmering rage over her brother’s death, and, of course, Joel’s ultimate decision to murder a building full of Fireflies to stop the surgery that will kill Ellie in hopes of a cure.
Love, Druckmann and Mazin assert, contains multitudes. Mazin describes it this way in Vulture:
Love is behind the most extreme choices we make and the most extreme behaviors in which we engage. Do you love this person more than those people? Parents say things like this to their children all the time: “I love you more than the world itself.” Do you? For Joel, the answer is “Yes, I do.” That is profound, and the ambiguity of the positivity of love is what we should be taking forward. What Joel has done in the name of love is a selfish act but an understandable one. It is setting a chain of events in motion that will not be undone. If you look at any kind of intractable conflict between people or peoples, at some point you’re gonna find somebody doing something because of love. That love manifests as fear, hatred, xenophobia, racism, religious superiority. These things that start like little seeds grow into massive things that we can’t comprehend how to get out of.
This assertion tends to go unchallenged; it’s why the pair keep repeating it. This is the upside of talking about an abstract yet universal idea like “love” — it’s something that can look different for everyone, which means that everyone can read a story like The Last of Us a little bit differently, making it all the richer. But when either Mazin or Druckmann expound on this, they name other emotional drivers that are notably not love, which, while too broad to universally define, can generally be understood as a deep affection that is often disruptive, even irrational.
People uproot their lives and move across the world for love. They quit their jobs and change careers. They commit to caring for animals they may have hated at first or children they never considered having. They write poetry and sing and scream and sob. They starve so another can eat.
What the characters in The Last of Us do instead is grieve. They work through their collective trauma, poorly in most cases, yet sometimes — in Bill and Frank’s case, or most successfully, with the community in Jackson — they are able to grasp a simulacrum of what they lost, even as they mourn it. Joel’s foundational trauma in The Last of Us is the loss of his daughter, Sarah; her absence reduces him to the grim shell of a man that we see in the first half of the show, and treating Ellie as Sarah’s substitute is the reason he becomes a warmer presence in the latter half of the season.
The thing Joel feels for Ellie could be love. It could also be something else entirely, a selfish need for the thing that he lives for in the post-apocalypse to be the daughter that was taken from him. Ellie is not the object of Joel’s affection; she is a vessel for his grief — he even calls her “baby girl,” his pet name for his long-deceased daughter. Ellie could also conceivably love Joel back. Or she could simply trust him in a world where she isn’t able to trust anyone else, happy to reflect what Joel sees in her back at him. Or she could see him as a deluded man to indulge for lack of options. Or, or, or.
This is what makes it hard to accept Mazin’s efforts to assign love as the root cause of oppositional notions like “fear, hatred, xenophobia, racism,” or “religious superiority.” It’s poorly supported by the text of the show.
In the universe of The Last of Us, love isn’t so much a multifaceted emotion, but a catalyst for things that are already there. It is also justification after the fact for abusers like David, the preacher in frozen Colorado leading his congregants to unwitting cannibalism, as much as it is for Joel’s final rampage against the Fireflies. Attributing all this to “love” sells Mazin and Druckmann’s own work short, as well as that of the performers bringing the story to life, oversimplifying what could be a rich text if it were interested in why these characters think their actions are fueled by love.
On some level, Mazin seems to understand this. In the same Vulture interview, he makes what might be his most insightful statement into the storytelling ethos of The Last of Us:
Good stories are not built on themes like “brotherhood” or “anger”; those are just words. Good stories are built on arguments: It’s worth killing everyone to save the person you love. We can debate that.
To some, “Did Joel do the right thing?” may be the animating question of The Last of Us, but that reduces the entire work to an elaborate and violent trolley problem. The better question is, “Did Joel do an understandable thing?” because then, the question is about whether The Last of Us succeeded in its goals.
Arguably, it has: We can, as Mazin says, debate the ending. The tricky part — and the reason that interrogating the showrunners’ rationale is worthwhile — is that the why of it all matters so much when it’s time to answer the question that every person who enjoyed the show wants answered: What’s next?
Another thing about love: For it to be genuine, and have any sort of enduring presence, there needs to be some kind of symmetry. A mutual respect, and communication. The tragedy of the show is that this is missing in its central relationship between Joel and Ellie — the heartbreak of that final shot comes with knowing that this potential bridge has been destroyed. What makes it all the more powerful is the way it is also written across the world of The Last of Us.
For a show set in a world transformed by the Cordyceps fungus, The Last of Us always made a point to keep the root cause of its apocalypse in the periphery. Reflecting the worldview of its characters, Cordyceps is something to be avoided. The infected are like zombies, but faster and stronger, and over time take on truly nightmarish forms capable of terrible violence. What’s more — they’ve won. Nature has reclaimed much of the planet as humanity dissolved into factions and tyranny, as mycelial networks of Cordyceps took root and flourished. Here is the advantage that the Cordyceps fungus has over all of us: It’s connected.