The Last of Us – both the game and the HBO TV series – left an impact on almost everyone who consumed it. But for some – including me – its themes of grief and loss hit much harder.
There’s a sense that I’m a little late to the party on this discourse. After all, The Last of Us has been off our TV screens for over a month now. But this is a sensitive subject for me. It’s something I have strong thoughts on, and formulating them has taken time. There’s a silver lining at least: waiting a while to visit this topic has given more people the time to either finish a playthrough of The Last of Us, or reach the season one finale of the HBO adaptation. This is your cue to look away if spoilers are a thing for you.
The Last of Us primarily tells the story of Joel and Ellie. 20 years earlier, the virus Cordyceps wiped out much of the world, essentially turning people into flesh-hungry monsters. Joel’s made a living for himself as a smuggler, but his latest job is a little different: rather than running goods from one location to another, he’s going to be transporting Ellie – a precocious 14-year-old who’s believed to be immune to Cordyceps. As such, she may well hold the key to a cure.
Over the course of the game and TV series, we witness Joel and Ellie’s relationship turn from one of necessity to one actually built on love. We get to know both characters in more detail, and their lives prior to the events we see unfold: we learn Joel has lost a daughter, and Ellie has lost people close to her too. The Last of Us isn’t exactly a story of grief, but it’s a theme that plays a large part – and it’s a theme that resonates very strongly with me.
The ending of the game, and the final moments of the HBO series, show Joel making a very difficult decision. It’s a decision that has actively polarised players and viewers, leaving them unsure where they stand with this character. Joel’s job of transporting Ellie has ultimately seen her arrive at a medical facility where she can be used to find a cure for Cordyceps. But it’s only when she’s on the operating table that Joel learns a vaccine can only be created if she dies.
Naturally, this leaves Joel in an unenviable position. He wants to see a vaccine, but can he let go of Ellie in order to do so? We know the conclusion: Joel storms the hospital killing pretty much everyone in sight to carry Ellie to ‘safety’. But is his choice realistic?
I should have perhaps prefaced this piece of writing with a little backstory. I’m a dad whose child died. My daughter died when she was three years old. I experienced a grief I never knew could exist. It’s a grief that, even sixteen years later, feels fresh. Every day I relive my final moments with her – final moments which happened twice.
She died as the result of a horrific car accident. That morning I had said goodbye to her while I went off to work. I gave her a hug and a kiss, I told her I loved her. She smiled a crooked smile and returned the expression, saying “I love you big much”. Her love knew no bounds. Five days later I had another final moment with her: her life support was removed and I sat in a hospital room holding my dead child in my arms, giving her one last hug and kiss.
It was not only a sad experience, but one connected to a horrible tragedy. I wasn’t in the car accident. I was at work, happy and healthy, all while ten miles away my daughter suffered brain damage that would later prove fatal.
In The Last of Us, long before Joel ever meets Ellie – before Ellie is even born, in fact – he loses his daughter, Sarah, in tragedy as she is shot by a scared police officer in the early moments of the outbreak. Joel falls to his knees screaming, crying, shaking his daughter in an attempt to keep her alive. When I first played the game, this opening had a very unique impact on me. The moment we, the audience, realise Sarah has died and we watch Joel break, I broke too.
When my daughter was taken to hospital after the accident, I was waiting outside because I’d had a call telling me to get to the emergency room. I watched as she was carried out of the ambulance unconscious. All I could see were her patent leather shoes bouncing lifelessly as paramedics and doctors rushed to get her inside. While I didn’t fall to my knees like Joel, I did collapse against a wall, screaming and crying.
However impactful a tragedy may be, it doesn’t put a pause on life. The world moves on around you, and you have to do your best to carry on. Joel has to survive this new world without Sarah in it and, after a time, he meets Ellie. On their journey together they bond, slowly. Joel is reluctant to let her into his life, often feeling conflicted about this child who reminds him so much of his daughter.
Over the course of The Last of Us‘s story, however, we see that bond grow. Joel begins to laugh at Ellie’s jokes, he offers her comfort, comes to her rescue, ensures she is safe even if it means holding her back. It’s obvious, but it must be reiterated, he is fathering her. He is taking the place of a father she never had, and she begins to fill a gap in his life, too.
Four months after my daughter died, my partner gave birth to our second daughter – she was pregnant at the time of the accident. I suddenly had to become a father to a child with the stain of grief altering my experience. The bond between parent and child is strong – we’ve all heard the stories of mothers performing seemingly superhuman feats in order to save their child. But as strong as a parent’s love for a child is, so is the grief left behind after death.
I don’t know of a caring parent who wouldn’t, at some point, exclaim, “I’d kill for my kid”. So, when I got to the end of The Last of Us, and played through that fateful scene of Joel and Ellie in the medical facility, I pondered Joel’s actions. When I wrapped up the HBO show last month, I thought about them again.
Nothing and nobody can replace a lost child. It’s a void that lasts forever. The gap left by a child is more than the death of a life: it’s the death of potential, too. When a child dies, so too does their future. The grieving parent will constantly ask themselves questions: would they have grown up and got married? Would they have gone to university? Had kids of their own? What job would they have?
In the same way that a child can’t be replaced, those questions will never have an answer. However, having another person enter your life after such a loss does help in some way. They won’t fill the void, but they’ll lessen the size of it. For Joel, Ellie offered a glimpse of what his life would be like to be a father again; a role he thought he would never again experience.
When he is told that Ellie has to die in order to fulfil her role in the cure for humanity, the healing of his grief and his potential future are put in jeopardy. Whether he is right or wrong for what he subsequently does can be seen as a more macabre take on the famous “trolley problem” – or to put it in layman’s terms, he can’t possibly win. But in that moment, he chooses the option that feels right for him; the option that helps him heal. Grief is selfish and it makes people act in ways they might never have before.
When I look back to my daughter passing on, I suppose I had a similar choice. After five days in hospital, her condition hadn’t improved. She was basically brain dead, living on machines that did everything for her. If she even survived her ordeal, she would spend her life in a bed, unconscious. I was given a choice: remove life support, or let the agony continue to either a more traumatic death, or a life nobody should have to experience. It was my own trolley problem: I could keep her alive, or I would have to enter an unknown phase rooted in grief.
So, when I thought about Joel’s actions during that scene in The Last of Us, I found myself asking: “would I do what Joel does?”
Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think any of us could ever know. All I know is that in a moment when you’re faced with lessening years of hurt – when you could finally see a glimpse of light at the end of a long tunnel – that choice would be loaded with new agonies. Grief makes each of us selfish; it transforms our minds and forces us to make unwise choices, or lash out, or break down. Grief never presents the right answer.