As The Last of Us TV show approaches its season one finale, it gives video game fans a chance to see one of the most powerful narrative moments in modern video game history brought to life through the amazing performances of Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. And if they hit that mark right it should divide audiences in the exact same way the source material did back in 2013.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be 1000 words of “why the book (in this case video game) is better.” Instead, it is an opportunity to look back to the ending of the original game and discuss it. We have no idea how the TV show plans to handle such a monumental moment, but we do know how the game handled it.
Note: I am about to spoil the ending of the video game The Last of Us. If you have not played the game, or you’re watching the TV show, and you want to remain spoiler free then this is your last chance to avoid that.
To recap: Joel has woken up in a hospital facing the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene. Finally, after hours of one of the most emotionally torturous journeys any game has ever put us through, we are at our goal. Unfortunately, if there is anything the game has taught us at this point it’s there is never a time to celebrate. Marlene informs Joel that Ellie is being prepared for surgery where they will, in simplest terms, remove her brain to reverse engineer a vaccine since she is immune to infection. It’s at this moment Joel, not the player, is given a choice. Does he let the Fireflies take Ellie away from him for the potential good of humanity as a whole, or does he choose to take her away and let humanity fend for itself in an uncertain future?
Players have grown to know Joel well at this point. He is crass, violent, and until Ellie came around only thought for himself. He lost his daughter before the main story of the game even began, and after building a wall of stone around his heart has chosen to let Ellie inside of it. He loves Ellie the same way he loved his daughter, and now he is being forced to decide if he should lose his daughter again. He chooses not to. It’s an understandable decision that any relative would make if given the same choice. In a world full of selfish and terrible people why should Joel be forced to make these sacrifices? Why can’t others? That’s how he sees it anyway.
What’s incredible about this moment from a video game perspective is at the time players were used to always being in control, especially back in 2013 when games everywhere were experimenting with good choice-bad choice, gameplay. The Last of Us told the player that no, they won’t get a choice or an alternate ending for doing it differently, because that decision is up to Joel, cure be damned. He’s taking back Ellie and we are simply along for the ride.
The moments that play out for the player, as they’re forced to fight their way through the hospital, are full of emotional uncertainty. Is Joel making the right decision? Every enemy the player comes across leaves a bad feeling in the player’s stomach, because if they succeed they’re essentially defeating any chance at saving the world.
After escaping the hospital with Ellie, she awakens in the backseat of a car that Joel is driving away. It’s here where we see Joel’s true character reveal itself yet again. Ellie, still in a medical gown and not entirely sure what happened wants to know what’s going on. Joel explains that they found the Fireflies, and then lies to Ellie about everything. They’re no longer “seeking” a cure. It’s here where the game reveals to the player that Marlene is dead, at the hands of Joel, and he is going to do everything he can to protect Ellie from them. A look of disappointment on her face, Ellie rolls over in the backseat and turns away from Joel.
The final moments of the game feature some gameplay with Joel and Ellie where the player takes control of Ellie as the two work their way back to their new home, Jackson City. Joel forces conversation with a despondent Ellie throughout the final moments as it’s clear something else is on her mind. The player reaches the top of what they’re traversing and the game’s final cutscene plays out. Ellie makes Joel swear to her that everything he told her about the Fireflies is true, and at that moment you can see on Ellie’s face that she knows Joel is lying to her. It might be commonplace now for games to let players read characters through their facial animations, but this was still very novel at the time.
The thing about Ellie’s character is she has an incredible nose for nonsense. She’s known the entire time that Joel was lying to her from the very moment she woke up in the backseat of the car and it’s painful for her that Joel is choosing to lie to her again. This is someone she has chosen to open up to and see as something like a father to her. This isn’t some random person lying to her, but someone she has a deep connection with and that makes the lie so much more painful. How she responds to this in the future is up to the player’s interpretation, at least until we see the ripple effects in The Last of Us Part II, but we do know that at this moment she chooses to move on with the lie. Roll credits.
People are complicated, and all of us would love to believe that if we were put into the position of these characters we would choose to make the “correct” decision, but the reality is that many people are going to put themselves first. The Last of Us choosing to focus on that instead, with these characters in particular, is what makes the ending great. Joel isn’t a good person, but he’s not so unlikable that the player wants to see him fail. In a lot of ways, we can understand why he makes the decisions he does because in similar situations we might do the same. Ellie has spent her entire life trusting nobody else around her. So why is she choosing to go along with Joel’s lie at the end, or at least appearing to? Because she cares enough for him that she wants to believe in him. The ending doesn’t work because it’s another emotional gut punch, but because it proves just how broken these people are.
So how does the TV show approach a moment like this? Most fans of the game will be heartbroken if the TV show chooses to go in a different direction. It will feel like viewers who haven’t played the game are being deprived of some truly great and bold storytelling. We know from Bella Ramsey that the finale is going to be divisive, but how exactly is anyone’s guess. Whatever direction they choose to take, we just hope that it doesn’t rob those characters of what makes them special.