Sometimes the hardest choice of all is when you don’t have one
I did not want to like The Last of Us.
Not just on the moral principle that our world does not need another gritty, post-apocalyptic drama about ragged survivors in cargo pants questioning their right to survive while eating Beef-a-roni.
Not simply because I happen to enjoy mushrooms and don’t need any more reasons to worry about what’s in my pancake mix.
What kept me from the screen was the very weird way my friends were telling me to watch it. It’s a gut-punch. You’ll never ugly-cried this hard again in your life. It started to remind me of Deckard’s wife in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? who can take pills that simulate any human emotion but bizarrely keeps taking the one that triggers suicidal depression.
So I guess we need reasons to cry?
But I did finally stop bitching about my mushrooms and watched. And I found out it’s not the crying that makes the story work. It’s the hope. More specifically, the hope of staying human: life isn’t just about survival, but who we’re living for.
As I came to discover, The Last of Us works as a series because it has great material to work with. Joel spends a lot of time collecting ammo—at one point, you’re required to put off a tearful cut-scene reunion with Ellie so Joel can grab some lighter fluid—but the things most worth preserving in TLOU are usually the ones that have the least to do with keeping us alive.
A strawberry. The dog tags of a fallen fighter. Or a giraffe that can apparently survive a winter in Salt Lake City.
So I went into the finale mentally preparing myself for the very real possibility that the ending might suck, because HBO finales so often do. At best, it would be another Six Feet Under (another show that deals with death but ultimately leaves us feeling ready to live).
At worst… well, you saw what they did to Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in Game of Thrones.
So I watched the ending and it was… kind of both. It sucked and it was brilliant.
Okay, so I won’t take a show of hands, but it sounds like most people agree the whole let’s-remove-Ellie’s-brain dilemma makes zero sense.
Actual vaccine scientists have struggled to find any actual science in the Fireflies’ plan. It is a forced dilemma, and a weak one to boot. If you have one subject on the whole planet who is immune to a particular pandemic, literally the last thing you want is for that person to die. You want to keep pumping that person for samples as long as there is an ounce of fluid that can still be squoze out of them to extract those sweet, sweet messenger cells.
Not to mention it is possible to get a brain biopsy that does not kill the patient: sure, there’s a reason why “brain surgery” is a synonym for “something that not just any guy in a post-apocalyptic hospital can do,” but people get chunks torn out of their brains all the time and live (and are fully awake during surgery to boot). Not to also mention that even if “Cordyceps begins in the brain,” the so-called messenger cells would have to permeate your entire body in order for another infected to recognize it on you.
So taking out Ellie’s brain to get a usable sample in the highly unlikely hope that you’d be able to get a vaccine out of it is kind of sketchy, and the surgeon performing this operation is a quack. Which makes the whole trolley-problem angle kind of a non-starter from a plausibility standpoint.
The real answer to the dilemma—as opposed to any in-game answer that might satisfy us “well, actually” nitpickers—is that the game’s original creators at Naughty Dog needed a dilemma that would require little explanation, that would clarify the endpoint of Joel’s character journey, and that would force him to take immediate action so that we can get our rampage on.
In a video game, this is brilliant counter-programming: we all know what it’s like to accidentally shoot someone on our own team (and occasionally we do it on purpose), but this is one case in which you’re compelled to kill your allies or the game can’t end; the boss battle is against an unarmed, critically wounded person begging for her life. So it had to be a moral dilemma that didn’t demand a debate.
But they went for more than that. The finale’s dark irony is that the very people who wanted Ellie to survive also need her to die, and the person who had to be browbeat into protecting her discovers that her survival is the key to his own. This is one moment in which the TV finale truly shines: when Ellie suggests that time may have healed the despair that nearly drove Joel to suicide, he looks at her stone-faced (does Pedro Pascal have any other look? It’s definitely his Blue Steel) and says, “It wasn’t time that did it.” It’s brilliant underwriting that trusts the audience to understand.
Which brings me back to the ending, and why I think it sucks. And why in all of its suckiness, it’s also genius. Because it’s exactly where the story has been leading us all this time. “Either Ellie dies or humanity does” is the mission we’re on. Which forces Joel and all of us to ask: Who matters more, the lives we know or the ones we don’t?
This is not an abstract dilemma. Schindler’s List—a post-apocalyptic drama in the darkest, truest sense of the word—is the true story of a man who saved 1,000 Jews simply because he had come to care about them as individuals. This is brought into sharp focus at a critical point in the story when he discovers that five hundred women under his protection have been sent to Auschwitz. Schindler puts his own safety at risk to get them back, even after he’s offered an equal number of other women in exchange.
The Nazi official he’s dealing with asks blandly, “Why these Jews in particular?”
To us the answer is obvious: because he knows them. It would be like a doctor killing your child and then offering you a different child as compensation.
But there’s a harsh irony underlying Schindler’s choice: by saving the 500 women he knows, he’s also rejecting 500 women he doesn’t, and those 500 women are going to die. Are they any less worthy of saving? Of course not. But he knows them and cares about them, and the other women are people we never meet. So we mostly don’t question Schindler’s choice.
For him, there is no choice.
TLOU makes that choice very simple for Joel: with the exception of the kind, decent people within his very small circle of trust (Jess, Tommy, Ellie, Sam, Henry, Bill, Frank), the bulk of humanity are not simply faceless but kind of awful.
So when Joel decides, screw humanity, it’s kind of hard to make a case for humanity. Because mostly they are the worst kind of humanity—and the Fireflies are the worst of all, revolutionaries posing as freedom fighters.
Pretty much everyone in TLOU is a killer, but these are killers who never question the morality of their actions. So of course they’re going to kill a kid in hopes of making their wacko vaccine that will probably work about as well as the magic blood Ellie tried to rub into Sam’s wound. That’s how revolutionaries see the world. The end always justifies the means.
And this is why I don’t think it matters whether Marlene’s wacko plan would have worked.
What matters is that the Fireflies not only believe the plan will work, they think it is the only thing that can work, alternatives be damned. That’s entirely consistent with the mindset of ideological radicals from the Jacobins to the Proud Boys. Right and wrong are always simple, sentimentality is weakness, and the only good bridges are the ones you burn.
Most democratic societies are predicated on the idea that the good of society and the good of the individual are ultimately one and the same: if one of us is in chains, then none of us are free. If I take a vaccine, it’s not just because I want to save my life but because I want to help protect everyone I meet. This is a great belief system but good luck getting everyone to live by it (no doubt the Fireflies would have run into magic-Ellie-blood deniers).
More often, we decide that as long as we and the people we love are okay, the rest of society can go to hell in its own way. That sounds selfish and harsh—maybe it is selfish and harsh—but it’s also very, very human. There’s a bit of Oskar Schindler in most of us.
After I watched the finale, I dove into a video walkthrough of the original PS4 game (I know, I know, it’s cheating, but I didn’t need 40 hours of getting my throat ripped out just to write this article).
There’s an odd theme in both the game and TV show, which is the tendency of various characters to treat Ellie as a possession. David the cult leader is the most extreme version of this, but he’s not alone.
In the show, a Fedra lieutenant offers Ellie a chance to be the one taking the orders or the one giving them… never mind that to give the orders means also becoming a fascist puppet. Marlene and the Fireflies have basically been raising Ellie as an organ donor all these years.
When Joel comes for Ellie, the surgeon says “I won’t let you take her.” And when Joel does take her, he says, “I’ve got you” (same words he said to his daughter Sarah). Nobody ever lets Ellie decide anything. Marlene lies because she’s afraid Ellie would say no to her sacrifice, and Joel lies because he’s afraid she would have wanted to say yes.
There is at least another season in this story, so I’m guessing we are only partway through Ellie’s journey to making her own decisions (and no, I don’t want to know what happens in the game sequel).
So yeah. I loved The Last of Us like Ellie loves bad puns, like Winston Smith loved Big Brother. I even loved the final episode, even if the ending is a foregone conclusion. If humanity is doomed, then these are the people I want to be doomed with.
To quote another line from Schindler’s List, “an hour of life is still life.”