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The Last of Us Part II Trades Interpretation for Canon

What happens to ambiguous stories when they're no longer ambiguous?

The following will contain full spoilers for The Last of Us Part II. Reader discretion is advised.

When it launched in 2013, The Last of Us’ open-ended conclusion invited debate about the humanity of the character the player had spent over a dozen hours as, the morality of depriving your children of agency if it means protecting them, and whether or not the person whose life is most precious to you is worth damning everyone else.

By cutting to black moments after Ellie, the would-be cure for humanity, accepts father figure Joel’s lies about her immunity to the cordyceps fungus being medically meaningless, The Last of Us makes no real definitive statement about its final hour. Instead, we were left with a controller in our hands, credits scrolling on the screen, and a newfound (or perhaps, solidified) view of the man whose blood-soaked boots we’d been walking in for most of the game. 

Then the game ends. It’s an understated, jarring, and meaningfully unsatisfying conclusion that we’ve all been sitting with for seven years. Even when DLC launched a little under a year later in the form of The Last of Us: Left Behind, it went backward rather than forward, leaving the audience hanging on Ellie’s “Okay,” up until this year when The Last of Us Part II finally launched.

While my initial reaction was to be mortified by Joel’s crime of murdering dozens of Firefly soldiers and some doctors to save Ellie, I was more put off by his deception than I was by the violence of what he’d enacted. By this point, The Last of Us had done a good job of establishing that Joel doesn’t have an issue using violence when he has to, but after losing everything he’d ever had, sacrificing the world to save one life felt like a natural, tragic ending to a story that really couldn’t have ended any other way.

After I sat with it a bit longer, I came around to what Joel had done, including his lying to Ellie, as it seemed to me to be in-line with what a father would do to protect his child from the truth. Given the larger context of the universe and these two characters at the center, I didn’t believe it made him a bad person, either. Ultimately, whether or not I condoned Joel’s actions didn’t matter. The Last of Us has enough opinions about the people of its world that it doesn’t ask me whether or not I agree with what they did, and just because it’s a video game that I play with my own inputs doesn’t mean it’s obligated to bend to my will, or that my involvement as a player makes me complicit in Joel’s crimes.

But that’s my interpretation of an ending that invited me, and anyone else, to take it however we felt. The game said what it had to say, and we all just had to live with it. Until now, because The Last of Us Part II doesn’t dance around what happened. In the very first scene, the sequel is putting its finger prints on that ending. Joel is telling his brother Tommy about what he’s done, who responds by saying he’d probably have done the same in his shoes.

Ultimately, this is the side that The Last of Us Part II takes when it comes to whether Joel is beyond redemption, while also saying that whatever he believes, the consequences will come to his doorstep eventually. His and Ellie’s relationship is strained for years after, and when she eventually finds out the truth of what her father figure had done, she cuts ties with him. Eventually, the two have to talk about their feelings on what happened at the Firefly base. Ellie says she resents Joel for taking the chance to be the cure away from her, but Joel is steadfast and says that, even if it meant dealing with the pain of her hating him all over again, he’d still make the same decision to save her. Whatever we as the player felt about Joel’s actions, Ellie wants to try and rebuild their relationship.

In establishing what its characters believe to be forgivable, The Last of Us Part II rescinds its invitation for us as players to assert our vision of its characters that the original’s ending gave us. After years of applying our own scruples onto these characters, they finally have definitive, in-text opinions on that matter. It’s pretty characteristic of the series to present its story and views without much of an interest in what the player thinks. But just because it’s unapologetic doesn’t mean that it’s going to comfortably sit with everyone. I lucked out in that my reading of the original game was the one the sequel ultimately canonized. Meanwhile, there are others who view Joel as the true villain of The Last of Us who are watching a game side with him, and Ellie, who once they viewed as a victim in all of this, extend a hand to forgive him.

While we can have our interpretations about the text, the spaces between it also open up other questions and discussion around Joel’s actions. Ubisoft account manager Dianna Lora told me that she felt a sense of doubt about whether or not Ellie’s death would have been worth it, both in whether or not it was medically viable to use her to create a cure, as well as how the Fireflies would handle distributing it. None of these discussion points are explicitly brought up in the text, but they’re only possible because The Last of Us doesn’t make a point to clarify them one way or the other.

“I think it was inherently selfish for him to save her, but I also understand his behavior and why he felt justified in his decision,” Lora said. “There wasn’t really anything to guarantee the experiment would be a success. Is it worth the risk? Can we justify killing one person for a pipe dream? And what happens afterward? Will the Fireflies save everyone or be selective with who they share the cure? These are all valid questions and valid concerns.”

On Ellie’s side, Lora said she had a newfound appreciation for Ellie’s survivor’s guilt through Part II’s new context, which added layers to Joel’s decision to rob her of the chance to die in the hospital, but raised other questions about whether or not a child of her age should have to bear that guilt.

“Ellie seemed to have a strong desire to die,” Lora said. “Since everyone around her died, she wanted that for herself since she was denied it. To help the world with her death. Joel took that from her. He took that decision from her. But, she was also a kid. Should a kid have so much weighing on themselves like that? I don’t know.”

Among some interpretations and discussion points, there’s the valid argument that Ellie wasn’t given the chance to consent to the surgery. She had said maybe 30 in-game minutes prior that everything she and Joel had been through can’t be for nothing and that she wanted this all to matter, but critic Alex Haruspis brings up that it’s not clear if she’d considered that her life might be the key to all of this. The text doesn’t say, so we can project that same motivation onto Joel’s rampage.

“We […] know that this is what Ellie says she wants, for her life to mean something,” Haruspis said. “But, how much information about the specifics of this did she know – it seems evident that the doctors and Marlene did not talk to her before prepping her for the life-ending surgery, as she was unconscious after attempting to rescue Joel outside the Firefly base. […] Joel makes the decision for himself, Ellie never truly gets to make a choice here, and the world will continue the way it is.

“Sometimes the only decisions you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose. Joel chose selfishly, Joel chose to effectively doom humanity, and I don’t know that I would’ve chosen differently in his shoes?”

But The Last of Us Part II confirms Ellie had thought of this, and would have sacrificed herself for the chance to end the cordyceps fungus’ claim to humanity. It adds another layer of denied agency, while also confirming the Fireflies planned to deny it from her as well, as her operating doctor Jerry Anderson believed it too important a discovery to risk asking what she wanted. In filling out the blind spots, Part II retroactively makes events more tragic, and perceived victims actually knowing and willing participants in robbing a child of her chance to choose.

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Another issue worth considering when it comes to clearing the fog around ambiguous stories is that, since The Last of Us’ fandom has spent so much time speculating, that if some questions are answered and others aren’t, it can create a different sense of dissatisfaction than just not liking what a sequel has to say. As Haruspis points out, much of The Last of Us Part II doesn’t expand the universe beyond the scope of how it matters to Joel and Ellie, and by extension Part II’s new protagonist Abby, which means the ramifications of a cure being denied to the world isn’t reckoned with in the same way their interpersonal relationships are.

“Everybody is looking inwardly to what they’ve personally lost, which obviously makes sense,” Haruspis said. “But none of the relevant characters ever seem to talk about the bigger picture and imagine what it is that has more broadly been lost because of Joel’s decision. Indeed, you can count the number of lines exchanged between Ellie and Dina about her immunity on one hand before moving on.

“As a result, it somewhat undersells Ellie’s horrified reaction when the truth comes out because the story hasn’t spent any time actively reckoning with those broader consequences – the result is an even further distance between myself and the characters, not on any particularly moral level but because it feels like they just never quite catch up to the player.”

Personally, I’d been wary of a sequel to The Last of Us on principle, because I’m not among the people who believe The Last of Us’ universe is interesting beyond the relationships it establishes. In most ways, I’d always felt the world at large is typical zombie fiction, but with stellar writing and characters in that world, grounded in a concise story that is intrinsically intertwined with how this world looks from the perspective of two (three, once Abby is brought into the mix) people. But given that there are those who believe the universe is interesting enough to merit exploration into other territories, it adds another wrinkle to the question of whether or not expanding upon The Last of Us was worth it if it was never going to satisfy every question its ending raised.

For some of us, The Last of Us Part II’s support of Joel and Ellie’s forgiving him isn’t a jarring disconnect between what we thought, it merely solidified that the way the series views these acts of violence doesn’t jive with some. Kotaku staff writer Ash Parrish explained to me that, despite loving much of The Last of Us, the ending has never sat well with her, but she gathered that Joel’s perspective as a father figure would drive him to make a different decision than she would.

“I loved that game,” she said. “I thought it was a beautiful and interesting take on the whole zombie survival genre, right up until the last act. That last act ruined the game for me. I still enjoyed it, but I felt this sense of loss by the conclusion. 

“Joel’s decision was disturbingly selfish and lacking any kind of internal reflection at all. It just didn’t make sense to me and I understand it’s not supposed to. I don’t have children so I’ve never lost a child. Assuming the perspective of a bereaved parent, his decision makes sense to me. Doesn’t excuse it, but it makes sense.”

After Ellie’s revenge-driven massacre of Seattle in Part II, Parrish says that she ultimately has no love left for Joel and Ellie.

“Being frank, I couldn’t care less about these two white folks who’ve done nothing in everything we’ve seen them do in these games but bring abject suffering to the people around them,” she said. “The museum moment was touching but they both mean nothing to me. I’m far more connected to Lev and Yara and Jesse and Dina. These are people who haven’t been motivated to their actions through hate but love.”

Parrish did say, however she appreciated Ellie’s capacity to forgive Joel, even if she didn’t herself.

“I appreciate Ellie’s anger with Joel over his robbing her of agency,” she said. “That’s important and that’s true. Joel didn’t let Ellie make that choice for herself. But Ellie also realizes what’s done is done and there’s no use carrying that sadness in your heart when it doesn’t need to be there. Her opening up her heart to forgiveness is the only time I think I liked her. It was the only time she made practical sense to me.”

Although, depending on who you ask, some might say that dissonance between what we believe to be right and what the characters do is one of The Last of Us’ greatest strengths, rather than a weakness. While some feel The Last of Us Part II’s seemingly supportive framing of Joel’s actions go against their takeaway from the first game, others think that there’s something to be said about how the game’s lack of player input doesn’t invalidate what we thought of the original game’s finale, but just gives us more context to judge for ourselves who we think these characters are in the end.

Writer Sam Greer explained that by Joel having to face the consequences of what he’s done, both by losing out on at least a year of a life with Ellie as his daughter, and by eventually being killed by Abby in an act of revenge, it’s able to balance both supporting his decision as an act of love, while acknowledging the horrific human cost that came from it.

“I think Part II has characters hold him accountable, including Ellie, while also letting Joel maintain his reasoning behind his decision,” Greer said. “The end result is that even though it answers questions about how much Ellie knew, etc. it does not resolve for the audience the question of was what he did right. And it maintains the friction between those two characters rather than resolving it. In fact, the sequel is all about how that friction cannot be resolved.”

While ambiguity is a storytelling device that gives media a shelf life beyond its run time as we discuss and theorycraft, Haruspis said that fandom’s clinging to canon to justify interpretations has perhaps exacerbated the criticism of open-ended conclusions as “poor” writing, and that a lot of modern media, video games, especially, choose clarity over mystery. Whether that be just by plainly stating things or, like The Last of Us, making a sequel, especially as demands of creators to corroborate theories extends to social media.

“In our modern media landscape, the term ‘plot hole’ and the CinemaSins ‘ding’ mentality gets so overused in criticism that storytelling may often seem to bend towards over explaining every little thing,” Haruspis said. “Or, in other cases, fans will directly appeal to the creators on social media to “confirm” certain ideas and interpretations.”

Haruspis cited an instance of a Last of Us fan tagging director and co-writer Neil Druckmann in a post asking if the ending of Part II, where we see Ellie return to her abandoned farm home, was playing with some time skip antics and actually showed her after she’d reconciled with her estranged ex-girlfriend Dina.

“It’s not enough for this to be a story that lives in your head, it must have some textual authority applied to it from the creator. I really hate that,” he said. “Ambiguity is not only a wonderful storytelling device that so purposefully hands the ‘reading’ over to the player to form their own conclusions based on their understanding of the text, but I feel it’s an important middle finger to the landscape of a lot of modern ‘criticism’ which so hungrily demands self-defeating answers that can never be satisfying.”

In the end, The Last of Us Part II was caught between a rock and hard place because it had to either shatter a crystalized moment for a majority of its fandom, or keep it pristine and sitting on a shelf, pretending it didn’t exist while it went on about other things. Maybe it’s reductive, but I think leaving The Last of Us on that note of “will this man get away with what he’s done,” would have aged the story faster, as the idea of a father depriving his daughter of her agency and smugly living happily ever after with his secret painted the story in a darker light than I think the series ever needed to end on. Part II’s deliberate framing of its predecessor as an act of love rather than one of selfishness or entitlement elevates the story as a whole, in my opinion, into something that goes beyond the gritty, hate-driven narrative even Naughty Dog has been touting.

Did it need to exist? When viewed as a companion piece to the first game that tells one, singular story of love-driven violence and how we pass that on to our children, I think it’s a stunning and respectful follow-up that understands its characters and its underlying themes better than most video games ever aspire to. But that’s all rooted in my reading of the first game being the one The Last of Us Part II believes, as well. 

Perhaps it is in keeping with The Last of Us that its sequel is intentionally unsatisfying to some of us, but I don’t think people who viewed Joel and Ellie in specific ways were ever going to leave this version of the game satisfied to begin with, whether that was intentional or not. In a way, I empathize with those who left Part II feeling like it fundamentally pushed against their understanding of what came before. But when an audience or higher up who greenlights a sequel demands to know what’s next, no one is safe from whatever the answer is.

About the Author

Kenneth Shepard

Kenneth is a Staff Writer at Fanbyte. He still periodically cries about the Mass Effect trilogy years after it concluded.