Defining Dina from The Last of Us: Part II

We talk about Dina's role, beauty standards, and more with several of the people that brought her to life.

Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II to follow.

On the first day of Ellie’s journey to avenge her father figure, Joel, she’s riding through a forest with her girlfriend, Dina. On their way to Seattle, Ellie recounts the moment in the first Last of Us when she saved Joel from a hunter while he was still alive: her first kill. When Dina asks her how old she was, Ellie nonchalantly answers 14 years old. Then, Ellie asks Dina how old she was when she first killed an uninfected person.

“Ten,” Dina says in a small voice.

“Shit, you got me beat,” replies Ellie, sounding morbidly impressed.

“Yeah, I’m a real badass,” Dina remarks humorlessly before changing the subject.

Even though Dina committed her first kill long before Ellie, and was robbed of being with her family in the present, she’s radically different from her girlfriend. She begins the game as a representation of Jackson: the haven where Ellie and Joel reside at the beginning of The Last of Us Part II. It’s a community that has seen its fair share of trauma but persevered through its dedication to unity. It’s a community Dina has been a part of for much of her life — that taught her life continues even after the greatest tragedies.

“She’s able to hold space for people, even when she’s dealing with her own pain. And I think that’s her way of showing love,” says Shannon Woodward, Dina’s voice and motion caption actor, in an interview with Fanbyte. “For me, I have those qualities, you know. I’m the one people go to with their problems, despite having my own trauma. I think that kind of ends up lending itself to Dina’s temperament.”

Amidst the brutal violence and pain present in the entirety of the story, it’s Dina who first makes The Last of Us Part II become more than a surrender to the inevitable hardships of living in the post-apocalypse. It gets to be an exploration of hope and how to survive physically and emotionally in a broken world.

Early iterations of the story gave little idea to design Dina’s costumes. However, concept artist Ashley Swidowski tells me the team knew Dina would be “a bit more of a dreamer, someone who spent much of her time fantasizing about what life may have been like for people before the outbreak. Her background was, at that time, more sheltered than Ellie: so we explored less functionality in her wardrobe, which created a contrast between the two young women’s worlds. We played a lot with lighter materials and floral patterns, which at the time occupied more visual importance in the world and story.”

Eventually, she evolved into a more hardened character. Swidowski says her wardrobe changed to match “her connection to a rancher’s lifestyle.” And while the team worked to “avoid the stereotype of masculine/feminine in their [Ellie and Dina’s] relationship and settled on more neutrality and crossover in their aesthetics,” Dina’s visuals communicate her differences. Her palette was decided to occupy “an orange-purple-red space, with red being a very significant color throughout the story.” Dina is visually defined by warmth, contrasting with Ellie’s perpetually cool spectrum. The various contrasts between her and Ellie — who is much more guarded, introverted, and stoic — make their dynamic exciting to watch onscreen even though their moments tend to be the quieter ones.

But The Last of Us Part II only shows Dina and Ellie’s dynamic once it turns romantic. It’s Dina who, after many years of being best friends, takes the step to change that.

“I always knew that Dina had been in love with Ellie for a long time,” Woodward tells me. “There was a scene that I tested with when I read with Ashley [Johnson, Ellie’s voice and motion capture actor] that became a version of a different scene. But there was a monologue that they had me do. It was about the history of their friendship. And it was talking about how she’d been in love with her for a really long time; that they had been friends when Ellie had another girlfriend, Cat. And then her relationship with Jesse naturally had kind of ended … I think, once she was single, she was like, ‘We’re both single right now. We should probably take the window.’”

When Woodward references Ellie’s ex-girlfriend, she hilariously forgets Cat’s name. I point out that she resembles Dina so much at this moment. “That’s true! What was that chick’s name? Oh, Cat.” she jokes. “Anytime that character would come up while we were shooting, I’d be like, [angry growling noise].” Her own sense of humor is often present in Dina’s character. After all, she came up with moments like Dina yelling “eat snow, you little shit,” during a snowball fight between her, Ellie, and the children of Jackson.

In an unpredictable world, Dina’s devotion to Ellie is quickly made clear when she accompanies her on a mission to avenge Joel. That’s a big ask, yet there’s zero hesitation. When Ellie worries about how much harder their journey will be over an inconvenience, Dina simply replies “then it’s gonna be harder.” As she grabs Ellie’s tear-stricken face and tells her “you go, I go, end of story,” you know that, while their success is unsure, what is certain is the deep bond between these two women.

That devotion is just as loud in the moments they risk their lives for each other as it is during their gentlest interactions. When Ellie can’t take her eyes off a photo of Abby they find at a TV station, Dina softly pries the picture from her hands, refocusing Ellie on the present objective. When the two travel through the outskirts of Seattle, Ellie can only think about her current mission. Dina instead shares her dreams — looking to a future where they build a life on a farm together. Despite knowing full well how difficult it will be to accomplish Ellie’s goals, Dina constantly reassures her girlfriend that she understands. Dina’s most precious family member, her sister, was also killed — and it’s through this that she works to never invalidate Ellie’s pain.

Of course, their relationship isn’t simple. Their first major conflict arises when Dina confesses she’s pregnant only a few weeks into their relationship. The two only began their courtship a week after Dina broke things off with Jesse.

This scene was the hardest for Woodward to execute. “I really wanted to play into and against it at the same time,” she says. “As a woman doing the scene where you’re like, ‘I’m pregnant!’ I was afraid it would feel soapy or something. Even though the writing was great, it was on me to sell it and not make it that way. And I kind of wanted it to be kind of funny.”

While Dina tries to bring levity to the conversation by joking the child isn’t Ellie’s, it ends with the two hurting each other. Anxious over how they will accomplish their mission, Ellie reaffirms Dina’s deepest concerns about the pregnancy by telling her she’s a burden.

“Neil [Druckmann, director] really directed that scene well where he was like, ‘Ashley, you’re worried she’s upset with you.’ I was then thinking the whole time [as Dina] like, I have to tell her, it feels like a betrayal,” shares Woodward. “You just started a relationship and you’re like, I’m having someone else’s kids. So I was really upset. But Neil was like, ‘Yeah, but you’re still in pain, too. You’re in a lot of pain.’ I was like, do we have to worry about the pain right now?! He’s like, yeah, it matters, it’s part of the scene.”

It doesn’t take long before the two reconcile. However, the pain is physically overwhelming for Dina to degrees Ellie can’t ignore in favor of her own motivations. It’s soon clear Dina can’t accompany Ellie on her journey anymore. While being pregnant sadly takes her out of much of the narrative, she feels present at Ellie’s side even when they’re not physically together. When Ellie continues on without her, she gifts her a Hamsa bracelet, which Ellie wears for most of the game.

“Jewelry can be tied to culture and have great sentimental value, it’s rarely worn without thought or significance. Much of the jewelry we wear and own has a story, even if that story is as simple as purchasing it on an uneventful day with a friend,” says Swidowski. “Dina is Jewish and so the charm on the bracelet has real cultural significance. The Hamsa, a protective symbol, was a detail requested by our director, Neil Druckmann, who grew up around the imagery in its many physical forms. When the bracelet is given to Ellie by Dina, it has all of this cultural history plus the sentimental value of being a gift from a sweetheart.”

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Ellie and Dina survive the trauma of their trip to Seattle, losing Jesse, and nearly dying at the hands of Abby. Dina has the baby, JJ, and the two raise him on a farm outside Jackson together for some time. For all intents and purposes, they’re living an ideal life — Dina’s ideal life. But Ellie’s trauma and failure to avenge Joel breaks her. She can barely sleep or eat, much less love and care for her new family the ways in which she should.

However, Dina has their child: someone to live for and who depends on her for survival. She’s no longer able to go where Ellie goes. So when Ellie decides to leave her family behind in pursuit of Abby and vengeance, again, Dina doesn’t delude herself into thinking she should go with Ellie. “I’m not gonna do this again,” she tearfully says, back turned to Ellie. “That’s up to you,” Ellie responds before leaving.

“We shot that scene for three or four hours. In fact, watching it again, I’m so congested by the time we did that one,” says Woodward. “That take they use is the last take because I had been crying for four hours straight. I was really worried about the scene.”

This was actually the scene Woodward used to audition for the role. It was an unorthodox one. Halley Gross, co-writer of The Last of Us Part II, and Druckmann have shared that on the day of Shannon’s audition, a number of things went awry. The electricity went out; the audition happened in the hallway next to a parking lot with a loud helicopter flying outside; there was a foul smell in the because the food in the fridge was rotting. Laura Bailey, who voiced and motion-capped Abby, had to stand in for Johnson, who couldn’t make it that day. Still, they said it’s one of the best auditions they witnessed. I ask Woodward about why she feels she nailed it.

“I knew the world so well, and I knew Ellie so well,” Woodward says, having already discussed how much she loved The Last of Us. “Playing opposite someone, I remember getting there and being like, Ashley’s not here. And I was like, all right. I mean, Laura was amazing. But I knew that character well. So, I knew how to back and forth with this actor who I didn’t know because I kind of knew what she would do and I had such a good handle on that game.”

It’s unknown what becomes of Dina by the end of The Last of Us Part II. Ellie decides to forgive Abby and returns home, but to a now-empty farmhouse. Fans have noticed that, in the game’s final moments, Ellie is shown wearing Dina’s Hamsa bracelet. She noticeably wasn’t wearing it in the moments we see of their life on the farm nor during her time in Santa Barbara after the two separated. It’s caused much speculation, with many hoping the two reconciled offscreen before Ellie came back to the house for some other reason.

Even at the end, Dina represents hope and a future to look forward to for both the player and Ellie. I ask Woodward about her personal interpretation of the ending and, specifically, this theory — as a fan, of course.

“I think that’s one of the interesting things about these games — there’s a lot of space between things that happen in this game,” she says. “And I would be excited to find out if something like that happened, but I actually don’t know. And people have been asking me a lot. And I’m like, I don’t know! I guess I gotta ask Neil. One of the best things about talking to Neil about people’s story theories is he’ll say, ‘well, that’s an interpretation.’ There’s no right or wrong answer, which is the most Neil thing. He’s like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ Maybe he hasn’t considered it. Maybe he has and hasn’t decided yet.”

“I think she came back to the house and saw that all her stuff was gone. So I don’t think she’s seen Dina since, but that’s my personal theory. I was under the impression while we were shooting that she came back to see if Dina would be there. And Dina left her the guitar.”

tlou2 dina

As Ellie strums Pearl Jam’s “Future Days” in the game’s final moments, the song becomes more than just reflective of Ellie and Joel; it’s reflective of Ellie and Dina, too. Since the beginning of the story, Ellie has sung, “if I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself.” Despite losing the two most important people in her life, Ellie barely manages to not entirely lose herself by the end. There’s the knowledge Dina is out there, waiting for her to come back, combined with her love for Joel, that makes Ellie let go: of Abby, of her hate, of Joel. Both relationships irrevocably define Ellie. Yet it’s Dina whom she’s lost and can still recover. That’s who she presumably sets off to find, beginning what might be an inverse of her journey to destroy.

I love Abby — I think she’s one of the best characters in video game storytelling. Even so, among the new characters in this universe, I most connected with Dina during my time with The Last of Us Part II. It’s difficult not to think of a potential “Part III” — or at least a standalone expansion like Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Druckmann has clarified there will be no DLC for this game. But I desperately want to see what becomes of her, and whether she and Ellie reconcile.

Should the series continue, there is so much exciting room to develop Dina’s character past her relationship with Ellie. Ellie didn’t accomplish her goals, but Dina did. For a fleeting moment, Dina lived out her dream of building a family on a secluded farm with the love of her life. Now, that dream has been shattered, or at least put back on hold. Now, she’s no longer Ellie’s girlfriend or an unconditional symbol of hope. Now, she is a single queer mother who must find and hold onto her own sources of hope.

I remember Dina stood out to me from the first moment she was revealed. Modeled after Cascina Caradonna, Dina — with her larger nose, thick dark hair, bold eyebrows, and olive-toned skin — isn’t the kind of woman I usually see at the forefront of this medium. She’s especially not been, in many ways, the kind of person the player character desires and falls in love with. Then and now, I see in her much of who I am — as well as who I’d like to be, both physically and emotionally.

“Initially, we were looking at a few different models to be Dina’s face, and some of them had bigger noses than the model we ended up with,” tells me concept artist Alexandria Neonakis. “I personally loved that direction because I also have a bigger nose. In the piece I did of the two of them dancing, I liked how Dina and Ellie’s noses sort of fit together like a little puzzle.”

She shares she got “torn apart” for it on the internet. Though she still thinks it was worth it.

“It’s actually kind of funny to think about how small of a thing it is, and how much vitriol you can get over something that so many people have,” she says. “It’s a nose. They come in all shapes and sizes imaginable in real life, but something about seeing a big nose on a girl in a piece of concept art made some gamers blow a gasket. I think we have a ways to go with so many aspects of representation. Beauty standards are just one of the many, and I will always try to push that in the concepts I make for these games.”

Woodward knows the weight of playing a character like Dina, whom we don’t often see in video games, for more reasons than just her features. Dina is a queer woman who starts a family with another woman. She’s a bisexual person who is shown to have various relationships with people of different genders. She’s Jewish. She isn’t sexualized or objectified. She has multiple visible scars and, in one scene, you can see her defined arms and noticeable body hair. These are normal, everyday things in the real world. But in media, especially video games, it’ll be a long time before they are widely normalized outside of very particular kinds of characters.

“I was really excited to play a character who is, in many ways, representative of a lot of different things and would resonate with people because it resonates with me,” she shares. While she’s been a fan of this universe, Woodward also knew there was a big market for these characters. For many — from members of the industry and people who regularly play video games, to people who rarely touch them, but take interest in huge blockbusters like The Last of Us Part II — this is a kind of story they haven’t been exposed to before.

Dina is a character she and many fans, including myself, will remember for some time to come. “It’s so exciting to see a new kind of story,” Woodward states. “I think exposing different audiences to different kinds of stories is compelling … and also personally gratifying. I’m excited to be a part of it.”