Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II to follow.
Violence is arguably the primary language of The Last of Us. A slit of the throat, the breaking of a limb, a gunshot that rings in someone’s ears — whether it’s in America or wherever else the cordyceps fungus may have reached, it all universally communicates survival. Violence is how Joel lost his daughter when she was killed by a soldier. It’s also how, by killing everyone in his path to smuggle Ellie across the country, he gained another. Violence is how he ensured he’d keep that daughter, and it’s ultimately through violence that he’s robbed of the opportunity to stay by her side.
And yet, violence seems to be received very differently for Ellie than it was for Joel. Since The Last of Us Part II was released, I’ve read pieces and constantly seen people calling Ellie the worst character in the series because of her atrocious violence; she’s too destructive, unforgivable, and the villain of the game. Meanwhile, I can’t help but feel Joel’s violence in the first game still hasn’t gotten a similar degree of ire seven years later. It’s made me think about how differently we perceive violence when it’s committed by men and women — how there is a double standard, an extra amount of discomfort with female characters causing as much destruction as male characters.
At the end of The Last of Us, Joel makes the decision to massacre everyone in a hospital to rescue Ellie. He subsequently saves himself and possibly dooms humanity. Had he not stalled the operation the Fireflies were going to perform on Ellie, she would’ve been sacrificed to create a vaccine for the cordyceps infection. After losing his daughter on the night of the outbreak, he grew comfortable with using violence to protect what he cares about. His final act of love in this game is also incredibly violent — not just through the physical destruction he commits at that moment, but also through how he robs humanity of its chance to heal. By saving Ellie, the only known person immune from the apocalyptic plague, he takes away her agency and a future in which the world can return to normalcy. Through the deaths of everyone in the hospital and in every subsequent person who succumbs to the infection, he gives himself a reason to live.
Joel’s last act of violence in The Last of Us comes after leaving countless bodies in his wake. This is never something the narrative reckons with. Violence is merely a tool for survival; it’s not a reflection of Joel’s morality or a source of internal war for him. He is practical about violence, never reveling in it but never struggling with its consequences, either. Despite dooming humanity and never regretting his decision, he is beloved by players for his complexity as a human being who makes a selfish, possibly terrible, but understandable choice. He is viewed primarily not as a selfish murderer, but as a flawed father and savior who did what he felt was best for Ellie. And he would have done it all over again. He tells her as much in The Last of Us Part II, demonstrating that he never entirely leaves his violent nature behind.
And yet the same appreciation of nuance isn’t extended to Ellie. The Last of Us Part II follows Ellie’s mission of vengeance for Joel after watching Abby, the daughter of the surgeon he killed in the hospital, gruesomely murder him. This journey ultimately ends in Ellie losing her relationship with her girlfriend Dina, their child JJ, and almost herself. She retains a piece of her humanity at the very end, though. She’s able to finally let go of Joel, forgive Abby, and realize there are tangible ways of preserving her father figure’s memory besides brutalizing hundreds of bodies in his name.
It’s a miracle that she reaches this resolution at all. She never knew the old world. She’s an orphan raised in a boarding school run by the military. Violence is one of the few things she’s ever known. It’s through violence that Ellie and Joel meet and grow to love each other; it’s through violence that she feels close to him after he’s gone. While he teaches her how to create through playing the guitar, it’s his violence that she learns most intimately from him. He shows her how much he loves her when he takes her to the museum on her birthday, but she has far more examples of him showing affection through firing a bullet through infected heads or stabbing anyone who dares threaten her.
Ellie grew up in a world that taught her violence is survival, catharsis, and love. So when the time comes that she has to mourn Joel, she chooses violence. She isn’t like Dina. Dina is someone who, despite committing her first murder at the age of 10, has learned a variety of languages to express herself. She’s lived in the safe zone of Jackson for most of her life. She has become part of that community in a way Ellie never achieved. She warmly greets people in the mornings on her way to her patrol, plays with the children of Jackson with ease, and is confident enough to dance with the townspeople at a party. She can care about nothing other than the joy of living — if only for a little bit at a time. She handles trauma differently.
On the other hand, Ellie doesn’t feel she has anywhere specific to call home. Joel is, or was, that home. She’s crushed by the overwhelming guilt of being useless to humanity’s prosperity when she was once the only one who could’ve brought it. Violence is the only means through which she feels she can survive the PTSD of witnessing Joel’s murder and her post-apocalyptic life in general, and it’s through violence that she chooses to confront that trauma. It’s frustrating, heartbreaking, and even disappointing; it’s also entirely in line with her character. Like Joel, she’s not a hero. Ellie is a broken person who attempts to fix herself by ruining others.
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While Ellie commits no more or less violence than Joel did, I’m more inclined to sympathize with her because she actually reckons with it. Unlike Joel, she spends the entire game struggling with her actions almost as much as she takes them. After torturing a woman for information on Abby’s whereabouts, she returns to Dina at their hideout traumatized, drenched in blood that sticks to her shaking fingers. When Dina cleans her wounds, she breaks down over what she did. She barely gets herself to mutter “I made her talk,” before crying and clinging to the one living person she can’t afford to lose. When she unknowingly kills a pregnant woman, she thinks of her own pregnant girlfriend. It subsequently causes a panic attack. Before killing her, Ellie had used the same torture method Joel once did, but where Joel was certain in the twist of a knife, Ellie’s hand trembled as it held a piece of paper.
Ellie is unable to separate herself emotionally from the violence she enacts. She deems it necessary to fulfill her goal, even while she’s affected by it in ways Joel never even pondered in the first game. In the end, she commits a merciful act by sparing Abby and Lev’s lives. This directly contrasts with Joel showing no remorse for the violence he enacted in Ellie’s name, without her consent. Despite this, it’s enough for many people to say she’s the villain of the game while hailing Joel as a flawed hero that didn’t deserve death. He didn’t deserve to face the mirroring consequences of his terrible actions.
For some, Joel’s selfishness elevates the first game’s ending as one of the best in AAA game storytelling. Whereas Ellie’s selfishness bogs down The Last of Us Part II to make it uncomfortable — as such degrees of violence should be — and unlikable. Although they both ruin people and lives, Ellie’s reasons for violence are personal, rooted in pain, desperation, and grief. Meanwhile, Joel’s were, up until the moment where he murders the Fireflies to save Ellie, detached. When he kills everyone in the hospital and his reasons become rooted in hurt and desperation over the thought of losing Ellie, he’s celebrated for it.
In The Last of Us, violence is as normal as breathing. That‘s why I struggle with the notion that Ellie’s drive is incomprehensible. I understand the feelings of anger and disappointment with Ellie’s vengeance. After all, the game itself encourages these feelings, allowing you to choose whether to empathize with her or not. What I don’t understand is the notion that one character is crueler than the other, and that if one is, it’s surely the young girl who has a personal, traumatized relationship with violence rather than a distant one. She’s the one whose connection to violence is uncomfortable in not just its sheer brutality, but also in how it makes the player think about it.
I’ve had people argue that the disparity in reception lies in how Ellie’s violence is motivated by an overwhelming desire for revenge. Joel, by contrast, only wanted to protect Ellie. For some reason, that’s enough to justify the ungodly amount of violence he commits (much of which occurs well before he even meets Ellie). This reasoning also begs the question: in the wake of trails of blood and scattered bodies, does this actually matter? Do these characters’ reasons for their violence actually matter to the people they hurt?
Joel’s reasons for violence don’t matter to Abby. She had to grow up without her father because of him. Ellie’s reasons for violence don’t matter to Abby. Ellie kills her friends, fellow Firefly members, and even the man she loved. Abby’s reasons for violence don’t matter to Ellie because Ellie gradually loses almost everything as a result of losing Joel at Abby’s hands.
Abby is never shown telling Joel her reasons for murdering him. Ellie never talks to Abby about the grief she caused her. This feels intentional because none of it ultimately matters to people who have ruined each other beyond conversation and repair. Who have lost what they most love in a world that makes every second they get to spend with each other count, whether it’s two minutes, or two days. These characters commit acts that should mark them beyond redemption — and, in our world, they certainly would. But The Last of Us shows that, in a world that has irrevocably broken each of these people, they are so molded by tragedy that they might still deserve the chance to be more than their violence. There are better, healthier ways this story could have gone, sure. One of the biggest tragedies lies in how Joel, Ellie, and Abby couldn’t imagine any other option due to their lived experiences.
The double standard in the perception between Ellie and Joel’s violence isn’t surprising. Consider the fact that women are often generally judged negatively for the same things men are praised for. A 2017 Harvard working paper found that “physicians become more pessimistic about a female surgeon’s ability than a male’s after a patient death, indicated by a sharper drop in referrals to the female surgeon.” Women who drink are dehumanized in various ways that men aren’t. Messy men are easily seen as endearing, while women who are messy get seen as having their life in disarray. Women who speak up are “bossy,” while men who speak up are leaders. A man with numerous sexual partners is glorified for his promiscuity, while women are slut-shamed. You get the gist. The list goes on and will continue to do so. And the ways we judge real women mirror the ways we judge fictional ones.
Women committing violence isn’t always a revolutionary or feminist act, even though it’s something video games have allowed men to do much more often. But I can’t help seeing sexist undertones in the way violence is normalized and accepted much more easily when it’s committed by a man, while seen as more vicious and unnatural when committed by a woman. If it was Joel in Ellie’s stead in The Last of Us Part II, he’d likely be praised for his commitment to avenging his beloved daughter, especially after having already lost his first one.
Joel and Ellie cause similar levels of carnage. However, Joel is allowed to exist beyond his violence while Ellie is antagonized for it. Joel dies having attained the legacy of defining a decade of video game stories largely led by fathers who look and act like him. Ellie is still alive, the first of her kind in many ways, but there’s no telling what her legacy will be yet. I hope it’s kinder than the world she lives in has been to her.