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Our Violent Hearts: Storytelling Lessons from The Last of Us

The Last of Us
HBO’s “The Last of Us” has officially ended its first season, and the creators appear to be fine leaving viewers distraught and heartbroken while we anxiously wait for Season Two. What is it about “The Last of Us” that captivates us so entirely? We’ve been through apocalypse shows before (“The Walking Dead” or “The Leftovers”). And yet, there is something uniquely harrowing about this story. Is it Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s Emmy-level acting? Their character’s unwilling connection to one another?

Moments of lightness

“The Last of Us” has shown us the complexity of morality as we witness the dark pasts of Ellie and Joel intercepted with moments of lightness, of before. A reluctant smile from Joel before they go to sleep. The pure joy of Ellie riding an escalator. But what makes these main characters so interesting to follow is how they understand the situation. It’s quick to dim the moments of happiness; it’s a constant weight on them both. For Joel, the reflex of fatherhood follows him the further he and Ellie get out west. We catch glimpses of him, tired and delirious, unable to sleep because Ellie asks, “Is it safe?” Unsure of how to process his protective instinct over Ellie, we see him label her as cargo, minimizing her to something transactional, something profitable.

Connecting with characters

Maybe what makes the show so unique is how easily we connect to the other characters who enter their narrative briefly. Bill and Frank’s somewhat normal life together is shortened because of the cruelty of age and disease, just not the one causing a massive pandemic.

"Paying attention to things. It’s how we show love." -Frank

"I was never afraid before you showed up." -Bill

Sarah Miller showed us a brief glimpse of her unconditional love for Joel, who must bury that excess love deep inside himself to survive the world without her. Henry and Sam risked becoming wanted fugitives together because Henry would rather die than abandon his brother for a single moment. It’s love in different forms. Forms that we all can recognize, sympathize and understand. In episode 8, Ellie and Joel are forced to survive the harsh winters as Joel weakens from his injury. The roles are reversed when Ellie becomes the protector in their dynamic, watching over him, cleaning his wound, and hunting for their food. She can no longer whisper, “is it safe?” when she feels threatened. Instead, she must face the dangers of the unknown alone. Almost immediately after her successful hunt, she is approached by two strangers who change her life forever. It is a graphic and violent episode, but beyond the blood, it speaks to the irrevocable damage of a young girl losing her final piece of innocence. The brutal rage Ellie expels as she kills David is symbolic of the injustice of her situation and the rage of having to go through this by herself. Ellie is her own hero, yes. She has endured and survived. But the bond between her and Joel has frayed when she must endure alone once again. Despite denying that she sees Joel as a surrogate father, the pain of his absence in her most vulnerable state still haunts her, even though she wants to forgive him.

"Endure and survive."

Love is essential to survival

"The Last of Us" has identified us, even if what it exposes isn’t how we want to be perceived. We’ve been caught. How far would we go to save the ones we love? Would we do something immoral if it meant saving our family? In the season finale, Joel Miller faces the difficult decision of saving Ellie or the world. It sounds like a simple choice, in theory. She was cargo. A means to an end. But a primal obligation to protect Ellie takes over Joel when he discovers the Fireflies plan to operate on Ellie’s brain to obtain the Cordyceps in her system. We’re taken into his point of view, becoming him as he journeys through the hospital. Faced with the decision of love or survival, Joel submits to the emotions he’s long kept buried since the death of Sarah but is the coldest, most detached we’ve ever seen him. His humanity seems to vanish as he shoots to kill anyone who stands in the way of saving his Ellie. How can we justify this? How can we still see ourselves in Joel when his rage has overtaken his morality? I ask myself these questions while still secretly applauding his choice. Love is essential to survival. Even if it’s a reluctant, resistant, painful love. It’s the only way we can endure and survive.

"It wasn't time that saved me." - Joel

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