On their journey, Joel and Ellie meet three sets of friendly people, and they all also represent the past, present, and future of Joel and Ellie.
The Last of Us is structured around the seasons: summer, fall, winter, and spring. Each season gets its own chapter, and each season has its own mini story arc. But if we pull back some, the game is clearly split into two distinct narrative arcs, one comprised of summer and fall, the other comprised of winter and spring. For this post, I’m mainly interested in the summer and fall arc, in which The Last of Us plays out like a travelogue. On their journey, Joel and Ellie meet three sets of friendly people: the loner Bill, the brothers Henry and Sam, and the leader of a peaceful community Tommy. These three sets of characters pull double-duty when it comes to theme and character development. They all give different responses to the thematic question, “How do you keep living when the world is dead?,” and they all also represent the past, present, and future of Joel and Ellie.
(For the record, I don’t count Tess among this group because I see her more as an instigating character than as a symbolic character. She and Marlene are necessary to bring Joel and Ellie together since that latter couple would probably never team up of their own volition. So Tess and Marlene bring these clashing personalities together, then Bill, Henry and Sam, and Tommy serve as past, present, and future reflections.)
Bill is Joel if the latter had never met Ellie. Bill lives alone is a town he has booby-trapped to the extreme. Such traps are necessary to prevent the infected from invading, but the traps are also meant to keep healthy people out. Bill isn’t alone simply because everyone else has died, he’s created a town specifically designed to prevent human contact. He wants to be alone.
Like Joel, Bill lost his one real love some time ago. In Bill’s case, it was a lover, Frank, who was eventually driven away by Bill’s “set-in-his-ways” attitude. Frank didn’t die (at least to Bill’s knowledge), but the practical and emotional result was the same: a love was gone from his life. This drove him to harden his heart and barricade himself inside the town. He didn’t and doesn’t want to deal with other people because he doesn’t want to risk forming any other attachments; he’s too afraid of loss. Bill doesn’t have anything left to live for. He’s already dead inside, but he’s so stubborn and “set-in-his-ways” that he can never just kill himself.
This is Joel is when we first meet him: a man who has no reason to live, no real will to live, but who’s too stubborn to give up on life. So he keeps fighting through each day, surviving just to survive because he can’t think of anything else to do.
Henry and Sam
Henry and Sam represent Joel and Ellie’s burgeoning relationship. Henry, specifically, is who Joel becomes over the course of the game. Henry and Sam are brothers who came to Pittsburgh looking for supplies when they were attacked by Hunters and separated from their group. They encounter Joel and Ellie as both couples are running from an armored car, and team up to help each other.
Henry is the key figure here since his actions closely mirror those of Joel at the end of the game. Henry was five when the outbreak occurred, so he doesn’t remember much of the world before, but he remembers enough to understand what he’s lost. Henry now sees the world in terms of what is missing, so he defines his life by protecting what he has left: Sam.
Henry is protective of Sam to the point of frustration and danger. When the group enters a toy shop, Sam picks up a toy robot and starts fiddling with it. Henry immediately admonishes him for playing with the robot, reminding him that they don’t take what they don’t need. Sam is obviously angry at the public reprimand, but he obeys his brother and drops the toy. Later on, when the group gets attacked by Hunters, Henry flees with Sam at the first opportunity, leaving Joel and Ellie in a particularly shitty situation. Eventually the couples join back up and Henry apologizes for the abandonment, but he also makes it known that he’ll do it again in an instant.
Henry is not a bad guy, but he’s willing to do anything to protect Sam. If that means sacrificing new friends, he’ll sacrifice those new friends without hesitation. Sam has to survive at all costs because Sam’s life is also Henry’s life; the latter lives for the former. When Sam gets infected, Henry blames Joel briefly, but then quickly turns the gun on himself. The order of those actions is important. The anger and blame is a natural response to tragedy, but those feelings are quickly replaced by the realization that he has nothing left to live for so any revenge would be pointless. He can’t survive just to survive, so his only option is suicide.
By the end of the game it’s clear that Joel cares more about Ellie’s life than Ellie does. She hints that she’s willing to sacrifice herself for a better world (“It can’t all be nothing.”), but Joel won’t let her do that. He’s proven himself to be an accomplished survivalist, which now means that his survival instinct is focused on Ellie rather than himself. Just as Henry was willing to sacrifice our protagonists for Sam, Joel is willing to sacrifice the world for Ellie. He’ll save her even from herself because he wants to survive.
Tommy is a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak game. He represents the best possible future for Joel and Ellie. He’s essentially Joel if Joel can get his shit together.
We don’t spend much time with Tommy, but we’re told a lot about him. We know he lived with Joel in Boston until he got tired of the military’s martial law and joined the Fireflies. Eventually he became disillusioned with the Fireflies and split from them as well. This coming and going suggests that Tommy felt lost. Like Joel, he had no reason to live, but unlike Joel, he wanted to find a reason. (Interestingly, it seems that the Fireflies couldn’t convert either brother to their side.) Eventually, Tommy establishes a community around an abandoned hydroelectric power plant and marries a woman named Maria. Together, they serve as leaders of this relatively peaceful community
On the Moving Pixels podcast, I complained that the bandit attack on the power plant was an irritating moment of combat intruding on the story. We haven’t shot anyone for a while, so let’s have bandits attack just as Joel arrives. Since then, I’ve reconsidered the timing of this event, and I now see it as an important display of Tommy’s leadership skills. He’s clearly able to defend his community, and he does so without having to resort to martial law, cannibalism, or some other form of self-destructive defense. He’s the ultimate symbol of hope in this world, a man who has managed to survive and remain morally good. The fact that he was once just as lost as Joel gives us hope that Joel can change as well.
After Joel and Ellie leave Tommy’s camp, they’re ready to take on world, and we’re ready to see them play out these arcs for themselves. The ultimate tragedy of The Last of Us is that Joel doesn’t become Tommy: His decision to save Ellie and lie to her about it has more to do with protecting his own happiness than it does with protecting her life. But for as sad as the ending is in that it threatens to break apart this couple that we’ve worked so hard to keep together, the fact that they’re going back to live in Tommy’s camp still gives us hope. Even if Ellie ends up hating Joel and even if Joel never changes into a better person, at least their personal dramas won’t play out in the wasteland of America but rather in a relatively safe domestic setting. For as much as we might fear for their happiness, at least we don’t fear for their lives.
Joel can still change. He’s proven time and time again that he won’t, but he can. In that way, his character arc reflects the larger theme of the The Last of Us: looking for hope in hopeless world.