Our Day Of Reckoning - The Last Of Us Part II (SPOILERS)Platforms: Sony PlayStation 4
The following contains extensive spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.
The Last of Us Part II was promoted as a story of revenge but in reality, it is something else entirely. This piece will cover a lot of story ground from The Last of Us series, including the ending to both games.
THE BILL COMES DUE
A story without consequence has no meaning, the decisions made in a story must matter. There is a very clear reason why The Last Of Us Part II is named as such, rather than simply The Last of Us 2 or something with a subtitle. Part II suggests a direct continuation, this is not a new story within the world of The Last of Us, this is the same story, it did not end on that hilltop when Joel lied to Ellie about there being no cure to the infection. Those decisions have consequences.
As The Last of Us Part II opens, we find Joel ruminating on those decisions made at the conclusion of the previous game; the choice to save Ellie rather than the world, betraying the Fireflies and murdering countless people in the process. He seems unsettled, as though he knows the truth will come out eventually.
His relationship with Ellie is already strained, there is a notable distance between them. Joel’s lie did not rest well on her ear. She knows something is wrong. After a time jump of four years, the distance has only widened. It is very clear even at these early stages that Ellie and Joel’s relationship is estranged. As the game begins in earnest, Ellie is heading out for a patrol with her would-be love interest, Dina, while Joel is busy with Tommy. There is no Joel and Ellie adventure, those days are gone.
This makes what happens next all the more harrowing.
After a few diversions where the player controls a brand new character called Abby, who eventually runs across Joel and Tommy on patrol, it is revealed that Abby and her people are in the area looking for Joel. With Joel and Tommy captured, it is down to Ellie to track them down.
But this is not a superhero story, this is not about people making it in the nick of time. This is The Last of Us, this is about an unfair world where Hope is in scarcity. Ellie is forced to watch as Abby beats Joel to death. It is brutal, it is graphic, it is utterly unforgiving.
It hurts to lose Joel so soon after we have been reunited with the character but, in our hearts, every fan knew that Joel’s story never ended with him dying of old age. Joel made enemies everywhere he went, he made countless enemies in our short time with him in The Last of Us, he likely made many more before and after. His death is so sudden and so relentless cruel that perhaps fans are not ready to accept that it was inevitable. What Joel did, the choices he made, the path he walked. There was only one destination.
Throughout Ellie’s journey through Seattle, seeking out the members of the Washington Liberation Front that killed Joel, she is plagued with memories of their encounters in the years between the ending of The Last of Us and the beginning of The Last of Us Part II.
The flashbacks initially carry a warmth to them, a beautifully executed sequence where Joel takes Ellie to a museum to check out the dinosaurs and a space capsule, but as Ellie gets older a bitterness sets in. She begins to more openly question Joel’s lies, the warmth in their interactions is now faint. Eventually, the truth comes out when Ellie investigates the hospital where Joel rescued her, and she severs all ties with Joel.
These scenes are truly wrenching to witness, exploring the growing divide between them, but she’s going back to them with a sense of regret because it’s too late to make it all right again. That only fuels her anger. It’s not just about what they took from her, but from what she took from herself.
Ellie is processing an enormous amount of survivors guilt here, she feels guilty that Joel chose her over the world, over countless others who might not have died had there been a cure. And in the aftermath of Joel’s murder, she was spared by Abby, but why? In Ellie’s eyes, she has no purpose anymore, her immunity means nothing, her life means nothing, so why should she get out of this alive? She had nowhere else to put these feelings but into violence.
Ellie’s relationship with violence has been growing since the day we met her. During the first half of The Last of Us, Ellie shows a real aversion to violence. When Joel dispatches with a human NPC, Ellie could be heard acting with shock or disgust. She had never taken a human life at this point. Ellie’s first-ever kill was against a random scavenger thug that was attempting to kill Joel, she killed out of desperation to save her friend’s life. She would kill on other occasions to help or protect Joel but then there was David. He was a little different. David was the cannibal psychopath who captured Ellie while Joel was recuperating during Winter. David presented a very different type of threat to Ellie. There were very strong implications that he intended to sexual assault Ellie before he killed her, this was a glimpse into the ugliness of humanity that Ellie had not seen before now. Everyone else was someone fighting for their survival, David was simply evil. When Ellie killed David, she was not acting purely out of fear, she tapped into savagery that could only be achieved through raw rage.
Rage is an overwhelming feeling, just like fear. She was already channelling her fear into killing, it was the one existing coping mechanism Ellie had in this world. Killing out of hate was almost inevitable.
These emotions are conveyed through the gameplay itself. If you watch how Ellie would stealth kill the infected in Left Behind, you would see her cry out and stab wildly and desperately. Fear. Watch how she kills people in The Last of Us Part II. Her face contorts, she grunts, she snarls bitter threats in remorseful tones. She makes very deliberate strikes against main arteries, she is thinking very clearly about how she is killing these people. She is acting out of hate.
Her general appearance in the game and during cut scenes grows messier as her story progresses, she spends less time cleaning the blood and dirt off her, her injuries bother her less, a thousand-yard stare grows. She is consumed by her mission, she threatens to alienate even Dina, who has been steadfast and loyal throughout their journey in Seattle. Ellie is losing her way, she can only think about tracking down the people responsible. Abby, in particular.
Actual acts of revenge are scattered throughout Ellie’s story, bringing her closer and closer to Abby. Sometimes the encounters are accidental, sometimes they are deliberate. The killing feels gratifying, at first, the red mist is still clouding the thoughts at this point and the player is moving through the narrative with the belief that this is all about revenge and pouring their energy into sharing ghat feeling with Ellie.
When Ellie confronts Nora, one of the people present the day Joel died, pursuing her through the bowels of a hospital that has become a WLF hub the game provokes a strong gut feeling of anger in the player as Nora cruelly chides Ellie about Joel’s dying screams. There is no way to deny that desire for revenge. But something changes. As Ellie corners Nora, who has just inhaled a lungful of infectious spores, Ellie grows more sadistic in her approach. She intends to torture Nora for information, only putting her out of her misery when she gets answers. The focus of this scene is entirely on Ellie’s face, twisted with rage and grief and confusion, as she bashes Nora’s face in with a steel pipe. While an act of gruesome violence may not be enough to snap every bloodthirsty player out of their rage, seeing the emotional toll this act is taking out on Ellie certainly does that. This is a harrowing act that is stripping away pieces of the girl we loved, one button press at a time. Her guilt is our guilt in this moment.
With the information she needs finally extracted from whatever was left of Nora, Ellie seeks out Abby in an abandoned aquarium. The pivotal moment of Ellie’s story comes when, after failing to find Abby yet again, she shoots Owen (whom we already know as Abby’s ex-lover from the opening of the game) and stabs Mel (the medic who put a tourniquet on Joel’s leg) before realising that Mel is pregnant.
A line has been crossed and there is no going back now.
Having returned to her home base in an abandoned theatre, Ellie seems shaken by what she has done. The enormity of her actions is finally weighing her down. She awakes to find Abby has tracked her down, murdering Ellie’s friend, Jesse, and incapacitating Tommy.
Abby, filled with a rage of her own, scolds Ellie while pointing a gun at her.
“I let you live. And you wasted it.”
MATTERS OF PERSPECTIVE
The Last of Us Part II’s boldest creative choice came at this moment. Not choosing Ellie over Joel, not even killing off Joel. The game now switches perspectives to Abby. We are taken to a flashback, four years prior, as Abby is out looking for her father in the woods. When she finds him, the pair helps rescue an injured zebra from a barbed wire fence and reunite her with her baby. It is a beautiful moment, one they take in and admire. These are not vicious, cruel people. They do care.
At this point, we realise that Abby and her father are at the Firefly facility in Salt Lake City and it is the day Ellie and Joel arrived. Furthermore, Abby’s father is the doctor who Joel kills in order to protect Ellie, the only doctor who could synthesise a cure. The flashback weighs up the moral quagmire that these people lived in, that they weren’t villains, they were making hard choices that they thought were right. Just like Joel.
The story then shifts back to day one in Seattle but from Abby’s point of view. We see what life is like in the WLF. It is not some evil murder cult, as we may have imagined, it is a commune of people with lives and loves and bonds. It is fascinating to see such detail and empathy applied to what could have easily been a stock army of villains. Everyone we ever wanted dead as Ellie was a person with their own reasons for wanting Joel dead, reasons that are honestly hard to deny. No one is right, it’s all a matter of perspective.
Even the dogs you kill in self-defence as Ellie are encountered as lovable pups through Abby. Alice, the main dog we encounter as Abby, is a sweet good girl who loves to play fetch. These animals were not raised as killers, they were protecting their people.
And Ellie bashed that poor dog’s head in.
We see life through Abby’s eyes. The work she does to protect her community, her doubts, her fears, her sense of compassion. We only initially knew of her through her mercilessness and now we see the full picture. Further flashbacks punctuating her story only deepen her relationships with other characters, people we have already seen Ellie violently kill.
But it is not just the WLF that gain new levels of understanding, even the terrifying religious cult know colloquially as “The Scars” were explored with more depth.
Abby has several discussions with other characters on their views on the Scars, points being raised that from their perspective the WLF are the ones in the wrong or even how, from another perspective, the Fireflies were once seen as no better than any of them. In a flashback with Owen, they find a child’s playroom, a vast section of an aquarium that has been transformed by a child’s imagination and a lot of paint. It is a touching moment of innocence, yet Abby is quick to remind us of the letter she found earlier that suggested the child had left to join the Scars. Could someone with such innocence and humanity become a Scar? What could possibly make a child want to join such a group?
Abby’s story is initially about seeking out Owen, who has gone AWOL after allegedly killing a fellow WLF member to protect a Scar. He saw humanity in his enemy and took mercy at the cost of his own safety.
On Abby’s journey, She aids two apostate Scars called Yara and her younger brother Lev to escape the hunting parties that pursue them, showing signs of concern for their well being, questioning her own beliefs about the enemy.
After reuniting with Owen and hearing his side of the story, Abby is haunted by a dream of Yara and Lev being lynched by the Scars and endeavours to head back and get them to the safety of Owen’s aquarium sanctuary. Abby keeps going back to the hospital where her father died. Her dreams are trapped inside those corridors. Every feeling she has is rooted in that moment.
After fighting through Hell to get Yara and Lev to safety, finally doing the right thing, the visions shift to her father being alive and well. It all comes back to that day. The day humanity’s hope died. The way her dreams shift shows her finding hope in hopelessness once again.
As Abby’s side of the story begins to wrap up, we begin to see and hear the aftermath of Tommy and Ellie’s campaign of vengeance. Characters we initially wanted to see dead are characters we now mourn. They were not monsters, they were people who lost something.
Something Joel took from them.
Right and wrong are a matter of perspective, different priorities and different dilemmas require different solutions. As players of The Last of Us, we accepted Joel’s decision to spare Ellie. We had grown to love her as he did and the thought of losing her to save a world that had already proven itself unworthy of a second chance. It made sense. But we were viewing this event from his perspective, a loner who was crippled with loss and rage. A man who made enemies everywhere he went. We accepted it because he was our protagonist, the narrative perspective reinforced his worldview.
From Abby’s perspective, the world was worth saving. She saw community re-emerging, she had family and friends. She saw civilisation returning and she felt it was something worthy of any sacrifice. She told her father that she would want to give her life for this if she was immune.
We know now, with certainty, that Ellie would have done the same.
From the perspective of Abby and, in many ways this she does not want to fully accept, Ellie as well, the things Joel did were terrible. Abby lost a father and the hope of seeing a better world. We could not accept this because we shared his perspective for so long.
Knowing these hard truths, the prospect of revenge grows harder to bear. The game emphasises throughout that the killing is ugly and messy, and death is grimly undignified. The terror and confusion on the NPC’s faces as they die, the gurgling noises they make when they take a hit in the throat, or the agonising screams if they lose a limb before bleeding out. Death is unquestionably hideous. The Last of Us Part II aims to make you feel that twang of guilt over the deaths of all these characters so the act of revenge offers no sense vindication, as it offered none for Abby and would offer none for Ellie.
This chapter of the game culminates in a boss battle between Abby and Ellie, you continue to play as Abby while she pursues a wild Ellie. The structure of this boss battle is reminiscent of Ellie’s encounter with David in The Last of Us, your character has to sneak around a confined area to sneak attack the boss, while they quietly creep around trying to do find you and rush you. Ellie even uses David’s tactics, creating paths of debris that can alert her to your presence if you walk over them. In her pursuit of vengeance, she has started to lose her own humanity, she is now closer to the wicked man who tried to hurt her all those years ago.
This shift in perspective shows us that every hero in their own story is the villain in someone else’s. Yet, even after everything Ellie did to Abby and her people, the realisation that Dina is pregnant stokes the compassionate side of Abby. She has seen too much innocent life snuffed out over revenge, she shows Ellie and Dina mercy. She lets them live but promises Ellie this is her last chance.
THE HARDEST PART IS LETTING GO
After Abby and Ellie part ways, we see a time time-jump. Ellie is now living on a farm with Dina and Dina’s baby, JJ, while Abby is in California searching for the remnants of the Fireflies with Lev. They have the sort of bond that Joel and Ellie once had, a bond beyond blood, built through suffering and loss and resilience.
Things seem to be going well for both characters, initially, but things take a dark turn when Abby and Lev are captured by a slaver gang known as The Rattlers. Meanwhile, Ellie’s idyllic slice of paradise is shattered by returning nightmares of Joel’s death. Just as Abby was haunted by that hospital corridor, Ellie is haunted by the flight of stairs leading to the basement. She never got the closure that she was seeking, she is still trapped in her past.
Tommy arrives at the farm, he is alive but physically wrecked, and his marriage to Maria has fallen apart. His pursuit of revenge has left him less than he used to be but he cannot let go. He brings word of Abby’s location, Ellie resists, but the thought lingers in her. She cannot let go.
Ellie travels to California and tracks the pair down at the Rattler bass camp. The pair have been beaten and starved and, for a moment, that seems enough. Ellie seems willing to let them leave, having brought the Rattler camp to its knees.
Yet part of her still cannot let go.
Ellie wants to kill Abby. Abby refuses. Ellie threatens Lev’s life, forcing Abby’s hand.
The final fight on a grim and foggy beach. Neither person strong enough for this battle, neither one truly wanting it. This is not your standard high thrills Naughty Dog boss battle. This is a war of attrition, both physically and mentally. Two people caught in a cycle of violence that they desperatelywant to break free from, but seeing no other way out. It is not a fun sequence. It is not rewarding. It is vicious and it is painful to watch. As the player, you do not want either person to win.
But as the fight wears down, as the anger gives way to anguish, as the defences wain, Ellie breaks. It was never truly about Abby, it was about her. She never got a chance to forgive Joel, she lost her chance, and that is what hurt her the most. In the end, she let go of her anger towards Abby, she let go of her anger towards herself. She showed mercy, the way Abby had two times before, and allowed Abby and Lev leave. She forgave Abby, she forgave herself.
As Ellie returns to an empty home, she realises her drive for revenge finally cost her Dina and JJ, she recalls the last time she spent with Joel. They reconnected, they begin to have the difficult conversation. Ellie wanted her life to matter, she wanted to make that sacrifice. Joel, steadfast, says he has no regrets about what he did. He would always choose her over the world. Ellie was uncertain if she could ever forgive Joel but she was willing to try. It took her all this time to finally let it go, to finally forgive Joel. As she leaves the empty farmhouse behind, she rests Joel’s old guitar by the window.
Throughout the game, the acoustic guitar plays a role in Ellie’s story. The first scene of the game between Ellie and Joel revolves around Joel playing Pearl Jam’s Future Days for Ellie and promising to teach her to play. Other flashbacks use the guitar as a centre point, such as a scavenger job to find some new guitar ageing. At numerous points in Ellie’s portion of the game, Ellie is seen playing the guitar. She struggles to complete the notes for Future Days. At one point she stops herself and switches to a soothing cover of Take On Me for Dina, the cords to Future Days still sting in her ears. A second attempt to play the song is similarly short-lived.
The guitar is one of the only physical ways Ellie can stay connected to Joel, it is a trigger for her memories, it is a reminder that he would always be a part of her, even when they were estranged, even in his death. It is fitting that the final act Ellie commits in The Last Of Us Part II is to gently rest Joel’s old guitar against the window and leave to find her way in the world. She finally let go, now she can be free of her resentment for Joel choosing her, free of the guilt that she lived when others did not. She is free to write her own song.
A reckoning is not always a moment of vengeance, sometimes it is a way of processing and accepting hard truths. Reckoning with ourselves, our own sins, accepting that we are not always doing the right thing and that we will make mistakes. Sometimes unforgivable ones. We are not heroes, we are not villains. The Last of Us Part II was a bleak, violent odyssey but ultimately it was about overcoming grief and aching regret with empathy rather than rage. Understanding other people, understanding ourselves. And when we can do that there is always hope. It is the light that carries us through the dark.