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No, Joel is not the villain in The Last of Us

The Last of Us TV series ends on a down note due to Joel's action, creating ambiguity about his character, but whatever you may think he's not the baddie.

Pedro Pascal as Joel in The Last of Us

In 2013, the ending of The Last of Us proved immensely divisive. After Ellie gets to the Fireflies, Naughty Dog’s horror game reveals that she’s to receive brain surgery she won’t survive, in the hope of creating a cure for Cordyceps.

Upon hearing this, Joel decides to save her, taking out every Firefly that gets in his way. This sequence is long, brutal, and surprising, even for a story that contains plenty of violence. We’re left to wonder what role we played in the narrative all along; whether Joel made the right call, or even an understandable one.

The final scene has Joel bringing Ellie back to Tommy’s outpost in Wyoming, lying to her about what happened and why she’s still alive. The Last of Us TV series ending is beat-for-beat identical, begging the same questions about who Joel is – he’s the protagonist, but was he the hero? Or have we been seeing the plot through the eyes of one of The Last of Us cast‘s biggest baddies?

Having now witnessed the same conclusion in two different mediums, and had a decade to consider the original, I firmly believe of the many ways one can describe Joel, villain isn’t one of them. What he does isn’t easily justifiable, and I don’t believe it’s a choice he makes lightly, but the situation and his reaction are integral to the thematic core of The Last of Us and what food for thought it leaves us.

Malleable moral codes are part of the fabric of The Last of Us. Most of The Last of Us characters manage to survive by learning to live with blood on their hands. Kathleen and David believed they had their community’s best interests at heart. Bill and Frank protected one another within their sanctuary.

Pedro Pascal as Joel in The Last of Us

They all had something to live for, like Joel preaches. When he meets Ellie, escaping with Tess was his goal. Once that stops being viable, Ellie gradually becomes a surrogate daughter, moving from “cargo” to “baby girl”. Their bond is forged in the fire of Bloaters, Clickers, and staying away from FEDRA, growing deeper and deeper as they’re forced to fight for one another.

Some level of murder and death becomes OK because ultimately, in this world, you are constantly fighting for your life. Trust is earned, the price is steep, and most people are just a liability.

The Last of Us draws liberally from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Alejandro Inarritu’s science fiction movie Children of Men in establishing a harsh, unforgiving dystopia where our worst inhibitions are thriving.

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After two decades of humanity’s degradation, Ellie is something that matters to Joel. Someone who inspires a genuine duty of care. The obvious reading is that she lets Joel be a dad, but I think it’s broader than that – she makes him feel like a person again.

It’s implied in Boston that his reputation as one of the most efficient runners was earned over years of taking gigs nobody else would, or could, do. Joel’s viewed as mean, potentially menacing, and always good for delivery. In the horror game and drama series, you can see it in his face and hear it in his voice – his humanity has been pared right down.

Bella Ramsay and Pedro Pascal as Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us

He keeps tabs on Tommy and Tess, and that’s it. Ellie coaxes his ability to laugh, and think about making music, and bicker over the interpretation of a map. That beautiful giraffe scene right before they reach the Fireflies is a nexus point for our perspectives – Joel, Ellie, and the audience, as we all share in the grandeur and gentle beauty.

In the Firefly hospital, when Joel snaps, he remembers his autonomy. He understands this doesn’t need to be a simple job, and maybe for the first time in however many years, he shouldn’t treat it like one.

The survival game and the horror series differ inherently, since one allows interactivity and the other doesn’t. Neil Druckmann, creative director on The Last of Us games, is co-showrunner for the HBO adaptation alongside Craig Mazin, no doubt contributing massively to the translation.

Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us video game

One specific change is that players can choose how many surgeons they kill, before having to shoot or stab everyone else, including Marlene. HBO’s version has Joel spare two in the surgery theatre, killing one so they understand his threat is real.

He isn’t trying to kill everyone, only whoever prevents him from saving Ellie. Chris Plante of Polygon posits the way Joel kidnaps Ellie as a projection of his daughter Sarah is like a horror movie. That framing holds some water, and it’s a thread The Last of Us Part 2 pulls on later, but such a view foregoes the deception from the Fireflies.

Bella Ramsay as Ellie in The Last of Us

Joel was never informed Ellie was going to die. The Fireflies, a waning organisation since FEDRA’s grip was loosened, doesn’t give either of them much humanity. Ellie holds the cure, therefore she must be sacrificed, and Joel should just walk away regardless.

Marlene has a role to play, but her role in the overall decision is open to discussion. She was close to Ellie’s mother, Sarah, taking in her child when she became infected. It seems like partially her choice to allow the procedure to take place, but as Tina Amina argued in Kotaku, it’s unlikely she had much say.

Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us game

The Fireflies are falling apart anyway, and it’s plausible there were many advocates for letting Ellie die on the off-chance she could be responsible for some form of cure. One life to save many, or to save whoever’s left, and all that. Marlene’s choice was probably more about at least having some hand in the process, to honour Sarah’s memory in some form.

There’s a whole argument here around just how feasible an antidote was and whether the Fireflies could distribute it. While perhaps fun over drinks with good company, such semantics bring a cold banality that undercuts what makes the scenario memorable. Besides that, it’s just kind of boring, but I digress.

Merle Dandridge as Marlene in The Last of Us

Marlene does seem to think Ellie might be able to give us a vaccine, especially when she’s pleading with Joel towards the end. But at that point, they’re diametrically opposed, and Joel has to remain committed.

It’s notable this encounter happens in flashbacks, to truly make it a secret between us and Joel. When he lies to Ellie, we can only watch, whether we agree or disagree. Just as it was in the game, we’re observers whose opinion doesn’t matter to Joel.

That space between us and him creates ambiguity. It’s easy to label Joel a bad guy; what he does is horrible, and we don’t want to feel bad or guilty about our role as witnesses or players. But your interpretation needn’t exist on a binary.

David in The Last of Us TV series

Some of The Last of Us characters are despicable; David is a horrendous creep, and that mention of slavers back in the first episode creates all sorts of warped mental images. We understand Joel more, though, we know what makes him tick and motivates him. We can empathise, even with someone who acts in a way that’s terrifying.

The Last of Us wants us to feel the complexity of people we like and think we understand doing things that seem beyond the pale, to dwell on the complicated nature of being alive and trying to do what’s right on an ever-shifting landscape. Even simpler than those broad notions is the need for a protector to protect until the very end.

Pedro Pascal as Joel in The Last of Us

Bill told us this is who Joel is. The videogame was more opaque, using our agency as players to create uncertainty. Even then, to consider Joel purely antagonistic seems rash. He sees a way to go beyond mere endurance and survival. In a universe of grey, he pushes toward a light, and when him and Ellie are hiking back toward the Wyoming settlement, it really does feel like the preferable outcome, for good and ill.

For more from the show, read our The Last of Us TV series review, or find out more about The Last of Us season 2 release date. And if you are still after more, here are the 5 videogame TV series we want to see after The Last of Us.