This article contains spoilers for ‘The Last of Us’ season finale.
I called my dad the evening I finished the first episode of The Last of Us to ask if he’d started it, as the hit series, based on the video game of the same name, seemed to be on everyone’s watch list.
“Let me guess,” he said. “This is one of those post-apocalyptic shows where the people turn out to be the real monsters the whole time.”
After watching Sunday night’s season finale, his guess was spot on.
The idea that humans are the real monsters became a central theme as the series drew to a close. This theme and the series’ faithfulness to in-game characterization in the finale has allowed for it to wrap up a successful run as a genre-fiction drama.
When the finale opens, we’re left to watch the aftermath of Ellie and Joel escaping the cannibalistic, religious cult’s ski-resort compound and the clutches of their terrifying leader David, played by Scott Shepherd, but the psychological effects of the experience endure.
Ellie has lost her trademark snarkiness and playfulness, now exposed to the full horrors of humanity. Joel, somehow perfectly recovered from being stabbed three episodes earlier, also grapples with the reality of treating Ellie like a daughter.
When comparing David to the stoic leaders of Tommy’s commune in episode six, who are willing to shoot before asking questions in order to protect their safe haven, it’s clear the remaining members of humanity will do anything they can to survive.
But the season finale brought the idea to the forefront by asking if our protagonist, Joel, has been a monster himself this whole time. Following the heart-wrenching and gory cold-opening of Ellie’s birth, we see Ellie and Joel finally reach the Firefly compound they’d been searching for the entire season. Ellie’s blood is tested, and the medical team has concluded they can extract the cordyceps from her to use in a vaccine for the rest of humanity. The world is saved, but the catch? Ellie has to die.
I had anticipated this, but it was Joel’s reaction that caught me off-guard. After escaping the cult, he has an epiphany that in Ellie, he was given a second chance at fatherhood. His actions, from listening to her read from her childish pun book to teasing her that she could beat him in Boggle, bring back the demeanor of the young father we met in episode one. He’s finally found the reason for living, and it’s about to be taken away from him.
Through Pedro Pascal’s best performance of the series, alongside the tension-filled cinematography and score, the character of Joel as a desperate father is seamlessly juxtaposed to him as a cold-blooded mercenary shooting up the Firefly compound to save Ellie, giving into his selfishness to protect a girl over humanity. Does this necessarily make him a monster? Maybe not. But that’s not where the episode ends.
He murders the Fireflies leader Marlene, played by Merle Dandridge, who saved Ellie beforehand countless times in the Quarantine Zone. In their escape from the compound, he lies to Ellie about why she didn’t undergo the surgery, knowing he went against her wishes to be used for the vaccine.
The writers won’t let him off the hook, leaving the audience to question if he was in the right. Even when Ellie, almost knowing he was lying about why she wasn’t dead, asks him to confirm everything he told was true, he struggles before doing so.
Although the episode ended abruptly Sopranos-style, it continued to beg the question: Was Joel in the right? And whether that selfishness seems to be shown in a positive light, was there ever a right thing to do?
That’s what the finale and The Last of Us series did best when it came to writing. The focus was not simply on humanity’s survival from the infected, but also on how they can survive and coexist with each other in this new world.
The question of what tough decisions need to be made and how humans will continue to be selfish amid the apocalypse brought a new perspective to the cliche-filled genre. The finale was the climax of this theme, forcing the viewer to be horrified by the protagonist’s actions, and wonder if we’d do the same.