The Following is a Spoiler-Filled Feature talking about letting go in The Last of Us Part II. Trigger Warnings All Around
When The Last of Us Part II released, there was a lot of tumultuous hate amongst fans. The biggest reason being that despite outstanding critic scores, there was an enormous amount of outrage and confusion as to how a sequel — which many diehard fans had already deemed unnecessary — could kill off the game’s original protagonist, Joel. Worse, was that it happened so early into the game, with later gameplay focused for a good chunk of Part II on Joel’s murderer: Abby. The hatred the past few weeks has gotten so awful that Naughty Dog has issued an official statement in response. Even Laura Bailey herself (Abby’s voice actress), had received death threats against both her and her family just over the dislike of Abby’s role in the game.
Let me begin by stating: I disapprove of the outrage. I think it’s wrong to threaten someone’s life, let alone over a video game, but I do completely understand how this could happen, given our current climate. Three particular reasons why fans are upset just off the top of my head: fans were butt-hurt over the outstanding review ratings and adamantly believe that reviewers like IGN are paid off; second, is that media outlets love clickable outrage culture because, approve or disapprove of the game, it’s definitely driven record-breaking sales (including a major resurgence in sales the original, Last of Us); finally, it’s never easy losing a beloved character. Hell, even I, while writing my initial Last of Us Part II review, had loathed the early experience over Joel’s murder, so much so, that I also initially wanted to write a scathing review (though to be fair, it’s also because I thought it was a cop-out which didn’t let Joel suffer enough) as The Last of Us is my favorite video game experience of all-time.
Yet, the further I found myself immersed in the game, really, the more I was willing to see things from our alleged antagonist’s perspective — hard as it may be — the more something magical began happening: I started changing my mind. Once I realized that Abby’s journey was nearly identical to Ellie’s in that they’re both girls seeking revenge over their fathers, who in turn, destroyed everything they ever loved in the process, I was able to appreciate the game for what it was: a cautionary tale that subverted expectations. Something which feels very Last of Us to me.
There are a lot of reasons why I ended up liking this story, and I breakdown some of those reasons why, below. Overall, I think the game is pointing a mirror to the very toxicity fans are sending death threats about in the first place. It’s undoing the idea in the original game that the ends (survival) justify the means (killing). It’s showing us that trauma can transform into guilt and that revenge isn’t the answer to anything. Because by the game’s end — after all the senseless violence — I can at least say that I found myself wondering, “What was all this fighting for?” And the truth is: there is no right answer. We’re just left feeling the weight of that guilt.
No One Is Innocent
The Last of Us has always prided itself as a story about survival. Yet, it’s always been unafraid to ask the question: at what cost? Yes, Joel is the protagonist, and Ellie’s eventual surrogate father in the last game, but he’s also a mass-murdering smuggler that many people already feared in Boston. Also, in saving Ellie, he murders humanity’s only hopes for a cure: Abby’s father. Abby, in turn, then trains as a soldier in the hopes of avenging her dead father, and by proxy, murders countless Scars over years of training as a WLF. Her eventual revenge murder of Joel, of course, then leads Ellie on a quest to, in turn, murder large amounts of the WLF. Some of whom were purely innocent bystanders brutally killed in the crossfire (like Whitney, as shown above) of Ellie’s wrath, though let’s also not forget the worst of it all: Owen, Alice (their dog), Mel, and their baby. Ellie murders a family.
The point is: there is no innocence in The Last of Us. Just victims of a history of violence that I think no one really noticed was building-up since the last game up until now.
Last of Us Part II is About Inherited Violence
I was shocked at the fan outrage, mostly because again: I think Joel deserved a worse fate. He at least had a few years of peace (enough to collect music and learn wood whittling) and even got to parent Ellie and be with his brother. Technically speaking, his life and death the way it played out, was in my opinion: a happy ending, especially for a man who killed hundreds and left humanity to die to preserve his idea of a daughter. But beyond this reasoning, the audience sort of neglects why Joel is such an effective survivalist in this universe, as it’s implied he committed numerous atrocities to survive. With Joel himself even admitting first-hand knowledge of hunter-based tactics, having killed innocent people.
I mention this because the violence seen in The Last of Us Part II directly ties to Joel’s violent legacy. Beginning with Joel’s daughter, Sarah. Her senseless death leads to Joel becoming a monster whose actions inevitably lead to the murdering of all of the fireflies. Yet at the same time, it’s also through these choices that Joel gets to meet Ellie, whom he bequeaths his ‘at-all-costs’ approach to senseless violence that’s justified in the original game though one caveat: hope that humanity could be restored via Ellie. But as we see here in Part II, this game very much embraces the aftermath of that failed reality. A world without hope and those that must continue to survive. What’s left beyond their simple lives is the inherited violence. The lessons that Ellie learned from Joel, including his knack for killing. Ellie takes on his violent legacy knowing full-well that despite her attempts to torture and kill out of a misplaced sense of righteousness: she isn’t Joel. Which is what this game is about. Especially, her sentimental moments with Dina.
Everything Comes At a Cost
As much as I love Ellie as a character, it’s somewhat hard to play as her for a second playthrough (which I’m doing as I write this). Seeing Ellie take what she knows and murder so many WLFs felt somewhat right on my first playthrough given Joel’s death, but even then, by the end of the game, it just feels exhausting. During the game’s final chapters in Santa Barbara, I literally said aloud: “I don’t want to do this anymore. I just want to stop. I just want Ellie to go home (to Dina).” This is powerful, and apparently, not an exclusive feeling I had because after talking with friends and other reviewers about it, I’d learned: I was not the only one exhausted by the journey.
You see, when Ellie goes on this journey for revenge, she’s actively becoming Joel. She murders someone over information, beats a girl she intentionally infected to death, and even tries to use Joel and Tommy’s interrogation methods – all well-intended yet nefarious, and at times, accidental actions of killing innocent lives along the way. These are the types of choices with ramifications the original game never addressed until it’s ending. That the victims who died along the way who were people too. What’s traumatizing, is that we, as the player, question Ellie’s violent choices along with her. That there’s this beautiful hesitation in the game about how Ellie doesn’t really want to do these things. Still, given the PTSD and trauma she’s experienced, executing violent revenge seems to be her only answer.
The worst is when you play as Abby, realizing that these additional random characters are three-dimensional people. Friends who are solely there out of a commitment to their friend. Good people with desires, romances, and loved ones that they care about rather deeply, working for a society that oddly works (Because the WLF is very much what a city-state would like in an escalated apocalyptic pandemic). It’s cyclically traumatizing for sure, as you get an angry Abby, who, in turn, tries to murder Tommy and Ellie for killing Owen. Again, everything comes at a cost.
Yet, as we learned from Abby’s journey, having avenged her father’s death, there really isn’t much hope in a quest for revenge. There is, however, hope in life and in Lev, which is Abby’s sort of redemption story that Ellie threatens to end to force Abby to fight her… Because if Ellie doesn’t get her revenge — worst, if Abby is anything less than a monster to Ellie — what was all this senseless violence for?
The Art of Letting Go
There’s that moment in the game where we can choose to be happily ever after. It’s the moment we see Ellie, the hope for humanity, now just a regular girl, trying to live her life with Dina and the baby, after the guilt of Joel’s death and the choice he made for her: to live. Ellie’s purpose must now come not from saving humanity but in the struggling of having to find her own. Though it’s going to be a difficult life given all that guilt, she has to carry.
To sum it all up, I think that’s why fans are furious: because Ellie says no, and it’s all so tragically human and hits way too close to home right now. People choose misery. There are no heroes. And I love that sort of sadness that can only be told in this type of story. You see, this isn’t a cautionary tale about how violence is wrong, but rather, it’s about how obsession, superlatives, and closed-minded thinking: are.
And That’s the real tragedy of the Last of Us Part II.
That the art of letting go means learning how to move on and live.