By Jensonb 22 Comments
Here there be spoilers. You have been warned.
Like many of you, I recently picked up The Last of Us Remastered. I didn't play it on PS3, and I steered clear of any spoilers, so I didn't know a whole lot about what goes on, beyond the very basic Joel/Ellie dynamic.
If you played it on either PS3 or PS4 through to the end, you'll know it has a very dramatic conclusion. Joel ultimately takes Ellie away from the Fireflies, destroying their chances of finding a cure. He then baldly lies about the circumstances to Ellie.
Many people disagreed with his actions, saying they only begrudgingly participated and consider him wrong, even a monster. Many others disagreed, but understood and accepted his choice, whether they saw it as morally grey or outright wrong - albeit justified. I fall into a third camp. I completely agreed with every decision Joel made. He was right to rescue Ellie, he was right to kill the Fireflies - including the doctors (I killed them all, with my only hesitation being a moment to think the game would consider this the wrong action even though I thought otherwise) - and he was right to end Marlene too. And the lie to Ellie was also entirely justified.
You see, the Fireflies, for all the efforts to portray them as morally grey in pursuit of a righteous solution, are unspeakably and irredeemably immoral. While it's true that Joel, like them, did not seek Ellie's input on whether or not it would be fair to sacrifice her for a cure, his decision was to spare her life. Theirs was to take it. Theirs was the thievery. They not only made no attempt to seek informed, rational consent (and, for reasons we'll get into, even if they had it would have been dubious) before rushing her off to die in pursuit of medical research they had no way of knowing would work (Naughty Dog's word of god that it would have is irrelevant: the Fireflies didn't know that, so everything they were doing was in reckless pursuit of an uncertainty), they did the whole thing while she was unconscious. And they knowingly kept it from someone who would have sought to protect her.
Marlene is by far the worst of them. She flagrantly abused her position as a surrogate mother to Ellie in order to fortify her crumbling standing among the Fireflies. It's not merely that she greenlit the procedure, it's that she failed to even try to speak to Ellie about it, and only spoke about it to Joel reluctantly - and with muscle to intimidate and remove him. She apparently held them off from killing him in his sleep because she felt he was the only one who knew the gravity of her decision, but that's just more evidence of her selfishness in this regard. Her betrayal of Ellie is all the more wretched because she claims to have equal or greater affection for her to/than Joel. She says Ellie would have agreed, and it is implied Joel thinks so too. So what? Why then did she not ask? Why make the decision for her? And what kind of person sacrifices a child they claim affection for, a child apparently in their care, so callously?
All the Fireflies are among the more evil people in The Last of Us. The vast majority of the Hunters are absolute scumbags, but only in as much as a thirst for survival drove them there (David and his merry band of cannibals, but him especially, are the absolute nadir of the Hunters and probably about as bad as the Fireflies, but most of the Hunters in the game are far more combat pragmatic than evil). The Fireflies and their mad doctor achieve this level of unspeakable immorality because of their undeserved belief in the righteousness of their actions. The Hunters are at least honest enough to acknowledge, for the most part, their savagery and their rationalisation is somewhat reasonable. The Fireflies have the gall to believe their killing of Ellie, their terrorism, their murders...are noble and just.
And maybe you're sat there fuming at me for implying that their aim is insufficient justification for their means, since you might argue they seek to save mankind.
Perhaps you think I am about to argue that mankind in The Last of Us doesn't deserve saving, or at least not enough to justify Ellie's sacrifice. Many have argued the same in the discussions I've read since finishing the game.
You're wrong. I'm not making that argument, because it's irrelevant. I kind of agree, but not enough to dismiss the idea of a cure outright as many have. No, my objection is more straightforward:
Mankind does NOT need saving in The Last of Us. Ellie's sacrifice would have been pointless. There is nothing to save mankind FROM.
It was a feeling I first had when Joel and Ellie met up with Joel's brother Tommy. The Jackson community is a fully-functioning society. Safe. Secure. Civil. The infection is an outside threat - periphery and manageable. Tommy offers them a chance to stay. While I saw the logic in his idea, I initially agreed with Joel that pursuing the cure was worth it - after all, we could always come back with Ellie when it was all over and make a life for ourselves (as seems to be happening in the epilogue). The thing is, like Joel, I was at the time working under the assumption that Ellie simply needed to get to the Fireflies so they could take samples or study her or something. It hadn't crossed my mind their "cure" would be "kill Ellie and study the brain". Incidentally, they're after her BRAIN? That raises the question of who're the real zombies: the infected or the damn Fireflies?
You see, heading off to assist in researching a cure for a disease, that's just a noble pursuit in a pretty crapsacky world. Escorting a girl to her death to cure a disease is another thing altogether. I can see an argument for it (though I'd still have misgivings) to save mankind, but again...That's not what was going on.
The disease had twenty years to wipe humans out, and it didn't. Joel survived. Tess survived until she took one too many risks. They talk about it as being luck, but it's not. Everyone we saw get infected after the time skip was taking a risk when they did. They put themselves in situations where infection was more likely. Ish's community was doing fine in the sewers until someone was careless and failed to shut the door. The same thing happens in Left Behind. If Riley hadn't been inexcusably reckless for someone who grew up in that world, she and Ellie would have been fine.
Then there's Jackson. Safe. Secure. Civil. Infection-free. The quarantine Zones are cesspits of crime and loose morals, generally portrayed as horrible places to live, and this is blamed on the infection. But it's not the infection. It's the people. More specifically, the leadership. They're military dictatorships. All military dictatorships are awful. It doesn't matter why they were implemented, martial law is an awful way to live.
But then...there's Jackson. Jackson proves the dictatorship is unnecessary to survive the infection. In fact, Jackson is flourishing. It is, by every conceivable measure, a better and more functional society. Quality of life may not be quite back to pre-infection levels, but it's high. They have amenities, companionship, pets, safety, power, food...
They restored civilisation without a cure. Mankind re-asserting its civility and social advancement even with the infection still out there. Life, and humanity, found a way. There was no need for a cure. Certainly not enough need to justify Ellie losing her life in pursuit of the mere chance of one. A cure would be nice, but "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" does not mean "for some to live longer, others must die".
Had Ellie chosen a noble sacrifice for a cure anyway, then so be it, but that didn't happen. She was given no choice, and that act damned the Fireflies as unworthy of pursuing a cure. They did not deserve it. And the people of Jackson, who might have, did not need it. Marlene's justification that Ellie would have agreed is pathetic. Not because it's unlikely, but because it's definitely true. Ellie would have agreed. But it would not have been a noble sacrifice. It would have been out of survivor's guilt and a desire to end her sorrow over the path she was forced (though she is unlikely to have admitted as much to herself) to lead by Marlene.
Now, as for the lie, at least one of the creators has suggested Ellie knows Joel is lying and resents him for it, even though she still loves him as a father. From what I understand, this is not canon and the conclusion is deliberately ambiguous. I said above I don't disagree with the lie. And the reason plays again into Ellie's mental state. Right or wrong of the lie goes out the window when you consider that Ellie is not going to see the events objectively, or even from a rational subjective viewpoint. She makes it clear in that scene that her view is blurred by regret and sorrow. Joel opts to protect her from more of that by absorbing it himself. Some say it is ultimately selfish of him to choose to keep her in his life and lie to keep her from shunning him (which undoubtedly played in to his decision), but to that I say...Is it any less selfish of Ellie to expect Joel to watch her sacrifice herself or take on a burden he can protect her from after all he's been through - after Sarah?
The Last of Us is ultimately a story about people having to look out for them and theirs. To my mind, nobody is a saint - not even Ellie. What sets our heroes (Ultimately, the Jackson citizenry including Joel and Ellie) apart is that they choose to make things happen for themselves, to sacrifice themselves for those around them and to attack only as a means of survival. The villains seek to coerce, manipulate or force others into sacrificing themselves for them (the villains) or "the greater good". The Fireflies, and the Cannibals, each did this in their own ways. Joel, Ellie, Tommy and his settlement...They took on burdens and confronted danger themselves.
Saints? No. Survivors? Yes. There is no need for a cure.