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The Last of Us HBO: Joel Was Right… Mostly

This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us HBO. If you’re not caught up yet, check out our spoiler-free Season 1 review.

The Last of Us presents us with the story of a relationship, of two people in different circumstances whose lives end up coalescing into a new family and one of finding hope and joy in even the most bleak of conditions. The ending of the game was always meant to start a conversation — how does Joel choose one life over every life? How does he choose to save Ellie over the whole world? How could one do such a thing? How immoral! Except it’s not. Not in the way the HBO series has presented it, at least.

As you may recall, Firefly forces ambushed and abducted Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) as they were on their way to the hospital on the final stretch of their journey. When Joel wakes up, he’s separated from Ellie and told by Marlene (Merle Dandridge) that his charge is being prepped for brain surgery. Two key takeaways from their conversation? The surgery will kill Ellie, and the Fireflies didn’t bring her up to speed on that tidbit before sedating her for surgery. Upon learning the news, Joel snaps, and mows his way through the hospital — killing almost everyone in his way. His final murder is of Marlene, who insists that he knows Ellie would have made the choice the Fireflies tried to make for her but, like the rest of the Fireflies’ whole brain surgery plan, her statement lacks the evidence to back it up.

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There have been some meta arguments from Naughty Dog regarding the original iteration of the ending — that we have to assume killing Ellie would result in a cure to the cordyceps infestation. I don’t agree with that line of textual argument. But, even if I did, Joel was still mostly right based on the information he was presented with, and a key change from the game in the show only makes this more true. The HBO series’ shift from spores to tendrils completely changes the nature of the virus, leaving us with a whole lot of questions about the Fireflies’ scheme, and what kind of data they have to back their teen-girl-murdering-plan.

I’m just going to say it: the Fireflies do not have their shit together. It seems unlikely they have the neuroscientists and infectious disease experts necessary to fix all this. Marlene confirmed they lost half their number just getting across the country! Are we really supposed to believe that they have the resources to possibly, maybe pull off this incredibly difficult process of stopping the cordyceps from further ravaging humanity? I really don’t think so. I think they’re going to kill Ellie for no reason. Or, at the very least, that they don’t yet have enough data to be sure that they won’t.  

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Why is the move to immediately knock Joel out and rush Ellie into fatal brain surgery? Why not do tests on Ellie’s living tissue? Collect and test her blood? Do exploratory non-life threatening surgery? Try some experiments? X-ray her? See how or if anything changes as she becomes an adult? There are so many learning opportunities they immediately cut out — why is fatal brain surgery step 1 and not step 25? Or step 50? Which begs the ultimate question: why are they rushing into this? If they fail, they’ll have killed the only living immune person on Earth that they’re aware of and ruined their one chance. 

I want to circle back to the big show-related change: tendrils instead of spores. The cordyceps now shoot bone-chillingly gross tendrils out of their hosts and into new victims, much like how real cordyceps grow tendrils of mycelia throughout their hosts’ bodies. They said cordyceps grow in the brain, right? That’s funny, because real-world cordyceps infect every tissue except the brain, stimulating the muscles directly as a horrifying corpse puppet. Professor David Hughes of Penn State University, who studied the relationship between carpenter ants and the parasitic Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, found this was true with the fungal cells concentrated outside the brain without ever penetrating it, ultimately cutting it off from the rest of the body.

How did he do this? By research. By careful study of tissue, by recreating conditions in a lab, which The Fireflies would need to do lest they kill Ellie and probably discover the cordyceps are not in her brain. Their numbers are dwindling, yes, but rushing in guns blazing probably isn’t the way they get to their goal – this is the perfect time for The Fireflies’ likely small research group to really consider the resources they have and make the best of them. They can’t afford to kill off their best subject right away, and they should know that. 

And let’s get to the last part of why The Fireflies are wrong: consent. They ambushed Joel and Ellie as they were on their way to them and prepped Ellie for surgery while Joel came-to elsewhere, adding to his freak-out. Marlene et al. assumed Ellie would have agreed to sacrifice herself for the cure, but if that assumption was true, why didn’t they just ask her? Or better yet, tell her what the option could be, but request that she stay and let them study her alive as they figure it out in earnest?  If they asked and she said “yes I want to do this,” like they said they thought, Joel probably wouldn’t have done all he did. (And, if that’s how it ultimately went down, we would be writing a wildly different story.) Who tricks, ambushes, and volunteers a minor for 100% fatal surgery? Assholes, that’s who. If they weren’t so scared of getting a no, why not get her consent from the jump? And why knock out, disorient, and then tell her guardian Joel McMurderFactory with enough time to act beforehand?

Joel was wrong to outright kill the surgeon (for many reasons). But at the top of that list would be that he would likely still be a good choice to help figure the cure out, and the fact that there are likely few surgeons left in the world. But he was right to save Ellie’s life — which ultimately meant killing his way through a hospital because the Fireflies were in no way going to let him leave — because she deserved the chance to make her own decisions, and Marlene was unable to present any actual science to support her kid-killing plan. Sure, there were emotions behind his call. But at the end of the day he was tasked with protecting Ellie. What would any of us do if a child under our protection was (as far as we knew) about to be killed for no helpful or logical reason?

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