Warning: major spoilers for the entire story of The Last of Us Part II follow, so proceed at your own discretion.
The idiom “walk a mile in my shoes” is quite literally at the center and heart of Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, The Last of Us Part II. It strives to show us how often times there are no heroes, no villains. Only our experiences that shape us and make us human. And in the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us, this has never been more true.
Humans are flawed. We are complex, layered beings full of complicated emotions, drives, passions. We like to think of concepts like “good” and “evil” because it helps us process things we don’t agree with or understand. We tend to choose sides with those we agree with and shout down and reject others we don’t. However, humans aren’t binary. Our actions aren’t black and white. We are not either altruistic or selfish. We are both and many times at the same time. This is why I could say without any doubt that I absolutely love The Last of Us Part II. Flaws and all.
- Related Reading: The Last of Us Part 2 Review – Opening Old Wounds
Upon finishing the Last of Us Part II, I sat in silence. Staring at the screens of text that was sharing with me the names of the artists that made it. None of it registered. Not because I didn’t care, but because I was completely consumed in thoughts and feelings. I needed to sleep on it.
While I laid in bed and throughout the next morning, I kept thinking about the experience. Trying to see if there was anything I would have removed, or edited for time, anything. And there just wasn’t. Every scene, every beat, every moment was placed impeccably. They each informed the characters and, in turn, their actions. This is how stories should be. I felt every minute I played the game and I wouldn’t have traded any of them.
And then I started to think about why that was.
It starts with Joel and Ellie. These two characters are so completely realized and well-drawn that by the end I found myself truly loving both. I could empathize with them, their wants, desires. I was completely complicit when Joel decided that Ellie’s life was more important than the world’s. For me, I just spent most of the entire game seeing what Ellie giving up her life would be saving. The savage Hunters who baited unsuspecting survivors to kill and loot them. David, who at first wanted to take Ellie in with him and his cannibal family and then turns to something far darker when she violently rejects his offer. To the Fireflies, who I’m sure had the best of intentions, but were willing to sacrifice the miracle that was Ellie for something that wasn’t even a guarantee to save a world that has gone to almost literal hell and was full of vile monsters, both human and infected. The difference was the infected had no control over their violent tendencies. Humans did, and they clearly didn’t embrace their better angels.
So yes, I was on board for what I thought at the time was Joel’s hero moment. I shot the doctor. Every doctor. I slayed everyone who was in my path trying to prevent me from saving Ellie, and I was triumphant. Joel and Ellie are going to live happily ever after as father and daughter.
And then came the lie. When asked for the truth about the Fireflies and to swear if what he said was true — that there was no cure — Joel looked Ellie in the face and said “I swear.” And like Ellie put into words, I thought “Okay.”
It was then I realized what I was complicit in, and I was still okay with it. Even if Joel’s decision could be justifiably seen as selfish, he found the love for a daughter again, and he wasn’t going to let it go for anything, least of all to save humanity I was shown really wasn’t worth saving. Maybe it was selfish, but I was okay with that because Ellie, whom I had also grown to love, was alive and safe. And the lie he told Ellie when she asked if what he had told her about there being no cure was true? I understood why Joel did that as well. His motivations may have been selfish, maybe he was protecting her. I can’t say for certain but considering what I knew about Joel, I think it was all of the above.
Which brings us to The Last of Us Part II. While I had Joel’s fate in the game spoiled for me, from the outset I thought it was inevitable. From the first trailer where we see Ellie talking to an almost spectral Joel, saying “I’m going to find them and I’m going to kill every last one of them” I pretty much knew Joel wasn’t long for this world. There was nothing else that could justify not only Ellie’s rage but the existence of this game. I had the utmost faith in Neil Druckmann and Naughty Dog that they wouldn’t be making this game if the reason was something as flimsy as Ellie’s new girlfriend (whom we hadn’t yet met) would be the narrative thrust of this game. Not to mention that there was no way they would “fridge” her love interest. That’s just not how they operate and wouldn’t want to invite that kind of controversy and social media backlash.
Instead, they would invite backlash of a different kind I’m sure they were prepared for since they were going to take some big swings. Killing Joel — not just Joel dying — but having Joel die in such a brutal, sadistic and cruel way that Ellie would want to go back out into the world and murder those responsible. As much as I love Joel as a character, I was willing to go on this ride and have them tell me the story they saw was worth telling.
I didn’t have any predictions for how the story would go beyond that. I don’t like to theorize. In any piece of entertainment that is telling me a story, I put my trust in the storytellers. They are going to take me on a journey so let’s see where this goes.
Where it was going I didn’t fully expect. We meet and play as a new character named “Abby” who, along with her friends, is clearly looking for someone in Jackson. While I had already suspected it was Joel, I wasn’t sure exactly how it would go down. Abby is attacked by a horde of infected and in a crucial life or death moment she is saved by Joel and Tommy who fend off the horde and ride with Abby back to the lodge they are using as their encampment. It doesn’t take long before Abby shoots Joel in the leg with a shotgun and proceeds to beat him with a golf club.
Back in control of Ellie, I, as the player, know Joel is in trouble, even though Ellie isn’t quite sure. I desperately want her to him in time and I rush to his rescue only to be beaten down and forced to watch a beaten and bloodied Joel is bashed in the temple with the golf club one last time. Joel is dead.
Joel is dead, Abby did it, her friends are complicit and like Ellie, I’m pissed. I don’t care why Abby did it. I’m well aware of what Joel has done to survive and what he did to save Ellie and I don’t care. Abby and her friends have to pay that bill.
And this fueled my quest for the first 15 or so hours of the game. I felt every step of the way as Ellie made her way, The Bride from Kill Bill style, through Abby’s friends and felt the frustration of Abby being somewhere else when I got to where I was going. This only added seasoning on my cold dish of revenge and was going to make when I finally confronted her all the sweeter.
Each flashback between Ellie and Joel over the past four years made me feel the loss of Joel as a player and as Ellie. Seeing their fallout after Joel finally confessed to Ellie what he had done, while still sparing the gory details. “I stopped them” doesn’t quite sting as much as “I murdered every single one of them that tried to stop me.”
When the game gives you the opportunity to determine the cadence of beating Nora for Abby’s whereabouts, I will not lie. I relished it. Partly for me but also for Ellie. I really let the anger and frustration build up in her visibly as she did what she had to to get revenge for Joel.
Despite Dina being sick and not being able to continue, despite Tommy possibly getting himself and Jesse killed, Ellie pressed on. When she confronts Owen and Mel, she tries to be Joel and fails. She is out of her depth emotionally and doesn’t have the years of survival outside the walls of either the quarantine zone in Boston or Jackson. She is on her own. She kills Owen and instinctively kills Mel, a pregnant woman. It’s then where Ellie first sees what she is really doing. That she has now literally killed an innocent in Mel’s unborn child. Before she can truly come around to realizing what she has truly done, Abby shows up. She’s killed Jesse, has Tommy prone and compromised, and now has a gun on Ellie. This is the confrontation we’ve been waiting for.
And this is when the true genius of The Last of Us Part II actually begins.
It puts us back in control of Abby, the villain of the story, four years prior. Abby, at around age 15, and her father, Jerry, share a moment rescuing a trapped mama zebra who has just given birth. Owen then shows up and advises Jerry, calling him “Doc” that the immune girl has shown up. At this point, it’s abundantly clear what is happening. These are the Fireflies Joel was tasked with bringing Ellie to in The Last of Us.
A perfect distillation of the point of having us play as Abby comes in the next scene when Marlene and Jerry are talking about what needs to be done with Ellie in order to create the vaccine and cure that has decimated the world for the past 20 years. For Jerry, it’s simple; this little girl’s life is worth the cost if it means saving humankind. It’s purely clinical to him because the end justifies the means and his actions mean saving the human race. For Marlene it’s different. Marlene has known Ellie for her entire fourteen-year-old life. She cares deeply about Ellie and this is a genuinely hard decision for her. She asks Jerry, “And what if this was Abby?” before she leaves to tell Joel. She is asking him to see it from another point of view. Would he make the same decision? Would he still think her life was worth losing in order to save the world?
He doesn’t answer because he can’t. It’s not real. It’s not the actual situation he has in front of him. He is safe from having to make this decision. Even though Abby tells him, after overhearing, she would want him to go through with the surgery that would kill her if it meant saving the world.
The next time Abby sees her dad, he’s a bloody, lifeless body on the floor. Murdered by Joel,. and thus begins her quest and obsession for revenge. The displaced and remaining Salt Lake City Fireflies find their way to Seattle and take up with the Washington Liberation Front, WLF, and uses this opportunity to train herself, to rebuild herself into the person who has one true goal: to kill the man that murdered her father. The same man we were complicit with and had spent the last seven years justifying his actions. Joel has a bill that is due.
At this point, I am already empathizing with her. I understood her motivations. After all, the best villains are the ones where you can understand where they are coming from, even if you don’t agree with them. But that wasn’t enough for The Last of Us Part II writers, Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross. Because while most would understand why Abby did what she did, she still beat Joel to death and caved his head in with a golf club. Abby still has to die.
Instead what they do is take us on Abby’s journey across the same three days in Seattle as Ellie hunts her down. We see the fallout from Abby’s obsession. She was so obsessed with training and becoming what she felt she needed to in order to kill Joel that it cost her the love of her life in Owen who was driven to another woman, Mel, who is now pregnant. By bringing everyone along with her on her quest for revenge, she made them targets for Ellie and Tommy who set out on their own individual quests for payback ultimately getting them all killed.
However, we also get to witness Abby’s personal redemption in the form of Yara and Lev. Throughout the story, we encounter the religious Seraphites or as the WLF call them, “Scars” for the signifying scars they have from mouth to temple on both sides of their face. Through most of the game, they are merely another faction of enemies. Until Abby is captured and about to be killed by them when she is saved by Yara and Lev — brother and sister former Scars. Yara has been severely injured but they manage to save Abby again from a horde and it’s then where Abby decides to carry Yara to safety.
After finally getting to Owen and they have some cathartic, rough sex, Abby has a dream of the brother and sister gutted and hanging from a tree that shakes her awake. It’s here where she makes the decision to help them to alleviate her guilt and the two serve as some kind of penance and goes on a harrowing cross-city trek with Lev to get medical supplies to help save Yara’s life.
It’s here where I see that despite my introduction to her, Abby is like everyone else. Human. Flawed. She did what she felt she had to do, it cost her everything and now she is trying to make it right. I am now fully invested in her story and her as a character. I want her to succeed.
This is going to be where the story, and ultimately the game, succeeds or fails for people. If you’re not on board with Abby by now, then you never will be. And I respect that. However, for me, it worked as intended. So much so that when we finally meet back up at the theatre where we left Ellie’s side of the story left off, I wanted a completely different outcome. This is compounded by the fact that we’re still playing as Abby and we have to basically beat the crap out of Ellie before Abby spares them again due to a glance from Lev who wants no part of this when Dina is about to have her throat slit by Abby.
Abby made her choice at that moment to end the cycle of revenge. She was moving on.
When we return to Ellie about a year later, she seems at peace. She has her life with Dina and her child, JJ (Jesse Joel? Joel Jesse?) until we see she still very much suffers from PTSD caused by witnessing Joel’s death. When Tommy shows up with a firm lead on Abby’s whereabouts, Ellie has to reject his request to pick up the trail of revenge and go after her. Tommy is in no physical condition to do it himself after their last encounter with Abby and admonishes Ellie for not still wanting revenge for Joel’s death.
As it turns out, Ellie hasn’t given up on it either. Still haunted by Joel’s death she leaves Dina and JJ to go after Abby again despite Dina’s plead. Unlike the start of all of this, I was no longer with Ellie. I was with Dina pleading Ellie not to do it. Not because I wanted Abby to live, even though I did, but because I knew that nothing good would come out of it for Ellie. She has a good life now. And she is going to waste it.
In the final hours of the game, Ellie tracks down Abby who has been captured and left for dead by a group of vicious survivors in Santa Barbara, cuts her down and the two are seemingly headed off to their respective story endings, with Lev in Abby’s emaciated arms. It’s clear that Abby is done with all of it.
Ellie isn’t just yet. Haunted by another flash of Joel’s dead face, she tells Abby she can’t leave. But again, Abby is done. She just wants to leave with Lev and go to the remaining Fireflies she found out are in Catalina Island waiting for her. Ellie, in her most horrific act, puts her knife to the unconscious Lev’s throat, forcing Abby to fight here. What follows is a brutal fight between the two which costs Ellie two of her fingers, but this time Ellie gets the upper hand and has Abby dead to rights, held underwater, drowning her.
It’s then where Ellie sees Joel and it becomes clear what was really driving Ellie all along. It was guilt. The guilt of how her relationship with Joel had soured when she found out the truth about the Fireflies and what Joel did. How their last conversation, the night before Joel died, was about a possible reconciliation between the two. The guilt of knowing she wasted so much time being mad at Joel, resenting him for what he did out of love for her. Guilt out of not getting to forgive him while he was still around.
She lets Abby live. She lets her live and leaves with Lev. Killing them won’t bring Joel back. It won’t fill the time she spent hating Joel. Killing Abby will just kill Abby. It won’t save Ellie.
I was relieved. It had been a long time since I wanted Abby dead. I didn’t want Ellie to become the monster I thought Abby was when she killed Joel.
Ellie breaks down and begins to cries, visibly broken by the events of the past year or so. She’s scarred and broken. She lost the love of her life in her quest for revenge. She lost the ability to play the guitar which was her last real connection to Joel in the world. She leaves the guitar in her empty home and sets off to some unknown destination. For me, I am hoping she can make things work with Dina, and sparing Abby’s life might help mend that wound.
The world of The Last of Us and its sequel is the place of dark, bleak stories. Where everyone we meet thinks they are doing the right thing for their circumstances. It’s dark but never black and white. Joel wasn’t a hero. He was the villain of someone else’s story. Abby isn’t a hero. Shew was the villain of Ellie’s story. And Ellie isn’t a hero. She was the villain of Abby’s story.
There are no heroes. And I’m okay with that.