HBO’s The Last of Us came to a close with an ending eerily similar to the one in the popular video game released 10 years ago. After reaching the Fireflies, the revolutionary militia group that had tasked Pedro Pascal‘s Joel with delivering Bella Ramsey’s Ellie to them, and set him on the path that would change his life in the first place, Joel discovers that Ellie might indeed be the “cure” for the fungus that has taken over the world. But, to figure out if she is, the Fireflies have to kill her.
Joel, who has come to see Ellie as a surrogate child, doesn’t take kindly to the idea, going on a rampage that ends with all the Fireflies dead, and Ellie believing that after everything the two of them had gone through, she just wasn’t good enough. She couldn’t be the savior she’d imagined herself to be. In a last scene that mirrors the game’s ending almost word-for-word, Joel even promises that he isn’t lying. There really was nothing the Fireflies could do. All they can do now is go on living.
The show’s ending is proving to be as controversial as the game, but the thing that makes it controversial might just be what makes it real. As the screen fades to black on the first season of The Last of Us, it is likely we were all wondering what we would do in Joel’s place. It is also likely that a lot of us were reaching the conclusion that, perhaps, we would do just what he did.
It’s the trolley problem, all over again. The thought experiment proposes a fictional ethical dilemma that involves choosing whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number. Except in this case, that one person isn’t just any random stranger, she is someone that Joel loves. Not just that, she’s the person who, little by little, made him feel like life was worth living again, something he’d lost after the death of his daughter.
Can anyone blame Joel for choosing Ellie’s safety over the possibility that she might be the cure? Because the reality is, the Fireflies were never sure they could actually turn Ellie’s immunity into a cure. They just thought the only way to try involved killing her. For them, it was worth the gamble. For Joel, it wasn’t.
Joel, of course, never considers what Ellie wants.
She’s unconscious while the Fireflies – and Joel – make decisions about her life. Perhaps, if Ellie had been asked, she would have chosen to sacrifice herself. Or, perhaps, she would have found it as unfair as Joel did that the Fireflies considered her a disposable tool to their possible endgame. Either way, it’s hard to fully judge Joel for the decisions he makes out of love, and infinitely easy to judge the Fireflies for putting the fate of the world on the shoulders of one girl they never really tried to save in the first place.
Flawed, human, and perhaps wrong, Joel’s decision still makes sense. And if we’re being honest, most of us might just make the same one.
The first season of The Last of Us is available to stream on HBO Max.