In 2013, Naughty Dog released one of the most acclaimed video games of all-time in the form of The Last of Us. The game was well-regarded largely because of its story and well-realized characters including the protagonist, Joel. Joel single-handedly popularized the “Sad Dad” genre but he’s more than that and that’s why many found him so compelling.
Joel’s a single father and blue-collared Texan. The prologue of The Last of Us tells us a lot about what we need to know about him. He loves his daughter, he gently tucks her into bed after she gives him a watch for his birthday. After things start to go awry, he disappears but rushes back into their house covered in blood. Pretty much everything he says during this sequence is about the safety of Sarah, he’s concerned about her and nothing else.
As he loads a revolver, an infected man bursts through their sliding door. With little hesitation, Joel shoots him point-blank. Sarah is traumatized but he barely blinks, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect her. Even as they’re driving down the back roads, they see a family and Joel refuses to take them in out of fear that he may jeopardize his own child.
Shortly after these events, his daughter is shot and killed despite his efforts. His source of happiness lifelessly evaporates in his arms until it runs completely dry. We flash forward 20 years and find him as a cold, distant man with nothing to really live for. He’s truly broken. He has some control but only a little.
In our first scene with him after the prologue of The Last of Us, Tess enters his apartment and offers him a drink from a mostly full bottle of booze. He very sternly rejects her offer. He’s not a cliche who is drinking away his problems like Max Payne. He suffers from PTSD but doesn’t try to particularly drown it out through any vices.
He’s incredibly complicated, something you’d probably expect from someone who is haunted by tragedy. Joel is afraid of attachment and for obvious reasons. His daughter was taken from him and it’s seemingly all he had. Sarah’s mother is mentioned once in fleeting conversation and it’s kept to a very vague statement you can’t gather much from.
You can gather some sense of pain or resentment toward her from Joel’s memory of her mother, though. There are no pictures of her in their home in The Last of Us’s prologue and Sarah doesn’t express concern for her when they’re escaping the city.
Ellie even asks what happened to her when they go to the university. Joel’s answers are short and when Ellie asks if it’s too much, he simply says “too much”. It doesn’t seem like she died, just completely out of the picture, potentially abandoning the entire family shortly after Sarah’s birth. If she died, they’d likely have something to remember her by and he might have fonder memories of her. He was a single father from a young age, even saying he never got to go to college because they had Sarah so young.
Joel, despite being a very reserved guy, is sentimental. He never takes the watch off that Sarah gave him before she died. He’s unable to let go and reminds himself of his failure every day, almost literally wearing his heart on his sleeve. As mentioned, he’s afraid of attachment but also afraid of losing it. When Sarah died, it changed him completely and took away the one thing he had. Whatever happened to his wife likely wasn’t good but Sarah’s existence allowed him to stay relatively happy.
Joel, when we find him, is a man without hope. He lives a cynical life. His one and only potential romantic connection with Tess is limited, probably drunk flings or due to him rejecting her out of fear of his attachment. It’s incredibly ambiguous but there was *something* there at some point.
When Tess reveals she’s infected and needs to be left behind, Joel argues that he doesn’t want to take Ellie any further. She puts him in his place by saying “There’s enough here that you have to feel some sort of obligation to me.” There are no sappy I love yous or kisses. Their goodbye is cold but there’s an energy between them that suggests they have history.
This is all to say: Joel does not attach easily. He can’t, he knows the danger of that. In my personal experience, I have been in a less serious version of that where I couldn’t trust anymore. I couldn’t attach like I used to. It’s an incredibly human but unhealthy way of coping with trauma. Yet someone snaps him out of that.
Ellie acts as his muse and remedy to this trauma. Joel tries to keep her away as she tries to pry into his heart and brain, often causing anger or annoyance. Despite being at odds, Ellie’s youthful and optimistic world view (which could be a bit ignorant) opens his eyes. As the two grow closer, he vows to not fail her the way he failed his own flesh and blood 20 years prior.
He can’t always protect her though. He can’t coddle her forever and his attachment almost becomes delusion at a certain point. While he does care for her, there’s toxicity and selfishness. He also cares about how she makes him feel. The optimism she has rubs off on him.
Joel teaching her things, showing her relics of the old world, seeing her amazement and awe at wildlife like giraffes, it’s a crucial part of his development in The Last of Us. There’s a purity to it, something that makes him realize there’s good in this world still. Ellie is special because she doesn’t have the burden of being cynical to this world after seeing how ugly it is. Ellie grew up in that ugliness but she sees the beauty of what the world once was and could be again. It’s fresh to her.
Ellie’s proposed sacrifice at the end of The Last of Us means a lot. It’s a suggestion of being able to begin rebuilding and healing the world. But for Joel, that means giving up the thing that’s been filling that void in his life. It means being alone again. It means having to go through the stages of grief again. It means having to miss those memories and not getting to make new ones. It means missing the feelings that daughter figure gave him.
When he learns that Ellie will die from her procedure that could cure humanity, Joel’s selfish desires kick in and he becomes a monster. He mows down an entire hospital of otherwise innocent people trying to do the right thing, violently executing those who stand in his way. The degree of barbaric violence comes from that feeling of knowing he’s about to lose the one thing he’s truly loved and cared for in 20 years.
The interesting thing about The Last of Us’s combat is that the brutality feels like a way of channeling Joel’s internal emotions. He doesn’t really express himself much but the anger, rage, and need to almost have a release is seen in his brutality. He is no holds barred and will bash someone’s brain in, choke someone out, or violently shiv someone if you’re in his path. We see this to the maximum degree at the end of the game, especially when he shoots Marleen in the face as she begs him to stop what he’s doing.
He takes Ellie from the hospital and when she awakens, he lies to her. He tells her that the Fireflies were unable to create a cure from other immune people and had given up. You know, something a person does when they know what they did something bad. If he believed what he was doing was for Ellie and not himself, he would’ve confessed to her. He instead chooses to manipulate her and create a false reality for her to live in.
Ellie even tells him she’s ready to give her life but he talks over her and tries to fill her head with this idea that you must find something to fight for. Maybe Ellie did find something to fight for… like the ability to give her life for a greater cause and he took that from her. Joel doesn’t grasp the concept of letting his loved ones operate without him. He doesn’t grasp the concept of “If you love them, let them go”.
The Last of Us, through all its grit and grime, is about finding love and hope again. It’s a tale about humanity. Even though it is rooted in an apocalypse with zombie-like creatures, it’s not about that. Love and hope are words that are likely not heard very much in this world but mean more in the apocalypse than they did 20 years prior. It’s a world that needs it and Joel is the perfect character to find that catharsis. It proves love can be found again after it has been lost.
That said, love is an incredibly powerful thing. It’s enough to break a person. It’s enough to make them do things they maybe otherwise wouldn’t have done. Sometimes Joel’s selfishness is disguised as an act of love when in reality, it’s not. I really don’t know where I fall on Joel’s morality at the end of the game. Is Joel the villain? I don’t know.
Perhaps that’s why The Last of Us is so interesting and has remained on the tongue of gamers everywhere nearly a decade later. It doesn’t answer a question. It asks one.