I see you, Ellie
Spoiler warning for The Last of Us 1 and 2, and by extension also the TV show
Earlier this year I played The Last of Us Part 2. I had played the first game years ago and it left quite an impression. Here’s a very quick summary:
The Last of Us is set in a near-future where human society has collapsed after a fungus started turning humans into basically zombies. It is transmitted by biting and the infected are highly aggressive and dangerous. The remains of humanity live in scattered settlements, ranging from individuals trying to survive on their own, villages run by small communities, to “official” quarantine zones run by a totalitarian government. In one of those zones, Boston, we meet Joel, a middle aged guy who lost his daughter in the first hours of the outbreak and who makes his living as a smuggler which often ends in violence. He’s out point-of-view character for most of the game and tasked with escorting Ellie, a teenage girl, to Seattle. She is immune to the fungus and there’s a chance that scientists in Seattle can develop a cure with her help. They make their way across the former US. Along the way Joel often defaults to violence in the face of threats, sometimes in excessively gruesome ways. Towards the end, Ellie also finds herself in a situation where she has to fight against other people in order for her and Joel to survive. When they arrive in Seattle, it turns out that making a cure would kill Ellie. Joel makes a brutal assault on the lab where she is prepared for the procedure without her knowledge. He murders pretty much everyone there and leaves with Ellie. When she wakes up from anesthesia again, he lies to her about what happened and the game and without resolving whether she believes him.
The Last of Us Part 2 is set several years after this and this time Ellie is the point-of-view character for most of the story. There are also substantial chunks of it where you inhabit Abby, who is the antagonist during Ellie’s sections but Ellie is clearly the main character.
The game starts with a segment that introduces us to the town Joel and Ellie live in now, and their lingering conflict about Joel’s lie. Ellie clearly doesn’t believe him and is looking for evidence. A group that’s looking for revenge against Joel, for some of his violent exploits in Part 1, turns up and the confrontation results in Joel’s death, which Ellie is forced to witness. She goes on a journey to hunt down the group and kill Abby, the one who killed Joel. A lot of stuff happens and we learn that Ellie has become very much like Joel, someone who responds to threats with intense violence and very little regard for human life.
We also learn that Abby has rescued Lev from a fanatic cult who threatened to kill him. It’s a whole side story that I won’t get into here. Abby’s and Ellie’s path meet after this. Ellie ends up losing in the first confrontation with Abby but is spared at Lev’s insistence. She returns home to live with her girlfriend Dina and Dina’s child. We’re briefly give na glimpse into what Ellie’s life could be like, not free of troubles but relatively peaceful, if she choses it. She doesn’t. When she gets a hint on where Abby might be, she embarks on her quest for revenge again, leaving her family behind. Ultimately she confronts Abby a second time who is still with Lev, the two have a gruesome fight but Ellie lets Abby and Lev go. Ellie returns home to an abandoned home. Dina and the kid are gone and we see Ellie walking off alone.
The ending of Part 2 feels like a failure for Ellie on every level. Not only has she left behind the good life she could have had with Dina and her kid, she also didn’t get the revenge she wanted, and even if she had, it’s pretty clear that it wouldn’t have helped her either. She has failed to overcome her rage and lust for vengeance and it has poisoned her to the point where she is incapable of a peaceful life. She has become an even worse version of her father figure Joel. While he used excessive violence to face immediate threats, she clings to violence for no reason other than rage. She has by all accounts become a monster and the game makes very sure that this message sinks in.
When Part 2 was released I wasn’t sure whether I should play it. I had read Maddy Myers’ review at Polygon, titled “We’re better than this” where she heavily criticizes the game for the extreme violence and on-the-nose messaging:
Did you know murder is wrong?
That is the game’s central problem, and what makes so much of it such a challenge to get through: This is a story about characters who seem unable to learn or grow, and more specifically, unable to consider the humanity of the people they kill. If you already think violence isn’t the answer to many of the world’s problems, the repeated lesson that killing is bad makes the game almost maddening.
This review led me to avoid the game. It seemed like a depressing game full of pointless violence and it also seemed to revel in its violence which is something I usually struggle with in media. It’s a good review with valid criticism and I recommend you go and read it in full. But I’m also glad I disregarded it.
It’s true, Ellie as well as Joel, is a terrible person. She’s a danger to everyone around her, she’s self-absorbed, obsessive, and downright cruel. While other people in this undoubtedly hostile world manage to build communities, care for each other, and make the best of it, she fully embraces the horror. In a way she’s like the cordyceps fungus itself, consuming everything around her to fuel an insatiable hunger that demands constant death and destruction. But other than the fungus, she has a choice, and she always chooses this.
But I get it. There’s a part of me that looks at Ellie and agrees, a part that sometimes wants to set the world on fire. While I didn’t grow up in a post-apocalypse, I did grow up and live in a deeply hostile world that had no shortage of violence and horrors forced on me by other people.
For most of my life I wasn’t the type to actually fight back against those people and in addition to that everyone around me told me to “ignore them”, “be the bigger person”, and to “not let them get to me”. Well, they did get to me, because as it turns out it’s really hard to ignore a punch to the gut, and the many kinds of psychological terror that people can come up with once they decided you’re the one who the can do this to and get away with it.
Looking back, it would actually have been better to “get down to their level”, something I absolutely wasn’t supposed to do according to the adults, and just punch one of them in the face, to get into a fight. I surely would have suffered consequences from that. After all who’s going to believe one kid against the word of five? But the consequences I suffered from not doing that have been far worse and I’ll probably struggle with them for the rest of my life.
One of those consequences is a feeling of rage and wrath that never really goes away. I used to have vivid revenge fantasies that were sometimes excessively graphic and brutal. They often would occupy my mind for hours, distract me from whatever else I was doing at the time and generally ruin my day. When they eventually subsided I usually was left with a feeling of shame, because I wasn’t supposed to feel like this, right? I was supposed to ignore, move on, forget, and forgive.
Forgiveness especially is something I struggle with. It’s valued highly in our society and people who forgive unbelievable atrocities done to them are publicly praised for it and paraded around like something everyone should aspire to. There’s also a widely shared belief that after enough time has passed, you should just “let things go”. Both never made sense to me. Why should abuse and violence be forgotten or forgiven simply by letting time pass? The people responsible have done nothing to justify that and they have faced zero consequences. And by consequences I don’t mean punishment. I mean seeing and acknowledging the consequences of their actions in the world, they pain they have caused and the years of other people’s lifetime they have irrevocably stolen. They got to simply move on with their lives while I didn’t. I can’t and don’t want to do anything about that, but I also can’t forgive or forget.
And this is what’s so relatable to me about Ellie in The Last of Us Part 2. She is unable to move on from her trauma and her desire for some kind of justice too, except she’s an extreme case, it consumes her entire life, and her idea of justice is purely revenge. I did find a way to not succumb to all that, but it took a lot of work, time, and help from others. I don’t have those extreme violent daydreams anymore, but that part of me isn’t fully gone and it probably never will be. Seeing that aspect of my life reflected as its purest form in Ellie meant a lot to me. It doesn’t solve anything for her, neither does it for me, but it does exist and I feel less alone with it now that I did before playing this game.
We are better than this. But maybe that also requires acknowledging and giving space to the parts that aren’t.