The Last of Us Part II: Nightmares and Memories
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II. I do understand that this game did not resonate with everyone, but it worked pretty perfectly for me. I have seen tons of hate against this game and people have sent death threats to Neil Druckmann. So please break the image of gaming being a toxic community gatekeeping truly amazing works of art. Disagreements and discussions are more than welcome. With that out of the way,
The Last of Us is the most beautiful game I have ever played. It is one of the most beautiful stories I have experienced. The sequel bathes itself in ugliness. Do not let that alluringly-designed horizon fool you, this game is ugly. Both of these stories earn these titles and work WITH them. The budding father-daughter relationship leads to an ending that strikes awe and stuns us. It is appropriate that The Last of Us Part II is designed to uphaul us. Let me start with my favourite aspect of the game: the flashbacks and nightmares.
The Last of Us Part II is not a linear experience. It is strongly discouraged to new writers to present the story in such a way that important story beats get revealed only when they're necessary, but the story uses it. These are the memories Ellie has been blocking out, and she is reliving them as they get presented to us.
Ellie's story opens after a mysterious night of extreme emotions. That "last night" is truly relevant to most of Ellie's motivation. The game uses these flashbacks to guide a broken Ellie into remembering the closure her and Joel's relationship received.
Before the flashbacks, I want to talk about the very first sequence of the game. After telling Tommy the truth, Joel goes to Ellie who already seems doubtful of her relationship with Joel. As she dismisses a Joel who is trying to remember a joke she would like, he requests to play one song before he leaves. This song is not just an exhibition of Troy Baker's voice, it is Ellie finally losing her doubts. Joel loves Ellie, and that is as deep as she needs to go, leading her to let Joel land a killer pun.
Now, to start off with the first flashback at the end of Day 1 in Seattle, Joel takes Ellie to the Wyoming Museum of Science and History, and I love everything about this scene. From the way it transitions from an old Ellie playing the guitar perfectly to a younger one who just started, the smooth revelation that Ellie can now swim, Ellie getting her revenge, and her guesses as to what Joel's surprise can be. That's just the first two minutes of the sequence. The true excitement Ellie feels comes in the museum, as her love for exploration is matched by her love for space.
This stroll through the museum becomes tragic as you realise this is the strongest the relationship between the two will ever be. After further exploration, the game splits Joel and Ellie up. Furthermore, the sly level-designers even left some ammo before you enter the next room. This will rightfully lead the players to get ready for a big battle, but that's not what we got. At the end of the line, we are reunited with Joel as Ellie looks at a big Firefly with one word written: LIARS.
Joel killed Marlene to cover his tracks so no one will ever come after them. but he never accounted for Ellie. Will she always believe what he said?
The day 2 Seattle flashback ends with Joel uncharacteristically shutting Ellie down. Most of the time, he is patient when Ellie presents her doubts, but this time, she is getting too close. Joel tries to put it on Ellie for not trusting him with what he swore to her. This is a good example of what these flashbacks do. Ellie gains distance from Joel and becomes closer to the truth. She cannot accept both these things, and Joel knows that, so to keep her close to him, he is pulling her away from it.
On day 3 Seattle, we learn that Ellie broke free and went to the Firefly base, where she learned the truth. Joel killed the doctor who could have saved humanity and then lied to Ellie about it. This was the critical turning point in their relationship. Her entire relationship with him relied on the trust she had. After not letting Ellie's life mean something at the base, he kept lying to her not just that once, but over-and-over through the years.
She came back home, but she and Joel were done. Through each flashback, we witness a worse and worse memory of closure for these two. This pushes Ellie into a state of sheer hatred. Abby is the reason she cannot forgive him. Much like many of the fans wished that the story ended before it did, so does Ellie, knowing how things will go downhill.
There is another great example of this I can recollect. In How I Met Your Mother, after Marshall's dad dies, everyone brings up how beautiful their last words with Marvin were. However, every time he remembers his actual last words his dad said to him, it keeps getting worse and worse. When he sees that his dad left him a voicemail, he refuses to listen to it. What if it is worse than what he had now? For Ellie, that is not just the last words, but her entire relationship with Joel, where we progressively begin to witness a worse and worse conclusion for their relationship and she tries not to think more about him.
Let's look at the other side of the coin, Abby. The blind hatred towards her and the lack of empathy towards her is what divides the fans. The game completely fulfils its part to flesh out the conflict between Ellie and Abby. Through her memories, we get to know the whole picture.
Her first flashback is her last memories with her father. She remembers him saving a trapped Zebra and going to the base to develop a hope for humanity. He was a hero. Next thing she remembers is Joel brutally murdering him. This is what drove Abby to do what she did. We ended The Last of Us accepting that Joel was the villain, and somehow, over the last seven years, forgot about it. I remember seeing theories about how the vaccine would not have worked, or how the Fireflies were incompetent and the doctor was dumb for trying to point a knife a Joel. We had lost the element of nuance. For all Joel knew, the vaccine was a definite outcome and he still chose to save Ellie and killed the only Doctor who could have made the vaccine. If I had to describe what happened to Joel in one word, it wouldn't be brutal or tragic, it would be inevitable.
The next flashback characterizes Abby. Much like Ellie's day 1 Seattle flashback was about her trip to the museum, Abby's flashback was about her trip to the aquarium. Ellie's trip ended with the first step towards her isolation by looking at the firefly symbol. Abby's trip ended with her abandoning the trip to go to her training. Revenge had completely consumed her mind, and she would rather kill Joel and let her hatred be satiated than be happy where she is and moving on.
The next story is the immediate prequel to the current story. Abby is exhilarated as she has found a lead on Joel. As the audience, we are horrified at the knowledge of what is to come, but cannot help realise that Abby is no less justified in her crusade than Ellie is in hers. The story asks you to examine your own biases. Are you as excited at the notion of killing Joel as you were killing Abby?
This is a good point to bring up the nightmares. My decision to talk about nightmares and flashbacks is not coincidental. The two are strongly interconnected in this game. In her first scene, Abby wakes up from a nightmare. This quirk is brought forward multiple times. About a third of the way through Abby's story, we get some context. For years, Abby wakes up in a cold sweat thinking about Joel. This is not where the loop begins this time, though.
The Last of Us starts with Joel waking up from similar nightmares about Sarah's death. Imagine how Joel would feel if the soldier who killed her was living a prosperous life. He would use any means to get his revenge. The soldier, however, died then and there and all Joel had for twenty years was emotional distance from not only people, but also his own past. The series believes that chronic nightmares can be healed. For Joel, it was accepting Ellie as his daughter.
Abby had a slightly different journey. How can she cure herself of her nightmare? A long walk down the Firefly base at the end of which is her father with a knife in his throat. For her, the answer was simple. Abby finally meets Joel in the unlikeliest of scenarios. While she is seconds away from being bitten, Joel rescues her. This is the same person who killed an entire army of soldiers and doctors who could have saved humanity. For Abby, he does not get to be a changed man who looks out for other people and uses his incredible survival skills to help others. Abby murders him.
However, she opens her Seattle Day 1 with another nightmare. We later learn about them. Not only does she still run down the hallway of St. Mary Hospital, she now sees her own saviours being hanged much like she almost was. Abby spends the entire next sequence rescuing these two.
The most amazing thing happens. At the end of the hallway, she opens the door to a proud dad. Her father, who dedicated himself to preserving life, was not looking for revenge against Joel. Now, avenging her dad's death was not as important as maintaining his legacy. She does whatever she can to protect the innocent Seraphites.
Now let's look at Ellie. Years later, she is at a house in the mountains with Dina and their son, with a farm of their own away from civilization. However, there is something she cannot let go of: her nightmare. She can still see Joel reaching out to her after his head was bashed in by Abby. The three main protagonists of The Last of Us have a connecting thread: their scar, and how they transform each other.
When Tommy gets to the farm with a new lead on Abby, Ellie refuses to give up her perfect life for revenge. This is foiled when we are given the (what we knew at the time) the conclusion to her flashbacks, what the game was building up to: that last night. Not having reconciled, when Old Man Seth calls Ellie a "not-so-nice" word, Joel violently rushes to defend her. Ellie does not like this. Joel does not know his place with Ellie, she wanted him to let her fight her own fight with Seth, and, more importantly, she wanted him to let her be the sacrifice for the preservation of humanity. In her last interaction with Joel, she essentially asks him to piss off. She can no longer forgive Joel. The only thing she can do for him is to kill Abby.
I want to make an entirely different post as to why the climactic duel between Ellie and Abby is so beautiful. After her long-awaited confrontation with a weak and exhausted Abby, Ellie begins to drown her. Before she can end it, for a few frames, we see Joel sitting on his porch with his guitar. Ellie backs off and lets Abby go. As she returns to her house, she learns that her giving up her second chance at life had cost her her fingers, Dina and her child, she also finds that she left behind all of Ellie's items, as if not wanting her to be a part of her life anymore. No notes, no nothing.
As Ellie plays Joel's guitar with whatever remains of her left hand, we get to expand on that frame. The infamous last night did not end with Ellie yelling at Joel. After years of remembering Joel, she recollects her actual final memory with him. She goes back to a told-off Joel. Even though she was there to be further enraged, with Joel, she seems to be at a place of comfort, warmth. She opens up to him and tells him that because of him, her life no longer matters. After a long pause, we wait for Joel to tell her that her life does matter, or tell her he did it because he loves her, anything he can say to convince her against it strongly. Instead, he just says the most honest thing he could.
"If somehow the Lord gave me a second chance at that moment... I would do it all over again."
This Joel is the complete opposite of the Joel at the ending of the previous game who lied to her face to get her to love him. This is not the most empowering thing he could have said to Ellie, but it was the most honest. Her father, Joel, did not want revenge against Abby. He wanted his daughter to know that to him, her life mattered. Ellie leaves the house and leaves Joel's guitar behind. To end her nightmare, she didn't have to avenge Joel's death but continue his legacy. She went on and made her life matter.