The Last of Us: Processing Grief (Abby)
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
Here is the link to see The Last of Us journey as an experience of Joel, and here for Ellie.
Before moving on, let's talk about the boat. When you load up the copy of The Last of Us Part II and get through the millions of GBs of updates, you get to open to a boat. The last game’s menu was more thematic, a window covered with plants that have grown now that humanity has fallen and they get to grow unkempt. Then what is this lonely boat parked in the sea trying to say?
It is simply a way for Druckmann to have himself two narrative climax fake-outs. Ellie’s climax involves boating into Abby’s safezone and murdering her, and Abby’s climax involves boating back to her safezone only to learn that it was not safe at all...
Now, Abby’s journey, at first, doesn’t seem to have the same narrative depths that the other two protagonists have, it seems like a simple humanisation of the villain, the twist that we were the bad guy all along, but that’s a surface-level take. It is not at all incorrect, but there is so much more to Abby’s journey.
If you remember the Vanishing Grace scene from the first game, you cannot go back to it now without feeling sombre once you finish the sequel. As it turns out, the habitat, at least partly, was accredited to Dr. Anderson. While you bask in the majesty of these beauties, the good doctor is somewhere in that forest dealing with the uglier side, a zebra that lost its baby and is brutally stuck in a metal fence. It is indubitably obvious that he takes pride in what he does, that the brutality he has to witness is something he can stomach as it saves lives. After all, life is precious, no?
As for his own safety, he is not so concerned. After all, he declared his little girl the one who will always keep him safe. Well, Owen, one of his apprentice and Abby’s crush, announces the best thing you could ever believe: The girl who could save the world, without any good backup, made it from the other side of the country. It is unbelievable, it has been a year, and it was safe to assume she was dead, but this is some karmic retribution for holding on hope all this time, isn’t it?
Soon after that, he learns that he could make a vaccine as long as you remove the cordyceps inside her brain. He isn’t exhilarated at the thought of saving the world, nor does he outright reject this option from the table. There really is no choice here. It has to be done. Well, there is someone out there who objected to that…
…And it was Marlene, his boss. The girl in question is like a daughter to her, there is no way she would allow him to essentially kill her. He tries to reason with her, until she drops a single question, “What if it was Abby?” There is not much he could say here. He wouldn’t even be able to calm his hands if he had to strip her daughter of her brain and declare her time of death.
Abby walks in and announces her willingness, in that case, to be the martyr for humanity. There are two big things to consider here. First, it ISN’T Abby who has to die. It’s Ellie. Abby will probably be one of the first ones to get a vaccine and likely live a long and healthy life. Secondly, Abby is the one to answer here, not Jerry Anderson. Self-sacrifice is as different from sacrificing a loved one as Avengers: Infinity War, about sacrificing Gamora to Endgame, about Natasha sacrificing herself.
Now, the fireflies will not let her wake up and have a say in this. If she says no, demands to be let go, what will you do? This is a reasoning for their line of actions, not a defence or justification. Well, with the thumbs up from Marlene, all that was left was to quickly start the surgery and save the world as quickly as possible. There was just one thing that also needed to happen: Marlene needed to come clean with Joel. He brought her here, he deserved to know.
Well, that’s what he thought, until he started hearing a firefight. Of course, he was in a heavily militarised hospital, with the last of the Fireflies defending the cure with everything they had. That is of course, until a madman came storming in. Jerry reaches for his surgical knife, hands trembling to save the last hope for millions of people.
Let’s switch focus to Abby. She remembers running down the dark Firefly Hospital with an alarm blaring. It is worth noting that the run she has is one that we can only do if there is a threat nearby. She opens the door to an empty surgical table and her expressionless saviour lying dead on the floor. Abby just remembers two things, the young girl who was to be the sacrifice…
And Joel. Joel. The name Marlene said was Joel. She wanted to let Joel the smuggler know what was about to happen. It was not hard to piece together what happened next. Joel the smuggler, for whatever reason, decided to kill her dad. Abby probably internalised her dad’s joke about her always keeping him safe. During her transformative years, she let her loss translate into a one-dimensional goal: to end Joel.
It is quite apparent too. While she was muscly already as a kid, she was now extremely buff. Laura Bailey, giving a sequence of award-winning performances, starts her first big one with the aquarium trip with Abby’s boyfriend. You can get a sense of their relationship immediately. Owen is the bright-eyed optimist while Abby is the prudent pragmatist. He would jump a couple hundred feet off of a Ferris Wheel just to get Abby to ease up her fear.
When they get to the aquarium, we get what we call banter. They learn things, challenge each other and gloat when they are right. Some philosophers might call this living. It is, however, Abby who decides to cut this trip short out of fear of coming up short against Joel. She may even have pictured this monster to be a huge demon who could crush anyone in his way. After all, that’s what he did to the fireflies. Marlene had a gun in her hand and he had a kid, and he still managed to kill her.
This sets up her subsequent failure in her relationship. These only work when the optimist starts listening and the pragmatist starts to let go of her fear, and Abby has a demon out there taunting her for every muscle fibre she lacks, every shot she misses, and every dull sense.
The series of flashbacks ends where we begin: Abby starting her Joel hunt. She has already lost Owen to Mel, and she is working off of a singular lead, the small chance that Joel is even in-touch with his brother. Owen even tries to highlight the huge leap that she is making, but she is unhinged.
This is about where we get back to the start of her journey. The game, through its non-linear storytelling, starts this gang off suspiciously. We start with a group of strangers in a world where new people are dangerous, sleeping in their seemingly cozy room looking down upon a town of people with intentions to corner a few and “Get them talking”. Owen backs down from this, seeing how clearly Abby is willing to cross a line. She spots a horse track and is ready to interrogate them.
Finding herself facing hundreds of infected at once, Abby laid at the outskirts of Jackson, facing her own death after everything. It’s not Joel she wasn’t ready for, it was apparently just bad luck, and you are never too smart or too tough to beat that. She was fortunate enough to be saved by two strangers, strangers she would have probably tied up and Joel-tortured to get information.
What were the chances she would be face to face with the man named Joel? She seriously could not believe it, it felt like a trance, a lucid dream. Although it can’t be, she looked at him over-and-over and saw a person she could never think of as Joel… A weak old man trying to… Save strangers.
She manages to lead them back to the Salt Lake Crew, each of whom likely had their own traumatic memories, loved ones lost during the siege at the hospital. When they hear the name ringing in their heads for years, they all freeze. The only one ready at the moment was Abby.
She injures his leg, which seemed like a symmetry to the first game, where Sarah also gets her leg injured moments before her end. She looks him dead in the eye and lets her first thought upon seeing him. “You stupid old man…”
Joel tries to get into this stranger’s head, letting her know that he would rather she skip the big speech. She slowly backs off and gets Mel to tourniquet his leg. Getting a Doctor to extend a torture session does not shine well on Abby as the exalted antithesis of Ellie, but we will get to that.
Abby takes any nearby blunt weapon available to start. A golf club. This is the biggest monster the world has ever seen, and yet, he isn’t squirming or begging for his life. This is a satisfaction she will have to do without. Minutes, maybe even an hour passes. We do not get to know if the experience is as cathartic as she hoped it would be.
Soon afterwards, a stranger rushes in. This is bad. How many people know where she went? How long before more show up? She looks down on Joel, wondering if this moment has been robbed from her. She has been indulging in her hate for so long, she is completely unaware of how horrified some of the people in the group are.
As Manny attempts to tie up loose ends, Owen stops him. They can rationalise any amount of overkill against Joel, but two innocent bystanders who they have pinned down? This could be the only thing down the line that redeems this crew.
Weeks later, Abby wakes up one day after sleeping while reading your little book, City of Thieves, a story about a kid named Lev and his partner, where they are brutally punished for rebelling against the authority and Lev loses his partner. Anyway, off of this unnecessary tangent, Abby’s best friend Manny wakes her up to get their assignment. She was ready for another regular day.
During her patrol, she connects with Mel. We know that these two were great friends at Salt Lake based on Abby’s notes, but once she started dating Owen, Mel became defensive and jealous. Today, she is a little… Off. When Abby asks why, if this has something to do with Joel. Of course it did.
For someone accustomed to saving lives, treating wounds, Mel was shaken to her very core. The woman Owen loves… Loved is this brutal murderer who enjoys inflicting pain. Abby should be offended, but she cannot be. She is the one who hints at this idea. Filling herself with self-loathing, she just has to ask herself, why is she still scared? Why is she still having nightmares about her father’s death? Was Joel’s murder not the therapeutic solution that would heal her?
Well, Abby is lucky enough to be too busy to worry about that. She has to go look for Owen, on whom they’re blaming the murder of an innocent. This is the one who got her to spare those folks at Jackson, he will not do so. During Abby’s hunt for Owen, she gets captured and hanged by her enemy faction.
Abby, during her hanging, witnesses this young girl who is being interrogated. Sounds like they want to learn the whereabouts of someone, someone who they feel has scorned them. This seems reminiscent of Abby’s hatred of Joel, just with far pettier and hateful reasoning. Yara decides to spare Abby as a reward for saving them. This is the first time Abby’s decision to spare someone pays off really well for her, and it won’t be the last.
She sets the two up in a nearby trailer, knowing that their chances of survival are essentially none, but she has done her part. She treads back towards Owen, and finds him at the great monument of possibilities, the ideas that life can stand for, and everything Abby threw away for Joel.
Abby learns that Owen went through a painful incident recently and has been shaken to his very core. If anybody knows anything about that experience here, it's Abby, but Owen doesn’t seek her guidance. He seems to be much more sure of what he wants, driven towards self-fulfillment through humanitarianism rather than retributive catharsis.
Not only that, it seems he has taken the offensive. He starts going off on Abby, apparently knowing how much the events at Jackson still weigh on her. She shows some semblance of regret, and she retaliates at him the best way she knows how, getting violent with him. This has been her crutch, the idea that she can make someone shut up if they try to force her to develop insight.
Later that night, she still has that nightmare. She is still running up to that operating room, only this time to find her guardian angels strung up by their necks. This seems to be as recurring as Joel’s and Ellie’s nightmares. She can never let go of that hallway. The only thing she can do is check up on her saviours, and so she does. They are not doing well. Since they need immediate medical attention, she takes them to the aquarium, where Mel is waiting.
Mel. The girlfriend and mother of the child of the guy Abby slept with just the night before. He hasn’t ended things with her, and there is a clear reason. Fortunately, she is able to set aside her issue for the needs of Yara. Abby and Lev trek down to the hospital, and Abby unsuccessfully attempts to convey to Owen that he needs to move on from what he thought was a special night.
During some therapeutic walk along what Abby could believe is the highest point in the world, Lev discovers a tortured agent, and asks Abby if she has tortured anyone, which she deflects. Abby does not wear Joel’s murder as a badge of honour. She doesn’t even want to ever revisit it.
Now, Abby is at the hospital. What are the chances of two traumatic hospital memories? Probably not much. Here, we find the mother of all infected, The Rat King. It is not exactly part of Abby’s emotional journey, but a good reminder of what she defeated.
Abby, of course, makes it out, two for two with hospital trauma, she has now gone out of her way to protect good people. She had to do so by surrendering her own assigned identity, much like Lev, and see people as people rather than friends or enemies. This is why it was important to start Abby’s journey with her dad’s. They are inherently linked to each other.
The next night, the hallway run is different. Instead of the threatened run offered the last few times, this is a safezone run. Instead of sharp alarm blares, there is ambient music. And this time, instead of dead people, there is a healer in the operating room, the way she will always remember Jerry.
This could have been the end of Abby’s journey, but it wasn’t. If losing her previous identity, everything and everyone she knew was a positive step on her part, she will be forced now to lose the last remnants of herself, the last few people she loved and cared about. Her ex-friend who lashed out at her, but didn’t deserve to die during her pregnancy. One of the last things she did was reassure Abby that she is a terrible person, and this is the cap on their relationship.
Because remember, Mel was a really close friend. She also lost Owen nearby, who halted his self-discovery to bring Abby along. Abby traces the theatre and finds… The sniper. The one that killed her best friend. She saw Manny’s face explode and herself fearing for her life like she never did.
This was Tommy, the guy who was with Joel. Out of everything the universe can punish her for, it is to end one of history’s great monsters. Now, this was Abby’s fight, and fight she did.
Despite a huge disadvantage, Abby won over Ellie in a duel the players were ready to play as Ellie. As she was about to end the woman whose life she spared once, another girl attacked her with a knife. She switched her target and began snapping her neck, and Jackson girl tells her that she is pregnant. So what? Mel was pregnant. Didn’t stop Abby from finding a knife wound through her throat.
Abby got stopped by Lev, allowing her to introspect in that moment. She had devolved to that person who was having nightmares. She could not walk up to another operating room to find more dead people, so for the second time, Abby spares the immune girl.
Through this journey of grief, Abby’s fulfillment was, as it turned out, not tied to Joel at all. She let him have so much power over her. In the end, Abby, contrary to the belief held by many, didn’t get to walk away a hero. She is, like anyone else, a victim of her loss and the trauma tied to it, and had to go through a journey to understand how to end it. The last of them, Ellie, had a far longer, more complex journey...