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The Last of Us: Processing Grief (Joel)

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

More than anything, grief has been the greatest motivation in all of fiction. Ambition, fear, regret, selfishness, and many other motivations have made for some great stories, even intersecting with grief, but there is something about loss that gets us away from morality and still root for the protagonist. As such, the modern masterpiece that is The Last of Us is the exemplary model of processing it.

There are three people who process their grief, very much in this order; Joel, Abby and Ellie, and when once I finished writing, I realised I have to split them, so here is the story of Joel processing grief. If you want to view this series with the angle of guilt, here is the link.

Troy Baker's magnum opus scene has not only been discussed thoroughly, but also the premise of every single major character development in the story. He told the story of the scene, how he would give what he thought was a performance of a lifetime while Neil Druckmann rejects the scenes. Once Troy approached him about why he isn't satisfied with the scene, he tells him. You can see the pain, but what can you not see? The shock, rushing there to save her, I can save her, I am hurting my daughter even more, I need to comfort her, her face has gone blank, she can't leave me, please don't leave me.

After a long day in front of the camera, with a director who is unwilling to let go of the perfect scene and a cast and crew who are physically and mentally exhausted, crying at the horror they are witnessing, everything eventually came together for one of the most memorable events in gaming.

This series is infamous for not letting you have a real moment to grieve. When someone dies, gets injured, loses, processing it is not a luxury in the post-apocalyptic world. After this very tragedy, Neil added the brief intro to the virus which does not require your full attention. More often than not, gamers choose to pause here. A pause that Joel didn’t get.

What happens next is painfully brutal. We jump ahead 20 years into the future, with Joel waking up in shock, like this harshness was a regular nightmare for him, the moment when time stopped, symbolised by his broken watch. A parent losing their child is one of the worst things that can happen, but a parent losing their child, shot to death in front of them, killed by supposed allies, having to see her squeal till the very last second? Now that’s the stuff that gets us to rationalise every horrible thing Joel could ever do.

Through a series of events, we learn that Joel thrives in this world where cooperative survival is outmatched by raw survival instincts and there is no morality police to judge you. Fear the old man in a world where men die young, and the entirety of Joel's existence is about surviving and saving the one person he cares most about, whether it be Tommy or Tess. If dropping his guard for a second can lead to Sarah’s death, they have no business questioning ANYTHING he does for survival, do they?

By the time he is getting Ellie across to the Capitol building, he can’t help drop a subconscious look towards his broken watch. This girl who doesn’t know anything about the world before or the world outside, and is learning everything for the first time, her first kill, her first pistol, what ice cream trucks were… Joel gets to go a little bit back in that frozen moment, teach someone the important stuff as well as the interesting.

Now, we do not know the kind of relationship he had with Tess, but we can be sure of ourselves that during that moment, she was NOT the most important person in his life. He knows the risk of putting someone on that pedestal, and he didn’t let her get that power over him. But, why then did he fulfill that obligation to her?

This means that one of the two takes (a. Joel would go through extremes for the people he cared about b. Joel didn’t let anyone be important) is wrong, or he was not fully evolved into the latter take. That’s what he wanted, but he was unable to maintain the distant exterior forever. When Tess says he feels one huge obligation towards her, he internalises hate against himself for feeling that too.

The important thing to remember is the Kübler-Ross model of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Now, forget it. This vast generalisation and oversimplification of grief has set a wrong precedent for many to try and understand it. A person going through a divorce will not have the same experience as a person losing a parent, there are too many variables to adjust, and one may never be able to accept their grief.

A post-apocalyptic world combined with a self-loathing survivor does not provide many therapeutic breakthroughs. The man, for twenty years, sealed himself into this regressive state where he cannot even see an old photo of his daughter, nor maintain eye contact with his brother when he gives him that.

The story builds his grief up until the scene at the farmhouse, and talk about the sheer acting prowess of the two leads.... The tension between their relationship had been building for quite some time, and you are waiting for Joel’s outburst, but instead, it is Ellie who expresses sheer annoyance over his rejection. What has she done to be passed on like this?

This argument sees investment from Ellie’s side and deflection from Joel, that is until we are told that Ellie knows of Sarah. Before we can have even a second to anticipate and fear Joel’s reaction, he cuts her off and gives her a chance to back off from this subject. Her proclamation that she has lost people too at first seems tone deaf, like she doesn’t know how hard it is to lose a child, and Joel lets her know that.

The scene brings us another twist beat where Ellie starts off calmly how she has lost everyone she cared about, everyone except for Joel. Now, she abandons her tranquil voice and seems to be on the brink of a breakdown. Ashley Johnson is supposed to express annoyance, rejection, empathy, rationality, fear and sorrow, and it would be unfair to say that she does not deserve to be hailed as one of gaming industry’s greats.

Once Ellie is done, a moment is given to Joel, a chance for him to get to his breakthrough, to give us that pure narrative payoff. Joel takes a different approach. Deciding to burn this bridge, he lets her know that he is NOT about to give her that closure. The worst thing this game does to our emotional state is not to make either of these two the unempathetic one.

If Joel feels letting Ellie with him is a sheer betrayal to what Sarah meant to him, how can you pounce on him for breaking Ellie’s heart? And is Ellie really insensitive for trying to protect the one relationship in her life that can stick?

Well, the ride back to Jackson is preparing us for the departure. I guess we play the rest of the game as Tommy. Joel’s horse starts to fall back a bit, giving him space from the others, whether it be for disappointment, fear, or guilt.

Arriving at a cliff against Jackson, the moment of truth for Joel has come. Looking at the bright town of Jackson, Joel saw his future here. Without Ellie, he would live day in and day out, waiting for his brother to return, if he ever does, and having separated from Ellie forever.

On the other hand, he had his watch. He had his nightmares. He had a single image of Sarah’s face, where the squeals of pain were horrible, but her silence was even more unbearable… He could not lose this again. He doesn’t want that to happen to Ellie, but he doesn’t want to stay here while every moment of the rest of his life, he will wonder. He can keep her safe.

When a lead pipe through his abdomen that may have sent him into a coma, he woke up to a singular thought. “Ellie?” Writhing in pain, he made his way out and yelled for her. His “old-man strength” combined with his “mommy lifting a car to save her baby” strength got this recently comatose man to take down two young cannibal hunters.

Through the winter section, as Joel approached to start his big fight against David, we learned that Ellie very much killed him herself, and he needed to save her from her own rage, the kind Joel is all too familiar with. During this muted scene deafened by Gustavo Santaolalla’s All Gone (It’s Me), Troy was asked to say whatever he wanted to to get Ellie out of that time stopping moment for her, but we never get to hear it. Some moments were designed purely to stay between Joel and Ellie, and while Joel lacks sensitivity, he has a wealth of experience in trauma and wanting to leave a moment behind forever and never relive it.

From the start of spring to the ultimate happy tears scene to follow, Ellie is distant, unresponsive. Not only have the events of winter left her unable to get out of that moment, the end of their journey has brought on a lot of uncertainty. Joel’s concerns relating to this seem minimal, and he seems to be trying to get her attention away from it, promising guitar lessons to her. However, once he realises her sheer exhilaration at the beauty of the animals never seen by her, Joel is unwilling to let this come to an end. He lets her know that quitting now is an option, ensuring the future he wants with her at Jackson, while the Fireflies are left to believe that Ellie has died and will never look for her.

Ellie’s decision to keep going is the next big catalyst for the events to follow throughout the series. Now that she has reached the fireflies, they have decided, after a painful discussion, that the lives of millions of people, including children like Ellie, are dependent on this one sacrifice, one that doesn’t take Joel even a second to decide.

If you have been following his arc throughout the story, you KNOW Joel will kill anyone and everyone blocking him from Ellie. While you walk through the puddles of blood, you know these mean nothing to you, you have killed scores of people, and a few more mean nothing.

In the operation room, there is a surgeon who is getting ready to open up Ellie’s brain. His next move is holding the knife up at Joel, trying to explain why the innocent girl on the table needs to end her life, why he has to sit back once again while these “Greater good” people once again take everything from him…

This time he is the one with the gun. He is the one who fought twenty years to survive, to kill anyone who tried to hold a knife at him. Using one of the many possible ways to kill the doctor, Joel gives it no second thought and proceeds to unhook Ellie. As Joel runs similarly to how he did with Sarah, this time, he plans to make it.

Down at the parking lot, there is one last obstacle. If Joel has been a surrogate father to Ellie for the past year, Marlene has been her mother for even longer. While Ellie might not know how much she means to her, this is someone who knows, or who thinks she knows, what Joel is going through, giving him a chance to rectify his mistake.

She made the terrible mistake of seeing herself in Joel. She thought he would have the moment of clarity where he would sacrifice his own needs for the world’s needs. Shot in the parking lot, she faces down Joel’s barrel, begging the maniac not to kill her, only for her last moments to be him, stating that it would be easier for him if she just dies. It is also important to note that her getting Ellie now would have been meaningless now that Dr. Anderson is dead, so the meaninglessness to her death is even stronger.

Driving back to Jackson, Joel shamelessly feeds Ellie a false narrative, taking away the value of her specialty. In the very last moments of the game, he happily tells a tale of his times with Sarah, for the first time. In the sequel, we learn that he had finally boxed up his watch, ready to restart.

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