An Eye for an Eye Part One: A Defense of “The Last of Us Part II”

Revenge has been a staple of pop culture for millennia. From the Shakespearean times of Ye Olde English all the way to the standard-setting modern action film “John Wick,” the idea of righting a wrong has been portrayed many times in many different ways. Yet they almost always end with the wronged defeating their antagonist, either through a victorious battle or an act of mutually assured destruction.
This isn’t the case with Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us Part II,” which is easily the most divisive game of 2020. The game was lauded by critics but lambasted by fans of the original. I personally loved the game, and I thought that the direction the story went in was bold, not just as a sequel to “The Last of Us,” but for video games in the long run.

SPOILER WARNING for the games “The Last of Us” and “The Last of Us Part II”

First, I feel like it is necessary for me to give a brief plot rundown of the first game. The game begins on Outbreak Day, in which a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus has turned people into feral creatures. It follows the protagonist, Joel, trying to escape with his daughter, Sarah, and his brother, Tommy. This escape doesn’t go according to plan. They get into a car crash, which results in Sarah having a broken leg. Joel has to run with her in his arms and is confronted by a soldier, who is given orders to shoot anyone in the off chance that they are infected. Tommy arrives and kills the soldier, but the damage is done. Sarah has been shot in the gut, and the opening sequence ends with Joel holding his dead daughter in his arms.
After the opening sequence, we are given more worldbuilding: Many cities have been put under martial law, and there’s a rebellious militia known as the Fireflies. And then, with all of that table dressing, we see Joel and his partner Tess a full twenty years after the outbreak began. Our inciting incident is when Joel and Tess make a deal with Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, to smuggle a teenage girl named Ellie to other Fireflies. Along the way, we discover that Ellie is immune to the virus and is part of the Fireflies’ plan to develop a vaccine. Amidst the initial skepticism, the claims seem to be valid after Tess gets bitten. She notes the rapid development of her bite within hours in comparison to Ellie’s bite mark from weeks ago.
So with Tess gone, the rest of the game is about Joel and Ellie traversing the wasteland in order to get her to the Fireflies. Throughout, the characters develop a sort of father-daughter bond with one another, which unfortunately puts Joel in a horrible dilemma.
Once they reach the Firefly scientists, Joel discovers that the procedure to develop the vaccine will end up killing Ellie, so he must decide between the fate of the world or the fate of one girl. It’s an incredibly emotional climax, and Joel has a difficult decision to make. Thankfully, he made the right one.
No, I’m just kidding. He actually murders all of the Fireflies; this includes the scientists, soldiers and Marlene herself. Then he grabs Ellie and lies to her, saying that they had found other immune people and didn’t actually need Ellie. As if that wasn’t enough, the game ends with Ellie asking Joel to swear to him that what he told her about the Fireflies was true, to which he wrongfully says, “I swear.” By Ellie’s face, we can see the skepticism, but after hesitating, she says “OK” before the game cuts to black.
That ending was something that even I, personally, was very conflicted about until very recently. I really found it to be somewhat anticlimactic, and just thought that Joel was a selfish asshole. But recently, I came to a consensus that yes, Joel IS a selfish asshole … and this decision is something that was in-character for him. Everything that happened to Joel beforehand was leading up to this selfish decision, and even though it was hard to see him kill these people in cold blood (actually, the player had to murder these people, which made it even worse), it wasn’t out of place. And that selfish decision has an incredibly large impact on the sequel.