The Last of Us Part 2 is one of the greatest stories ever told in any medium. Let’s get that out of the way before there’s any confusion. If you can’t live with someone else feeling that way, this is probably not the article for you. I will be doing my best here to explain my position on this, but I’m not trying to change any minds.
It’s now been two months since I finished my first playthrough and the story has been living in my head, rent free, since the moment the credits rolled. I don’t remember the last time something like that happened — not even Aftersun or CODA, my favorite movies of the last couple of years, have had this impact on me, despite the fact that I’m definitively a “movie person” (my PS5 is not even one year old).
My first introduction to The Last of Us was through the pilot of the HBO show, which I thought was exceptional. It wasn’t long until I started playing the first video game, and by the time I finished The Last of Us, I was completely hooked; the show remains one of my favorite TV series of the past number of years, and my experience playing the game was almost on par. But The Last of Us Part 2 blew that out of the water, making the first video game’s narrative feel like a children’s book.
The Last of Us Part 2 Pulls No Punches
Playing a video game, of course, that’s not all that matters — but in a narrative-based game that relies on your investment in the characters and the story, it’s definitely the most important factor. Both for me as a player and, I feel, for the creators as well. The fact that Neil Druckmann and Haley Gross prioritize story over anything else in the experience, including the characters, is evident right off the bat when Joel dies within two hours of playing The Last of Us Part 2.
Right away, that sent a message very powerful: we are so passionate about this story that we will tell it at any cost, including that of killing one of the most beloved characters in Naughty Dog’s history just for pure set up.
And let me be clear here: there is simply no way they could have told The Last of Us Part 2 as effectively as they did without killing Joel at the beginning.
They are relying on the audience feeling as attached to him as Ellie was and as enraged towards Abby as Ellie was in that moment. Druckmann’s first words after the announcement of The Last of Us Part 2, back at the PSX 2016 panel, were that they would be using every tool from the last game to make us fall in love with Joel and Ellie to now inspire the opposite reaction: hate.
Who Are The Last of Us?
And why was this story so important to tell?
The Last of Us Part 2 tries to hold up a mirror up to any player who deems worthy to look at themselves and ask fundamental questions that, at their core, will teach everyone something new about humanity. Where we stand as a society. Where we are going.
The Last of Us already touched on this a little, with its underlying question being: If the worst happen to the world, where would we stand as a people? Would we join forces and fight together, or would we break up and start fighting against each other until there are none of us left standing? Will we choose love, or will we choose hate? Joel chose love, but that wasn’t an easy one. And where did that come from?
In The Last of Us, Joel comes across a near-infinite number of enemies, from infected people to humans who want to take advantage of the end of the world. He came to the conclusion that the world was broken even before September 2013, and that what happened on Outbreak Day did not split humanity into two. Which is why, if he decided to sacrifice Ellie and find a cure, they would have saved the world from the infected, but they wouldn’t have saved humanity.
For humanity to be saved, they needed something new. A new generation, because the old one was responsible for so much damage. They are “The Last of Us”, the ones who should be opening up the door to the next generation to make the world a better place. To build something new out of the ashes of what came before. Joel was the only one who knew as much, which is why he saved Ellie at the expense of realizing it would be a decision that would, one day, come back to haunt him. (Bits of this argument are included in a YouTube video by ArTorr.)
This is not the only interpretation of the ending of The Last of Us, and though the more apparent one is that he chose himself and his love for Ellie over everyone else’s lives because he’s a father first. There is much depth and subconsciousness to his thought process in that moment — or lack there of; it was a very visceral turn, but one that, as he so beautifully put it at the end of The Last of Us Part 2 (a scene that I will put up against the ending of the first any day without the blink of an eye), “I would do it all over”.
Ellie’s Arc in The Last Of Us Part 2 Is About Forgiving Herself and Joel Showing Love
Ellie’s arc in The Last of Us Part 2 also has plenty of interpretations, but we’ll start with the obvious one. When exploring any character arc in any story in any medium, one must always ask two questions: What does this character want? What does this character need? The first speaks to the plot, the McGuffin or their driving force that pushed the narrative forward. The second one speaks to their own arc, the lesson they must learn from the adventure. The answers for Ellie are easy: she wants to kill Abby, she needs to forgive Joel for what he did, and she needs to forgive herself for being mad at him for four years.
Ellie’s revenge path to murder Abby and her friends is her way of dealing with her regrets. As we go deeper into Seattle, she starts to relive the last four years. It starts as an even “fun quest”, and she relives her birthday present when she went to the museum.
But that is the beginning of the cycle: She misses Joel now, so that feeds into her anger. As she goes deeper into it, she looks back at the times when she didn’t feel as connected to him, and particularly, to a pivotal scene in her life: They found a couple that were infected and were forced to kill themselves, only one of them couldn’t do it; it would have been much easier if there was a cure, huh? That was a catalyst moment for her, she confronted Joel again about the Salt Lake hospital, and he lied, again.
She gets even angrier and lets it out on Nora, one of the most brutal scenes in the entire game. She comes back to the theater with Dina and Jesse still in shock. She knows it’s gone too far now. But that’s when she recalls going back to the hospital and finding out definitively Joel lied to her all these years, with him eventually confessing to it. She is so angry at him, that she needs to confront Abby more than ever. The ultimate shock comes, of course, when Abby kills Jesse and comes really close to killing Dina.
We later learn that Ellie still wants to make her pay, but that feeling eventually wears down. Until it crawls back up. After getting visions of Joel’s death again, she remembers the night before that happened, when she got mad at him for intervening. She is only remembering the low moments and needs to make it up to him in some way. It’s eating her alive. It’s not until she remembers their moment in the porch that she finally lets go of Abby. She finally forgave him, and herself — and by extension, she lets Abby loose.
This speaks directly to the most obvious theme of The Last of Us Part 2: revenge is pointless.
The Last of Us Part 2 is not a game about hate; it’s a story about love and the many faces it can get. Ellie’s revenge desire is motivated by her need to show Joel how much she loved him. In that tear-jerker porch flashback, she tells Joel: “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive you… But I’d like to try.” That is the entire motivation in the game; in killing Abby, she thinks she’ll find a way to forgive Joel. The story ends when she realizes that there are other ways to show love — show forgiveness.
The execution of Ellie’s arc in The Last of Us Part 2 is as beautiful as the story is dark. It’s a trip to the most hateful parts of our souls that makes us ask ourselves what worth really is.
Ellie’s half of the story starts off nice, with a few missions to complete in abandoned places in Seattle before they are able to find the first member of Abby’s team, dead in a hotel room. We go on with her on a three-day revenge course, with part of us begging her to give up and go take care of Dina (show love!), and part of us thirsty for some WLF blood. But it’s an uphill battle that will not get easier.
The Last of Us Part 2 can feel frustrating and tiresome at points, but that is all meant to be. It is a story meant for you to experience through your controller, not just your eyes (the most obvious example of this being when you have to beat Nora up, or the final confrontation between Abby and Ellie, which I lost so many times because I just couldn’t do it).
Ellie’s arc, as beautifully argued by YouTube channel NonfictionGamer, can also be interpreted as the story of an alcoholic. It starts off like something fun, but before you realize it, you are now drinking every day. You are now drinking every breakfast. And soon, you’ll hit a wall; if you are lucky enough to have someone by your side, they will probably be the reason why you decide to give it up.
But it only takes one final snap for you to fall off of the wagon. And that rebound phase is the most complicated of all. It will take sheer amounts of will to get out of it.
And Then, There’s Abby…
Any good twist in a story that is worthy of the name must be able to make you look back at what has happened before in a whole new light, make sense as part of the narrative, and make you rethink where you thought the story was going. In the history of twists in storytelling, The Last of Us Part 2’s twist is one for the ages.
As Just Write explained in his YouTube video about The Last of Us Part 2, the character of Abby feels like it was built on a bet. “I bet you can’t create the most hateful character of all time and, by the end, make the player fall in love with them.”
In a move worthy of the history books of the 21st century, Neil Druckmann and Haley Gross made us spend 10+ hours of gameplay on a revenge quest against the person that killed our own father, touching upon the deepest and darkest places in our soul, only to then tell us who it is we are actually fighting — the one person that, above everyone else, had the best reason to see Joel killed.
Abby is Ellie, we realize at that point, only a few days in the future. Her own father was killed, and she initiated her revenge quest that took everything out of her to find the man that did it and kill him. “So what?”, we may think. But this asks so many questions of the audience — what makes Ellie’s mission feel justified and what doesn’t make Abby’s? Is the main character in a story right just because he’s the one who we’re following?
Breaking Bad relied on this line of thinking a lot, but The Last Of Us Part 2 brings it to another level. The question even goes deeper and comments on our need, as a society, to make judgement of a situation that one of two sides puts in the public’s eye. Why do we instantly side with them, when we don’t know the whole picture? “Well, what that person did is clearly, morally wrong. There is simply no justification for it.” Is there, though?
The answer is no. Abby’s four-year quest was as unjustified as Ellie’s was. In just a couple of scenes, Druckmann and Gross showed us that. But then, the challenge began. Can we actually redeem this character?
It is not lost on us that a piece of Abby’s soul left her spirit that day in Jackson, and now she wants to get it back; she’s just beginning to realize that. We’ve spent so many hours demonizing the Wolves and now we’re shown they are just like Ellie’s community back in Jackson. But as we start Abby’s journey, we notice something even more terrifying. Abby may be Ellie when we first meet her, but she is actually Joel from the first game, which in turn makes us look back at Ellie hunting her down as us playing as Abby and going after Joel.
If the Abby-Joel connection isn’t made immediately clear, here’s a quick breakdown: We meet her after years committing unspeakable acts (we may have seen the one that finally broke her, but so many like that came before), she is part of a larger group but she is starting to feel some resentment towards them (Fireflies, Wolves, it’s all the same), just when she was about to lose hope, she finds someone who helps her recover faith and eventually has to turn on that same group to protect that person.
But even beyond that, she is a flawed character with whom we can empathize. Many people point here to the moment she’s on the bridge up in the clouds as the one where they made the decision to support her. However, for me it was a series of cutscenes where we saw her interactions with the rest of the group and how her own revenge quest had terminated any future she would have had with Owen or even any of her other friends.
The Last of Us Part 2 is a seminal piece of art that makes us question what we want from life. Do we want to spend our days fighting unnecessary battles that will only make us go back in circles as a society, like Ellie did, or do we want to move forward, leave our ghosts behind and accept that there is a brighter future waiting for us if we want to look for it, like Joel and Abby did? The decision is yours.
And that’s not to say, of course, that the latter will be the easier way. Joel got killed for it, and Abby was enslaved the moment she found hope again. But we must keep looking for the light. Divided, we fall. But together, we might actually stand a chance. Let us know your thoughts on The Last of Us Part 2 over on social media!