Try and sometimes you’ll succeed to make this man of me.“Future Days” by Pearl Jam
SPOILER WARNING: There are major spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part 2 here, but you probably should have known that by now?
The story for the original The Last of Us was hardly an original concept, but what made it powerful were its more figurative scenes, minor threads, and tragic characters. The relationship that formed between Joel and Ellie was heartwarming in an otherwise cold world all the way up until the final leg of their journey. It concluded in a way that spun the narrative’s themes into new context, forcing the player to consider the righteousness of their character’s actions. Was it worth killing and torturing countless people, and ultimately sacrificing humanity to save one girl? Were the remnants of humanity even worth saving? To a large degree, The Last of Us Part II asks the very same questions.
Part one of The Last of Us leaves us with these very literal concerns: Did Joel betray Ellie by saving her from the Fireflies and lying to her? Did Ellie believe the lie or simply accept that the truth would be too painful to uncover? Unsurprisingly, these questions nip at the heels of Joel and Ellie’s relationship where The Last of Us 2 picks up, eventually eroding it entirely.
The Last of Us 2 explores the emotional journey Ellie takes as she seeks vengeance by revolving around the events of one night – the night Dina kissed Ellie. Although we don’t see it for ourselves until the very end, the events of that night establish the decisions that Ellie must ultimately make and nuance the title’s core themes. There’s a good reason why the plot frequently alludes to that night and revisits it in conclusion.
So, what happened that night?
For much of the game, all we know is that Dina and Ellie shared a public kiss and there was some conflict between Joel and Ellie. Later, it’s confirmed that Joel and Ellie have become estranged. Since discovering what really happened at the Firefly hospital, Ellie broke ties with Joel, and for a while we can assume that tear in their relationship resulted in the public kerfuffle. However, there was a more important, private interaction that happened that night – one that we only see when Ellie returns to it in a critical moment.
“I just… I don’t think I can ever forgive you for that. But I would like to try.”
Ellie has her hands around Abby’s throat. She’s finally accomplishing the one task she set out to do since Joel was brutally executed. Ellie is about to kill the woman responsible for Joel’s death. She’s about to commit her last act of revenge when she recalls a moment of reconciliation. After the town’s celebration, Ellie approached Joel’s home to propose they make amends. She says to him “I was supposed to die in that hospital. My life would have fucking mattered. But you took that from me.” Ellie is understandably upset about the decision Joel made for her, and in response, Joel reveals that he still doesn’t regret what he did. To that, Ellie delivers a line that will make waves on the far coast of her journey. She says, “Yeah, I just… I don’t think I can ever forgive you for that. But I would like to try.”
The Last of Us 2 does not hesitate to show the player what it’s about. Whether it’s Ellie’s mission to avenge Joel, or Abby’s mission to avenge her father, or any of the many named enemies who regularly hunt down the player for the death of one of their comrades, this game is about a cycle of violence – the inevitability of more violence in response to violence experienced or perceived. For much of the narrative, it feels like The Last of Us 2 is simply driving the same point about the inescapable nature of this cycle, and for how long it takes to deviate from this point, you could be forgiven for mistaking that its message is as simple as that. But it does deviate.
Everyone who witnesses Ellie’s final scene with Abby is likely at first confused by her decision to let Abby go. From the moment Abby murders Joel, the player and Ellie are meant to feel aligned in their hatred for Abby. Ellie’s entire quest has been about this moment. Everything she’s done and sacrificed to get here has been to serve Joel’s memory. At this point, you might recall one of her lines from The Last of Us, “it can’t all be for nothing.” But in this case, it takes her too long to realize that it’s just that. Ellie ultimately doesn’t follow through with the act. Regardless of how we as players feel about Abby (love her, hate her, bored by her), Ellie has little-to-no reason to empathize with her. And yet, she abandons everyone and everything she’s sacrificed just to her live.
It would be easy to assume that The Last of Us 2 ends in forgiveness, because that’s what we’ve been accustomed to seeing in revenge stories: the protagonist offs the villain or forgives them. But Ellie’s decision to show mercy has little to do with Abby. She has no reason to forgive her. It has everything to do with Ellie’s relationship with Joel.
When Abby killed Joel, Ellie was on the verge of repairing ties with her father figure. They had just shared their first positive interaction in nearly two years, and Ellie was beginning to plan how the two might rekindle their bond. Although she tells Joel that she lost her purpose the day he took her out of the Firefly hospital, her admission that she’d like to reconnect shows that another purpose could take its place. As we know, that opportunity was stolen from her the next day.
Almost reflexively, Ellie adopts a new purpose for her life – avenging Joel. To this end, she would sacrifice friends, family, relationships, apparently even herself. There is almost nothing she would not commit to see Abby dead for killing her father and her chance at rebuilding a life with him. And still, she lets Abby live.
It’s difficult to entirely define what Ellie’s thinking at any single point in The Last of Us 2, so the journey through the game quickly becomes about deciphering her motivations. Despite their rocky relationship, it’s clear Ellie cared about Joel and we know through her journal and her flashbacks that he’s constantly on her mind as she travels across the country. Ellie’s adventure becomes more about exploring the meaning of her relationship with Joel and establishing his significance in her life now that he’s gone. Of course, remembering someone doesn’t require murdering your way across the west coast, but Ellie and Joel’s relationship was complex and problematic. We know that she wants to forgive him; she wants to love him again; what will she do to prove to herself that she can?
At the end is this false light that will be her vision of Joel the way she wants him to be.
After infiltrating the Rattler camp and discovering Abby and Lev, Ellie seems to be aware of the crossroads before her. She frees Abby and lets her carry Lev away. Ellie secures a different boat from Abby and Lev and is prepared to climb in and go separate ways. Up to now, we have seen how witnessing Joel’s brutal death has traumatized Ellie and driven her to continue down this path with an obsession she’s unable to shake. Like the moth tattooed on her arm, Ellie feels compelled to fly into danger because at the end is this false light that will be her vision of Joel the way she wants him to be. For now, all she can see is him bloodied and dead, a relationship and memory that will never be repaired.
Ellie once again confronts her foe, but we see subtle hints that she’s not necessarily intent on outright killing Abby. Ellie is armed to the teeth at this point with many obvious advantages over Abby and Lev, not the least being their severely diminished state. If she wanted either or both of them dead, she could have ended it in countless ways, but that’s never been the focus of this mission. She has been striving to fight for Joel. After threatening the life of a defenseless, dying child, she convinces Abby to give her that.
So much of The Last of Us 2‘s critical focus seems to be on how the game gives players the opportunity to play as and empathize for Abby in order to paint the themes of how revenge and violence are too easily wielded, but that’s an oversimplified and generic reading of the game’s narrative design. We play as Abby to understand that the two characters share parallel experiences and have grown to become similar people (reading this, you’ve probably also realized how similar even their names sound) so that we can see when Ellie fights Abby, she’s fighting herself.
When it comes to Joel, there are two parts to Ellie: one who hates him and one who loves him. In each of the memories we relive between the two, even the most brilliantly happy ones, there’s this shadow of doubt, betrayal, and pain. We see over and again how unhealthy their bond had become despite how much she wanted it to be otherwise. When Joel was killed, the internal battle between these opposed forces met an impasse that would never have a chance to be reconciled. And so, Ellie externalized this battle to vanquish the one person who represented a burning hatred for Joel. By killing Abby, she would be able to cast out the piece of herself who would “never forgive” him.
Ellie finally reaches the precipice of her goal, when she’s struck by a simple, serene image of Joel playing guitar on his porch. She’s so close to conquering the piece of herself that despises him for what he did, literally drowning her, silencing her so she can finally feel like she’s forgiven him. But she comes to realize that she can’t keep killing herself.
When Ellie lets Abby live, she knows that she can never forgive her, but she succumbs to the knowledge that she is also unable to forgive Joel. Any hope for “Future Days,” the so aptly named song he played for Ellie at the beginning of the game, is no more. Whatever their relationship could have been is now forever clouded by what it was, with all of its many flaws. So the last question she’s left to confront is if the person in front of her, whether it be the woman beneath the water or the one reflected in it, is still worth destroying.
“If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself,” which is the opening line from Joel’s song, largely speaks to Ellie’s experience. If she had killed Abby, Ellie would have been trying to cut out a symbolic piece of herself, but let’s talk about the more literal implications; she would have been damning Lev. She had come this far, killed countless others, but she would have had to either leave a child to die or eventually kill him herself. Could she have lived with that? Was she so committed to Joel that she’d become as morally corrupt as someone like David (The Last of Us)? While there’s certainly enough weighing on her without this added complication, it seems like it could have tipped her scales towards mercy, depending on your reading of her last words “just take him.” But she could have just as easily been referring to Abby taking Joel, a piece of Ellie admitting defeat to her ideal of Joel.
After letting Abby and Lev make their escape, Ellie returns to her and Dina’s homestead to find it abandoned, demonstrating that although she ultimately did what was right, she lost everything to get there. She finds the guitar that Joel gave her and sits down to play “Future Days,” but she can’t. In fighting Abby, she lost two of her fretting fingers, so the guitar just sounds empty as she strums, another symbol of the cost of her desire for violence, but also representing the remnants of her relationship with Joel. This beautiful, happy thing that he left her is tarnished by regret and betrayal. So she leaves the guitar behind. She leaves it in a bright, open window, but she leaves it. She won’t forget him, but she’s accepted that what he meant to her will never be more than it is in this moment and she must go find a new purpose for her life.