In The Last of Us, Joel’s Weakness Is The Point

Spoilers ahead for episode 6 of The Last of Us.

Joel Miller needed to be indestructible; he also needed to die, often. There are greater than 50 animations that may play when Joel, the protagonist of the 2013 PlayStation game The Last Of Us, passes from our earthly plane: His jaw is torn from his temples; his skin is singed to ash; blood spurts from the tap of his throat as an infected zombie digs in for dinner. Seconds later, he appears again—alive, whole, healed, and able to endure nevertheless many bullets it takes to secure the protection of his charge, the precocious (and immune) Ellie Williams.

This was all the time the central paradox of the Last of Us hero, helping to shape the sport into not only top-of-the-line PlayStation releases of all time, but—depending on whom you ask—top-of-the-line stories ever told. It’s a degree the critic Andrea Long Chu artfully made in a recent essay for Vulture: Players of the sport watched Joel die so often that these deaths got here to “define [players’] relationship to each Joel and the sport as a complete.” And yet, in The Last of Us Part I, Joel canonically doesn’t die. He lives long enough to complete his mission and secure Ellie’s survival. Chu argues, subsequently, that Joel is bifurcated. There aren’t one but two Joels as experienced by players: one which’s “propelled to heroic heights” through his protection of Ellie, and one other, weaker version with a “perilously high mortality rate.”


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The now-hit HBO adaptation of The Last of Us, by necessity, needed to reconcile these versions. Through the avatar of Pedro Pascal, the regenerative Joel and the fallible Joel needed to grow to be one. The Joel of the TV show couldn’t ever die—he has what some fans and critics check with as “plot armor”—yet neither could he lose the desperation that drives him to make what’s, ultimately, the story’s most controversial selection. The player’s desperation, and their repeated failures, needed to grow to be his and his alone. An invincible man will not be a desperate one. So Pascal’s Joel could never seem invincible, and even fully able to healing.

Episode 6, the most recent of the show’s nine-episode run, offers the best example to this point of why removing Joel’s invulnerability was not only a mandatory selection but a clever one. Up so far, audiences had received a smattering of small examples of Joel’s declining state. He struggles to sleep and, when he can, mumbles through nightmares; he’s 56, with ailing knees; he’s hard of hearing in a single ear because of years of firing off unmuffled gunshots. (In the sport, we don’t get nearly as many reasons to suspect Joel’s past his prime.) But these inconveniences come to a head in episode 6, when Joel begins displaying the signs of panic attacks.

“Only a reminder, should you’re dead, I’m fucked,” a nervous Ellie (Bella Ramsey) informs him because the frame rate slows and Joel’s heart thumps to the rhythm of her voice. Immobilized, he leans against a fence post to right himself, blaming his temporary paralysis on the “cold air.” He’s just learned his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), could be unimaginable to locate within the inhospitable Wyoming wilderness, and that’s provided that the younger Miller has managed to maintain himself alive. Joel doesn’t need Ellie’s pestering to recollect what happens if he falls apart. Even his shoes are giving out on him.

His track record only worsens because the episode continues. At night, he sleeps through his watch and awakens, alarmed, to find that his 14-year-old companion is the one guarding their camp with a rifle. Later, when Tommy’s crew surrounds them on horseback, a dog is tasked with sniffing out if the travelers are plagued. (Which, as we all know, Ellie most actually is.) The world blurs; the audio whines; Joel can’t a lot as flex his fingers toward his gun. Fortunately for him, the pup can’t tell the difference between uninfected and infected-but-immune. Even so, Joel must live with the knowledge that, had the animal revealed Ellie’s condition, he would have been powerless to halt the resulting carnage.

Soon enough, Joel’s physical weaknesses make room for emotional ones. As he and Ellie are welcomed into the Jackson commune, he catches the primary sight of his long-lost little brother. In the sport, their reunion is affectionate but charged, the display of affection between them muted by the burden of traumas past. As an alternative, within the show, they barrel into one another’s arms, their chuckles as astonished because the tears of their eyes. “I got here here to save lots of you,” Joel tells Tommy. The irony of his words is lost on neither of them, nor on Ellie, watching warily from a distance.

gabriel luna and pedro pascal in the last of us

Liane Hentscher/HBO

The remainder of the brothers’ scenes are weighed by this transparency. Joel’s distrustful of Maria (Rutina Wesley), Tommy’s latest wife, and of the Jackson community’s political make-up, which Tommy seems ashamed to call “communism.” (Remember, he’s a Bush-era military vet.) Joel disputes Ellie’s claim that they’ve been struggling on the road, apparently feeling insecure within the shadow of Tommy’s twinkling (literally, peep the string lights) latest home.

When he and Tommy finally snag a moment alone, the episode throws one other fighter into the ring with Joel. Tommy reveals Maria is pregnant, and when Joel reacts with lower than the perfect amount of brotherly enthusiasm, Tommy whirls on him: “Simply because life stopped for you doesn’t mean it has to stop for me.” Joel storms out, only to identify someone in the group of Jackson holiday revelers who looks like a grown-up version of his deceased daughter, Sarah. Once more, the camera tilts on its axis. Joel’s weathered lines crack open with hope, right until the moment the girl’s face is revealed, and he can now not sustain the likelihood that he might need actually saved Sarah. When the stranger strolls away, hand-in-hand together with her own daughter, he’s forced to attract his coat tighter and carry on.

Tommy confronts him, a number of scenes later, in the neighborhood workshop. There, he apologizes—“I do know you’re completely satisfied for me; it’s just complicated for you. I’m sorry.”—and it’s as if such a display of humility tears away Joel’s remaining defenses. He reveals Ellie’s immunity, but more importantly, he confesses the extent of his own ineptitude.

In the sport, Joel’s explanations for forcing Ellie on Tommy were all the time couched in deflection. “Tommy knows this area higher.” “I trust him higher than I trust myself.” None of them felt real, and Ellie tagged them, rightfully, as “bullshit.” But within the show, Joel’s not only so forthright it’s almost difficult to stomach, but Ellie overhears his entire soul-bearing monologue as well. First, he shares the story of the child he and Ellie killed in Kansas City, and the way Ellie saved his life in the method. “Five years ago, I’d have destroyed him,” Joel tells Tommy. “But she needed to shoot him to save lots of me. Fourteen years old. Because I used to be too slow and too fucking deaf to listen to him come.”

Still, perhaps essentially the most jarring moment of the scene comes when Joel mentions his dreams. He can’t remember exactly what these dreams contain, only that “after I get up, I’ve lost something. I’m failing in my sleep. It’s all I do. It’s all I’ve ever done—is fail her, time and again.” We needn’t query to which “her” he’s referring.

Joel pleads with Tommy to deliver Ellie to the University of Eastern Colorado, where the Fireflies were last spotted, because he “knows” he’ll get Ellie killed. Tommy is younger and stronger, and Tommy feels beholden to a “higher future” for his own unborn child. Joel uses these (legitimate, if unfair) reasons to persuade the long run father to go away his family in Jackson.

Finally, we reach probably the most highly anticipated moments of the whole series. It’s the scene widely considered top-of-the-line in video game history. Show co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann replicate it with reverent fidelity, departing simply enough to determine how the show’s Joel is different from the sport’s.

At this point within the story, the sport’s Joel justifies abandoning Ellie because he can’t even acknowledge his fear: that he might lose her as he lost Sarah. The show’s Joel justifies abandoning her since the fear is all he can acknowledge. The difference is subtle, but within the context of performance, it signals a major shift. Joel, as acted by Troy Baker in the sport, is gruffer, fiercer, and more demonstrably violent. Even his argument with Ellie is loaded with barely restrained frustration. Pascal’s Joel is gentler, quieter, more obviously conflicted. Neither are incorrect depictions of Joel, and every work higher of their respective mediums. One makes more sense for the Joel of the sport—the Joel who, by necessity of gameplay, is de facto two Joels, one vulnerable and the opposite indestructible. The opposite makes more sense for the Joel of the show—the Joel who’s forced to try to be each.

pedro pascal in the last of us

Liane Hentscher/HBO

It will be depressingly short-slighted to dismiss Pascal’s Joel as too soft. True, we don’t see Baker’s Joel weep, and even confess the extent to which he’s frightened. But doing such doesn’t make the Joel of the show weak. It makes him more transparent in his shortcomings, in a way that may grow to be all of the more essential as his journey with Ellie reaches its apex.

Near the top of the episode, after Pascal’s Joel has agreed to proceed traveling with Ellie (and has softened to her even further), a bandit on the University of Eastern Colorado stabs him within the stomach. (In the sport, Joel is as a substitute impaled on a metal bar.) We all know from trailers—and from the unique PlayStation story—that he is not going to, the truth is, perish. However the cliffhanger ending of episode 6 allows the audience the time to query what might occur if he did. What would it not be prefer to witness the hero die, and never get better mere seconds later? Who might Ellie grow to be without him? Some fans will already know the reply. But for those latest to The Last of Us, the understanding begins to crystallize: Joel’s vulnerability might just be his most significant attribute.

Headshot of Lauren Puckett-Pope

Culture Author

Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture author at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE. 

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