WARNING: CONTAINS HEAVY, MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US
The Last of Us is singularly the best game I’ve played when it comes to the grey areas and hard choices of survival in extreme situations. In a lot of scenarios presented in the game, there’s no clean-cut right answer. In fact, having an easy, moralistic choice would entirely defeat the point of the game. The game is in fact all about the grey areas, and the difference between our current world and the one portrayed in the game….one in which Joel is in a fact a heroic figure.
Joel is arguably the most contentious figure in the entire story. He does awful things (mostly to awful people), he tortures, he kills, he’s even ill-tempered to the girl he’s supposed to be protecting for the simple reason that he’s terrified of attachment. Most people would call him a villain for most of the story- ‘self interested at best’, I believe my associate Count Vardulon of the Avod said. Admittedly, the entire first act shows just that- he follows Tess’s lead, breaking a man’s arm for stealing a shipment of guns from him. Admittedly, the nature of being a post-apocalyptic criminal is that sometimes you have to do some bad things to make it to the end of the day. His interest in keeping Ellie safe until Tess’s death is nothing but getting a paycheck- and let’s be realistic, if anyone could use Ellie’s immunity to find and synthesize a cure or vaccine to the Cordyceps plague, it would be FEDRA and not the Fireflies. They have broader technology base and access to a lot more resources than the Fireflies (who seem to be incompetent and prone to dying in droves from one end of the game to the other).
Once Tess dies, everything changes. Joel has no realistic way to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies, nor any guarantee that they would know who he is or honor Marlene’s deal. His only hope to cash in on it is to cross the country to where he last remembers his estranged brother moving. He has a backpack, a decent set of shoes, and a fourteen year old girl in tow. It’s a long shot by any stretch- it’d be more realistic to lay low for awhile before trying to sneak back into the city, where all of his stuff and support network are. That would be the safest, most self-interested thing to do. Instead, he shoulders is bag and honors his word to Tess. Burning all of his favors and credit with Bill to get a truck isn’t in his own best interest. Even admitting to Ellie that he’s been on ‘both sides’ of the hunter ambush isn’t so much an admission of villainy or guilt so much as a way to explain to her that he’s had to do some Godawful things in his life to get by. Even his own brother admits to having nightmares about the times directly after the fungal apocalypse. However, in Joel’s defense, what would a person be capable of to save their brother from a slow death by starvation in a deathscape with not only other people to worry about, but infected runners? Would they kill man to see another day? Two? Five? What would these people be capable of doing in an effort to see another dawn? One has only to look at disasters such as the 1972 Andes Crash to see what people are capable of even when there’s a small chance at rescue, much less when the western world has utterly collapsed.
His treatment of Ellie is another points of contention for many; until she saves his life, he treats her like an ambulatory crate. Even afterwards, it takes him a little while to warm up to her. Indirectly, she’s labeled as the cause of Tess’s death by Joel, and her similarities with his dead daughter encourage him to keep a broad emotional distance with her. This seems to be more of an action to protect himself- everyone he’s cared about to that point is dead or estranged. Given the things he’s shown he’s capable, and the comments his brother makes, it’s clear that the severe psychological damage is what drives him to be willing to do anything and suffer anything for those he cares about. Admittedly, the results aren’t usually what he intends- his brother harbors resentment fifteen or twenty years on. He doesn’t want to hurt Ellie, he simply doesn’t want to travel down the path that led to the loss of his daughter and Tess. Regardless, by the time they leave Lincoln, they’ve bonded solidly. Even after he treats her poorly in the hotel, his dialogue indicates that he was more worried about her for having not listened and potentially getting killed trying to help him than he was about her having a gun and using it. In fact, thinking of his final lie to her, Joel is shielding her from further harm. What good would being vivisected for the possibility of a vaccine do her? What good would it do anyone, since the cure would rest with a group of incompetents too stupid to consider a biopsy, tissue and blood samples? The best case scenario for telling Ellie the truth was that she tears herself up inside. Joel made the hard choice.
In the end I think that Joel is damaged goods, willing to do whatever it takes in order to ensure that his people see another dawn. He’ll do the hard, dirty things that need doing so that Ellie can survive- so that Ellie won’t have to deal with the inner turmoil and psychological damage that comes with those acts. His grit and determination takes him from broken man to guardian angel. Like the old saw says, sometimes you have to shake hands with the devil to do the Lord’s work- and for better or worse, Joel’s always willing to do that to make sure others get through to see another day.