Season 1 of The Last of Us was never about saving the world
When Joel (Pedro Pascal) beats a FEDRA soldier to death with his bare hands in the opening episode of The Last Of Us, it serves as an introduction to the anger and sadness Joel has felt since the day he saw his daughter Sarah in carries himself, gunned down by a terrified soldier early in the fungal outbreak. Since then, Joel has been a man without a purpose – something he acknowledges when he reveals the reality of his failed suicide attempt to Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in the emotional season one finale. When Joel agrees to accompany Ellie in Episode 9 “Look for the Light”, it becomes clear that Joel has developed a bond with his teenage accomplice. Around this time, The Last of Us also feels like it’s moving away from the personal trials and tribulations of Joel and Ellie as characters, towards becoming a save-the-world sci-fi saga. In the end, however, The Last of Us sets the record straight by showing that Season 1 of this epic video game adaptation was never about saving the world.
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Across eight episodes, Season 1 of The Last of Us presents Joel as a grieving father who refuses to believe there is anything in the world worth saving. During the events of the season, Joel suffers from the tragic memory of the night the Cordyceps decided to seize power and he lost his only daughter. But as his journey with Ellie neared its end, we saw Joel regain hope. For a moment, Season 1 of The Last of Us lets the audience believe that Joel has found his purpose in the world – to give humanity its last chance. But Joel’s actions in the finale reflect that, to Joel, the only world worth saving is one with Ellie in it.
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Joel reunites with Sarah through Ellie
In Ellie, Joel found Sarah. Not literally, of course, but in Episode 9, when Joel points out all the ways in which Ellie and Sarah are similar, it’s clear that he believes she fills the vacuum created in his life by Sarah’s absence. From the beginning to the end of the season, Joel’s emotional spectrum shifted from one extreme to another of the same magnitude. He begins as a cold and headstrong man, used to the harsh ways of life in a post-apocalyptic world. Joel refuses to acknowledge his past, let alone reveal his insecurities. Every time Ellie tries to explore his past, Joel blocks her entry into memories he never wants to talk about again.
Joel’s gradual transformation takes place throughout the season as Ellie transforms from mere cargo for the Fireflies into a part of his life worth risking everything, in this case quite literally. When he confesses to Ellie in Episode 9 that she made it worth saving the world for him, he finally reveals his fears and embraces the father he left behind in time. After her harrowing encounter with David in Episode 8, Ellie realizes that too many people have died around her to live, including her mother Anna and her best friend Riley. If her life is to have meaning, Ellie decides that she must fulfill her destiny to save the world. She makes this clear to Joel in the season one finale when Joel suggests returning halfway.
Joel finds redemption through Ellie Image via HBO
If Ellie’s journey is to save humanity and give the world a second chance, Joel’s journey has always been a more personal one. When Joel realizes that Ellie must die for the fireflies in order to possibly find a cure for the cordyceps infection, Joel decides that Ellie’s life is taking too much to save a godforsaken world and he resolves to save Ellie. For him, it’s about understanding that there’s still hope for him in the form of Ellie. Maybe Ellie would have healed humanity if he hadn’t stopped the fireflies, and maybe she still could. But the father in Joel doesn’t want to lose another daughter. He couldn’t save Sarah, but when he was given a second chance, he grabbed what he thought he rightly deserved – even if it meant lying to Ellie. He doesn’t even spare Marlene’s (Merle Dandridge) life lest she try to take Ellie from him again. In his unrelenting rage as he massacres the fireflies in Episode 9, the father finds redemption in Joel.
From the start, Joel never believed the world was worth saving. He would not have agreed to transport Ellie to the Fireflies base if Marlene had not offered to provide Joel with the resources he desperately needed to locate his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna). And it was Tess’ strong belief in Ellie that kept Joel stuck with the mission in the early episodes. But as he spent more time with the geeky and fun teen, he realized what he was missing from his life. Through the many dangers he traverses and overcomes with Ellie, Joel realizes that there is a part of this world worth saving – Ellie and Ellie alone. The teenager has also lost loved ones and becomes the perfect companion for Joel, whose story began with the greatest loss. The biggest trick of The Last of Us Season 1 was to trick viewers into believing that all the pain Joel endured would be to save the world. But Joel and Ellie’s journey was never about finding the cure for the Cordyceps and saving humanity… it was about finding themselves messed up.