The Last of Us: Joel's Morbidity. (1800 words)
Just a quick word about The Last of Us as I’ve just finished Part II and sold it to a poor man for 1 euro ("spoilers" ahead). The game consolidated an idea I entertained about the first one.
We all know that Joel lost a daughter and is at first reluctant to get attached to Ellie because he’s so traumatized and scared of going through a similar emotional ordeal if ever she was to be killed.
He nevertheless gets attached to her. Hurrey.
Now, I never liked Joel. Yep, sorry, I know most people love him, I do not. He’s just a violent and immature man and it’s actually very sad that so many (male) players shouldn’t realise it.
Worse, he is quite megalomaniacal. The fact that he should save Ellie from the entire world tends to hide the fact that he is a complete asshole to her during the whole trip across America. He humiliates her, punishes any initiative she takes of enjoying life, tells her to shut up, to listen, when it isn’t actually justified. He is an egocentric tyrant.
Of course, most players attribute his moody temper and his harshness to his traumatic experience but I don’t buy it. It never “clicked” to me, Joel is just a mean and arrogant man who never needed the death of his daughter to be one. Stories of him abusing Tommy when they were kids are an indicator of that.
I’m not saying he is detestable either. I’m just saying that I was never fond of him and that he is a noxious person when it comes to normal relationships.
All this was always quite obvious to me, the thing that I only understood recently is that Ellie is reluctant to be treated as his daughter (pictures below), that there actually is a dynamic on that level. The Last of Us isn’t the story of a man who’s looking for a daughter of substitution and a girl who’s looking for a Dad, it’s not the story of a man and a girl finding balance together.
Joel means "God" in Hebrew. The screenwriter and director of The Last of Us is Jewish and was born in Israel, so I don’t think this should be perceived as a meaningless coincidence. The Last of Us is a religious story. I’m not yet able to decipher everything about it, but Joel is clearly a God figure. And it’s not a coincidence that Tommy should look like Jesus and his motherly wife should be called Maria, and that the story is the one of an apocalypse. Also, Ellie comes from Eleanor which, in Hebrew again, means “God is my light.” Doesn’t it describe Ellie perfectly ? Joel is her light and Part II, where Joel dies, is a particularly dark game.
Sarah and Isaac too are Jewish names that have a religious meaning.
I was always bothered by the absence of a mother in The Last of Us. There’s absolutely no allusion made to Sarah’s mother. No picture, no word, no reminiscence of the past when she lived. It’s not innocent. You cannot write that kind of introduction, Joel’s birthday, without writing a line of dialogue about the absent wife.
And so, I think that on a metaphorical level, Sarah has no mother. She simply is the daughter of God who made her out of thin air. For company ?
We’re in front of some sort of contradictory religious story like the forbidden fruit.
God forbade Adam and Eve to eat the apple. God is omnipotent and all-knowing, if he forbids you to do something, you cannot do it. But Adam and Eve managed to bite into the apple, there’s a contradiction that suggests that God is a fraud.
Here, Joel is omnipotent, all-knowing and more importantly entirely indifferent, uninvolved affectively, or sexually. He created Sarah without the use of sexual procreation. He made his female counterpart useless (the core of the universe of the Last of Us, I think).
In the introduction, Sarah offers Joel a watch. The watch being time. Temporality is mortality, but also, sexuality. I know it’s not obvious, but it’s 99% of the time used like that. Time is sex. And so, Sarah drags Joel into mortality. She is attracted to him (Electra/Oedipus complex) and as a father he has to acknowledge her as an attractive girl who’s becoming a woman but who shouldn’t be attracted to him because he is her dad and things do not work that way.
The problem is that Joel is reluctant to become human, fragile, mortal, to have physical and psychological weaknesses, limits.
If God is imperfect, as he descends on earth, human society collapses: it’s the explosion that Sarah spots outside the house.
Here, we could interpret this in different ways. For example, it could mean that consumer society relies on the idea that God is among us and that although everything is imbalanced and unfair and people behave selfishly and irresponsibly, somewhere there’s a better being who brings balance and makes things acceptable. I’m not saying that people believe in this literally, I’m talking about a psychological structure that would rely on the belief that something makes things right without our involvement. This would have the corollary consequence of creating people who proudly assume the godlike role of making things right. Plenty examples of these people today.
But we could also interpret this apocalypse as a simple hubris story in which humanity becomes too arrogant and burns its wings. Consumer society is indeed a society that relies on the idea that humans are little gods who should never be vexed, never be humbled or frustrated. It’s a society that is based on the idea that life (limits) are errors, flaws that should be corrected. What we call progress is most of the time the nihilistic destruction of limits that life imposed to us. And so, Sarah attempting at seducing Joel is humanity thinking itself worthy of becoming God’s equal while being its offspring. Joel getting out of job would be humanity thinking they can do without believing in something superior.
I’m not asserting either of these interpretations, I’m just toying with the religious subtext. This doesn't have to be about consumer society either.
What matters is that, something happens between God and Humanity that triggers the apocalypse: Sarah’s death, the collapse of human society. The little girl's innocence is lost.
And so everything that happens afterwards tells us the story of the evolution of procreation. Just like with Adam and Eve, God is a question of sexuality, of Promethean power.
After Sarah’s death, when The Last of Us starts, on a metaphorical level, there’s no way of reproducing. I know, it’s not very believable because obviously Sarah wasn’t the first child in the history of mankind and I have no explanation for this starting point. Why 2013, why Sarah ? Why would God be Joel ? I don’t know but after Sarah’s death, we find Joel in the company of another woman: Tess.
Tess and Joel’s relationship is ambiguous. It looks like a failed couple. Tess would like to be with Joel, Joel is happy to be with her, but there’s no sexuality involved and Tess seems to be looking for relief with other men. This puts men, as a gender, in competition with Joel/God the ultimate alpha male who happens not to like sex.
I will not go into a full analysis of all this as I just want to talk about Joel and Ellie’s relationship. As Tess and Joel’s fails, the woman is replaced by Ellie a teen who isn’t sexually mature yet who is thus more likely to get on well with Joel.
And so, what happens is that Ellie is traumatized by the loss of so many people that she feels strongly drawn to Joel, the invincible guy. Of course, we can all believe that it’s safety that attracts her because he proves to be so capable of protecting her. But Ellie’s character is the contrary of this, she doesn’t care about her own safety. More, Joel paradoxically protects her only to bring her to her death. So, he actually represents the worst protector one can find.
Ellie values her friends' lives more than hers because she suffers so much from loneliness, and love is what Joel is incapable of providing... but at least he doesn't seem to be able to die. Tragically, he dies in Part II when he becomes capable of conveying his love for Ellie.
And so, during the whole first game, they’re going to fight together and try to break the other’s mental barriers. Ellie wants Joel to say “I’m not going to bring you to the Fireflies because I love you.” But he’ll never say that. Instead, he’s going to put himself in the position of a God for her. He knows everything, he can do anything, he’s immortal and invincible. He’ll slowly be proven wrong as he is wounded and saved by Ellie several times and she also is given the opportunity to prove that she can do without him.
So, Joel loses the fight… until he saves Ellie from the Fireflies. He wasn’t able to save her with his love but he saves her with his fists and by killing people. His favourite activity.
When he kills the doctor who was about to operate Ellie (Abby’s father), he doesn’t do it for ideological reasons. He kills the man who was about to allow himself to penetrate Ellie’s mind and take her life for his own selfish megalomaniacal purposes. If the doctor had killed Ellie, he would have become the saviour of mankind.
Killing this man wasn’t necessary and was unjustified as it’s very understandable that in the situation humanity finds itself in, sacrifices in order to find a vaccine are just bound to happen. Of course, we can disagree with them and oppose them, but it’d be very complacent to pretend that it makes no sense to see such sacrifices as acceptable.
Joel saving Ellie is a last attempt at forcing the girl into the morbid relationship he’s been forcing her since they met. And the killing of the doctor bears this meaning.
In Part II, we see Ellie becoming obsessed with the fact that the cure is no longer reachable because of this specific murder. If Joel hadn’t wanted to capture Ellie he would have spared the man and left her to decide whether she wanted to sacrifice herself or not later on.
At the end of The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie’s relationship is still not balanced or healthy and Joel’s behavior in Part II is still morbid and inappropriate. The fact that he should have protected her and saved her from the fireflies doesn't mean much, as paradoxical as it might seem. Any parent who knows how to swim, from the best to the worst, can save his child from drowning. The worst being the parent who brought his kid, who didn't know how to swim, to the beach very well aware that it was dangerous but very happy to create an opportunity to appear like a godlike savior.
In Part II Joel shows himself ready to offer Ellie what she wanted before he saved her from the fireflies, he flirts with her.
So, he’s just your average cowardly immature father; when his daughter is young, he reassures himself and soothes his ego problems by pretending to be a god to her and when she grows up, he falls for her and becomes extremely jealous of her love life.
That’s the reason why he prevents Ellie from being with the guy she’s interested in (Jesse) and pushes her towards Dina and Ellie concludes “you’re such an asshole.” That’s also why she holds a grudge against him for intervening when Seth calls Dina a "loud-mouth dyke." Joel isn’t open minded about Ellie’s homosexuality, he is against her possible heterosexuality. And here we reach the point where the lack of meaning of these words becomes more apparent.
Joel is still trying to have a specific morbid control over Ellie and she’s trying to escape him… that which she eventually manage to do at the end of Part II... I suppose, because at the same time, she ends up completely lonely that which was exactly her worst nightmare.