Warning: Spoilers ahead for the finale of HBO’s The Last of Us.
The power of The Last of Us video game lies in its ending. Every single chapter leads to the crucial moment when Joel must decide whether he will murder both rebels and innocent medical workers in order to save Ellie from an operation that would kill her but save the world. The scene revolutionized video games because it put the player in charge of Joel’s avatar and demanded that they do something morally questionable. It is you, the player, who must shoot that doctor and carry Ellie out, the same way you once carried Sarah through chaos in Austin the night the end of the world began. You must commit the crime and live with the consequences.
The game’s creator, Neil Druckmann, has said that the end of the game is something of a Rorschach test. Some players don’t hesitate. They will do anything to save their surrogate child. Others are more reluctant to do so. Most games would offer some sort of compromise, a way for the hero of the story to remain a hero. The first time I played, I ran around the hospital trying to find a way to move forward in the story without going on a killing spree. Even once I made my way to Ellie, I stood in the operating room for several minutes over her unconscious body wondering if there might be a way to negotiate with the doctor rather than shoot the person who could create a vaccine that could end the apocalypse.
But there is no other way forward. Of course there isn’t. Joel’s specific trauma—the death of his daughter—had primed him for committing this awful yet understandable act. As a player, you’re forced to not only pull the trigger but live with the guilt of killing innocent people, dooming humanity, and later lying to Ellie about what happened.
Translating the power of the ending to television
A passive format like television, it seemed, would never be able to replicate the power of that final act in the video game. So I was eager to see how The Last of Us show creators Craig Mazin and Druckmann chose to adapt it. Would Joel hesitate before he shot the doctor, or not? Would Ellie suspect that Joel betrayed her trust, as she does in the game? Would they add some major twist to the series to differentiate it from the game?
The Last of Us TV show has not strayed far from the game throughout its run, and in the final episode it continued to hew closely to its source material. Pedro Pascal’s version of Joel doesn’t hesitate before acting. He doesn’t hem or haw over moral quandaries. He acts on instinct, out of love. For those who have already played the game, Joel’s rampage through the hospital might not hit quite as hard.
The series had to find other ways to emphasize the gravity of Joel’s decision. And over the course of nine episodes, it primed its audience for just such an ethical quandary. Again and again, characters in the show choose to save the one person they love even if it means betraying their values. Henry rats out revolutionaries to FEDRA to help his younger brother Sam; Kathleen (a creation of the show) risks the lives of her entire army to go after the one man, Henry, who she blames for her brother’s death; Bill will burn the living and undead alike to protect his love, Frank.
“Save who you can save”
Early in the series, Tess tells Joel, “Save who you can save.” It’s an individualist motto suited to the post-apocalypse where few communities survive, let alone thrive. And it’s not necessarily bad advice. It’s just that making that choice—and pinning the entirety of your identity to one other person—often has dire consequences. After Sam becomes infected, Henry must shoot him. He’s so distraught by the turn of events that he then turns the gun on himself. Kathleen leads her army into slaughter at the hands of the infected in pursuit of vengeance of her brother.
And yet Bill, a loner, only finds happiness once he finds Frank. Despite spending his entire life identifying as a survivalist, he winds up deciding to die along with his loved one, a radical and in some ways beautiful transformation. That episode was the biggest divergence from the game. In the original story, Bill and Frank get into a bitter fight. Frank runs away from Bill and dies by suicide, leaving a hate note for Bill. But Mazin told TIME that he wanted to change Bill and Frank’s story to raise the stakes for Joel and Ellie’s journey.
“One of my goals was to show that there was a way to win. I mean, it ends sadly, but it’s a happy ending as far as I’m concerned. They had a great life together,” Mazin said. “And if we know emotional success can still happen in this world, if it can go well, we can worry a little bit more as Joel and Ellie move through this story because if there’s no chance it goes well, then no one cares much. But if there is, that’s what the story is about.”
So did Joel and Ellie find a happy ending? That remains to be seen. Neither the game nor the show ends here. The Last of Us Part II, upon which the second season will be based, is a grim tale that deals with the fallout of Ellie’s and Joel’s actions during their trip across the U.S. And Joel will, of course, have to live with the guilt of depriving the world of a cure and—perhaps worse in his eyes—possibly damaging his relationship with Ellie by lying to her.
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