Joel from “The Last of Us” is a better father than God
When you have a degree in theology and are an author, it’s difficult not to find allegory in everything. Not every book, movie, or television show is The Chronicles of Narnia, where the parable is about as subtle as a baseball bat to the head.
The more subtle tomes of The Last of Us play into two particular tropes of storytelling: the hero's journey and the martyr. Basically, someone has to die at the end for this to have all been worth it. We need spilt blood for the redemption of humanity. One person dies to save the world.
That is exactly where the story lead by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey seems to be taking us.
Pascal’s character Joel is a normal guy doing normal guy things. He works in construction (a carpenter, you say?), and he lives a very normal life, singularly raising both his daughter and his younger brother. His life is simple but happy. He lives the type of life that will become forgotten to time, he will build homes that will someday fall down, and that will be his legacy. Until the world falls apart.
In very short order, the entire planet is consumed by a fungal virus that is frankly the most terrifying zombie theory I’ve ever seen. Unlike the undead zombie stories, where you are essentially reanimated, the cordyceps are a species of fungi that can control the bodies of those they possess. Meaning, you are alive and being kept alive by these f+cking mushrooms.
As Joel and his family attempt to escape, they are stopped by a national guardsman who is told to kill them on-site. He begins to shoot at them, they seem to escape, but ultimately his daughter has been mortally wounded.
The story picks up some twenty years later, as a much older and bitter Joel faces a world in ruin now being run by a fascist regime known as FEDRA. Because the pandemic is still raging, and no cure has been found, people still live and work in quarantine zones established by FEDRA, and the people essentially have no rights. Any wrongdoing is handled by military kangaroo courts, and justice is executed swiftly and publicly.
Enter Ellie, a young girl who is about the same age as Joel’s daughter was. She has been bitten repeatedly by the infected without turning. Soon, an underground group of revolutionaries known as the Fireflies has decided she is the last hope for humanity: she is the missing link to a cure. Joel is enlisted to help Ellie make her way to a doctor who can use her to make a cure.
Joel deals with tremendous guilt for the loss of his daughter. Her death is something he believes the man he has become could have stopped. He is also refusing to allow himself to become a father to the orphaned Ellie, though it’s clear she wishes he would.
Outside of there being a random side story that is maybe one of the most beautiful gay love stories ever depicted, the rest of the show is relatively predictable, albeit well done, post-apocalyptic tale. Joel needs to get Ellie to a hospital on the other side of the country so they can develop a vaccine, and calamity ensues. They run into bad guys, they tango with some zombies; Joel doesn’t want to talk about his feelings and eventually realizes that Ellie has become his new daughter. This is his story of learning to love again in a world that is broken.
Again, this is the hero's journey story, we’ve seen it a thousand times from Jesus to Anakin, and you know what has to happen at the end? That person has got to die in order to save the world; it just has to happen—blood for blood.
After months of searching, Joel and Ellie finally find the hospital where the doctor is that can produce the cure thanks to Ellie’s genetics. However, the guards outside don’t know that Joel and Ellie are the saviors of the world, so they do what any good post-apocalyptic goons would do and knock Joel out with the butt of a gun. Classic move, honestly.
When Joel wakes up, he is greeted by Marlene, the leader of the Firefly resistance movement and an all-around badass. She thanks Joel for bringing Ellie to them and for their sacrifices to get there. It is during this moment that she explains to Joel that because the cordyceps live inside the brain, they will have to remove Ellie’s from her body to study it so they can create the vaccine.
This is the part of the story where a couple of things are supposed to happen. The main character can accept the fate of this tremendous sacrifice for the greater good. They are heartbroken that the person they love will die, but they are happy that humanity will be able to live. Another route to take is that they don’t want their family member to die, and so they fight but are ultimately subdued, and the death takes place anyway. Eventually, the character makes peace with this.
No matter which way it goes, the audience is supposed to feel a quiet relief that no matter what happens in the world, from sin to zombies, someone else’s kid is going to die so we can live.
This is where the story reaches its full messiah allegorical arch. And I want to point out that I don’t think there is any ambiguity by the storytellers here; the name Joel literally means Yahweh: his name means God. And Ellie is a nickname for Helen, Eleanor, or a feminized Elijah, no matter which way you slice it; the name means the Light of God or the Sun of God—basically, the light of the world.
This is the story of God: he is a father who loses his children to death after the virus of sin takes over. He then wonders around, waiting for the time for a new child to come alone, one who is immune to this virus, and that child is then slaughtered so that the rest of the world can be saved. This is the story of the martyr. God willingly offers up one child, whom they supposedly love, but it’s really a story of mourning the loss of his relationship with Adam and Eve. He wants that feeling back, that simple time in the garden, and he is willing to kill Jesus to get it.
Joel sits there in the hospital, being told the part he has to play in this: let your child die for the redemption of the world—one life for the lives of millions.
As he is being escorted from the building, Joel disarms a guard and embarks on a cinematic journey as he defeats a small army. He blasts his way through the hospital, fighting guards. I’ve not been this thrilled to watch bullets fly since the original Matrix movie. Joel fights his way up the floors of the hospital until he finds Ellie prepared for surgery. The doctor charges him with a scalpel saying that he won’t let Joel stop him.
The doctor learned the hard way why you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, and he dies. With him also dies the only hope humanity has for a cure.
After their escape, Joel is tempted one last time to hand Ellie over for the sake of the world. He refuses and kills the leader of the resistance movement to prevent her from continuing to chase after Ellie.
Joel takes the “f+ck your and humanity, I love my kid” approach to the end of the world. He does not feel compelled to redeem the planet that someone else f+cked up. He doesn’t see the need for this child to be killed so others can live. Instead, he is thrilled that he’s given a second chance to be a father, and he knows that HE won't make the same mistakes again. HE will be the one to protect the child. His responsibility is not saving is on the parent, it’s being a good father. No blood needs to be smeared for the salvation of the world.
Joel is a God I can believe in.
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