Is Joel From The Last of Us A Villain? | GameSided Roundtable


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This week’s GameSided Roundtable topic is a follow-up to last week’s topic, due to a lively debate held outside of the piece: “Is Joel from The Last of Us a villain?

Obvious spoiler warning for The Last of Us’ story.

Nir Regev (Twitter)

Picture some heartless leader telling you they’re sorry, but your teenage daughter is gone now for a greater good. Or adopted daughter, if you want to get nit-picky about it. They need her for a potential cure so she needs to be sacrificed. Sorry. Tough luck there, lad, now be on your way out or we’ll shoot you. Remember she had no say in the matter, not that at her age it would bear any relevance.

We fight for the lives of adults even when they’re on the edge, the brink. People look at adult addicts and intervene. Yet, an exploitable mind of a youth is mature enough to make a life-ending decision? No choice for her, though, she has value for others. Anyone who thinks Joel is a villain for saving Ellie has the mindset of a real villain. You’re the selfish one for demanding the ultimate sacrifice from an impressionable teenager.

“It’s for the good of everyone, now be on your way now. She’s in surgery right this instant.” What parent on this earth wouldn’t have done what Joel did? That’s the beauty of The Last of Us. Instead of trying to appeal to the usual insatiable thirst for clichés, they kept pushing reality. I recall racing down those corridors in the game instinctively to rescue Ellie. I didn’t even need to think about it for a single instance. No reflection required, no second-guessing myself. Every moment counted.

What was Joel supposed to do? Send out a court appeal in the apocalypse? A well-reasoned letter to his congressman, would that have appeased you? All while a knocked out Ellie could be breathing her final breath? No thanks. Joel was in no way, shape or form a villain. As Liam Neeson said in Taken, “It was personal to me.”

The greater good is a viewpoint. It can change over a million lifetimes. A person’s life, however, is a one-time thing. This isn’t Sparta. The state doesn’t overrule parental rights and take them for training. From educational choices to vaccinations, parents guide a still-forming mind. We don’t let others decide how to raise our youth for us.

I miss the days when true heroes like Joel were applauded instead of thrashed and questioned. Pretty soon we’ll be hearing about Pac-Man being a villain for not teaching people proper nutrition. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised, but it won’t make it true.

Joel will never be a villain for his actions in The Last of Us.

Daniel George (Twitter)

The Last of Us has crafted one of the most absolutely excellent games in the medium’s short life span. It’s a third-person survival horror shooter that brings importance to every action and choice you make as Joel and Ellie. Your bullets, tools, items and options are all limited in a fashion that immerses you into the mind of a survivor. Joel didn’t survive for 20 years because he made arbitrary decisions; he did what he felt he needed to do in order to survive.

Sometimes, he has to become the villain in order to see the light of day one more time.

Firstly, let’s make it clear that being villainous doesn’t mean you become some mustache-twirling caricature of 1920’s-era film. The story of The Last of Us owes its brilliance because it makes you empathize with a flawed man with flawed values. Making the argument that “anyone who disagrees with my view on a character has the mindset of a real villain” is a childish ad-hominem attack that poisons the well for debate and criticism. Just because Joel may dabble in some truly heinous acts doesn’t make him a truly compelling character, nor does pointing out acts of villainy make you, yourself a villain.

Let’s count the misdeeds and see how his villainy counterbalances out his more noble deeds. It’s the best way to show that Joel is in no shape or form a “true hero.”

First, let’s look at Joel’s standing in this new-world economy. In the apocalypse, present-time Joel works as a smuggler of drugs and weapons inside and out of the Boston quarantine zone. His job is to literally flaunt the law, providing means to disrupt order. Now, you may be quick to point out his personal justification for this behavior, seeing as a tool for the government ripped his whole world asunder with the loss of his daughter, but it’s not to fund any specific anti-government entity. He runs trade through the black market to fund his own lifestyle, one that sees him take adverse risks for selfish gains.

It’s not like running such a trade is all butterflies and ration tickets; it’s dubious work. Remember when Joel is stopped by a man who feigns injury when entering Pittsburgh? Joel knows it’s an ambush because he admits he’s “been on both sides” of such an ambush. In a world where you must do anything necessary to sustain your life, pulling off moves like that is straight up banditry. Joel, before becoming a comparatively “wholesome” weapons and drug smuggler, was a thief who used lies, deceit and murder to steal goods from others.

Remember, these are just facts about his life outside of gameplay, before we even control him in the post-outbreak life. Once we pick up the story through gameplay, we eventually arrive to the moment where Joel is tasked with handing Ellie over to the Fireflies. What started out as a transaction in exchange for more goods to peddle became complicated when it was discovered Ellie had been infected. The goal is to discover a cure, one that has been bandied about as false hope forever.

Throughout the cross-country journey, Joel and Ellie count on each other as partners in survival. When he goes guns a blazing to protect Ellie, she returns the favor and protects him when he becomes incapacitated. While he is left unconscious, barely holding on to life and is in dire need of food and medicine, it is Ellie that comes to his rescue. Even though Joel has lost a partner in Tess, he gains a new one in Ellie. She proves herself to be very much capable in a horrific world where monster and man both want her dead. In conversation, when acting as equals, Joel treats her with the respect of an adult because she has shown to very much be one in the short amount of time they’ve known each other.

Ellie has a very noble reason why she makes it her mission to make herself available for finding a cure; she’s seen the horrors of what it makes you become. In the story DLC “Left Behind,” we follow Ellie and Riley as they spend one final day together before Riley joins up with the Fireflies. Taking place years before the traditional story, we see a tale of friendship, intimacy and love blossom in the early stages of growing up. Both infected with the virus, they choose to, poetically, let their madness take over them as they both fade away from cognisance. In its own tragic way, continued life is a curse to Ellie.

During the entire journey, Ellie has made it clear that it’s her mission to see nobody else go through the pain and tragedy she has suffered. She alludes to this in a number of ways, including alluding to the fact that this entire journey “can’t have been for nothing.” Everyone that has ever cared for has left her or died, and Joel’s accompaniment towards her goal of trying to save humanity has been the most important relationship to her in a long time.

As easy as it is to wave Joel’s interference of Ellie’s wishes away as the acts of a protective parent, one that any parent would have done, Joel’s actions do not come from that of a hero. There is an inherent bond formed over the lengthy adventure these two characters shared, of course, but Joel saving Ellie’s life also has to do with self-preservation of his own emotional life. He’s doing it so he doesn’t have to lose what amount to another daughter.

Joel only acts as her guardian when it comes to him being morally liable for her death. Remember, it was for months that Joel tried to pawn Ellie off to someone else. Whether it was in Boston with the local designate Fireflies or to his brother Tommy in Wyoming, he made it abundantly clear that he could not handle being responsible for her livelihood. It comes to the forefront strongly when Joel and Ellie are most at their odds, as Joel tries to do the handoff. “Do you even know what your life means, huh?” Joel questions Ellie. When Joel’s on the precipice of dropping accountability, he finds every means possible of finding virtue in his actions.

Which is what leads to his insistence in saving Ellie. By that point, in Joel’s mind, Ellie has supplanted the deceased Sarah as his new daughter. Considering he brought Ellie to Marlene and the Fireflies, he feels he is now ultimately responsible for Ellie’s pending sacrifice in the search for a cure. Whether or not Ellie’s brain could hold the answers to how the infection works is highly debatable, one that has merits and criticisms. For one, the Fireflies have been looking forever, with audio tapes confirming numerous failed subjects. On the other hand, Ellie is the only patient with cordyceps that have mutated in a way to make her immune.

It’s not about the absolute yes or no on whether or not these doctors could have found a cure; there’s no way of expanding beyond the narrative. It’s established, though, that there are certain things about brain functions that can only be studied in death. Consider, most notably in reality, it is only in death and the studying of 91 brains of deceased NFL players that have confirmed 87 of them suffering from the brain disease CTE. What the Fireflies would do with information and data obtained from this surgery, again, can only be speculated.

However, this was Ellie’s choice to make. As she said, after all the lives lost to bring her to the finish line, it is her wish to make sure that the effort wasn’t for nothing. Her decision was ripped away from her by Joel, removing her agency as a character. He does this because he claims her as his own daughter, even calling her “baby girl;” a phrase designated solely for his real daughter, Sarah. The move is only cemented when he realizes the eventuality of Ellie’s death, when he realized he’s culpable for it. Had Tommy taken Ellie to the Fireflies, he would have been none the wiser.

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The consequences of this are as harsh and brutal as the character committing them. For one, humanity’s best option for recovery in 20 years has been snuffed out in a flame. He did not guarantee the doom of humanity, but he did set it back a significant deal. It’s an act of selfishness, done to maintain his own peace of mind about losing yet another daughter to an untimely death. Even worse, he lies to Ellie about the encounter, claiming they have plenty of survivors that are immune; that despite their efforts, they’ve stopped looking for a cure. Ellie, sharing that she’s been waiting to die since she was bit, has doubt about Joel’s claims, knowingly giving Joel one last chance and asks if everything he said about the Fireflies is true. With all bridges burned, Marlene dead and no possible option for him to lose Ellie in this manner again, he doubles down with “I swear.”

It is immature to remove context, look at the entire situation as black and white and attack people, not debate viewpoints, when people have opposing views. “Joel saved her kid from a decision she wasn’t prepared to make, and seeing it any other way comes from the mindset of a villain” is an easy, emotionally-invested argument to make, but does so at a disservice to the story and the character development of The Last of Us. The story, especially with that excellent ending payoff, only works because Joel is not a hero. His self-serving existence, one that comes from a line of smuggling and banditry for personal gain, is embodied in his actions to take control over Ellie’s entire life in a way unfair to her as a person. He pushes his values onto her, even though it was not for his decision to make. It’s what makes the atypical story so special.

At best, Joel undoes most of what has made him the man of 50+ years in an instant to save his designate, while telling a lie to protect her feelings. At worst, Joel kills dozens of Fireflies removed from his conflict with Marlene because of his inability to rationalize yet another death of a young girl under his care. The weight of his nature and his acts for the protection of his own needs above the needs of others makes Joel a villain that happens to commit small acts of heroism when it serves him best.

Martin Benn (Twitter)

In The Last of Us, the worst enemy of humanity is giving in. Giving in to despair, giving in to hopelessness, or giving in to the desire to end it all. Something going viral is moved out of the current framework of being a good thing and plants the concept firmly back into the worst of what humanity is capable of being exposed to. Both naturally and socially.

Joel has given in to most of humanity at its worst. He’s selfish. He’s miserable. He has no hope for the future. Yet, he’s doing whatever it takes to be alive. He has not completely given in. For what is the alternative, but embracing death. The worst thing that happened to Joel is not the virus, but the loss of his daughter. Living in this world, playing against the rules of the people responsible, that is the least of his heartache. For whether he was among the last of us or among the world as it stood before the virus outbreak, Joel would be the character he is now. A man broken by the loss of what he cherished most.

Until he meets Ellie. By the time his final decision is made, he is not only weighing the decision to live with or without hope for the future, but whether he wants to continue to live as he was or choosing to live as he wants. He would rather not take that chance to be left where he was when we found him. Too many lives have been lost in the pursuit of this girl… his girl’s safety. Now you are going to kill her for the possibility to save others? Joel has been around this block and seen too many “miracles” come crashing back to reality.

Is he a villain for rescuing Ellie from humanity’s selfish desire to heal itself? Not to me. Are the Fireflies evil for negotiating the sacrifice of a little girl for the sake of humanity’s future? No. In both cases, the hero of the story is being told their story is coming to an end at the time when someone else chooses for it to happen. No one is interested in the agency of the hero, Ellie. Humanity’s only interest is selfish preservation.

Joel is neither villain, nor hero. He’s human. So are the Fireflies. Pushed to our wits end by the premise of the game itself, we are all weighing who is the “bad guy” when there are no good people involved in such a decision. There are hurt people. There are desperate people. There are lonely people. There are sick people. But there are no villains. There are none who wish to create the circumstances by which this happens. They are all victims.

The challenge of God to Abraham from many religious texts was to sacrifice his child. It is pitted as the ultimate test of humanity in many stories from human history. Do you sacrifice the future for the present? Will the recreated and hoped for future be worth that loss? The answer for Joel was no. The rest of humanity? They will find another savior to put faith in. Like humans do.

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