‘The Last of Us’ finale isn’t controversial, it’s correct
Let’s be clear: Joel was right
Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us.
What lengths would you go to survive in a postapocalyptic world? That’s the question at the heart of HBO’s hit drama, The Last of Us. The series, which just wrapped its first season, takes place 20 years after a pandemic crippled civilization by infecting people with cordyceps, a fungus that turns them into zombielike creatures. In the show, Joel (Pedro Pascal), a mercenary, is asked to take 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) from Boston to Colorado because her immunity to the fungal infection may be the key to saving humanity. As the pair travel across the country — encountering deadly groups of raiders, cannibals, and of course, the infected — Joel and Ellie grow closer and he begins to see her as his daughter. When they reach their destination, Joel learns the Fireflies, the revolutionary group he’s delivering Ellie to, plan to sacrifice her life in order to develop a vaccine that may or may not even be effective. So he kills them and rescues Ellie.
Joel’s decision to save Ellie’s life has been seen as controversial by many The Last of Us fans. Some argue he should have given her a choice in the matter, while others called his decision selfish because she could potentially save the world. However, for many Black viewers, and other viewers from marginalized groups, the mere fact that Joel saving a child’s life could be seen as controversial reveals our society’s insidious beliefs about marginalized lives and their worth.
For many Black people, the prospect of having our bodies and lives used in the name of medical research isn’t a hypothetical in a TV show or an apocalyptic possibility to mull over at parties. It’s an established part of our history and our present.
“I couldn’t help but equate the Fireflies decision to kill [Ellie] in order to possibly extract a cure with the medical apartheid Black folks have been subjected to in this country,” said J. Austin Yoshino, editor-in-chief of Fresh Pulp Magazine. “Medical apartheid has never been exclusively about scientific progress. But about domination and expedience, carried out on the bodies of the most vulnerable. In this case a child.”
Black people have more than enough experience with what, to many white folks, is just a discussion point of a popular TV show. After all, who can forget the victims of the Tuskegee experiment, who were told they had “bad blood” and promised medical treatment for syphilis, only to be left to suffer in the name of medical advancement? Or Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were harvested by Johns Hopkins University without her knowledge or consent and used for countless medical advancements with no compensation given to her family?
Or James Marion Sims, a surgeon and so-called father of gynecology, who subjected enslaved women to medical torture in the 1840s by operating on them without using anesthesia — all in the name of medical breakthroughs. Interestingly enough, in defense of Sims, some historians claim that many of the enslaved women were “willing participants” in his experiments. It’s a very similar argument some The Last of Us fans have made about Ellie, claiming that even though the Fireflies did not give her a choice, she would have given her life to try to save humanity anyway.
The conversation online about whether it is morally wrong to protect one’s child from being killed for medical research, as Joel does in The Last of Us, is eerily reminiscent of the discussion a group of doctors had on French TV about holding COVID-19 vaccine trials in Africa. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, rejected the idea, explaining, “Africa can’t and won’t be a testing ground for any vaccine.” When Black people spoke out against the doctors online, they were also told they were being selfish, that they didn’t have the “greater good” in mind because they didn’t want other Black people to become guinea pigs.
This is why for many Black viewers, the idea that there is a moral quandary about Joel’s choice to save Ellie’s life is bizarre. For some, it even reveals a more insidious political framework that surrounds the original video game and the show it’s based on, a political framework that invites us to question whether vulnerable bodies are acceptable sacrifices.
“Although fictional, I always become a bit disheartened at these shows because current societal issues still exist in these worlds. Power, privilege, and oppression are still maintained,” said Apryl Alexander, associate professor of public health at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. “In the finale, we witnessed people toss medical ethics aside with their willingness to sacrifice Ellie to find a cure for the virus. Who else would they sacrifice for a cure? Historically, we’ve seen that minoritized individuals and their bodies are the ones who are at risk.”
For other Black viewers, they see the show’s ethos of family first to be disturbing and it makes them think of the show’s disposal of Black characters — including Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies.
“Throughout The Last of Us gameplay and series, we’ve seen Black bodies sacrificed for the greater narrative: Henry, Sam, Riley, and Marlene,” said Margari Hill, executive director of MuslimARC. “[The show] assumes that we would sacrifice others to save our loved one. I worry that this reinforces a worldview that our society condones killing others as long as they are a distant foreign other. We’ve seen this story told time and time again.”
But there’s also this idea of policing who is allowed to protect their loved ones. Not only that but perhaps more chillingly, who is evil when they engage in protection? Who is naturally violent and who is just following orders or pressured by the system? The show repeatedly frames both the resistance groups (Kathleen’s brutal regime in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Fireflies) and Joel and Ellie as uniquely violent creatures, while the fascist Federal Disaster Response Agency officers are allowed the grace of seeming to be mere cogs in a wheel.
“Fatal violence in situations of survival is something marginalized people are very familiar with, and are often criminalized for,” culture writer Nicole Froio writes. “As such, I believe the moral dilemma we are all supposed to be agonizing over reveals a punitivist and fatalist thread that goes through the whole franchise.” Froio continues, “By casting this as something debatable … The Last of Us obscures the real desperation of survival … The creators fundamentally misunderstand how trauma and being in survival mode can shape a person; they have said that Ellie is naturally violent. In the zombie apocalypse, I would hope most of us would be violent in some way to protect each other.”
Joel’s relationship with Ellie is even more poignant considering he lost his biological daughter, Sarah, at the start of the apocalypse. While Joel, Sarah, and his brother Tommy were trying to escape the chaos in their hometown, Sarah was shot by a government soldier who was instructed to kill them, fearing they were infected. The moment was gut-wrenching to watch, but how is that different from Marlene’s assumption that Ellie’s immunity would save the world? Both the soldier and the revolutionary believe children are disposable, as long as it is for “the greater good.”
When I posted about my discomfort with the discussion about whether Joel was right, countless people accused me of not understanding “the trolley problem,” a philosophical question that asks whether it is more moral to sacrifice one life for the lives of many. Would you grab the wheel of the runaway trolley, intentionally killing one person to save five? Or would you do nothing and let the trolley run over five people instead?
As a Black woman, the trolley problem is not an intellectually stimulating exercise. I don’t have the privilege to see it as such. For Black people, the trolley problem isn’t hypothetical. We’ve been run over too many times to count — and we have been the sacrificial lambs in every situation. We know that the myth of the trolley problem is the false assumption that whoever is driving isn’t also assessing the value of the humans in question and deciding who to save based on skin tone or religion or nationality. We also know that if we were driving the trolley and chose to save our own people or our own loved ones over those in power, we would not receive the same grace.
Still, if we get to the point where we are willing to kill innocent children for the hope of a better world, like the Marlene and the Fireflies in The Last of Us, then we have lost our humanity, and there is no point in saving it because the essential thing that makes us human is gone.