To understand how The Last of Us truly ends, you first need some context. Ellie is the cure for the worldwide zombie pandemic—she has special brain tissue that if removed, could be synthesised into a vaccine. However, after it’s revealed the operation will kill her, Joel, who’s own daughter died 20 years prior, “rescues” Ellie from the scientists and lies to her about their intentions, saying they didn’t need her after all.
The gut-punch of the ending is that Joel, overcome with grief about his biological daughter, kidnaps Ellie because he views her as a surrogate. It’s implied however that what Ellie really wanted was to sacrifice herself: after watching several of her friends die, Ellie explains “I’m still waiting for my turn.” Joel has taken away her chance to be who she wants to be, to affect a change. His motives are easy to empathise with, but the audience is invited to view him as flawed, selfish. Nowhere is this more obvious than the game’s penultimate scene, a brief interactive section where the player controls Ellie.
Take a look at the sequence on YouTube. You can see at the beginning how it’s toying with perspective.
When Joel pulls apart the barbed wire fence, the player, as Ellie, climbs through and the camera is focused in traditional third-person style on her back. Then it pushes forward and Joel fills the frame. For a moment, it looks as if the player is back in control of Joel—the image looks conventionally like a third-person game.
But then there’s one more move, where Joel climbs through the fence after Ellie and walks on ahead. The camera now settles back on Ellie, confirming her as the playable character.
There’s a kind of tussle here by Joel and Ellie, a competition for the attention of both the game and the player. Just as Ellie wishes to sacrifice herself, and Joel stopps her, in this moment they again seem to be competing, to be wrestling with each other over who should be in control.
The game is asking questions: Who is the real protagonist? Who do you empathize with? Are you looking at this from a male or female perspective? Joel and Ellie’s relationship has become combative. By placing one then the other in the center of the screen, the camera here implies a power struggle between them. Ellie was prepared to sacrifice her life to save the rest of the world. Maybe she should be the hero.
And the camera does, eventually, settle on her. But given what follows, it’s as if we’re only being invited to play as Ellie so we can experience, first-hand, the totality of her defeat, the completion of her subordination to Joel.
Ellie walks slowly in this scene. In her eyeline, a squirrel scurries up a tree and she doesn’t make a remark about it. This is in opposition to the person she was at the start of the game—an explorer, curious, infatuated with animals. We’re in control of her not because she’s transcended and become the hero, but so we can understand how far she’s been ground down.
This is the first and only time we play as Ellie while she’s being accompanied by Joel—in the winter section, she’s by herself. The fact that we can only walk, slowly and narrowly, behind Joel, implies his overbearing and controlling nature. In the past when we’ve been Ellie, we’ve hunted deer around an enormous winter forest, or stabbed guys with our pen knife. Now that Joel is here, we’re restricted. He feels less like a protector and more like a warden.
Our narrow control set won’t let us do most of the things that Ellie is supposed do: We can’t whistle, tell lame jokes, say something about the squirrel. Ellie is playable in this scene only so we can surmise how little agency she now has, how that since being “rescued” by Joel, her vitality—her influence—has diminished to nothing. Joel has removed the opportunity she had to excel on her own terms. Now she cuts a defeated figure, following reluctantly behind him, waiting for him to show her what to do.
The final moment in this short, interactive scene sees Joel jog on way ahead of Ellie and climb up onto a log. He then hoists himself onto a ridge, making the log fall down behind him. Consequently, when Ellie comes to the ridge she has to grab Joel’s hand and let him lift her up.
Joel has been established by this point as a character determined to prove his masculinity: He steals away Ellie so that he can have a “daughter” again, returning himself to the identifiably male role of father.
Climbing onto the ridge unassisted is an extension of Joel’s desire to appear, and be regarded as, a man. But in doing this—in trying to demonstrate that he can complete his task the manly way, without anyone’s help—Joel stoppers Ellie. His running ahead and knocking the log down means that Ellie is unable to get onto the ridge by herself. She has to go to Joel, and his outstretched hand, for help. This is controlling male behaviour, distilled.
Joel extends his hand because he thinks Ellie needs it, thinks that she’s vulnerable, incapable and dependent on him. He doesn’t realise that he’s the one that has put her in this position. Ellie isn’t implicitly unable to do things, like climb the ridge, because of her gender. It’s Joel and his obsession with his male ego that is stopping her.
He kidnaps Ellie from the scientist so that he can feel like a father again. He hoists himself up on the log because he feels he should go first because he’s the man. It’s this perpetual self-interest that denies Ellie any opportunities of her own. Joel’s insistence on establishing himself, on showing off, forces Ellie into the secondary role of sidekick: She can’t sacrifice herself for the cause. She can’t even climb a few rocks her own way. Joel knocking the log over is symbolic of destructive male ego. This is the reason working women get paid less, why young guys go to nightclubs and put their hands up people’s dresses. It’s so men can feel like pack leaders, like they have power, like they own something. Joel subjugates Ellie not just so he can feel like a dad again, but like a man, in the primitive sense. He knocks that log down when he charges priapically ahead. In turn, he takes away Ellie’s ability to do something on her own terms, forcing her to wait for his hand and his permission before she can climb up. It’s patriarchy in action, controlling male behaviour, crystallised.
As such, The Last of Us isn’t really a game about the collapse of humanity. Instead, it’s about how the worst injustices in our society will continue inexorably on despite everything, how sexism has become so firmly rooted in human culture that even when cities crumble and monsters walk the streets, white men with brawn will still be in charge.
Ed Smith is a freelance critic who has written for Eurogamer, New Statesman and The Escapist. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.