The Last of Us finale (spoilers)

Fungal game-adaptation The Last of Us finished with another engrossing episode. Looking back on the series, each episode was very well done, with a very strong emphasis on personal stakes and people with flawed morality. The actually overall plot arc was surprisingly thin. I say “surprisingly” because there was no reason why the show shouldn’t be just a series of events strung together by Joel & Ellie having to cross the USA but because each episode mattered, but you could skip several of them and not be lost on the plot. Random encounters mattered in terms of emotional weight more than plot twists.

Overall, it is a series well worth a watch. I’ve never played the game so I can’t say how effectively it was adapted from that perspective but it was a strong TV show. Did it add much to the zombie-apocalypse genre? No, not really other than as a demonstration that strong actors and a good script can elevate the standard plot beats. The main danger to the protagonists was other people rather than zombie monsters, as is the way of these things.

I want to discuss the most argued about aspect of the finale but that involves spoilers, so don’t go past this paragraph if you want to be unspoiled.





The objective of Joel & Ellie’s journey was to get Ellie to a hospital run by the rebel group who were seeking a cure/vaccine for the cordyceps fungus that has ravaged the world. In the final episode, they get to their destination. There Joel discovers that the plan will require a medical procedure that will likely kill Ellie. The moral dilemma presented is not much of a dilemma for Joel who rescues Ellie from the operating table by wiping out most of the people in the hospital.

Tough life-or-death decisions are baked into the zombie apocalypse genre. Do you kill an infected loved one before they turn, do you barricade the door before everybody has reached safety, do you execute a survivor who may or may not be bitten? These dilemmas are forced in the sense that zombie apocalypses aren’t actually a thing but once we accept the premise of zombie infection we accept that the normal standards of behaviour might clash with the pragmatic rules of survival.

The dilemma posed for Joel (not that he treats it as a dilemma) is forced in a way that works less well. The dramatic point of zombie apocalypse dilemmas is to place the reader/viewer in the position of asking what they would do in such circumstances. The situations are loaded by the circumstances towards choices that would seem normally immoral or socially taboo but they do tend to arise from accepting the basic premise of some sort of disease that turns people into monsters.

With this final dilemma, we don’t have that. We have a specific medical claim which is presented as the only option. Let us assume for the moment, that the assessment by the doctor is correct. The only option open to finding a cure is to kill Ellie. How would people actually react? By people, I don’t mean Joel, I mean everybody else. I don’t think people would generally accept this and not because I think everybody is basically good but because people like options.

In the classic zombie moral dilemma, immediate survival is on the line and people are in desperate circumstances. There are few options available and the “nice” option runs a substantial risk of endangering everybody. In this circumstance, there was time to think and time to consider other alternatives. There was also the issue that Ellie was, from a purely pragmatic perspective, a very rare resource. If the operation failed and Ellie died, then the vaccine team are left with nothing. There was a pressing reason to keep Ellie alive just from a cynical viewpoint.

We ended up with a circumstance that made little sense primarily to place Joel in opposition to what had been the ostensible objective. Dramatically, it was clear why the finale should follow this path but it was a rare example of the show relying on a pure plot contrivance.

I’m not against stories that force people into hard or even nasty choices. If I were I’d watch far fewer shows with zombies in them. Such choices are part of the territory but they need to be grounded precisely because they demand that the audience reflect on what they would do.

Yesterday, I reviewed the Swedish film Black Crab. There were no zombies but it also featured desperate people in a collapsing world. Characters were forced into difficult choices. In particular, the main character discovers that her team’s mission is far more murderous than they realised. Like Joel, she is motivated by her attachment to her lost daughter and so she carries on. Later (without spoiling things) she behaves differently because her understanding of the circumstances has changed even though her underlying motives have not. Joel’s behaviour parallels this in the finale and in both cases there’s not much of a moral dilemma for the characters themselves. Their motivations are clear and the audience understands this (I assume) even though the surrounding characters don’t. We don’t need to consider the inner ethics of Yogi Bear, we only need to understand that he likes picnic baskets to follow what his actions will be.

Yet the same isn’t true of the wider group of characters. In The Last of Us that means the Firefly group in the hospital. Asking whether what Joel did was right in that circumstance feels redundant because it is already clear how he will act and that he is not a character who engages in any kind of ethical calculus. When considering the Firefly group, their actions make little sense even if we assume that the doctor is 100% factually correct. We have to further assume that not only is the doctor correct but also they are sure they are correct AND they speak with such authority that the people in charge believe them. Alternatively, we’d have to assume key people want Ellie dead for other reasons, in which case killing her becomes an easy win but all sense of an ethical dilemma vanishes.

Let me put it a different way. If you were in charge of this rebel group in the hospital, what would you do? The obvious answer is that we should try lots of other non-lethal (indeed non-harmful) approaches firts. That’s obvious ethically but also pracitcally and scientifically. There’s not an actual dilemma here and hence these characters become absurd in their actions. Maybe they’ve all been paid off by big mushroom. I guess we’ll never know…until season 2


14 responses to “The Last of Us finale (spoilers)”

  1. I think the ending probably works better in the game, where Joel’s character blurs into the player’s role and arbitrary constraints are part of the form. But I never felt the urge to play the game so it could just be that game reviewers have lower standards for narrative

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Trivia note, an article on zombie apocalypses in “Jews in Popular Science Fiction” argues that under Jewish law it would be acceptable to destroy zombies (despite normally prohibitions against disrespecting the dead) but not to kill an infected person before they turn.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed the show more than I was expecting – my wife had to talk me into giving it a try when it was several episodes in, because I pretty much hate zombie stories. (The one exception being Colson Whitehead’s terrific novel Zone One.) The cast is uniformly terrific and it was really well done. However, I still don’t understand why it’s so acclaimed, because it’s ludicrously melodramatic. (Yes, I know we’re talking about a show with fungal zombies.) How unstoppable the zombies are depends on what the plot requires, so you can either kill them with a quick knife to the head or shoot them six times and they keep coming. The same goes for who lives and who dies. The only thing in any episode that actually surprised me was that the seemingly nice town in Wyoming where Joel’s brother lives isn’t harboring some terrible secret: they’re just decent, if cautious, people trying to get by.

    And (setting aside all the points you’ve already mentioned, about how maybe killing the one person you know of on the entire planet who is immune to the fungus because your doctor thinks he knows what’s going on isn’t really a great idea) the ending just doesn’t work at all in setting up a moral dilemma. Marlene insists to Joel that it’s what Ellie would want, to which the obvious rejoinder is, “Well, you never f***ing asked her, did you?” The Fireflies have already sacrificed any moral authority by not giving Ellie a choice.

    It also doesn’t work dramatically (IMO) because every time we’ve seen them, the Fireflies have behaved exactly like their supposed enemies in FEDRA: murderous thugs who will do anything to get what they want, no matter the consequences for anyone else. It isn’t remotely surprising that it turns out that Joel and Ellie never should have trusted them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • //Joel’s brother lives isn’t harboring some terrible secret: they’re just decent, if cautious, people trying to get by.//

      Yes and I suspect the director knew that because there were moments were I was tense that Ellie was about to stumble on the big-evil-secret and there wasn’t one.


  4. The story had some of the best tension of any movie we’ve seen lately. The character development was fantastic; even though almost all characters other than Ellie and Joel are introduced for just a single episode, the show managed to create lots and lots of memorable individuals.

    Sadly, the ending rests heavily on a tired old SF trope: scientists, faced with a unique phenomenon (e.g. Ellie’s immunity) instantly know exactly what needs to be done with it. This is so dumb, it used to bother me even as a kid. The Fireflies are so casually brutal that it’s hard to feel sorry for them. Frankly, I found myself wishing they’d just talked to Ellie’s commanding officer at FEDRA before they ever left Boston. He seemed more reasonable and more empathetic than anyone else in authority in the whole series, outside of the leadership in Jackson, Wyoming.

    Travis was disappointed with the ending too. “Anticlimactic,” was all he said. Walter slept on his lap through the whole episode–none of the shooting got a peep out of him. (But if I sneezed, he’d jump.) He turned 5 today; five weeks, that is. We’ll definitely have to change our TV viewing once he reaches the age when shows can give him nightmares.

    One aspect of watching this as a parent is that it’s a lot easier for me to put myself in Joel’s situation. If I imagine that Ellie were one of our kids, and that it were necessary to sacrifice the child to save the whole world, I might be able to do it, if I were very sure there was no other way. But I don’t believe I’d survive the decision by very long. I just don’t see how a person could live with that; merely thinking about it seriously is intolerable.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I had a similar logic issue with episode 7 in that I kept asking why TF Joel and Elie didn’t overwinter in the nice town Tommy had settled in. I mean, I grew up in Canada and before people were able to dig those nice underground tunnels under the cities, winter pretty much meant “hunker in your stockade for six months because there’s no point taking the risk of freezing to death.”

    And yes, I get the sense of urgency that they thought they had to get Ellie to the Fireflies ASAP, but if they’ve waited 14 years they can wait three more months for her to be less likely to die of exposure on the journey.

    I enjoyed the series, yeah– but I enjoyed it because 1) the characters are lovely and charismatic and I enjoyed spending time with them, and 2) I’ve been marking 180 undergraduate papers and when I’m doing that I don’t want heavy stuff that makes me think, I want to watch people killing zombies and cannibals.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thinking about it, they could have handwaved it with a line to the effect that, e.g., the cordyceps zombies are less active in cold weather or something like that– which would have been plausible. But they didn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: