Joel: Sinner or Saint

By: Chris Berto


Back in 2013, The Last of Us introduced PlayStation fans to Joel and Ellie as they embarked upon an unforgettable journey across a post-apocalyptic United States; but before that, we meet someone else, whose grievous fate sets the tone for the rest of the game. I am talking, of course, about Sarah, Joel’s 12-year old daughter, who is shot and killed by a soldier after being told to eliminate anyone who may have been infected by the cordyceps outbreak. 10 minutes into the game, and players are asked to watch as a father cries in agony as he holds his dying daughter in his arms. At this moment, Joel is broken, unable to move on from the loss of his child, even 20-years later when we see him avoid any conversations about his past, and refusing to remove the watch she had given him the night of her death, despite it being cracked and broken.

Joel starts this game as a single parent, presumably a widower, and in the span of a few minutes, he loses everything he holds dear. The first time I played the game, I was a 28 yr old bachelor with nothing to call my own except my car and my PlayStation. I reacted to this scene the way I am sure most people did, with shock and sadness, and the uneasy feeling that I was sitting down for a real emotional roller-coaster. Little did I know how right I was. As the events unfold and we witness the horrors the befall Ellie, both in and out of the presence of Joel, we begin to develop a connection to her, much the same way that Joel does, though begrudgingly at first. Like Joel, I became emotionally invested in Ellie’s survival, and I became increasingly interested in the relationship between the two as Joel began showing signs of a fatherly figure over his ward. By the game’s end, Joel has fully adopted the idea that Ellie is his to protect, through life and death, he will let no harm come to this girl, and in the final moments, we see Joel act in a selfish manner by lying to Ellie about the events that unfolded in the Firefly encampment. Ellie’s motivation for doing anything necessary to find a cure is fully realized in the “Left Behind” DLC, and if played together, this “betrayal” in the end by Joel hits even harder knowing what Ellie has been through, what she has lost, and what she willingly gave up to end the suffering of millions. When the credits rolled, I was left with a question: did Joel just become a bad guy?

Fast forward to 2017. I’m married, and father to a daughter of my own and have been bragging to my wife about this game I played a few years ago called The Last of Us. I tell her how amazing it is and that she just needs to play it. I tell her how it will just blow her freaking mind, but she should totally play it on easy because while the gameplay is incredible, what I really want is for her to experience the story. After much deliberation, we decide on an in-person “Let’s Play,” where I played through the game (also on easy), and she would watch. It was great, and it was an experience I hope to repeat again someday.

Knowing about the events in the game and how they unfold, I anticipated the opening scene, as well as a few others during the campaign, and caught myself looking over at my wife to gauge her response to what she was seeing. I expected to see signs of shock, horror, and sadness, and I wasn’t “disappointed” to see that she was feeling the same way I had just a few years prior. What I didn’t expect, however, was how I would feel replaying these same horrible scenes. The shock of Sarah’s death, the surprise of the cannibal encampment, and even Joel’s betrayal and lie at the end were all expected events that I knew would occur. Still, years later, with a daughter of my own, they hit in a way that I was not prepared to experience. Watching Sarah’s final moments in her father’s arms brought sobbing tears to my eyes and made my emotional connection to Joel as a father even stronger. Through this new perspective, my outlook on the rest of the game was altered right up to the end.

Years later, reflecting on his actions and knowing what we know about Ellie’s past through the events of the Left Behind DLC, I am left to wonder about how I would have handled the same situation. Would I sacrifice all that I hold dear for the greater good, for the chance, even a small one, at a cure that could save humanity? Could I let my survival instinct towards humanity override my paternal instincts to protect my own child? Does knowing full well that Ellie would have happily and without hesitation sacrificed her own life if she thought it would help find a cure? Does it change your opinion of Joel’s actions knowing that Ellie lives with survivor’s guilt after watching her own best friend and lover die in front of her while she remains immune to the disease that took Riley from her? I can tell you this; as a father to two little girls of my own, I would, without remorse or hesitation, watch the world around me burn to the ground if that is what it took to protect the lives of my daughter’s. In the closing moments of The Last of Us, when Ellie asks Joel to swear to her that the events at the Firefly camp took place as he described them to her, he looks into her eyes, knowing that the truth would devastate her and lies. The first time I was here, I thought Joel was a selfish man, putting Ellie, against her will and without “consent” into the surrogate role of his daughter. Now, in 2020, I look back at this scene, and I can’t say that I still feel that same way. I don’t know if Joel was right or wrong, but I do know this: that if I were in his shoes, I’d have done the same.

Swear to me… Swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true.

I swear.

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