When Joel (Pedro Pascal) beats to death a FEDRA soldier with his bare hands in the opening episode of The Last Of Us, it serves as an introduction to the rage and grief Joel has kept within himself since the day he saw his daughter, Sarah, gunned down by a terrified soldier at the beginning of the fungal outbreak. Ever since, Joel has been a man without purpose — something he acknowledges when he reveals the reality of his failed suicide attempt to Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in the show’s emotional Season 1 finale. By the time Joel agrees to accompany Ellie in Episode 9, “Look for the Light,” it becomes evident that Joel has developed an attachment to his teen-aged partner-in-crime. Around this time, The Last of Us also feels like it’s moving away from the personal trials and tribulations of Joel and Ellie as characters to become a saving-the-world sci-fi saga. In the end, however, The Last of Us sets the record straight by showing that Season 1 of this epic video-game adaptation was never about saving the world.
Through eight episodes, Season 1 of The Last of Us presents Joel as a grieving father who refuses to believe that there’s anything in the world worth saving. Throughout the events of the season, Joel is seen suffering from the tragic memory of the night when the Cordyceps decided to take over and he lost his only daughter. But as his journey with Ellie neared its end, we saw that a hope was reignited within Joel. Momentarily, The Last of Us Season 1 makes the audience believe that Joel had found his purpose in the world — to give humanity its last chance. But Joel’s actions in the finale reflect that, for Joel, the only world worth saving is one with Ellie in it.
Joel Reunites With Sarah Through Ellie
In Ellie, Joel has found Sarah. Not literally, of course but in Episode 9, as Joel points out all the ways Ellie and Sarah are similar, it’s clear he believes she fills up the vacuum created in his life through Sarah’s absence. From the beginning to the end of the season, Joel’s emotional spectrum shifted from one extreme to the other extreme of the same scale. He starts out as a cold and headstrong man who had been accustomed to the harsh ways of living in a post-apocalyptic world. Joel refuses to acknowledge his past, let alone reveal his insecurities. Every time Ellie tries to probe into his past, Joel prevents her entry into memories that he never intends to talk about again.
Joel’s gradual transformation happens throughout the season, as Ellie transforms from mere cargo for the Fireflies to a part of his life that’s worth risking everything, quite literally in this case. As he confesses to Ellie in Episode 9 that she has made the world worth saving for him, he finally reveals his fears and embraces the father within him whom he had left behind in time. After her scarring encounter with David in Episode 8, Ellie realizes that too many people have died around her for her to live, including her mother, Anna, and her best friend, Riley. If there is to be any meaning to her life, Ellie decides she must fulfill her destiny of saving the world. She makes this evident to Joel in the Season 1 finale when Joel proposes returning midway.
Joel Finds Redemption Through Ellie
If Ellie’s journey is to save humanity and give the world a second chance, Joel’s journey has always been a more personal one. When Joel realizes that Ellie must die for the Fireflies to possibly find a cure for the Cordyceps infection, Joel decides that Ellie’s life is too much of a cost to pay for saving a godforsaken world, and he chooses to rescue Ellie. For him, it’s about understanding that there is still hope for him in the form of Ellie. Maybe, Ellie would have cured humanity had he not stopped the Fireflies, and maybe she still could. But the father in Joel does not want to again lose a daughter. While he couldn’t save Sarah, when given a second chance he snatches what he feels he rightfully deserves — even if that means he would need to lie to Ellie. He doesn’t even spare Marlene’s (Merle Dandridge) life, lest she make another attempt at taking Ellie away from him. In his relentless rage, as he massacres the Fireflies in Episode 9, the father inside Joel finds redemption.
From the start, Joel never believed the world was worth saving. He would not have agreed to transport Ellie to the Fireflies base had it not been for Marlene’s offer to provide Joel with the resources he badly needed to find his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna). And it was Tess’ strong belief in Ellie that ensured that Joel stuck to the mission in the early episodes. But as he spent more time with the geeky and funny teenager, he realized what he missed in his life. Through the many dangers he traverses and tackles with Ellie, Joel realizes that there is a part of this world worth saving — Ellie and Ellie alone. The teenager has lost people close to her too and becomes the perfect companion for Joel, whose story started with the greatest of loss. The Last of Us Season 1’s greatest trick was making viewers believe that all the pain Joel endured would be in service of saving the world. But Joel and Ellie’s journey was never about finding the cure for the Cordyceps and saving humanity … it was about finding themselves through each other.