A debate about the moral conundrum presented in “The Last of Us” is raging all over again now that TV fans were introduced to Joel’s impossible choice: save one child, or save humanity?
Only the question isn’t as simple as that, which is why video game players have been debating this exact issue for years before the HBO Max television adaptation brought the story to a wider audience. For those who don’t know, “The Last of Us” follows two people as they journey across a post-zombie apocalypse America.
Joel (Pedro Pascal) is a father who is bereft after losing his teenage daughter in the early days of the crisis. Fourteen-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is an orphan who never knew an uninfected world. But what makes Ellie special is her immunity to the cordyceps brain infection which turns people into flesh-eating zombies.
The pair spends the entire season attempting to get to the Fireflies headquarters where one doctor is eager to use Ellie’s immunity to create a vaccine against the deadly cordyceps. Along the way, Joel becomes like a father to Ellie, bonding them in a strong parent-child bond. That’s why he reacts in a murderous rage when they finally reach the doctor who claims he can save the world, but only by killing Ellie to extract her brain and create a cure.
Joel guns down everyone in his path on his way to rescue Ellie from the surgery. He escapes the hospital and in the final moments of season 1, lies to the teen about why they left before the vaccine could be created. Ellie didn’t know she was about to make the ultimate sacrifice, and Joel fears she would have wanted to.
Troy Baker, the person who voiced Joel’s character in the game, said his perspective on the events has changed since he became a father.
When asked if he would have made the same decision, the voice actor said, “When we were making part one, I was at a disadvantage to [game writer Neil Druckmann], because Neil was a father. I was acting. This was a very real possibility for him — what do I look like in the event that I lose my daughter?”
“And I have a son, and I don’t know what I would look like if I lost him,” Baker continued. “But I do know that if I had the opportunity to save him I would do anything. I would do anything to save him. So people have asked me, why would Joel do that when he could have saved the world, and my answer to them is always this — he did, he did save the world. It’s just that the world was that girl, and that’s it.”
While many arguments focus on whether it’s morally permissible to sacrifice one person’s life for the sake of many, they mostly fail to bring up one essential point: consent, or more accurately, the ability of minors to consent.
While there’s a good chance that Ellie would have agreed to the surgery even if she had been told it would kill her, that doesn’t make it acceptable for adults to allow her to make those decisions. It brings to mind many other timely debates over other life-altering choices children should and shouldn’t be making.
Adults are there to protect kids, not to let them decide it’s time to die. That’s why, for now at least, most Americans are still rightly horrified at the introduction of pediatric assisted suicide being introduced in Canada.
Co-showrunner Craig Mazin also weighed in on Joel’s choice.
“When you love something unconditionally, logic goes out the window and you will do really horrible things to protect the ones you love,” Mazin said during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“And there’s a lot of examples worldwide of this happening all the time. So for us it was just like, ‘Here are all the different pieces that we have, the tools we have within this story. How can we, with each episode, thematically, touch on that in some way?’”
Ultimately, Mazin said he’s unclear on what the “right” choice is. “I’m confused about it morally,” he said. “I think it’s a difficult choice. I go back and forth. I think a lot of people will go back and forth on it.”
A New York Times reviewer was sympathetic to Joel’s protective tendencies but still insisted that Ellie should have been able to make her own choices, even if that meant choosing death.
“[Joel] fails Ellie in the way that many parents fail their children: out of love and fear,” James Poniewozik wrote of the finale. He said Joel lied about the Fireflies not needing her anymore because he knew she would have been angry about what he did.
“Maybe he doesn’t want her to feel guilty,” the reviewer continued. “Maybe he doesn’t want her to hate him. Maybe he suspects that, if she had the choice, she would have agreed to save the world instead of herself.”
“We have already been told that Joel has done horrible things to survive the apocalypse,” Poniewozik writes. “But the unforgivable thing he does here is to make Ellie into a non-player character again, denying her the agency to be the protagonist of her own life.”
The season finale of “The Last of Us” brings to mind the classic trolley car morality question. This famous ethical thought exercise asks people how they would react if they could divert a train poised to kill five people onto a track where it would only kill one person.
The answer changes for most people depending on who, exactly, is standing on that track. What if the one person is your own child? That’s one way of looking at the choice Joel made.
Steven Gimbel, a professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, also weighed in on the question. “We are wired to respond more strongly to people we care about and to people we think are like us,” he said. “If we’re talking about the wellbeing of all humanity, now that seems a different case. We can understand why Joel made the decision he did. Most people, including me, would’ve made that decision.”
But Gimbel said that ultimately Joel should have chosen to sacrifice Ellie’s life for the greater good. “It would’ve hurt, but sometimes the right thing is hard to do,” he concluded.
One major problem with this analogy when it comes to “The Last of Us” is that there was no guarantee that the doctor would have been able to create a vaccine to defeat the cordyceps despite his belief that he could. So letting the doctor take out Ellie’s brain to potentially create this miracle cure only offered the potential for saving humanity.
And even if it was guaranteed that the doctor could have saved the whole world, would that make it the right choice to kill a child without informing her? Would that answer change if the adults had told Ellie she’d have to die to save humanity and she agreed it was worth it?
Like most anything to come out of Hollywood these days, “The Last of Us” included multiple leftist-approved storylines ranging from LGBTQ cheerleading to portraying communism as utopia and, as always, portraying Christians as the eternal villains. But when it came to Joel stepping up and doing what it took to protect the young girl who had become a daughter to him, for once this series made a good decision.