Character Psychology: Joel, The Last of Us (Part 2)
Hello again! This is part of a character profile series being written to break down stigma and help game fans reach out. Today, we’ll be looking at Joel from Naughty Dog’s 2013 release, The Last of Us.
This is the second part of the article. You can catch up by reading Part 1 here.
Needless to say, this post contains significant spoilers. The Last of Us is a masterpiece – do not let me ruin its story for you if you haven’t played it. Go forth and experience this truly unique adventure before reading this article.
So far we’ve talked about Joel’s relationships with his brother Tommy, his nameless wife, his late daughter Sarah, his survival +/- romantic partner Tess, fireflies leader Marlene, and we have led to the crux of the piece. This game revolves almost exclusively around the journey that Joel and Ellie take, the impact it has on each of them, and in turn of course, the world. Let’s look at why this relationship is so powerful.
All images are screencapped from a video hosted by YouTube user dansg08.
Ok, let’s start again from the begin and look at this journey chronologically.
Joel Meets Ellie
Ellie is roughly the same age as Sarah was when she passed away, give or take a couple of years. Of course, the alarm bells go off immediately. He is incredibly slow to warm toward her – at times abrupt and even rude. I won’t get any awards for psychoanalysis by stating this is obviously because she reminds him of Sarah and he’s subconsciously trying to distance her and avoid painful reminders of his own loss. Poor Ellie doesn’t know this, but she is exceptionally resilient so she just keeps on persisting with him.
After Tess’ death, Joel is left with a burden he cannot refuse.
To preserve his own psychological stability, he must do what Tess asks him to, so that she hasn’t died in vain and he alleviate some of the guilt he feels for failing to protect her. That means delivering Ellie to the fireflies. The two remain together out of necessity, and thus begin to engage in a relationship that is like an elastic band – constantly fighting to be apart and coming back together nonetheless.
A lot of this psychological push-and-shove comes from the natural paternal relationship there, contrasting with Joel’s abject terror at having to feel…anything, really. However, despite his best efforts it is clear that by the time they leave Bill’s, he has developed a platonic affection for Ellie which he spends several months struggling to reconcile. He compliments her performance not once but twice, and even lets himself actually feel relaxed around her. You can see his guard melt away, slowly enough that he wouldn’t even notice. The riposte to this, of course, is far more swift when moments occur that remind him of what he stands to lose.
A key example of this happens not long after Tess dies. In order to save Joel from being violently drowned to death by an enemy soldier, Ellie shoots “the hell outta that guy, huh” saving his life – yet he scolds her. Why? It’s not because she put him in danger, as he suggests – but because she put herself in harm’s way for him.
Anger is a very primal emotion.
It’s one of the few instinctive responses which pop up when we feel most vulnerable, most threatened. This isn’t something Joel can control, or even realises is happening – it’s a defense mechanism, a knee-jerk reaction from deep within designed to keep him safe. I think that’s something we can all relate to. Reaction formation is the process by which you act out the opposite to what you actually feel, in order to avoid confronting those feelings.
When Joel lashes out at Ellie, he is using anger to counteract his internal feelings of relief (that she is safe) and guilt (that she had to put herself in danger for him). Reaction formation is Joel’s favourite defence mechanism, along with compartmentalisation, displacement, and compensation. You can read more about defence mechanisms here. The more these situations occur, the more defensive Joel becomes (showing how much his feelings have grown). His struggle it not anymore with Ellie, but with himself, his own fears and desires, and the cognitive dissonance arising within.
By the time Joel and Ellie get to Tommy’s, they’ve been together for between 4 and 6 months. I’d say it’s pretty tough not to form a bond with someone in this time, even if you are as shut off as Joel. I’d say it’s even harder not to form a bond with a kid. And fortunately for everyone around him, Joel has just about started to admit this to himself.
Joel practically begs Tommy to take Ellie off his hands.
He has acknowledged his emotional bond to her, and is desperately trying to justify ending it. He even says as much:
This is a man who has likely never admitted needing anything from anyone before.
It catches Tommy off-guard, to the extent he comments on how much Joel has changed: “You still remember how to kill, right?”
After Ellie finds out that Joel is planning on fobbing her off onto Tommy, she does a runner and heads to a cabin in the woods. Joel finds her and dishes out his favourite party trick – emotional displacement and reaction formation. Instead of addressing his fear of losing her, he shouts angrily, “Do you have any idea what your life is worth?”, using her immunity (a fact he didn’t care at all about a few months ago) as a justification for his misplaced rage.
The great thing about Ellie is she calls him out on it. Every time he does some psychological gymnastics to be angry at someone else (think “shot the hell outta that guy” scene) she points it out, and it makes Joel reflect on his behaviour. Usually his most powerful revelations follow a significant conflict, wherein he is forced to face his own demons.
This seems to be the point that Joel (consciously) acknowledges that Ellie reminds him of his daughter. It hurts at first – a lot – and his response is proportional to that hurt. But something odd happens next: instead of doing what would definitely be the best thing for both him and Ellie, and arguably be the easiest thing for him, he just stops fighting. He gives in, and lets her become the daughter he lost.
Now, by all means I don’t think that Joel just lays back and purposefully succumbs to letting Ellie become his surrogate daughter. That happens gradually. What we see here is Joel realising that Ellie cares for him and already relies on him to feel safe and protected. To Joel, abandoning her now is as good as letting her die. He has become a paternal figure for her, so it is easy to step into the role she’s made for him (which is totally not her fault – she’s a kid and the responsibility is on Joel).
Thus we see Joel become vulnerable. And when I use the word “succumb”, I really do mean it. He has resigned himself to letting his subconscious desires rule – the need to have a daughter again. He fought pretty damn hard to try to stop it, but by University, he’s lost. He essentially allows Ellie to become Sarah. And instead of grieving the daughter he lost, Joel replaces her with one he can have.
When Ellie next brings Sarah up, he’s okay with it.
He needn’t grieve anymore. Ellie has become her now.
This Scene, Because, Just, Well Look
Now that he has made his full transformation into father mode, there is nothing in this world that could get between him and his surrogate daughter. Not even the fate of mankind. Not even her autonomy or, you know, actual choices.
Some players argue that the fireflies didn’t really know Ellie’s brain fungus could save the day and that they should have waited until they could remove it safely. I think given what happens next, that that’s almost a moot point. Objectively what we see is Joel making a decision to kill a lot of people to save Ellie’s life when she had already chosen to die. He maims, tortures and murders strangers with impunity (+/- two unarmed nurses depending on how you chose to experience that scene).
Any shred of fight in him to resist Ellie has completely gone now, and he will do whatever it takes to keep her alive and prevent history from repeating itself.
You’d have to consult with Neil Druckmann to know for sure, but I genuinely believe that Ellie knows Joel is lying in that phenomenal epilogue. Better yet, she’s okay with it. Let’s look at this logically:
- Ellie is a smart kid. She has only lived during a zombie apocalypse. She kind of knows the deal.
- She knows there has never been someone immune before her. She knows the reaction Marlene had, Marlene who is the collective knowledge of the fireflies.
- Ellie has been abandoned persistently throughout her life, and probably has a very hard time believing people can or will love her.
- Being “the cure” was scary but to her, but felt like it was the only way she could be wanted or needed in this world. She had absolutely accepted her fate by the giraffe scene.
- She wakes up in a car. In a hospital gown. No Marlene, no goodbye. Nothing.
- It is pretty obvious Joel is lying through his teeth.
And yet – Joel’s deception shows her a love she has never seen before.
Marlene was willing to let Ellie sacrifice herself – even knowing the reasons why, it is never going to be an easy ride to accept the woman who has been the closest thing you ever had to a mother is okay with you dying. That is some seriously damaging rejection. But Joel? Joel was willing to sacrifice the entire human race to keep her alive. When she demands he tell her the truth – I think she is probably testing that love. She’s saying, “Do you really want me around that much?”
If Joel keeps up the facade, it’s much easier for her to justify her own desire to live. They are mutually beneficial here.
Well, kind of. On the one hand, she gets to live and gets to feel loved. On the other, she is literally being used by him as a walking talking breathing memory of his daughter so that he doesn’t have to address his emotions.
It’s dark, morally objectionable, and intellectually challenging.
It forces the player to question everything they thought they knew about human character. It forces you to be the bad guy. And it forces you to feel okay that you did it.
Humanity – and being human – is not an issue of good or evil, of this or that.
Being human is being all. We each have such a magnificent, terrifying, incomprehensible complexity about us. The conflict we feel when we look at Joel is the same as that we feel upon looking at ourselves; believing we have a strong knowledge of right and wrong, Joel shows us we can also sympathise with all those shades of grey in between.
This is something we must all accept – we are a construction, built on pillars of experiences and memories, strengths and vulnerabilities, and additional factors we cannot control or even see. We are not “good” or “bad”, we are a work in progress.