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The Student News Site of Santa Rosa Academy

The Lasso

The Student News Site of Santa Rosa Academy

The Lasso

[OPINION] Joel Miller is a Villain (The Last of Us)

The Last of Us has proved itself to be a sprawling multi-media franchise this past year. Earning itself eight Emmys, a remaster of its latest game, and an ever-growing fanbase; The Last of Us is notorious for its tragic, morally complex characters who garner most of the series’ diehard fans. However, I’d argue that the heart-wrenching fan-favorite and protagonist of the series’ first game Joel Miller is truly the villain of this story.

Joel Miller, played by Pedro Pascal in HBO’s The Last of Us (2023) (Neil Druckman & Kantemir Balagov)

WARNING: Upcoming spoilers for The Last of Us (2013), The Last of Us Part II (2020), and HBO’s The Last of Us (2023).

The Last of Us (2013) follows the main characters Joel Miller and Ellie Williams as they cross the country to deliver the letter to a hospital where her immunity can be used to combat the deadly (and deliberately zombie-coded) Cordyceps infection that’s been wreaking havoc on the world for a decade. The Firefly organization, an anti-government faction seeking a cure for the deadly virus, is in possession of one of the few medical professionals remaining on Earth. He, among the hundreds of Firefly members and allies, hopes to utilize Ellie’s immunity for the betterment and possible redemption of humanity. As the player, we follow Joel and Ellie’s emotional and personal journey through this narrative. Ellie suffers from abandonment issues due to her childhood and Joel from PTSD due to the loss of his daughter, Sarah, during the first hours of the outbreak. Together, they forge a father-daughter bond that heals some wounds and reopens others.

At the narrative’s climax, Ellie is delivered to the Fireflies. After Ellie enters surgery, Firefly leader Marlene informs Joel that Ellie’s death is certain in this process. Joel decides that it isn’t worth it. He decides, for Ellie, for the Fireflies, and consequently for all of the few remaining peoples of Earth, that a cure isn’t worth it. In this, he takes his firearm (of your choice) and obliterates every bystander in the building. In HBO’s 2023 adaptation, Joel kills three people upon speculation, as the show doesn’t go out of its way to confirm any sort of kill count. In the 2013 game, however, Joel murders three Fireflies in cutscenes and up to twenty-two in gameplay.

Before Joel reaches Ellie, he can optionally discover an item dubbed the Surgeon’s Recorder. If you press play on the media located inside, the surgeon proclaims in monologue “We’re about to hit a milestone in human history equal to the discovery of penicillin. After years of wandering in circles, we’re about to come home, make a difference, and bring the human race back into control of its destiny. All of our sacrifices and the hundreds of men and women who’ve bled for this cause, or worse, will not be in vain. “

Jerry Anderson (The Surgeon) for The Last of Us Remake for PlayStation 5 (2022)

The popular consensus upon completion of The Last of Us is to interpret Joel’s act of mass murder as one born from familial love for Ellie. I object that Joel saves Ellie not out of concern for her possible objection to being killed for a cure, but because she– and their relationship– would cease to be. Because he couldn’t give her up, not because she didn’t want to give up. In the 2020 sequel, a major character development of Ellie’s is forgiving Joel for this. They both acknowledge what Ellie’s immunity and possible cure meant to her thematically. In a conversation with his brother on the same topic, Joel says “She needed her immunity to mean something’…” in reference to Ellie’s compliance with the Fireflies.

Joel Miller, voiced by Troy Baker in The Last of Us Remake for PlayStation 5 (2022) (Neil Druckman)

In contrast, many fans of this series would claim that Joel’s decision was just. Gaming savant Autumn Howe said “What’s the point of living in a world that is ‘saved’ when you couldn’t save the one person that meant the world to you? Joel may have doomed the world, but he saved his world.” Similarly, keen gamer Bentley Jenkins asserts that “[Joel] made the right decision at the moment, but after the fact, he continued with making wrong decisions. I think he should’ve told [Ellie] what he did in the scene right outside of Jackson at the end of the first game on the hill…” Many find The Last of Us main characters to be touching; their excellence in depth permeates beyond their actions of moral questionability. Chemistry teacher and sponsor of Santa Rosa Academy’s gaming club, Mr. Paez commented, “I love The Last of Us, both the games and the show. I enjoy a variety of games, but few captured my attention to the story and characters like The Last of Us. I also think the adaptation to the HBO show was phenomenal in not just capturing the essence of the main characters and their journey but in expanding on some of the side characters.”

Narrative games are not typically as divisive in plot as these games. However, The Last of Us will certainly continue to divide fans based on its story, as developer Naughty Dog has leaked a potential threequel on multiple occasions. While disagreement is inevitable with stories as starkly written as these, it’s also the main appeal.

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About the Contributor
Corrin Santolucito
Corrin Santolucito, Staff Writer
Chloe Valentine “Corrin” Santolucito is a Junior at Santa Rosa Academy; born in 2007 in Newport Beach, California. Having grown up in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee in addition to California, Corrin has seen multiple perspectives while growing up. They’re a musician of multiple instruments and an artist of multiple mediums. Their interests include art in the form of comic books, video games, literature, music, and visual arts. 
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    Scurvy-haverFeb 16, 2024 at 2:34 pm

    Awesome article