How The Last of Us Part II Perfectly Handles One of its Biggest Moments (SPOILERS)
While many people have their opinions of The Last of Us Part II, ours was quite positive. As a stunning technical achievement and a great structure to the storytelling, it’s easily one of the year’s biggest titles. One thing that makes The Last of Us Part II so special is the way it realistically handles human emotion. Not only does it do this with its characters, but it even manages to work it into the gameplay to an extent. One of the biggest moments however, deserves a lot of credit and respect. If you haven’t played the game yet, this is your warning, as we’ll look into one of the biggest spoilers in depth.
Still here? Alright, let’s talk about the early big moment in the game. Yes, I’m talking about the death of Joel Miller. Before we get into the segment itself, a little background as to why this would have a big impact on fans. Joel was the main character that players take control of in The Last of Us. As the protagonist, players get a strong liking for Joel right from the start of the first game. We connect with Joel so well when he loses his daughter Sarah, and we can’t help but root for him. With that in mind, his discovery of Ellie is what helps him heal. Ellie fills the hole that Sarah leaves in his heart, and he truly loves her like his own. It helps that you also have the charming vocal tones of voice acting veteran Troy Baker.
The first game tasks players with bringing Ellie to the Firefly base in Boston, MA. Ellie, being immune to the virus in this world, is the key to a potential vaccine. Unfortunately, to make this vaccine would come at the cost of Ellie’s life. Joel, after making a trip across America, working so hard to reach Boston, is now left with the reality that he could lose his surrogate daughter. His heart literally can’t accept that again. Despite taking the long journey, he takes the selfish route, saving Ellie at the cost of dozens of Firefly lives. It’s a moral choice that questions who Joel is, saving one life to risk millions. Considering a conversation in Part II where Joel says he would do it all over again, it’s clear that Ellie is everything to him.
Given that we play the majority of the first game as Joel, we connect with Ellie as well. We feel the bond between the two grow as time goes on. It’s important that Joel is the first character we play as in The Last of Us Part II. Even though we don’t experience any combat with him, it’s Joel that leads us to Ellie. Just like the first game, he finds Ellie yet again. He gives her a symbolic gift for this sequel, one that lingers throughout the campaign: a guitar. This event takes place one year after the first game, and while the main game is four years later, this early moment is important for the impact. A lot happens in four years, and the game takes plenty of moments to detail some of those events. Sometimes they’re happy and magical moments, and sometimes they’re intense and dramatic events.
The most important of these events is, of course, Joel revealing why he saved Ellie from Boston. This revelation is what causes a strain in their relationship, having Ellie distance herself from Joel. While the two care about each other, Ellie doesn’t quite forgive him for what he does. She was willing to give up her life for the rest of the world. Ellie would have been happy to have that purpose fulfilled in her life. She wanted to matter to someone. Fortunately, or unfortunately in some cases, she matters to Joel, and that’s what puts her in this situation. Ellie puts Joel in an ultimatum, forcing him to tell her the truth he was hiding for years. He gives in simply because he didn’t want to lose her. Unfortunately, telling the truth did exactly what he expected, causing Ellie to close off from him.
Now playing as Ellie, we see the woman that she has grown to become. She’s matured, but she still maintains that love for comics and dad jokes. We take control of Ellie after a recent outburst in their small community in Jackson County, Wyoming. This very outburst put Joel in a tough spot, as he tried to defend Ellie from a homophobic citizen of their community. Ellie, still feeling spiteful toward Joel, tells him she doesn’t need his help. It’s not until later in the game that we eventually see the conversation between the two where she tells him she’d like to forgive him. This final conversation is just part of the impact of Joel’s death. Ellie is finally ready to start forgiving him, and suddenly, he’s taken away from her. She is robbed of the chance to forgive her father figure, who she still loves, despite her previous anger.
Ellie had no idea that Joel was in danger. She wasn’t aware of the consequences that could come back to bite him. Unfortunately, that bite finally came, and her name was Abby. The Last of Us Part II puts players in the position to watch the gut-wrenching and painful visual of Joel being tortured. We don’t need to detail it here, but when Ellie finally finds Joel, she’s helpless to save him. Not only is she unable to deliver her full forgiveness, but she also feels guilt for being unable to save him. Watching Joel’s death before her very eyes, she didn’t care about his selfish decision. She just cared about him. It’s enough to send her to Seattle on a quest for revenge.
The details of Joel’s death are not what’s important here. What is important is how Naughty Dog handled the moment. The aftermath of Joel’s death is incredibly powerful. We first see Ellie and Tommy, Joel’s brother, speaking of how they want to handle the situation. They were both there when it happened, both feeling guilt and grief. Discussing the event, it’s clear what they both want. They both want to seek revenge, despite the obvious risks of going after the members of the WLF. They don’t know all the information, and their only clues are “Washington Liberation Front” and “Abby”. It clearly doesn’t matter to them, as they’re both fighters, and they want to avenge Joel.
Moving to the next scene, we get an emotional image of Ellie grieving at Joel’s grave. The music is somber and it sets the tone. Not only do we see Joel’s gravestone, subtly revealing his last name in the games for the first time, but we see that Jackson has a full blown cemetery. One with many graves, likely of fallen citizens since the pandemic started. Joel is seemingly given the burial of a hero, despite the citizens not knowing the motive for his murder. Ellie is still determined to go after Abby, and Dina refuses to let her go alone. This is a great moment for Dina, because it showcases that Ellie is important to her, and she knows right now, this is when Ellie needs her most. It’s when we leave the cemetery that we make our way to Joel’s home, which deserves a highlight.
Joel’s home, which is fairly luxurious for a single man, has dozens of flower bouquets and cards on the porch. This is clearly a man that meant a lot to the community. So much so, they give him a two story home with three bathrooms. Does Joel need that luxury? Probably not. But it’s clear that despite his own personal demons, he worked hard to get here. Ellie makes her way to the front door, and her PTSD kicks in, giving her tremors. With Dina there supporting her, Ellie summons the courage to enter the house. She needs to do it herself to make herself feel better. When we walk inside Joel’s home, we see the life of a Texas man. It has a very traditional American interior filled with several framed pictures of horses and cowboys. There’s a woodworking studio where he restores guitars and makes wood sculptures.
As Ellie, we can explore the home, finding seemingly significant objects like a dinosaur book or a coffee mug. It isn’t until later that we see the significance of these items, but they call back to this moment when they reemerge. This moment of exploring Joel’s home is significant for the impact of losing him, both for Ellie and the player. We’re even given the option to smell one of Joel’s leather jackets. This is a normal occurrence for those that are grieving, as the scent of a loved one brings back memories. While some may find it weird, this is something that some people do without even being aware. Players can also see two framed pictures, one of Joel and Sarah, and the other of Joel and Ellie. He didn’t forget Sarah, but he gives Ellie the same love.
Finally, we get to the point where Ellie finds the item she’s looking for. On Joel’s bed is a box with several keepsakes. One of these keepsakes is his broken watch, a gift from his daughter Sarah on the night that she died. It’s broken, but that had a special significance to Joel. There’s also Joel’s revolver, likely the same one from the prologue of the first game. It’s a powerful weapon that Ellie holds onto for the rest of the game, a remnant from the first game passing the torch to the second. These keepsakes were important to Joel, and therefore, they’re important to Ellie. She takes them with her to Seattle, wanting to take a little piece of Joel with her. She likely feels comfort from doing this, even though she’s clearly in great emotional pain.
There’s more to the segment, but this is where the important moments about Joel stop. This sudden stop shows that it’s time to stand up and keep moving forward. The entire sequence is done with such tact and respect to Joel, which he arguably doesn’t deserve. It allows the player to grieve, and it keeps the moment peaceful to maintain the respect. Say what you want about the act of killing Joel, but you can’t deny that love and care went into this. Naughty Dog knew what they were doing, and it’s likely that some real experiences went into this moment. It’s a beautiful detail, and one that deserves appreciation, as it’s not something you’ll often see in games.
It just goes to show you that Naughty Dog knows how to craft a story. The Last of Us Part II is a triumph, and I stand by calling it a masterpiece. Moments like this elevate it beyond a video game, pushing it to an emotionally immersive experience. It’s hard knowing Joel is no longer with us, but the fact that his loss impacts us so heavily just shows that the game succeeds in making us feel something. And even though he leaves us early on in The Last of Us Part II, his presence is felt all throughout the game.