The Last of Us' Unspoken Family
Ed Smith
After leaving the Boston safe zone, Joel protests about escorting Ellie any further, insisting it is too dangerous. Tess takes one look at him and issues a curt dismissal: “I get it.” She knows Ellie is a surrogate for Joel's dead daughter, Sarah. By the end of The Last of Us, we know it, too. The relationship between Joel and Ellie, however, has roots deeper than their respective ages, respective genders, and his life experience compared to hers. Long before he has killed to protect her, or she has accepted his final, vital lie, Joel is positioned as Ellie's adoptive father. A telling sequence of events, in the game's opening hours, characterises their suppositious family. In The Last of Us' very first scene, we see Joel return to his home. Sarah awakens from a nap and gives him his birthday present: a new wristwatch. Later, he carries her to bed. Notably absent however is Sarah's mother, Joel's wife—as carnage envelopes them, neither makes mention of another parent. We may presume that, prior to the events of The Last of Us, she has died. Joel cares for Sarah by himself. When he first meets Ellie, Joel is accompanied by Tess. Later, when the trio is separated by falling rubble inside a collapsing skyscraper, it is Tess with whom Ellie is partnered. Tess instructs Ellie to stay out of the border guards' searchlight. Tess tells Ellie how Clickers locate their victims. While Joel dispatches several Infected, Ellie waits, with Tess. The examples are myriad (Tess and Ellie work together to move an obstacle, Tess repeatedly answers Ellie's questions about the outside world) but the implication is the same: attentive and nurturing, Tess is Ellie's substitute mother. When she is killed, and Joel is thrust into the position of caregiver, it's as if events of his former life have repeated. As with Sarah, sole responsibility over Ellie is transferred to Joel. She personifies his daughter not merely because of her age or comparative innocence, but through familiar circumstance. She comes into his care almost literally the same way as did his own child. Joel's wristwatch has by this point shattered and stopped. When Ellie points it out—“your watch is broken”—we sense Joel is unable to relinquish a bygone time. His assuming the role of father, to a young girl, after the death of a mother, is a wish fulfilled. In as complete a way as possible, he has Sarah back. Joel's need for Ellie is emphasised not just by Sarah's death but the actual process of Sarah dying. After she's shot and Joel holds her in his arms, she's in such pain and expiring so rapidly that she's unable to speak—having seen movies and played other videogames, we're accustomed to the characters in these kinds of scenes exchanging some potent, parting words, but between Joel and Sarah there are none. That absence of conversation pronounces the void left in Joel by the death of his daughter. Aside from the wristwatch, which later breaks, he has very little of her to hang onto: the end of the world for Joel is not heralded by parasites and monsters, but leaving his family home and staring as his child wordlessly dies. Sarah's whimpering but not talking expresses an unspeakable pain; by extension, there are some feelings so profound they are difficult, or impossible to put into words. Such an experience is born out in the moment Joel and Ellie resolutely become father and daughter—or rather, when Ellie is affirmed in Joel's mind as his replacement for Sarah. Having killed David, a febrile pervert who kidnaps and touches her, Ellie is held in Joel's arms. The music rises. The dialogue fades out. Briefly, we cannot hear what Joel and Ellie are saying to each other—in this moment, their emotion is so much it isn't, or rather can't be, encapsulated by words. She isn't dying, but covered in blood, having murdered David, we may assume something within Ellie—some naïveté or wonder about life—is slipping away. As it goes, Joel holds her and the scene continues without dialogue. Albeit more abstractly, once again Joel's time with his daughter is being replayed. He can be forgiven for assuming he is Ellie's father. The very universe seems to insist. Silence, in fact, repeatedly pushes Ellie and Joel closer, and into a pseudo-family. Unconditional love, a fabled, parental bond which regardless of circumstance can't be broken is finely captured in Joel and Ellie's wordless exchange—it implies their relationship is impenetrable, and so exclusive to them that we as an audience cannot know it. A similar impression is given by the three chapter breaks: Autumn, Winter, and Spring. Between the seasons, time passes off-screen. When we rejoin Joel and Ellie, they've shared experiences to which we were not privy, fastidiously implied by their changed clothes. It feels the equivalent of a family returning home, closing and locking the door and conducting its own, inscrutable dynamic. These characters know one another better than we know them. So when, in the final seconds of The Last of Us Joel lies to Ellie, the game's tragedy is redoubled. He is not merely an overbearing man, being dishonest with his surrogate daughter. He is a father betraying the entire institution of family; with selfishness, he trivialises a unique and ineffable love. One wonders if this represents the final fusion of Joel and Ellie as parent and child—as much as adoration and co-dependence, do disappointment and expiation specify the family? That would depend, of course, on one's experience.


Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.