header is screenshot from The Last of Us Part II
Remedial Studies
Reid McCarter

This article discusses plot points from throughout The Last of Us Part II.

Early in The Last of Us Part II, Joel, the first game’s main character, is beaten to death with a golf club. This moment is meant to shock and horrify, and, aside from the predictability of him being killed in order to further the character arc of Part II’s protagonist Ellie, it mostly accomplishes what it’s aiming for—and mostly because the decision to frame Joel’s death through a close-up of Ellie’s anguished face recentres her reaction as the most important aspect of the scene. Ellie, pinned to the ground by attackers, screams in horror as she watches Joel’s final moments, helpless to intervene. We’ve already seen the pulped bloody crater that used to be his face a few seconds before; the violent specifics of his death aren’t as significant as what that death means to the woman watching it happen in front of her.

The scene promises a lot. Ellie’s grief is, we expect, complicated. In the first Last of Us, she became a surrogate daughter to Joel and over time began to view him as, if not a father, then at least something like family. The previous game ended with Joel betraying Ellie, though. Its last scenes see him intervene so that she can’t give her life in order to create a cure for the not-zombie virus plaguing their version of the world. He goes on to lie to her about what happened when she wakes up away from the hospital where he’s committed a puerile, self-centred massacre in her “defence.” In the story's final lines of dialogue, Ellie makes Joel swear that he’s telling the truth when he says her death couldn’t have led to the end of the apocalyptic misery that surrounds them. Joel lies to her and the player is left with the ambiguity of Ellie’s expression as she reacts to what she understands as him telling her either a harsh truth or a trust-breaking lie.

With his death in Part II, the unclear ending of the first game is resurrected. We don’t know what Ellie knows at this point, but, as with so much else in The Last of Us Part II, the story answers—and then over answers—that question in time. Flashbacks reveal that Ellie discovered Joel was lying to her in no uncertain terms, that she wanted to still love him anyway, and that his death ended the possibility of her working through the consequences of his betrayal with him as an active participant. The story of a woman tormented by parental betrayal, haunted by the legacy left to her by a violent father figure who nonetheless fiercely protected her, could have been a compelling one. In brief moments, as in Part II’s conclusion, it makes good on this, portraying Ellie’s continuing story as a coming of age tale focused on someone emerging imperfectly out of the bloody haze of inherited violence.

And yet, throughout the rest of its two dozen or so hours, The Last of Us Part II is more concerned with gracelessly reiterating the themes its predecessor already established than honing in on the thornier psychological questions its narrative raises. It’s a bizarrely muddled game for one that often addresses its concerns with so little subtlety. At its heart, it wants to examine how Ellie breaks free of the ultimately selfish brutality that shaped Joel’s life and was handed down to her following his death. Rather than explore this topic through believable interpersonal character dynamics and a plot that expresses her doubt with a contextual nuance greater than outright cutscene dialogue, Part II largely bypasses dramatic inference to present itself like a morality play populated by allegorical figures. Its characters come across less as people whose actions are informed by subtle shifts in outlook and more as pieces on the plot's chessboard, moved into the appropriate configurations without having done much to naturalistically explain the process that led them to key decisions.   

Ellie’s girlfriend, Dina, for instance, possesses few interests other than caring for Ellie with a maternal warmth meant to counteract Joel—and Ellie’s inherited—paternal desire for the violent conquest of a successfully bloody revenge plot. (An unpleasant strain of gender essentialism runs through Part II, and completes with the pseudo-Oedipal revelation that Dina is with child, one of two in-game pregnancies meant to cast the game’s future as a war between the traditionalist values of masculine dominance and feminine nurture.) The introduction of Abby, the woman who killed Joel early in the game and the perspective players take for the second half of a plot that doubles back to run parallel to Ellie’s revenge story, offers even flatter character work. We discover, in one of Part II’s sweatiest moments of plot-backfilling sequel justification, that Abby’s father was one of the surgeons killed by Joel during his rampage to “save” Ellie in the first game. In turn, she’s a character designed from the ground up as a foil to Ellie—a broadly written plot device used to mirror Ellie’s quest for revenge with her own. Through her eyes, we see Ellie’s vengeance as a series of monstrous acts of violence. Abby’s friends are hunted down and exterminated, one by one, so that “the funny one,” “the ex-boyfriend,” and other archetypal members of her social circle, are recontextualized from blank target to human being. The heavy handedness of this framing and the obviousness with which it tries to amplify the relative subtlety of its predecessor’s themes of cyclical violence and the inheritance of trauma is extensive enough that an earlier draft of this article used the summary, “Rashomon for dipshits” as a description.

That’s unfair, though, in light of the successes Part II does manage in scenes where it’s allowed to drift from the orbit of its predecessor. It might be better to call it “a multi-million dollar remedial class” created by people eager to ease their own concerns that some part of the first game’s audience didn’t get what it was going for. In Part II, the ambiguities of the past are extrapolated on seemingly endlessly. Everything is drawn out to the point that it becomes as subtle as the smack of Abby’s sledgehammer on an enemy’s head. The violence of the first game, increasingly uncomfortable but noted explicitly usually only when Ellie would mutter, “Jesus, Joel” after some of his most brutal kills, is almost comically overdone here. Both Ellie and Abby are merciless with unnamed enemies, psychotically shushing bandits as they’re dragged into tall grass to have their throats opened with a samurai film’s blood geyser or their neckbones cracked like branches in the crook of muscly arms. The characters’ adversaries howl in agony and terror if a gunshot or explosion doesn’t kill them outright, screaming wet screams as they bleed to death amidst their severed limbs and the snake’s nest of their own bright red guts. Then there’s the killing of dogs (which, if you want to be generous, could be argued for as a symbol of ferocious, unthinking loyalty, killed for that loyalty in a foreshadowing of Ellie and Abby’s doomed quests for paternal revenge) and the sound of enemies calling out one another’s names when they find a friend’s corpse. The message of all of this, repeated over a stretched-thin 30 odd hours of play, is that killing people in an attempt to erase the pain of a loved one being killed is horrifying—only, Part II uses its constant brutality so often and loudly that its excess wraps back around to banality. Any message it may want to impart regarding the commission of violence is drowned in the litres upon litres of blood Ellie and Abby routinely, monotonously spill throughout the story.

Whereas the first Last of Us featured characters like Bill and the brothers Henry and Sam, who foreshadowed how Joel’s selfishness and overprotectiveness would lead to the tragedy of his relationship with Ellie, here we have rival factions of religious cults and militias that war with one another in a conflict whose beginning nobody can really remember. To make sure we understand that their struggle is as impotent and wasteful as Ellie and Abby’s mutually destructive hatred, one of Part II’s several climaxes involves a protracted battle between these groups for control of an island community whose buildings burn down as a backdrop to the futile carnage. Instead of the first game including a brief visit to a fledgling village of survivors (now grown to a full town in Part II) that showed how the altruism of communal effort and mutual aid offered a better way of life than Joel’s lonely distrustfulness, the sequel creates an entire subplot that reframes the Joel/Ellie relationship as Abby growing to love and protect a boy named Lev from the cult she previously viewed as her mortal enemies. Even Part II’s central cast only gets a few major instances of character development, little pearls of psychological insight threaded at the beginning, middle, and end of their arcs along what’s otherwise a bare line of bland banter and stoic action hero decision-making.

The effect of all of this is that The Last of Us Part II serves little purpose other than to revisit and lightly reconfigure its predecessor’s narrative into a new version of what already came before. It’s a sequel in search of meaning, ironically, given what it advocates for Abby and Ellie, unable to imagine a future for itself that isn’t pre-shaped by what came. In its best scenes—like one where Lev philosophically counsels a terrified Abby as they climb across the swaying wooden planks and metal rungs of a makeshift bridge between skyscrapers—Part II uncovers novel, elegant ways to depict characters struggling to overcome past traumas. But, even in an ending whose conclusion finally makes good on a plot too anemic to support the rest of its telling, the game can’t resist overexplaining itself with often maniacally ham-fisted imagery.

When Ellie finally tracks down Abby, having thrown a life with Dina and their child away in desperation for closure and while suffering from post-traumatic disorder, she finds her counterpart crucified on a beach by a sadistic group of bandits. Ellie brings her down from the cross and, though Abby has suffered too much to want revenge anymore, goads her into a fistfight that only ends when Ellie stops herself from drowning her mortal enemy, a moment that makes her recall the first time she killed someone to protect Joel. She releases Abby and is baptized through another into a new way of life, free of her need for revenge. Later, another theoretically profound moment succumbs to the same kind of goofily direct metaphor: Ellie returns to the home that Dina has now departed, knowing she sacrificed a better future by leaving a family (a tiny nuclear family, of course) behind in favour of revenge. She picks up the guitar she’s played throughout the game. Now, though, she can’t play the instrument that previously channeled the creative, generative, gentler side of her personality. Abby bit off two fingers from her left hand during their fight, just before Ellie relented. She strums an incomplete chord and puts the guitar away. If it wasn’t for the moody music and the anguish on her impressively animated face during this scene, it’d be easy to laugh at how blunt the image is of Ellie wanting to play once more after ruining so much of the potential she had, now unable to because a chord requires three notes in harmony and Ellie can only place two fingers on the fretboard. (Nevermind Django Reinhardt, who overcame this exact injury to play in a style that established him as one of history’s greatest guitarists).

Even if they were executed more gracefully, moments like these couldn’t have completely salvaged what ultimately comes across as an unnecessary project. The best moments of Part II—those that point toward a story less indebted to the one that came before—are too few and far between to carry something that comes across more often as elaborate fan-fiction or franchise-baiting cash grab than a continuation its creators were truly eager to present. What we’re left with is an obliteration of the prior game’s subtlety, a steamrolling of its moments of ambiguity that retroactively turns that story’s impressions into cold, exhausting fact. If the defining image from The Last of Us was Ellie’s face in its last seconds—a face whose expression communicated a collage of pain and hope, contradictory meanings that formed an aching discordance—then what captures The Last of Us Part II is another close-up: This one of Ellie watching in horror as Joel is killed, the player knowing that whatever conflicting emotions we see playing out behind her eyes will be revealed in tedious detail before long, the depth of emotion and complexity of a powerful story over explained and rendered inert.     


Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.