The “Apocalypse Daddy,” as I like to call him, is a narrative trope that has recently taken over entertainment media. Arguably popularized by Cormac McCarthy’s dystopic novel The Road, many iterations have followed, all of them examining the question of what it means to be a good parent. There’s The Walking Dead, the recent film It Comes At Night, and most importantly to this article, Marvel’s Logan and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. The Apocalypse Daddy is not necessarily defined by his literal familial role (though he often is the father or at least the proxy paternal figure), but more readily by the role of protecting his own, the “family unit,” by any means necessary in a decaying world. On the surface, these apocalyptic stories appear to be about who we are after the deterioration of society and social norms. But considering the abundance of Apocalypse Daddies (and the complete lack of Apocalypse Mommies), the trope seems more specifically concerned with how the role of male provider changes after the collapse of human decency.
Interestingly, while The Road and so many other non-videogame representations of the Apocalypse Daddy explore this question through a father’s relationship with his son, the world of comic books and games recasts it through daughters. There’s a reason you can’t watch the Logan trailer and not think of The Last of Us or Season One of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. And it has a lot to do with the gender roles that come into play when the Apocalypse Daddy is tasked with not only caring, but preparing a young woman for this new world without norms, how exactly they instruct them to survive, and what worldview they pass on.
The debate on whether or not Joel serves as a “good” Apocalypse Daddy to Ellie reveals telling assumptions about the supposedly primal role of provider. Because, to an extent, the Apocalypse Daddy—especially when it comes to his daughterly relationships—allows storytellers to explore certain ideals of masculinity without the moorings of modern society and its current values. Modern audiences appear more willing to excuse behavior that might otherwise be seen as unsavory or of a different era because, well, it’s the apocalypse. We excuse Joel for underestimating Ellie in the beginning when he is (almost fatally) reluctant to give her a gun so she can protect herself—and him. We don’t question his constant insistence on alienating her, warning her against getting too close to anybody other than him, whether it’s Sam and Henry, the Fireflies, or even the camp run by his own brother, Tommy. Again and again, we see Ellie argue with Joel about how to approach moral confrontations, or even how they fundamentally see the world through different eyes. Nine times out of ten, Ellie concedes to Joel’s worldviews, and follows his instructions (even when it nearly gets them killed). Even the players who don’t forgive Joel’s final actions certainly still sympathize and empathize with why he feels the need to savagely undermine Ellie’s autonomy and everything she stands for in the end. But there is no sugar coating his actions: Joel betrays Ellie’s trust by denying her dying wish to save humanity and to follow her own conviction that the world is still salvageable—that they should do everything in their power to help save it.
In any other context, Joel’s overbearing and controlling behavior toward his proxy daughter—particularly his insistence that she subscribe to his nihilistic view that this should be the last of us and humanity is not worth saving—would be called out for what it is: toxic parenting. But it’s the apocalypse. So, for the most part, we see Joel’s actions as justifiable in the name of “protecting” his young, vulnerable daughter. It is only when Joel becomes physically incapacitated that we finally get to see how Ellie would act without her overbearing father hovering over her and controlling her every move. And through her handling of the situation on her own, it becomes abundantly clear that Ellie needs Joel a lot less than Joel needs Ellie. Because it is Ellie, not Joel, who kills David. He swoops in to hug her after she’s saved herself, whispering things we cannot hear into her ear, and assuring her that, “It’s okay, baby girl.” I’ve got you, as he says to his real daughter Sarah in the beginning while she lays dying in his arms.
In the scenes that follow, we return to playing as Joel. We are not privy to exactly what is going through Ellie’s mind as Joel tries to coax her out of the obvious depressive state she enters after her experiences of the world alone, without her “father.” Resuming the role of Apocalypse Daddy, we assume the rift between them originates from Ellie’s trauma of almost being sexually assaulted—and her coming to the realization that the world is, in fact, as her father had promised: unforgiving, and not worth saving. But as the daughter to my own real life overbearing, controlling, toxic father, I can’t help but project another line of thinking onto her unwillingness to banter with Joel, or to once again be the doting daughter he needs her to be, after the Winter chapter concludes. Aside from the obvious trauma, Ellie might also finally be coming to the realization that, for all his talk about controlling her behavior in order to keep her safe, Joel cannot protect her. In fact, regardless of all his muscular savagery and brute might, Joel isn’t any wiser or more capable of surviving this new world than she is. Those silences in between their (usually quick-witted) dialogue, as Joel pretends nothing has changed and Ellie finds that she cannot, is actually her coming to the understanding that her Apocalypse Daddy may not truly have her best interest at heart. Or, at the very least, that no one can save her but herself. And that Joel’s insistence otherwise—that she will only be safe if she sticks by his side and does everything he tells her to—was his first, biggest lie of all.
In the Summer chapter, we watch Ellie only begrudgingly continue to participate in their relationship on the path to their ultimate goal. A goal that Ellie, long before Joel, realizes will likely end in her needing to sacrifice herself for what she believes in. The first moment of relief in the rift between the two of them happens during the iconic giraffe sequence. In the midst of the dark grittiness of the sewers and terrifying infected, we suddenly happen upon a scene of overwhelming brightness and life. Ellie sees it first. She runs full tilt toward it, without reservation, not listening to Joel’s commands to slow down, stop running, be careful, and return to his side as he has instructed her to do. Looking back, we remember the moment when they both look out upon the gorgeous greenery and grazing giraffes as something beautiful shared between Joel and Ellie. But in reality, it only serves to contrast the two entirely separate worlds they live in. Ellie, despite every trauma she has seen and done and experienced through the “guidance” of her Apocalypse Daddy, loses herself in a scene that proves life does find a way of surviving, even in the cruelest of decaying worlds. Meanwhile Joel, a man built only to survive the dark, infested underworld below, is literally blinded by the light at first, screaming for his daughter like a needy child when she runs toward it, unafraid. As Joel, we experience the giraffe scene as reconciliation. But, looking at it from Ellie’s perspective, it is of course Joel (or the player) who ends that moment, pulling her away from life and dragging her back down into the darkness that awaits them below. The violent darkness where Joel feels most at home and useful. The darkness that keeps Ellie by his side, and dependent on him.
Not every Apocalypse Daddy is as bad as Joel. Marvel’s recent film Logan, whose Father/Daughter At The End Of The World themes had every gaming-savvy audience member screaming The Last of Us, demonstrates a very different approach. While Logan’s alcoholism and neglect of his daughter may on the surface appear harsher than Joel’s overprotective approach, the contrast between the ending of the film and the game reveals a much healthier relationship. Despite the fact that Logan does nothing to control his daughter’s autonomy, or underestimate her ability to survive alone in a world hell bent on exterminating them, Logan protects his newly discovered daughter Laura just as effectively as Joel does Ellie. But, importantly, he keeps his distance when it comes to indoctrinating Laura into his worldview. He does not believe in her vision of Eden, a safe haven for mutants believed to be long gone, but he reluctantly takes her there anyway. He takes her, despite his insistence that it is a “fucking fantasy,” because in his experience, only death awaits mutants—no matter where they go. During the long drive to Eden, when Logan can no longer keep his eyes open, he rests his head upon his daughter’s lap as she vows to not let him die in vain. Again and again, whether through his mentor Xavier or Laura, the people who love Logan try to convince him that there is still good in this world—that fighting for life and the preservation of their species is a worthwhile endeavor. “This is what life looks like: people love each other. You should take a moment,” Xavier tells Logan when they’re the guests of a kind farming family. “Logan, you still have time,” Xavier insists.
Logan may not ever fully believe both Laura and Xavier’s conviction that happiness, light, and life are still possible—until the final scene. But unlike Joel, he does not actively try to keep his daughter by his side in the darkness or from fighting for the better world and life she believes in. At most, even in the deepest depths of his self-loathing, Logan tries to pass on whatever goodness he can find within himself onto Laura. When they discuss how she has nightmares about people hurting her, but Logan’s are all about him hurting people, he tells Laura that she will have to learn what he never did: how to live with the fact that they’re both very good at hurting people. Yet even then, Logan pushes Laura away because, “I suck at this. Bad things happen to the people I care about.” Logan, knowing who he is, and that he will have no place or relevancy in this new, peaceful, better world Laura and her friends hope to make for mutants, tells his daughter to choose life rather than die beside him, cold and bitter. In an ultimate contrast to Joel’s final actions, Logan’s murderous rage through the final battle in the forest is not an act of selfishness, but of sacrifice. As he lays dying, he tells Laura to run. That danger will keep coming for them. But, “You don’t have to fight anymore,” he insists. “Don’t be what they made you.” Unlike Joel, Logan finds redemption by finally embracing what it really takes to be a good Apocalypse Daddy: letting your daughter go, and giving her permission to leave you behind, and make a new life for herself. A better one than you could have ever provided. “Daddy,” Laura cries as the violent, animalistic legend Wolverine takes his final breaths. A look of calm comes over his face. Finally, he succumbs to both his daughter and Xavier’s vision of optimism. He allows himself to truly feel hope and love, perhaps for the first time in his entire life. “So this is what it feels like,” he says before his eyes go blind and unseeing.
In the upcoming The Last of Us Part II, we’ll finally get to see who Ellie is as a protagonist on her own, without switching over and conceding the player-character role over to her Apocalypse Daddy. From the looks of the trailer, it might appear that the damage has already been done. That Ellie, like Joel, will choose death over life. But other theories, like the one that posits that Joel is in fact only a ghostly figment of Ellie’s imagination in the trailer, provide hope for a different arc. When, finally freed of her father, Ellie might find a way to not fight anymore. Like Laura, she might find a way to not become the person that Joel tried to make her.
Jess is currently an entertainment reporter and critic at Mashable. You can also find her words in Variety, Vice, and Kill Screen—and her garbage thoughts on Twitter.
If you enjoyed Jess’ article, you may also like to read the other three articles featured in our month devoted to The Last of Us by clicking here.