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The Last of Us is not a love story

About And about again, Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, the storytellers behind HBOs The last of us — based on the Naughty Dog PlayStation game that Druckmann co-directed with Bruce Straley — claim their story is about love. Love that is most clearly expressed in the bond that Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) forge in a world of discord. They also argue that, in addition to acts of care and altruism — Bill and Frank’s romance in Episode 3, or Henry and Sam’s brotherhood in the show’s Kansas City arc — there’s a dark side to love that makes it worth exploring. Like Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), who leads the resistance to fascism in Kansas City in a long-simmering rage over her brother’s death, and of course, Joel’s eventual decision to kill a building full of fireflies to stop the operation that Ellie in hope of healing.

Love, Druckmann and Mazin claim, contains multitudes. Mazin describes it this way in Vulture:

Love is behind the most extreme choices we make and the most extreme behaviors we engage in. Do you love this person more than those people? Parents say things like this to their kids all the time: “I love you more than the world itself.” will you? For Joel, the answer is “Yes, I do.” That is profound, and the ambiguity of love’s positivity is what we should be doing. What Joel has done in the name of love is a selfish but understandable act. It sets off a chain of events that will not be undone. If you look at a persistent conflict between people or nations, at some point you will find someone who does something out of love. That love manifests as fear, hatred, xenophobia, racism, religious superiority. These things that start as little seeds grow into huge things that we can’t understand how to get out of.

This claim is usually uncontested; that’s why the couple keeps repeating it. This is the benefit of talking about an abstract but universal idea like ‘love’ – it’s something that can look different to everyone, meaning anyone can read a story like ‘love’. The last of us a little different, which makes it all the richer. But when Mazin or Druckmann elaborate on this, they specifically mention other emotional drivers not love, which, while too broad to define universally, can generally be understood as a deep affection that is often disruptive, even irrational.

People uproot their lives and move across the world for love. They quit their jobs and change jobs. They commit to caring for animals they may have hated at first or children they never considered. They write poetry and sing and scream and sob. They starve so that someone else can eat.

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

What the characters into The last of us do instead is mourn. They process their collective trauma, poorly in most cases, but sometimes – in the case of Bill and Frank, or most successfully with the community in Jackson – they are able to grasp a simulacrum of what they have lost, even when they mourn it. Joel’s fundamental trauma The last of us is the loss of his daughter; her absence reduces him to the stark shell of a man in the first half of the show, and treating Ellie as her deputy makes him a warmer presence in the second half of the series.

How Joel feels about Ellie could be be love. It could also be something else entirely, a selfish need for what he lives for in the post-apocalypse to be the daughter taken from him. Ellie isn’t the object of Joel’s affection, she’s a vessel for his grief – he even calls her “baby girl,” his pet name for his long-dead daughter. Ellie could love Joel too. Or she can just trust him in a world where she can’t trust anyone else, happy to reflect what Joel sees in her back to him. Or she might see him as a deluded man who surrenders for lack of options. Or, or, or.

This is what makes it difficult to accept Mazin’s attempts to attribute love as the root cause of oppositional notions such as “fear, hatred, xenophobia, racism” or “religious superiority.” It is poorly supported by the show’s lyrics.

Joel rises from a hospital bed as Marlene talks to him in HBO's The Last of Us

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

In the universe of The last of us, love is not so much a multifaceted emotion as a catalyst for things that are already there. It’s also, in hindsight, vindication for abusers like David, the preacher in frozen Colorado who leads his congregation into unwitting cannibalism, as well as for Joel’s latest rampage against the Fireflies. Attributing all this to “love” misses Mazin and Druckmann’s own work, as well as that of the artists who bring the story to life, which might be an oversimplification if it were interested in Why these characters think their actions are fueled by love.

On some level, Mazin seems to understand this. In the same Vulture interview, he makes what is perhaps his most insightful statement about the narrative ethos of The last of us:

Good stories are not based on themes like “brotherhood” or “anger”; those are just words. Good stories are based on arguments: It’s worth killing everyone to save the person you love. We can discuss that.

To some, “Did Joel do the right thing?” may be the compelling question The last of us, but that reduces the whole work to an elaborate and violent trolley problem. The better question iS”Does Joel have one understandable thing?” because then the question is whether or not The last of us succeeded in its objectives.

No doubt it has: we can, as Mazin says, debate the ending. The tricky part, and the reason why it’s worth interrogating the showrunners’ rationale, is that the Why of all of this matters so much when it comes time to answer the question that everyone who enjoyed the show wants answered: Now what?

Joel and Ellie walk off into the distance with nothing but the road and the blue sky visible above them in HBO's The Last of Us

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Another thing about love: for it to be real and have any kind of lasting presence, there has to be some kind of symmetry. A mutual respect and communication. The tragedy of the show is that this is missing from the central relationship between Joel and Ellie – the heartbreak of that final shot comes with the knowledge that this potential bridge has been destroyed. What makes it all the more powerful is the way it is written all over the world too The last of us.

For a show set in a world transformed by the cordyceps fungus, The last of us always made a point of keeping the cause of the apocalypse on the periphery. Reflecting the worldview of its characters, cordyceps is something to be avoided. The infected are like zombies, but faster, stronger and over time take on truly nightmarish forms capable of terrible violence. Besides, they won. Nature has reclaimed much of the planet as humanity dissolved into factions and tyranny, as mycelial networks of cordyceps took root and blossomed. Here’s the advantage that the cordyceps mold has us all: it is connected.