The finale of The Last Of Us’ first season delivered an ambiguous conclusion, partnered with shocking visuals and brutally visceral imagery. With its completion, the groundwork for the inevitable second season has already been set, yet the show’s final episode leaves an equivocal moral dichotomy to dwell on.
The validity of Joel’s violent rampage.
The whole show revolves around Joel smuggling Ellie to the self-proclaimed humanitarian and terrorist group known as the Fireflies, a task entrusted to him by Marlene, the leader of the group. Initially, Ellie is merely regarded as contraband by Joel: goods that will net him a little more firepower and guns so that he may have a better chance at day-to-day survival. As the show continues, Joel slowly develops a relationship with Ellie as a surrogate father, beginning to believe in the prospect of a cure himself, whereas originally he was dismissive and cynical.
However, when they do successfully reach their destination, Ellie is subsequently rendered unconscious, as is Joel. The latter is first to awaken, learning from Marlene that Ellie is being prepped for surgery to extract the cordyceps from her body, which unique characteristics grant her immunity from full infection and could potentially spell a remedy for those infected. Joel points out that the cordyceps burrows and circulates around the brain, to which Marlene wistfully confirms.
The surgery is done with neither Joel’s nor Ellie’s prior consent or knowledge, a fait accompli the Fireflies attempt to impose upon both as Joel’s demands to halt the operation are met with a tense and hostile escort to the outside of the hospital. ‘Attempt’ being the operative word here, as Joel quickly retaliates and murders numerous personnel present in the hospital, sparing only the two assistants to the head surgeon of Ellie’s operation. Marlene’s attempt to pacify Joel’s animosity is in vain, killed by Joel to avoid her eventual pursuit of Ellie when Joel escapes from the hospital.
The Fireflies handled a delicate matter injudiciously, lacking tact in their treatment of the lynchpin to their entire mission. Under the presumption that they had the equipment and impedimenta to produce and proliferate a cure, did they not once think to consider that the source of their supposed panacea is still a living human being? The consent of Ellie likely wasn’t a factor they were concerned about, merely because they believed it was the best course her life could take. Had Ellie been awake to make the decision, Joel’s compulsion to preserve his newly developed ties with Ellie would have coerced him to acquiescence.
Further dwelling into the fact that they mistreated two incredibly vital proponents to their success, Joel was unfairly denied the payment that he was promised at the beginning of the show. Even if the weaponry no longer took primary importance, the Fireflies still failed to uphold their end of the transaction and made no attempt to compensate Joel for his arduous and treacherous journey, one that none of the Fireflies own forces could make.
However, dearth of finesse aside, was Ellie’s sacrifice a logical and ethical compromise? Given the half-grounded and somewhat fantastical setting, the heroic abdication of the protagonist’s life to best the threat is a common trope in fiction, usually seen as the difficult yet altruistic and selfless decision. Platitudinous in its own right, but its status as a cliche is such because of its effectiveness as a narrative device. Storytellers are adaptable and versatile in execution -fortuitous for us- which keeps the recurrent fresh through novel ideas and unseen yet strangely reactive components that synergise with perennial ideas.
The Last Of Us is no different from the eclectic selection of shows who have shown to take heed to the hackneyed, relishing in injecting stimulating topics into narrative fundamentals. Ellie’s necessary death for the betterment of all humanity exemplifies the commonality, but her lack of consent and other prominent factors create that sweet, succulent evocation of ambiguity. The lack of resolute answers is now one of the zeitgeists of modern storytelling, finding its popularity hastened to the pinnacle through a deluge of identical stories, namely Christopher Nolan’s filmography. Though Nolan’s works tackle the esoteric and cryptic ambiguity of abstract concepts, The Last Of Us wrestles with moral plight. Ellie’s death would’ve done the world an immense amount of good, but is it justified when her willingness is excised from the equation?
Truthfully, I would believe not. As heroic as they are, sacrificial acts are usually performed by a cognizant and aware party. Whether tentative or absolute, what should reign sovereign in deciding its ethical value is consent. Consigning something as invaluable to someone as their own freedom to decide their actions is amoral and insouciant, at least to the parties concerned. At minimum, Ellie should be aware of the situation and the ramifications of both accepting and declining the procedure. Though unlikely, the Fireflies should respect her decision to abort the procedure.
Regarding the murder of an unconscious and unaware child, to that I say, “It ain’t right.”
Though at fault, the Fireflies aren’t the only cruel force in this scenario. If anything, Joel was that and more. Unrelenting in his siege, Joel decimates the Firefly forces, scenes placing emphasis on his ruthlessness as he guns down surrendering soldiers and viscerally stabs a man to death to obtain his firearm. Slaughtering his way through the hospital to save Ellie would be an act some might classify gratuitous, maybe even malicious and they would be scant mistaken. The show frames Joel as this force of nature that devastates through the Firefly population, free of moral binds and committing wilful genocide. Whether directly through the spilled lead-tainted blood of the soldiers, or circuitously through vanquishing the likelihood of a cure for all mankind. Even as Marlene adjures Joel to change his mind, he treats her with the same cold indifference he does her men, and she joins most of her personnel as a corpse.
Joel’s spiral unto moral furore reaches its zenith when Ellie comes to, confused at her donning of a hospital gown. Joel swallows the truth as he blurts out a lie, purporting the Fireflies’ abandonment of the cause due to repeated failures with others sharing Ellie’s immunity. Much like the Fireflies, Joel pilfers her of a choice to decide for herself. Ellie’s freedom of decision is relegated to the bottom priority. Two opposing parties deciding her fate for their own gain, both sorely in the wrong. Much like the Fireflies, an ideal scenario would see Joel impelled by Ellie’s own personal choice, free of influence from either side. Not to say that it’s the better written hypothetical, given that it betrays the ethos of the series, but from a standpoint of best potential outcomes, it stands quite tall.
Joel and The Fireflies are both at fault. Neither are wrong in their motives and neither are right in their means. However, if we exclude morality from the discussion and espouse The Fireflies’ supposed ideology of utilitarianism, we can objectively weigh each side of this dichotomy, and decide for ourselves which evil was lesser.
Also it’ll make us feel better since we know who we can root for.
The Fireflies’ Incompetent Pipe Dream Of A Cure/Joel Was Right
If we are to analyse the Fireflies as a recusant military organisation, many things come to light which speak volumes to their inadequacy. From episode 1, the Fireflies are already shown to be in a tough spot. Ellie, the source of their cure and unanimously agreed to be an indispensable asset, is forced unto Joel and his late partner Tess by Marlene: the leader of the Fireflies, tasked with arriving at a rendezvous point with Ellie safely in tow. If successful, the duo would be compensated with an abundance of supplies and a working vehicle, paramount in Joel’s search for his lost brother.
This swiftly brings into question the ability of the Fireflies. Marlene, accompanied by another Firefly, Kim, are apparently the only two people who are qualified enough to extract Ellie from confinement. The squadron Marlene claimed to be at her beck and call couldn’t spare a few more numbers to assist in the rescue? Mind you, this retrieval could spell a turning point for humanity, and the consensus was to not to allocate the majority of soldiers into the rescue effort? Despite the glaring red flags, this could be explained away by the Fireflies being caught in a manpower deficiency, their numerous and unsuccessful bombing attacks on government remnants being the cause. Though it’s just their first appearance, confidence in their acumen is far from the first emotion that comes to be inspired within the viewer. A disastrous first impression, hopefully undone by the separate group they are scheduled to liaise with at their destination.
As Joel, Ellie and Tess make their way to the meetup point, there is mention of a swarm of infected which is shown beforehand, exposition telling us that the MO of the zombies is identical to that of a hive-mind. Others are made aware when one of their own is harmed and killed, responding voraciously in numbers to thwart the threat or add them to their ranks. They handle a few tough obstacles on the way, zombies included, and finally reach the rendezvous. They are then met with the cadavers of Marlene’s group. It’s undeclared, but it’s clear they were ravaged by a sizable contingent of infected, as one of the corpses reawakens as a gurgling and incoherent animal before Joel swiftly smites it with a bullet.
As we come to see Joel soften from the obdurate and callous asshole that he is and Ellie’s tentative caution diminish along with her recalcitrant tendencies, we also come to notice that the Fireflies are bumbling morons. Marlene’s injurious soiree to save Ellie wasn’t an exception but a foretelling, betoken of the Fireflies’ continuous failures and lack of versatility in dangerous scenarios, a quality the ever protean Joel has in spades. The Fireflies may have the resources with a staunch and redoubtable leader, but the overall manpower seems to consist of untrained individuals, unable to accomplish Joel’s feat of safely arriving at Firefly Headquarters with Ellie.
As track records go, the Fireflies aren’t looking too hot. The smuggling of live contraband is seemingly a first for Joel and the Fireflies, but entropy’s predominance at every turn for the latter can’t be the work of a novel and unorthodox mission. In fact, Marlene is vehement on Ellie’s significance to the group, yet the efforts made by several of their personnel have seen none the avail Joel’s arduous journey has. Joel has to be the one that takes initiative to bring Ellie to the Fireflies at the request of Tess after she sacrifices herself. It’s become apparent that the Fireflies are a little inadequate, and we can only hope that they place more stock into their medical branch than they do their military.
The Fireflies actually fail to make any further appearances for a majority of the show, a goal that takes a backseat until the final episode.
The Fireflies are pictured at the backdrop, about to throw a flashbang at the duo.
Exemplifying their precipitous nature, Joel and Ellie are ambushed and captured by the Fireflies. Joel comes to. Marlene divulges the truth. All hell breaks loose. Whilst I’ve already gone through this during the article’s overtures, I was remiss to mention the eagerness of the group to vivisect Ellie. It is assumed Joel awakens after a brief amount of time considering the visibility of sunlight, and they’ve immediately decided that Ellie needs to die. Forgive me for my lack of medical procedure, but I think it’s excused given the Fireflies haven’t an inkling of it either. It’s well established the Fireflies are without qualms when performing macabre acts, but I find it difficult to believe that Ellie’s effectively unique and functional immunity is understood in the span it takes for Joel to come to.
So the cure is made, then what? The government organisation they’ve been besieging with scant triumph isn’t going to up and accept a proposed remedy from the enemy. Autocratic tendencies in haul, it’s unlikely they’ll accept with gracious thanks and vibrant smiles. Circulating it to people outside government-controlled zones would be impossible given the sparse availability of working technology, much less something as invaluable as a radio. Broadcasting the location of Firefly headquarters to the world would just give FEDRA an area to focus all their military efforts into, potentially eviscerating any and all remnants of Fireflies, work and research included.
People like the Kansas City rebellion are sick of the ascendancy, hanging FEDRA soldiers’ corpses and publicly parading them for their perceived wrongdoings. People like David are unbridled and held back by law no longer, free to act out vile fantasies under the affectation of survival. The cure returns the hierarchy of order. The noble, the aristocracy, the wealthy. Society may return, but all that’s left to inhabit it are the animals.
It’s become widely apparent that the Fireflies as a whole are a floundering, inept terrorist group that stages bombings against the, though relatively authoritarian, few remaining settlements capable of closing out the infected. Not only do they outsource their work, but they handle the world’s equivalent of a Holy Grail like a petri dish amoeba meant to be killed in a curious experiment. If you’re sanguine enough to believe that the Fireflies can still pull a fluke and redeem themselves from a maladroit image, you’re welcome to feed into the notion that Joel’s selfishness drove him to rob his surrogate daughter a choice, and the world a physic to the fungus. But to me, if a cure was possible, it would have to be produced by the hands of someone that weren’t the Fireflies.
Joel made the choice that he thought was and is right. Yes, everything is still a mess, but by this point it’s beyond fixing. In a world that encourages jaded and unremorseful murder, Joel made the choice to be human. It was never his responsibility to right the world’s wrongs, only to give Ellie what was robbed from his daughter.
A chance to live.
(Images: HBO The Last of Us / The Last of Us Game)