(This is adapted from a script from a video I did on the topic, so I apologize if the writing's a little jank here and there.)
The Last of Us Part 2- A Meditation on Purpose
Since its launch in June of 2020, The Last of Us Part 2 has gone on to become one of gaming’s most divisive topics. General reactions from the title have ranged from total adoration, with many believing it to be the perfect Swan Song for the Playstation 4, to more critical viewpoints that felt its darker, more depressing narrative took away from what made the original special, and that the themes centered around violence failed to tread new ground. It’s actually on the matter of the game’s themes which I found to be a particularly contentious point during my research into the discourse around Part 2, and is what this analysis will mostly focus on.
From both major gaming journalist websites and general fans alike, a well-circulated critique I saw when looking into the game was that the revenge driven narrative never elevated past the point of “violence and the cycle of violence that it can cause is ‘bad’.” though these are recurring themes throughout Part 2, when you look at how the plot unfolds from solely this straightforward perspective, I feel as if it is very reductive to those themes at play. And while yes, The Last of Us Part 2 is a game about both revenge and how it can perpetuate a cycle of violence, I also believe it to be a meditation, albeit an emotionally devastating one, on the necessity of purpose for our protagonists Ellie and Abby, how they come to understanding this necessity, and how this need pushes them to their lowest and highest points throughout our time with the narrative, while also intertwined with the former mentioned themes
Ellie – A Savior No More
Being known as possibly the only person immune to the Cordyceps virus that collapsed civilization more than twenty years prior instilled a sense of hope in Ellie. It’s a blessing that could’ve meant saving others from suffering the same fate of those she knew and loved at the hands of the infected. She is so adamant about being the one to help end the Cordyceps that when Joel, her protector turned parental guardian, gave the option for the two to return to a safe haven ran by his brother and sister-in-law rather than to the hospital where they would study how to create the necessary vaccine, she insist on finishing their journey, stating “After All we’ve been through, everything I’ve done… It can’t be for nothing.”
But when the time comes and Ellie is prepped for the procedure, Joel learns that in order to create the cure they must kill the host so that they can extract the non-advancing fungal growth. This isn’t something that he can just let happen, as he had already lost his own daughter twenty years ago when the virus first began. He did the best he could then, but in the end lost her, and wasn’t about to let that happen again. And so he doesn’t. What ensues is a rampage through the hospital that leaves both the surgeon and Marlene, leader of the savioristic rebels known as the Fireflies, dead, and takes an unconscious Ellie back to settlement in Jackson Wyoming . When she asks what happened, he lies to her, stating that the Fireflies had found other immune, but came to no avail with a vaccine. Doubtful of Joel’s Story, she asks him again if what he said was true, only for him to reassure her that it was. And thus we conclude The Last of Us with an Ellie, purposeless in a world she very well could have saved….
We now travel four years into the future. Ellie and her friend turned partner Dina have been tasked with finding Joel and his brother Tommy after the pair hadn’t come back from patrol. After navigating the infected and taking shelter from a blizzard, She continues on without Dina, tracking the two to a mansion outside of the Jackson Settlement. Suspicious of what’s happening, she sneaks into the home where she finds Joel brutalized by an unknown group. Before she can intervene she’s knocked and pinned to the ground, forced to watch as this mysterious woman and cohorts kill Joel and knock her unconscious. And thus Ellie has a new purpose in life: To seek out those responsible for the murder of her surrogate father…. Or so we are meant to believe.
As Ellie and Dina track the group to Washington, and the former begins her reign of terror, we start to get flashbacks to the time between both the games. And it’s in these flashbacks we see the deeper implications that Joel’s decision had on her life. We come to understand that even while attempting to live as much of a normal life after the events of the original game, she’s constantly haunted by what could’ve been had she sacrificed herself. From the beautifully heartfelt birthday trip to the science museum that runs reminiscent to the two’s adventures in the previous entry that ends with her coming across wall writings showing disdain toward the Fireflies as being “Liars'' about hope for the future, To their trip to find new guitar strings only to find a note left by two teenagers who fled the Jackson settlement, again to find the Fireflies in an effort to“Find Hope in the Dark”, while their infected corpses rest nearby. A scene that unsettles Ellie so much that she, after two years, gives Joel another chance to come clean about what really happened, only for him to double down on the story he told before until the faithful flashback one year prior, in which Ellie seeks the truth out for herself, learns what actually happened on that day all those years ago, and the bond the two had is destroyed.
And as we see her recall those moments, we’re also seeing her unravel at the task of avenging him. As the days go by, we see her grow more and more obsessive in finding Abby. We see her navigate treacherous terrains, leave a increasingly more morning sick Dina by herself, and after a particularly nerve wracking and violent day, see her wounded by a Seraphite arrow, nearly killed in a WLF base, until arriving back at the theater battered, bruised , and covered in both her own and another’s blood- only for her to go back out and continue searching for Abby. What The Last of Us Part 2 does in the juxtaposition of these two points: Showing Ellie trying to live a normal life, but being followed by her past, and her now in Seattle waging this war against her surrogate father’s killers is that there has to be some sort of deliverance from the pain caused by both of these experiences, but instead it leaves her spiraling through this cycle of violence until committing an act so horrible, the killing of Abby’s friend Mel, in which she learns only after the fact was pregnant, comes too late to the realization that her purpose in Seattle was incredibly misguided. So then after coming to an understanding from Ellie, with some coaxing from the rest of the group, she decides that it may be best to return back home to Jackson… until Abby finds them. In a fit of rage, Abby shoots and kills Jesse, the biological father of Dina’s child, shoots and maimes Tommy, and brutalizes Ellie and Dina, even stopping just short of slitting the latter’s throat, but hesitates before moving over to a bloodied Ellie and threatening her life if she were to ever see her again….
The story then shifts many months into the future, where Dina and Ellie live out on a farm together, tending livestock and raising their child. And here I know that I, along with many other players, found this gorgeous, pastoral scene a perfect ending for a character who has finally found peace and purpose… or so that’s how it seems until Ellie has a severe mental breakdown in the barn while herding sheep. It’s here we come to the realization that despite the time she’s been away from Seattle, Ellie has been dealing with horrible episodes of PTSD that have robbed her of sleep, eating, and otherwise wholly enjoying her time with Dina and their son.
So when a partially paralyzed, embittered, and disgruntled Tommy arrives with information of Abby being spotted in Santa Barbara, California, she believes that in order to put an end to the intrusive horrors that have plagued her mind, she has to finish what was started, even if it’s at the expense of her enjoying a new life with the family she, Dina, and the baby had for themselves.. And though this may raise the question “Then what was the purpose of the earlier realization that revenge was leaving her worse off?” From my own interpretation I'd have to say it’s the fact that even after there has clearly been some time removed, she still finds herself haunted by it all; that there wasn’t ever any real closure for Ellie in spite of this quiet life she’s lived since.
And so she travels to California, where she runs into a group of slavers who captured Abby and Lev. After freeing the other slaves, they inform her that they took Abby to “The Pillars” down on a nearby beach. And so she goes searching among the sun-battered, busted, and broken before stumbling across an emaciated version of the woman she set out to find… she let’s her down, in which Abby then mostly ignores Ellie to find Lev. And while Ellie almost leaves, as there are two motorboats for them to separately leave on, she can’t bring herself to do so. So she tries to drag Abby into a fight. Abby refuses, but Ellie then moves to hold a knife against the young boy's throat to egg her on… so she accepts. And though during the fight Ellie loses her mother’s switchblade she’s had over the years, and has two fingers bitten off, she finds herself able to overpower Abby and pins her beneath the water, coming within inches of drowning the woman and finally avenging Joel. Finally bringing an end to the cycle of violence, and finally absolving herself of the means she took to arrive at the end… but then we see a glimpse of a flashback: We see Joel sitting outside, guitar in hands, glancing in Ellie’s direction. It’s a brief moment, but because of it, Ellie releases Abby for her to return to the Motorboat, and we see Ellie sat in the shallow waters watching the two disappear one final time into the fog… and though the raw anger of not going through with seeking revenge for the person we came to love as a character, all the time we spent killing dozens, and seeing those close to us killed and bested at the hands of this woman, again wonder what was the purpose of it all, if any?
We flash forward yet again, with Ellie now back on the farm- only now it’s desolate, as Dina and the baby have left with the only remnants being her own art and Joel’s guitar. Grabbing the guitar, she sits down and attempts to play the first song Joel taught her to play years before, but finds herself unable to properly do so from lacking the fingers to play like before. It is then that we get one last flashback for Ellie: we see her and Joel together on the last night he’s alive. Having been estranged for a while, they shakily discuss him intervening when a bigot throws a slur at Dina and her.
And though she scolds him initially for jumping in and other ways Joel’s been intruding lately, it leads into the conversation that they were always bound to have again. She calls him out for not allowing her to fulfill that purpose she had all those years ago. Again, Ellie was willing to die for the sake of society. That was something she had made amends with, but because of Joel’s actions, had that taken away from her. But even in re-addressing the situation, he responded simply by saying (clip of him confessing he’s so it again….) in which Ellie replies(Ellie’s response) it is here that we do finally get the answers for why she let Abby go and why it was important for her to do so. We come to understand she will never get the chance to forgive Joel-which , for me,was the real closure she needed in order to have prevented this cycle, and instead reflects the ending of the original in being robbed of choice yet again, but also we see she has purpose yet again: to move on and seek life for her own sake, rather than that of others. And Unfortunately for Ellie, it’s a conclusion that ironically comes too late.
Abby – Finding Light in the Dark
When we step into the shoes of Abby for the second half of the game and learn that she was a FireFly , I find it important in remembering the motto that’s synonymous group: “When There’s Darkness, Look for the Light.'' It's a motto we hear at various times throughout the original as many looked up to the group of revolutionaries that fought against various oppressive militaristic organizations throughout the apocalyptic wasteland. So when we go back in time to when her dad is confronted by Marlene about the means of creating the cure to the cordyceps, is that she, like Ellie, would be willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good of humanity, to be that light in the darkness. But when that chance for Ellie to save the world is snatched, along with her father and the majority of the group in which she found belonging in, she finds herself replacing that purpose she had with seeking revenge against the one who took it all from her.
So when we come back to just before Joel’s execution , we’re supposed to get a sense that Abby is moments away from fulfilling her goal and finally achieving what she has set out to do after all these years. But when she does deliver the killing blow , there’s something off about her body language that speaks to the opposite of that conclusion. For me, at that moment it looked like she very much wanted to find catharsis in exacting revenge on the one who killed her father and took away both her own and her friends’ livelihood, but instead realized that after all these years her motivations were ill placed . Further still, it’s a moment of dramatic irony as we know that the death of her friends is from Abby’s initial inability to break the cycle of violence. But I digress
What further reinforces this notion that Abby lacks the relief she pursued is the nightmare that comes after a long day of learning her Ex, Owen, has killed another member of the WLF, is herself then captured by the Seraphites, and helped out by two Apostates of the cult whom she helps find shelter from after finding safety in the dark of the night. The nightmare leads her down the hallway to the surgery room her father was murdered in, but instead of finding his dead body, there are now the bodies of Yara and Lev: the excommunicated members of her sworn enemy The Seraphites that had saved her hours before. So when she wakes from the nightmare and sets off to save the children, we come to understand that Abby has reconnected with the purpose she had lost long ago: to seek the light in the dark. And though some players may be weary of Abby’s real purpose for why she would save the children in the first place, maybe even rather similarly to the character Mel who I feel in the scene where she confronts Abby on whether or not she’s doing this because of her feelings for Owen sort of acts as a stand in for the skeptical, which due to prior scenes that I won’t show here for explicit reasons, are totally justified in their hesitation about her motivations.
However, I think this is largely dispelled as we further go through Abby’s experience and see her interactions with Lev. It’s through their time together that we get a deeper look at that idea of her purpose of seeing the light in the dark through their dynamic. Though initially their relationship is a little on edge, as Abby accepts Lev for who he is without question, specifically by not pushing him into talking about why the Seraphites referred to him by his deadname “Lilly”, as well as continuing to act as this protective bruiser for him, and Lev helping overcome her fear of heights, and uses the teachings of the Seraphite’s prophet for good intentions and insight that rings so opposite to what both Abby and the player has been exposed to from the cult, we see this deeper connection flourish between two opposing ideologies that eventually solidifies itself as a definite partnership. What I viewed to be this exact moment of assurance is the scene where She outright protects Lev from Isaac, the leader of the WLF, and the two end up escaping the Seraphite Island, while the Seraphites and WLF go to war against one another. It’s a harrowing scene that shows they are officially severed from the worlds that would’ve seen them as sworn enemies.
But then they return to the aquarium and find Owen and Mel dead by the hands of Ellie. It’s here we see Abby slip into a deadly rage, one that sees her track down Ellie back to the theater, resulting in the death of Jesse, the shooting of Tommy, and her placing a knife to Dina’s throat with full intention of following through… However, Lev’s interjection snaps her back to that realization that she came to at the beginning of her journey, and keeps herself in line with the purpose she has regained. She realizes that there is no seeking light in revenge, for the cycle would just continue like it had before, and only bring back that darkness one way or another. And though her reluctance means she does run into Ellie one final time, I think that her actions in that moment, in combination to Ellie’s own realizations, are why she and Lev in the end make it out alive.
What I believe TLOU Part 2 is really trying to get at is how purpose can or is an incredibly important aspect in all of our lives. While it doesn’t have to be some grandiose gesture toward all of humanity, it has to matter and drive us to partake in our daily lives, be that for friends, family, or even just ourselves. However, in our journey to understanding just what that means for one another, we can become misguided, or lost, which is what I believe The Last of Us Part 2 is trying to explore with the narrative trek it endeavors. Through Ellie we come to see how being misguided can create a spiral that leads to less than desirable points in our lives, but in understanding the greater reasoning as to why or how you arrive there in the first place allows for us to move on, while Abby’s story shows that we could seemingly lose everything and still be able to reunite with what we once stood for and persevere because of this newfound light. And though the revenge and cycle of violence concept may make that message come off particularly extreme, I think it does well in both complementing the game’s world, while conveying this message of the weary importance of purpose through even the darkest of our days.
- Sympathy for the devil or Why I don’t hate Abby from The Last of Us II.
- Some Thoughts on The Last of Us 2’s Story: Yes A Tale of Revenge, But More A Story About What We Inherit From Our Parents
- The Last of Us Part II’s fan backlash is a big reason why Hollywood & most games follow the same formula.
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