22nd Jul2020

Opinionated: Why I Liked ‘The Last of Us Part 2’

by Xenia Grounds

WARNING: Massive spoilers for The Last of Us Part 2 . If you haven’t seen the leaks or played the game then this article will spoil important plot points

Like I said in my review of The Last of Us Part 2 , if I wanted to delve into why the story has been so controversial then I would have to spoil the game. Honestly, there’s a lot to talk about here and what has caused so much division for the fans can come down to two things that The Last of Us Part 2 takes risks on: what it does with Joel and how that impacts Ellie and new character, Abby.

I have to start by addressing the first elephant in the room which is Joel’s brutal death at the hands of Abby in the first two hours. Personally, I had a feeling that this was going to happen. Again, I didn’t see the leaks but when a seemingly important character is not the focus in a lot of promotional material and you know you’re dealing with a story that doesn’t shy away from death then that tends to be a nice red flag. In fact, fans were theorising that Joel would die after seeing the reveal trailer for the game years ago. When a story kills off a character that fans have grown so attached too then the initial reaction is always going to be one of anger. However, this isn’t something that should be a surprise. Even those close to Joel like Ellie mention that Joel crossed a lot of people in his life. He was far from a saint and there was always going to be consequences to his actions. At the end of The Last of Us , Joel brutally killed a lot of Fireflies in order to save Ellie which cost the world the only chance for a cure to the outbreak. We understand why he did it because he views Ellie like a second daughter and any parent would do the same but it doesn’t change the fact that it would have made him many enemies in the process. Joel lived long enough to become the villain in the eyes of others. Especially in the eyes of Abby. It never struck me as lazy to kill Joel off because while it is clearly the event to set the plot in motion, it serves a purpose for both Ellie’s and Abby’s arcs in this story as the aftermath of it costs them so much. If you felt as grief-stricken, as vengeful and as angry as you should’ve done then you have become exactly like Ellie is for the entirety of the game. Most of us have all said that if we see someone we love get hurt that we would unleash hell on that person and the story uses that headspace to get us emotionally invested for this cautionary tale about said mentality. Throughout that first half, you go from being firmly on Ellie’s side to questioning if this is the right thing and then being horrified at how this quest of revenge is dehumanising Ellie and making her a shell of the girl we all loved in the first game. When we encounter Abby’s friends through Ellie’s eyes, we don’t see them as people with flaws and redeeming traits. They’re just red shirts on our way to finding Abby. At some point, you may ask yourself this question: Is Ellie really any different than Abby? Once you do that, you’re on your way to understanding what the story is trying to get across.

Some have taken issue with the brutality that Ellie shows because it is a very far cry from the Ellie we saw in The Last of Us. If you think about it, this is nothing new. We’ve seen Ellie brutally kill people before but it was in the case of self-defence. In The Last of Us Part 2, we don’t have our survival as a reason to kill because Ellie doesn’t have to do any of this. It’s uncomfortable to see how cold Ellie is and how she doesn’t realise she’s becoming as hate-filled as Abby was when she killed Joel. In my eyes, it’s a development that falls in line considering Ellie is a child of the post-outbreak world where all she has known is capital punishment for wrong doings and there’s no healthy outlets to express grief. Additionally, Ellie has learned a lot from Joel for better or worse. We see this with how she uses the interrogation tactics that Joel did in the first game and how she becomes as brutal and violent as Joel ended up regretting being. This is a very bleak story that costs Ellie everything by the end which I’ll expand on later.

The second elephant in the room is Abby and probably the character behind everything that has the fanbase split. Your introduction to Abby is seeing her brutally kill Joel with a golf club. It’s not a favourable first impression and nor is it meant to be. You’re meant to hate Abby after seeing that because you’re seeing Ellie’s perspective. However, in the second half, the game makes you play Abby’s side of events and you learn why she did it. It’s shown that Joel killed her father who happened to be one of the surgeons who wanted to use Ellie’s brain to find a cure for the pandemic. Abby finds her father dead in the operating room and the overwhelming grief over having a loved one ripped away from her fuels her lethal desire for revenge. For me, after seeing what Joel did, I honestly completely understood why Abby did it even if I definitely didn’t agree with it. Because of that, Laura Bailey (the actress for Abby) and the writers didn’t have to try immensely hard to make me empathise with her. The thing that becomes clear is that it didn’t provide Abby with the closure or the catharsis she was expecting. In fact, it becomes a case of ‘You got your revenge but now what?’. Her life still remains the problematic mess it was and doesn’t bring her father back. That revenge consumed her and she never really thought about the consequences of doing the same thing that Joel did to her to someone else.

As Abby’s side of the story plays out, she encounters Yara and Lev who are Scars (Seraphites) that Abby should be conditioned to kill on sight after years of being a soldier for WLF. At the start, Abby suggests she would be like that but after Yara and Lev save her life, Abby returns the favour by saving Yara from lethal compartment syndrome after having her left arm crushed by a hammer and taking Lev under her wing. Abby learns that Lev is a transgender male but Abby never once questions how he identifies himself and respects him for who he is unlike the Scars. She doesn’t disown his religion either and tell him it’s the reason he’s even being forced to leave his home. Some have said Lev is a vehicle to make Abby likeable and while he does bring out Abby’s humanity, my counter argument to that is this series did the same thing with Joel with his relationship with Ellie. The difference is we see Joel’s loss at the very beginning so we know why he is so horrible and it takes much longer for him to warm up to Ellie. Maybe more people would emphasise with Abby if the game had told the story in the same fashion but it would be retreading old ground and good sequels are ones that try to escape the shadow of the original and use what is established in the first part for new ideas. That concept may be taken a bit too far for some in this case with the elongated focus on Abby’s revenge story given her less than likeable introduction and maybe because the use of parallels between Abby’s journey with Lev and Joel’s with Ellie being much more easier to spot given this is a sequel and we’ve seen it before which means it won’t work as well for everyone the second time.

The theme of revenge and what it costs is seen for both Abby and Ellie. Throughout those three days in Seattle, all of Abby’s friends are killed at the hands of Ellie and Tommy. This drives Abby to the theatre where Ellie and the others are sheltering which does lead to Jesse’s demise and Tommy’s nearly fatal shooting which is quickly glossed over since we play as Abby. Again, the spiral of grief and revenge has consumed Abby because she is actively trying to kill Ellie. It leads to a very tough boss fight where you finally learn how terrifying it must be to be an NPC hunted by Ellie because Ellie is intentionally designed to be resourceful and tough to get the upper hand on. Abby does get the upper hand on Ellie and nearly beats Ellie and a pregnant Dina to death but only stops because of Lev being present. Once again, Abby doesn’t kill Ellie even though Ellie has now given her reason to but instead threatens Ellie that will happen if they meet again. While it’s obvious that Abby most likely would have killed them if it weren’t for Lev’s presence, it showcases the message of revenge only stopping if the person chooses to stop it without having to force it down our throats.

Lastly that brings us to the final confrontation in Santa Barbara which is months later. Ellie and Dina have a life on a farm with a baby boy but Ellie still has the scars from Joel’s death in her psyche. Ellie has tried to move forward and let go of her revenge but it hasn’t worked out since she still has flashbacks and PTSD of Joel’s death frequently. When Tommy tells her that he has found Abby’s location, Dina vehemently disagrees with going down that path again because they nearly died before. Ellie is silent at first but later that night chooses to leave because she thinks killing Abby will get rid of the emotional trauma she has. Dina, however, knows it won’t and tells her girlfriend that she won’t be there when Ellie comes back because she can’t deal with Ellie going down such a destructive path but Ellie still walks away. It’s a moment where if we had only seen Ellie’s perspective, the emotions may be more one-sided. Through playing as Abby, it’s more conflicting because we know that Abby isn’t really the villain in this. There are no villains or heroes in this situation. There are only flawed human beings and how they deal with pain.

By the time Ellie does get to Santa Barbara, Abby has been tortured for months at the hands of a group who captured her. Abby has lost much of her muscle mass, her hair has been cut incredibly short and she has been left to starve and dehydrate as well as Lev. At first, Ellie cuts Abby down and Abby proceeds to cut Lev down so they can all escape. Even though Abby did threaten Ellie during their last encounter, Abby chooses to lead Ellie to the boats so they can escape. Ellie does start to board her boat to leave but then she remembers Joel’s death and once again wants to fight Abby. Abby refuses until Ellie threatens Lev’s life even though he never had any part in what happened to Joel. If the story does what it intended to do then you’ll be strongly against this fight because you’ve already seen that revenge won’t end the pain that comes with loss. It’s a pathetic looking fight too as Abby is in no condition to fight anyone even though she still holds her own pretty well against Ellie. By the end, Ellie does nearly drown Abby but then the memory of the final conversation she had with Joel enters her mind and she lets Abby go. Some say this renders the entire journey meaningless because it doesn’t follow through with Abby’s death but once again, my counter argument is that this is something similar to the first game. The first game was about bringing Ellie to the Fireflies so they could create a cure to save the world only Joel defied that plot expectation by breaking Ellie out of that hospital and probably ending any chance the world had for a cure because he couldn’t let Ellie go. It transformed what could’ve been a relatively generic arc into something that feels much more human and real because it’s so conflicting. There are some fans out there who initially labelled Joel as a villain because he put himself and Ellie first instead of the world at large. Many others understood that it’s not easy to let go of someone who is like a daughter to you and that they have no regrets about it like Joel didn’t. Ellie does a similar act of defiance by letting Abby go. Not necessarily because she now understands Abby’s point of view but because of something that Joel inadvertently taught her: Forgiveness.

Ellie did want to avenge Joel but it comes across as a way to really avoid dealing with the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter being that Ellie spent years being angry at Joel after learning the truth about what he did to the Fireflies and her immunity. She hated him for robbing her life of the meaning it could’ve had. The night before his death, she said she would have wanted to at least try rebuilding their relationship and she never got that chance which creates a sense of guilt which Ellie has to confront. It was only railroaded by having someone to blame in Abby. It reminds me of a line from Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer about how you don’t forgive people because they deserve it, you do it because it’s an act of compassion. A lot of turmoil was lifted for Joel by Ellie wanting to forgive him and Ellie breaks that cycle of revenge like Abby by forgiving Joel for his actions and herself for not doing it sooner than she did. Unfortunately, it still costs Ellie everything as Dina did end up leaving and Ellie seemingly ends up alone with her last link to Joel severed because she lost two fingers in her fight with Abby so she can no longer play the guitar. It is a bleak ending that doesn’t offer the glimmer of hope that the first game did but it is open to interpretation about what happens next for Ellie. She may still be able to rebuild her life to some extent and there are some signs she will because Ellie is wearing Dina’s bracelet in the ending when she wasn’t before.

Honestly, while I personally enjoyed playing through The Last of Us Part 2, it would be a lie to say it isn’t a harrowing experience that leaves you feeling drained and empty by the end but that’s the intention. I think the controversy around playing as Abby and a character who you absolutely detest at the start is something that isn’t going to sit well for everyone. In fact, it clearly hasn’t judging from some responses and criticisms. It reminds me of something akin to Joker (2019) where the violence overshadowed the cautionary tale about mental health and class division for some. In this case, killing Joel off and playing as his killer can potentially overshadow the cautionary tale about being lost in the fog of grief and revenge.

Overall, there is no judgement if you don’t enjoy this story because it does force an extended look at personal demons and the dark places that loss can drive anyone to which is a hard mindframe to be in for thirty hours. I hope that the worst of part of the truly horrible reactions to the story doesn’t scare developers from trying something new and that when we look back on how hate not only consumed Ellie and Abby in the story but the real-life gaming community, it’s realised that viciously lashing out won’t make things any better.

2 Responses to “Opinionated: Why I Liked ‘The Last of Us Part 2’”

  • Sarah

    Great article, and touched on a lot of the thoughts I had after having just finished the game. I definitely felt/feel that the only downside to LoU2 compared to the first game was it’s more linear path… I was mentally drained by all the jumping around and didn’t always know how to feel for the characters (in particular Ellie), but I still think what they created was a very interesting look at who we are as flawed human beings. I think it will really make an interesting replay when I reach that point (as I’m drained from playing it the first time through) and I’m curious how I will feel having known more about Ellie and Abby’s past from the get-go.

    • Xenia

      Thanks! Glad you liked my little thought piece. I agree that the pacing of The Last of Us 2 isn’t the best with all the jumping back and forth through the past and present. Some of those flashbacks even if they are important for backstory and character development can ruin the present day tension when it’s at a high point. There are also other parts of the story that I didn’t think were handled as well as others.

      Honestly, I love this game for exploring the emotionally raw and dangerous parts of the human condition in such depth but it definitely makes for a harrowing experience. Replaying it will be interesting when you know the context for everything but like you said, that first experience is very draining so it won’t be something I’ll be rushing to do right now