The Last of Us Part 2 was a nightmare. In hindsight, it’s both a fantastic sequel and a bold subversion of the original game’s core themes and characters, but before its arrival there was a toxicity surrounding it that I’ve yet to see matched with any other game. I had it in my hands a month before release, and thus saw the high profile leaks emerge online revealing Joel’s death and presence of Abby, followed by misinformed discourse from all sides. It was exhausting, and for someone working in this field, there was seemingly no escape from it.
I had friends messaging me claiming it was viciously transphobic, despite me playing the game at that very moment and discovering its fairly well represented trans character. The death of Joel turned many off the game immediately, resulting in a wave of masculinity so toxic its effects can still be felt today. Laura Bailey had to directly address death threats and harassment she received for even playing Abby, while Naughty Dog had to play damage control as its work was taken out of context in bad faith.
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The Last of Us Part 2 is now almost universally acclaimed, with the small but loud exception to those who caused this initial stink in the first place. Leaks emerged following a comprehensive report talking about crunch culture at the studio, which was fortunately a catalyst for change and a much healthier work-life balance. I hope Naughty Dog doesn’t walk back on this transformation. Discussions like this needed to happen, but to have them swept up in a bog of subverted expectations and evident misogyny while also being the biggest game of the year achieving almost nothing.
Now we risk repeating the same mistakes following the successful debut of The Last of Us on HBO. Reviews have been almost unanimous in their positivity, with praise for its faithful adaptation, performances, and how it expands upon a world we already know. Naughty Dog has said the show will not eclipse the storyline seen in the games, so chances are however many seasons we end up getting, it will end with Ellie and Abby’s brutal confrontation.
If this accurate portrayal continues, Pedro Pascal is also going to have his cranium caved in with a golf club at some point in the next few years. It’s unavoidable, and not really a part of the narrative HBO could justifiably change without uprooting the entire experience. Abby is, at least from the outset, given purpose due to her pursuit of revenge, while Ellie would have settled down into relative domestic bliss if her surrogate father wasn’t brutally murdered. It is a forgone conclusion, and I hope fans have matured enough to understand its significance.
Joel’s death was met with outrage initially because it didn’t feel earned, labeled as a blatant shock that reinforced the woke politics that would soon tarnish his legacy. I can pick holes in its execution (wahey) and the exact logistics of how it all unfolded if we want to get pedantic about character behaviour and sequence of events, but it happened, and nothing is going to change that. His murder is the instigator for the misguided hate that fuels the sequel, and an almost deliberate contradiction of the heroic reputation he cultivated since the original by not only saving Ellie, but potentially dooming humanity to serve his own selfish prerogative. He didn’t deserve to die, yet none of us should be surprised that it came to pass.
He put a target on his back, killing hundreds so he himself had a purpose to keep going. Ellie had no agency in this decision, robbed by both Joel and the Fireflies of her choice to either walk away or give her life for a greater purpose, and now she is the only one left to live with it. It’s heartbreaking. Gamers weren’t ready for an experience like this or to properly question themselves in such a way when control was given to Abby and Joel was eventually painted as a flawed hero, so their only response was to be unaccepting and hostile to the extreme.
It will resurface as the TV show continues to proliferate the mainstream regardless, with fans warning newcomers of a harrowing twist they won’t be prepared for and how it’ll uproot their feelings for these characters. I just hope the wrong voices don’t win out, primarily those who will come to worship Pedro Pascal and his version of the character without taking his actions into account. We’ve already seen a darker side of him in the first episode, beating someone to death after being brought back to the passing of his daughter. Combine that with his tortured past, and HBO seems to be more interested in fleshing out Joel as a flawed man chasing redemption, instead of an infallible hero who inadvertently prolongs the apocalypse.
Abby hasn’t even been cast yet, and I already fear for whoever has to face the irrational ire of fans losing their minds over Joel’s death all over again. Part of me thinks it will be better received on television, given the medium has far greater potential when justifying deaths of characters and how exactly they tie into the overall narrative, yet the cross-pollination of fans and newcomers makes it impossible to predict. With any luck, we’ve all grown up a bit.