This article contains spoilers
I’ve enjoyed discussing and observing Joel and Ellie’s relationship dynamic, and how Ellie, as Joel’s daughter figure, has subconsciously acted as a cathartic element to Joel’s trauma of losing his biological daughter.
We often talk about the lack a child has when a parent is either absent, or unfulfilling when they are available. But we rarely discuss the other end of the spectrum, or, the overall effect of figureheads and what they represent in our subconscious. For a child, a parent fulfills a role, fits a slot that exists inside of us, for a guide and a mentor to teach us, give to us, and overall build us up. For Joel, when Sarah, his first child died, the person who sat on that slot was ripped away from him.
And so this episode hit the hardest, when Joel’s violent impulses, his defensive responses resulting from Sarah being ripped away from him, reached an all time peak.
Violence is the answer he would have had, had he not still been under the prism of obeying the government. After the outbreak, in episode 1, Joel initially surrenders himself to the military soldier who stops him. There’s the subtle social sets of behaviors ingrained in us that citizens must obey the government. But that ingrained pattern can never go against self-preservation, and Joel’s well-being as well as his daughter’s, whether emotional or physical, needless to say was part of his self-preservation instinct. That self-preservation always goes against socially established behaviors, such as obedience to a man-made organization.
His daughter’s death was so shocking it took him unaware. It made him unable to properly, spontaneously and authentically respond. I’ve already described how his inability to prevent that death has wounded him in the area of him that is a protector. But there was also a part of him that, until she was shot, was holding himself back in the name of that social obedience.
But not anymore. And that all started in episode 1, where the FEDRA guard arrested him, Ellie and Tess, to prevent them from escaping. Upon seeing his daughter figure being physically threatened in a similar fashion his first daughter was threatened in, the response he believes he should have had to prevent the death of a loved one, nd correct the course of events, activates. “This time, I’m gonna do it.” And he acted upon that violent surge. Joel beats the FEDRA guard and incapacitates him. He does so without holding himself back.
It’s important to understand that, if Joel had not held himself back, he would have instantly killed the soldier in episode 1. Violence was a desperate tool he resorted to when backed into a corner, and the loss of his first daughter taught him it is a tool he should use. He’s made sure ever seen that he is always armed, and whenever he is disarmed, he immediately retakes control of any kind of weapon to ensure he can defend himself—for instance, in the finale, where he remains weaponless only for a moment until he beats the Firefly soldier and steals his rifle.
All throughout the season we see him associate Ellie more and more with the protection instincts he felt he didn’t act upon enough when Sarah’s well-being was threatened. The violence keeps mounting as he freely stabs, shoots, and snaps the neck of any and all who stand between him and his loved ones. He does all of this, not only to catch up on the past, to make up for his perceived failure of not having protected his daughter, but also out of self-preservation, which is ultimately this finale’s running theme.
A traumatic event is supposed to happen only once in life. Its singular happenstance points at what you absolutely do not want to experience, and pushes you to go in its opposite direction. And so repeating it twice, is about the least wishable thing there is in life. It defeats the purpose of existence, that is to come from a low to a high, because it means that life is just a series of traumas with no upsides, which isn’t what living is about.
All of that violence mounts to an all time high when Joel feels the most threatened he’s been in the story, where to cure humanity, the person who cured him, has to die. The episode goes through great lengths to tell us that his broken heart was only ever mended because someone else sat in the spot where his daughter once were. Otherwise, he’d have remained despondent for the rest of his life. And he cannot give up that breath of life he was given again. Ellie is what he manifested into his life to return him to his former state and revive him. He lost his daughter once, and finally, after many trials and years of nothingness, he got “her” back. So he was not going to lose her twice. It would be the equivalent of emotional suicide.
Once again, Joel is put between a building of military personnel and the object of his subconscious’ desires, and reaching for violence again, he unhesitatingly and mercilessly guns them all down.
I’ve seen many people argue that Joel’s response to slaughter the entire Firefly building is a normal parental response, but I’d argue it’s got little to do with being a parent and wanting to protect your offspring, and more to do with the self-preservation instinct to never again go through the same traumatic event.
Ultimately, this was Joel’s biggest act of self-preservation. Which is why he lied to Ellie about it. As much as he cares for her, as much as he wants to protect her and be close to her, telling her about what he’s done entails giving up on her being alive. It entails going against this instinct. It entails arguing about what he wants the most and being told to give it up. It entails having her disagreeing with his self-preservation instinct, and her going against it. Which no one, can ever have. No one, in the end, can go against their self-preservation instincts. In the end, it was less about Ellie herself, than it was about Joel preserving his own well-being, which was being threatened all over again with a burn he knew all too well.
I find it interesting that in parallel, Joel had began to genuinely open up to Ellie. I’ve been dying for him to finally tell her about Sarah, instead of shutting Ellie and himself away whenever someone would touch on the subject. That he was finally able to let it all flow out is what I had been waiting for since episode 1. It’s too heartbreaking that, it had to happen after he lied to Ellie, and had unknowingly
Restoring humanity to its former state
On a side note, it’s saddening that finding a cure for humanity was prevented.
Most zombie apocalypse type of stories rarely touch on the subject of a cure. They’re often the dark side of imagination, dreaming of horror elements created for shock value and gore porn. If not, they’re often purely about survival themes. The focus gradually shifts from the zombies, walkers, undead, etc, towards the unsafety and violence of the world, until talks of a cure are quasi non-existent. In some episodes of TLOU, we barely saw any infected.
But TLOU also had the most realistic virus so far, and so had the best hopes for a theoretical cure against a potential fungi take over. Ultimately, the idea of a cure is only central in the story for how much it involves Joel’s own feelings, and that aspect of the story could have never went against the true emotional narrative underneath.
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