Narrative Tools — Tess’ Death in The Last of Us + Joel & The Nature of Trauma

Narrative Tools — Tess’ Death in The Last of Us + Joel & The Nature of Trauma

Welcome back to TOSRC. In today’s article, we’re analyzing narrative tools used in fiction. Namely death as it is used in fiction, and we’ll take a look at the particular case of Joel and Tess’ characters in HBO’s The Last of Us.

? This article contains spoilers.

In The Last of Us, we have a post-apocalypse zombie type of setting, centering around protagonist Joel, who goes through the trauma of witnessing his fourteen years old daughter die in his arms after she was shot, all at the very start of the conflict. Fast-forward twenty years, where—one of the focus of today’s piece—Joel’s new lover, Tess, is killed off by the story, at a similar time where Ellie, a fourteen years old girl whom he is tasked to protect, enters the story. The death of Tess’ character coincides flawlessly with when Ellie’s character is introduced to the story, and opens the way for Joel and Ellie’s relationship, a reenactment of the father-daughter bond that was brutally interrupted when his daughter died.

Present-day reality mirrors either past experiences, one’s desires, and often both. This replication is key to one’s heart’s desires, because it shows us what we want, and brings it to life. We are seeing this process being replicated within a fictional setting, making The Last of Us a truly memorable work of art, for how precisely it pinned down and portrayed both reality and the nature of trauma.

In The Vampire Diaries, Damon is endangering himself to search for his former lover, when his current object of infatuation asks him to leave the tomb. Both his ex lover and current love interest are doppelgängers, and thus have the exact same face. The similarity of this visual cue prompts a strong response within him. / The Vampire Diaries, CBS
Upon being cornered in a situation resembling the moment that caused fracture, the visual cue prompts Joel to respond while holding nothing back of the response he originally would have had, had he known. (While in the back, Ellie’s subconscious is shouting “Daddy’s protecting me!” at the sight of this man beating another man to death seemingly for her sake) / The Last of Us, HBO

Joel is obviously branded by trauma; he has internal fractures that need healing, and his subconscious is pulling towards replicating all of the circumstances surrendering his daughter, from her death and the moment of her death, to his relationship to her, so he can correct all of it and alter the course of fate in his mind.

Several factors surround the circumstances of the death of Joel’s daughter:

Among them:

  • her loss
  • failing in his parental duty
  • missing her and wishing he could have her back in his life

For years, Joel lives in a limbo-like state where there is no progress in his life. That’s because he’s not progressing emotionally; he is accomplishing no goals, he is going towards nothing. There is only stagnation: he’s paused in time.

To pass that time, he enters into a semi-relationship with character Tess. The word semi came to mind because there is no real emotional involvement on his end; the mind behind the story is not emotionally invested in this relationship. The character of Joel is shown to act decently towards her, a sign of how the author wants masculinity to be portrayed in his world, but, that is also just superficial niceness.

Tess is a limbo relationship, a passing time relationship, because other aspects of Joel still went on with his life even if the bulk of him stayed behind; not all of a person can be entirely frozen on trauma, meaning he still wants affection, some levels of intimacy, companionship, etc, even if the bulk of him is stagnated on that trauma.

Remember that the narration exists to serve the purpose that the author’s consciousness has in mind, it’s the thread and journey an author follows to emulate certain experiences and sensations. And so, it is visible from the beginning that, narratively speaking, the relationship with Tess will not survive long into the story, because at the end of the day, that is not what Joel wants. The guy doesn’t have a wife or lover or partner trauma, he’s got daughter trauma. And what he really wants, is a daughter. He wants to fill the void left by his daughter’s death.

We’ve all figured out that Ellie is like a replacer of Sarah for Joel, to heal his wounds in that area of his life, pull him out of his trauma-induced torpor, give him a new sense of purpose, as well as give him the sense that he has corrected his past “mistakes” in “failing” to protect his daughter. Note also, the timing of the events, how Tess fades out of his life soon after Ellie enters it. Tess is present through only two episodes in HBO’s version, and she is immediately supplanted in the very first episode as Ellie is introduced early: from the viewer’s perspective, very little time has passed. Joel lost his daughter, was affected, then not long after, barely moments after in our eyes, he is immediately presented with the solution to his emotional wound: Ellie. We skip all the limbo period, to get directly to what interests him.

The structure of Joel’s life:

In the original setting, Sarah’s mother was absent. The TV series doesn’t tell us why, and I haven’t played the games so I can’t tell if the creators made any of mention of that. What’s essential to understand is that, in his mind, the setting of Joel’s reality was himself and his daughter. Not himself, his partner/wife/mother of his child, and their daughter. Just him and his daughter. That is how he envisions his ideal life.

Tess is essentially a roadblock because she belongs to a life Joel strayed in when he was emotionally bulldozed out of his right path. He wondered in a mental hellhole because of trauma, that distorted him away from his normal path, and every decision he’s made from that point on has been against himself; against the things he really wants. The element of Tess in his life is part of that hell landscape, the filler episode that the last twenty years of his life have been.

And because of how reality looks like in his mind, he can’t enjoy the relationship with Ellie while another person is present in the mix. That wouldn’t give him the same level of intimacy he used to have with his daughter, because in the original setting, Sarah’s mother wasn’t in the picture. Therefore, Tessa begins to look like an obstacle to this new possible bond.

Not to mention that, after his trauma, considering Joel comes from a lot of suffering, revisiting the subject is going to be painful, and that is not something he wants to do in public.

For self-protection, consciousness covers up vulnerable points with the opposite of what it is; coldness, detachment, an appearance of invulnerability. The stoicism is another trait the author wished to link to masculinity, which is why, Joel, the masculine protagonist, incarnates both ideas of courtesy (towards Tess), protection instincts (towards Ellie), and stoicism and emotional detachment (towards himself, and that image projected back onto everyone else, so too towards the rest of the world).

And so, if he’s ever going to approach these emotions and poke that part of his psyche, he’s going to do it in a setting where he feels comfortable and prompted to do so, where he does not risk being retraumatised, and that setting only involves the very person who matches those feelings. If Joel’s ever going to cry about his dead daughter—although by episode 7, as I’m writing this, he’s still refusing to touch that wound directly—he’ll do it in front of his daughter incarnate, the person who brings those feelings back up to the surface.

Narratively speaking, there is no justifiably sending her back to Boston (where the story begins after Joel’s personal catalyst), because Tess’s character, while saying realistic to her characteriation, would resist that option. She would demand to stay in the setting. Within the story, her death is also pinned to a sacrifice: Tess martyrs herself away, with an in-character reason that seems reasonable given the circumstances of her imminent death. But note how, when her character has run out its usefulness, she gets conveniently infected, and is removed from the setting. And so, Tess is killed off to leave space for this arc to unfold. She finally dies in episode 1, incredibly early on, to make space for what is to come. That is the explanation of Tess’ death in The Last of Us, both in the video game and HBO series.

That same narrative tool is also often used for side characters, whom consciousness deems unimportant. Side characters are often underdeveloped, in the sense that the author’s mind spends very little time developing and building upon the soul of a character that only peripherally serves the plot and thus the bulk of the emotional core the story explores. When an author is unsure how to dispose of that character, in a manner that is realistic for said character, laziness often takes over, and that character is summarily killed off to make space for the main cast—the characters containing the story’s emotional core. Henry and his brother, present in episode 4 and 5, and only through both these episodes, before their convenient removal from the plot.

We’ve heard of plot armor. Note how, conversely, in episode 8, Ellie is about to be killed. Yet, because of plot armor, not only do we know she is going to be safe, but we also know that it was never going to happen in the first place.

So the roadblock that Tess represents is removed. That is how the mind behind the story manipulates events, through the narrative tool of death, to get to the desired outcome (in this instance, emotional bounding and closeness to the protagonist’s object of interest, his daughter-look alike). To get out of limbo and get back the life that Joel wants, then, Tess has to go.

Take note of your daydreams; see how fast consciousness moves to tweak your daydream into exactly what you want it to be, the moment you’ve thought up a desire? All you have to say, is think, even on a subconscious level, for consciousness to adapt the daydream into what you want it to be.

The same goes for fiction. Upon seeing the obstacle of Tess standing between the protagonist, whose will always leads the story, and the thing the protagonist wants, the obstacle is removed in a manner realistic to the story’s setting.

Death is also used as a narrative tool when an author no longer has any arc left in store for the character. When a character’s arc is wrapped up, accomplished, or interrupted, death occurs—which is extremely similar to how real life works, when your business is done, you go. Tess had nothing left to accomplish in the story, because the author did not invest enough in her character to care; his emotional point of focus lies elsewhere, so she has not been developed past a certain point, and thus the thread of her character cannot hold its own for very long, and would not serve the story anymore either; in this instance, it can’t hold it beyond the point Joel comes out of limbo. Tess’ death is one of the neat ways that the mind behind the story uses the narrative to obtain what it wants.

In this sense, both events entertwine. Tess’ death is relevant in Joel’s trauma path because her death serves as a catalyst to free himself from that path, and enter a different road at last.

It is, however, a testament to how, while we may consciously pat ourselves on the back as authors and writers that our writing is perfectly realistic, and we are respectful of the individuality of every character, ultimately, in fiction as it is in the real world, other elements in our lives, namely people, serve a very specific purpose. And when they are done serving that purpose, they are removed, and their individuality don’t necessarily matters to us.

On a final note, the story’s scenario is also noteworthy. The story centers around Joel protecting Ellie on a physical journey through North America. That journey is internally an intense combat Joel has with himself.

His daughter’s death marked him in the area of him that is a protector to his daughter. One of his internal wounds over her death, involves beating himself up over his perceived failure not to have prevented her death. That is a standard he has for himself.

In this sense, his journey with Ellie is a journey to redeem him to himself. That journey involves lengthy geographical distances and extreme, consuming dedication.

The purpose of that journey is to be thorough, to rectify a perceived mistake. Joel could have never predicted that Sarah would be shot to death, yet he felt that his inability to predict it, and thus take measures to prevent that eventuality, is a fatherly and parental failure on his part. As such, the length of the journey with Ellie, how it requires many steps and pit-stops, involves a number of obstacles, and the mental and personal dedication as well as resourcefulness it requires of him, ticks all the boxes he feels he must watch out for and foresee; getting shot to death? Check. Getting contaminated? Check. Starving to death? Check. Cold at night? Check. About to get kidnapped? Check. Somebody coming at you with a knife? I got this, check.

Because the journey in this new, apocalyptic fallen world is extremely perilous, it forces him to be watchful, and to over-predict danger and where it might lurk. This world provides with brand-new, and horrific eventualities to plan for, all of which are on par with the gravity of getting shot to death in an otherwise peaceful day (the original catalyst of his trauma). Which, for his wounded psyche looking to compensate, is a golden opportunity to make up for that perceived mistake. In this sense, he becomes the best protector for Ellie, because he is trying to redeem himself as a parent in his own eyes.

He is catching up on that failure, and that is also why most steps of the journey involve a lot of violence with sprinkles of gruesome murders on top. He is fully going out of his way, and withholding nothing, to accomplish his goal, falling into a bunch of coping mechanisms to do so.

This article builds upon the mechanisms of fiction which I regularly explore in a root article on my main website. To understand the workings of fiction, I invite you to read it in parallel to this one.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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