Warning: spoilers ahead.
After being all but absent for the better part of two episodes due to an injury sustained while protecting Ellie, Joel makes a raging comeback in the season finale of "The Last of Us." We spend the last eight episodes seriously doubting whether Joel and his 14-year-old companion Ellie will ever make it to the destination where the Fireflies, a revolutionarily militia group that are revolting against military rule in quarantine zones across the country, will supposedly find a cure using Ellie. The teenager, as we discover in the pilot episode, is somehow immune to Cordyceps, making her the last hope to creating a vaccine or cure that can save the world from this deadly virus that turns people in monsters. Well, at least that's what the Fireflies claim when they ask Joel to take Ellie across the country. In the final episode of "The Last of Us," it all comes to a head. And Joel is left with a choice that will perhaps alter the course of the world's future and maybe help heal his grief-stricken past.
What Choice Did Joel Make in the Season Finale of "The Last of Us"?
The episode opens with a heavily pregnant woman running through the woods to safety, with the harrowing sounds of the infected chasing after her. She makes her way into an abandoned house as she realizes her water has broken, barring the door to a bedroom and sitting down on the floor with a knife in hand. As she's having contractions, she is attacked by an infected person, who she manages to stab and kill—as she's giving birth. When the baby arrives, she also realizes she has been bitten by the infected. She cuts the cord, holds her child, and reveals that her name is Ellie.
And so we learn how Ellie gained her immunity.
And so we learn how Ellie gained her immunity. Just as importantly, we learn that Ellie's mother was lifelong friends with Marlene, a Fireflies leader who entrusted Joel with the job of transporting Ellie across the country to an unknown location out West that will somehow use Ellie's immunity to save all of humanity. Marlene painfully agrees to save Ellie and execute her mother, rather than allow her to turn into a rabid Cordyceps zombie. Watching Marlene have to make this decision humanizes her after previous episodes that almost made her look like a villain.
As she and Joel continue on their dangerous journey, Ellie is still visibly traumatized by the events that just transpired in which she fought off a religious zealot and rapist who she discovered was turning his "flock" of men, women, and children into cannibals by feeding them leftover human flesh. She fought tooth and nail not only to save Joel's life but to brutally kill the so-called pastor who was attempting to turn her into his very own child-bride (but as far as we know, she hasn't even told Joel what she had to endure to get back to him). The once chatty Ellie can barely rouse up enough enthusiasm to react to a delicacy that Joel found in the rubble: Chef Boyardee. But when the duo finds some abandoned giraffes roaming around, Ellie shows such pure joy that just for a moment, you (and Joel) believe there might be some good left in this desolate world.
Their joy is short-lived, though, as they are captured by the Fireflies. Joel wakes up to Marlene telling him that Ellie is in fact having surgery—a kind of brain surgery that will result in her death. But she insists it's worth it, as this is the only way to find a cure that could save humanity. Joel demands to be taken to her, but she has two goons escort him off the premises. They don't stand a chance against him, though. As they're going down the staircase, Joel goes full assassin mode. He steals a gun from one of the guys, then kills them both, and he proceeds to kill at least a dozen other men in the building to make his way to the room in the abandoned hospital where Ellie is about to be experimented on like a science project. He's being shot at left and right, but Joel doesn't miss a single target, showing a new kind of focus and resolve that we haven't ever seen from him.
He arrives at the surgery room, where Ellie is unconscious, but they haven't yet begun the surgery. The doctor says he won't let Joel take her. Joel promptly shoots him in the face, threatens the nurses, and makes them remove the anesthesia. He carries a limp Ellie to the parking garage, where he is confronted by Marlene one last time. She insists that he won't be able to keep her safe no matter what he tries. Joel doesn't hesitate to kill her either because he knows that she'll never stop looking for Ellie as long as she's alive. It all feels a bit vicious, even for Joel. But once he realizes how important Ellie is to him, it becomes clear that he isn't going to lose her like he lost his daughter all those years ago.
While it's understandable that Joel went on a killing spree, the ending of the finale is what threw so many fans for a spin. When Ellie comes to and asks what happened, Joel lies. He says they were testing out other immune children and found out they don't need whatever it is that Ellie has. They were attacked by raiders, and Joel barely got her out in time. Ellie makes him swear that everything he said was true. He swears. "Okay," Ellie replies, but you can see behind her eyes that she doesn't quite buy it.
Did Joel Make the Right Choice—and Is He Still the Good Guy?
Joel finally opened up to Ellie in the finale and confessed what the scar on his face was from. He admitted that he attempted to kill himself after his daughter was killed 20 years ago. This is an important detail as you see him opening his heart to the teen who serves as his second chance to be a protective father. In many ways, Joel feels like he failed his little girl, even though her death was out of his hands. But the grief, guilt, and shame he carries from that tragedy will never leave him, and although time can help ease those feelings, it doesn't completely heal him. His relationship with Ellie, on the other hand, just might be the only thing that brings him true healing. He isn't going to let her go, no matter what.
Now for the question that crosses everyone's mind while watching the finale: Is it worth sacrificing one person's life in order to save all of humanity?
Is it worth sacrificing one person's life in order to save all of humanity?
This would be an appropriate question except for one thing. Ellie never explicitly agreed to end her life in order to find the cure for Cordyceps. She was never given all the information. She never gave informed consent. She just thinks that she's having a surgery that she'll eventually wake up from. Marlene claims that Ellie would have wanted to sacrifice herself for the cause, but she can't know that for sure. And even if Ellie had agreed to it, which she very well may have, as she clearly feels as though this is her greatest purpose in life, it's important to remember that Ellie is a minor. A 14-year-old can't vote, buy alcohol, or even drive a car (although these rules aren't exactly enforced in a post-apocalyptic world). How can we expect them to make a life-or-death decision? A guardian is meant to make life-altering choices on behalf of children and young teens. Joel is the closest she has to a parent, so wouldn't it defer to him?
Even so, there is certainly no guarantee that this surgery will even work and provide a cure for the world. It has become clear throughout the entire season that the Fireflies are in direct opposition to FEDRA. They're in a constant political struggle. It's more than reasonable to be skeptical and think that Ellie and her immunity would be used as a powerful bargaining chip against the reigning powers. Ellie might have a hard time understanding this as a 14-year-old, but Joel has been around for long enough to know that a young girl could all too easily be used as a pawn in the games of power and politics.
Yes, Joel is absolutely still the good guy at the end of the day.
Killing a child without her or her guardian's agreement is blatantly wrong, regardless of how likely it is that her death will save the planet, and sometimes it takes a fierce protector like Joel to defend this kind of objective morality in a broken, lawless world. Yes, Joel is absolutely still the good guy at the end of the day. Some will say he is driven by his past grief, but nobody can deny that he loves Ellie like his own and that he has her best interests in mind.
However, he failed to be honest with Ellie in the end, and this is when the first crack is placed in their previously pure relationship. They hadn't lied to each other prior to this, and Joel was honest with Ellie about even the most brutal things, and vice versa. Ellie even told him about the first person she killed, her best friend who had transformed into an infected monster. Joel should have told her the truth, but he approached the situation from a parent-child perspective, while Ellie sees them as equals after everything they have been through. Joel thought he was protecting Ellie by telling her the fabricated story of the other immune children and the raider attack. Furthermore, he was preserving their relationship (which he needs to heal his own grief and even forgive himself for the past), knowing that Ellie could very well leave him in a rage once she discovered that he risked the destruction of humanity to save her life. But even with his flaws and his final mistake, Joel remains the hero, just like every other protective father out there who would risk it all to save the life of the daughter he loves.