Hey everyone ^_^ It's Snivystorm here!
Now I know, I know, it seems out of place for me to be doing this now when all the hype is on the new The Last of Us Part II which was revealed only days ago. Now don't get me wrong, I'm just as hyped as you guys for it (we get to play as Ellie *squeals with joy*). However, it's because of this new found focus on Ellie that I want to take a step back and re-evaluate the man who started it all. Joel.
This is the man who we effectively began our journey with, but just what sort of man was he? He did seemingly good things, saving Ellie's life, fulfilling Tess' wish and looked after his daughter. However, is there another side to this man and how does this shape our view of him being a 'hero'?.
I hope you enjoy the read :).
So without further ado, this is my personal look in to the older half of our beloved duo
Note - There are major spoilers for the game ahead as well as some strong language. I'm sure you guys knew that anyway though ^^
Hero or Villain?
The character of Joel in the game, The Last of Us is one up to various interpretations. Before the events of the game, he was your typical single parent doing their best to raise their child in a pretty normal world. He had a house to live in, a love of guitar, a job in construction (though he was struggling to keep such in September, 2013) and a loving daughter he cared greatly for.
By the end of the game though, he is a completely different man. He now has much blood on his hands, is a controlling, deceptive, and hardened survivor in the post-apocalyptic world. He lacks the morale boundaries he once had, his job being merely to survive and his tolerance for the world around him spread thin. He no longer has a loving daughter but rather a fractured replacement in the form of an infected girl, Ellie. Like Ellie, Joel himself has become tainted by the world around him, but does this mean he is an immoral psychopath looking out for himself or just a man who has "struggled for a long time with survivin’".
"I’ve struggled for a long time with surviving, but no matter what you keep finding something to fight for"
Violence - a sign of heroism or villainy?
Joel can be viewed in literature as being aligned as a "chaotic but good" type of character (trust me guys, I'm going somewhere with this). True to such a thing, Joel believes in "luck [that] will run out". Also typical of this character, he repels social order, willingly breaking many laws in the quarantine zone (like being a smuggler, killing soldiers and engaging in black market dealings with the militia group, the Fireflies) due to not desiring to have his freedom be restricted.
What we do see in Joel is a man of age. Since he knows life before the apocalypse, he is somewhat out of place, typically sleeping whenever he gets a chance and generally appears run down by the lifestyle he is forced to lead to survive. He doesn’t seem happy either, when things do go right for him (in times before he meets Ellie) he displays a feeling of emptiness, remarking with a sigh "well now what?" and "so the whole deal went south?"
Joel does appear to come to life in the form of violence, easily being able to out brawl others much younger than him and is drawn in to almost a relish to be violent. It’s debatable that this aggression is only due to the world he lives in; it is a heroic trait for him to be a good fighter, asserting himself as a protector for Ellie in such a desolate and dangerous world, defending her from a Hunter who tried to strangle her, senselessly tackled a soldier who tried to shoot her, and heavily beat Henry due to the man knocking the girl to the floor. Joel (much like Lee Everett from The Walking Dead) is a capable survivor, surviving in the world by his desire to protect and secure Ellie yet this leads him to kill many people throughout his time. The problem is Joel's lack of restraint in Ellie's absence, almost taking pleasure in "popping [the] goddamn knee off" the two cannibals he captured for information regarding Ellie. He even retorts to one cannibal's brittle attempt at resisting:
"Fuck you man. He told you what you wanted! I ain’t telling you shit"
"That’s alright. I believe him"
Before swiftly killing him in cold blood. His violence was so great that David and the cannibals would come to view him as a "crazy man". Joel's violent tendencies are only anchored by the more innocent (but still just as capable) Ellie, ceasing his assault on Henry both times due to Ellie ordering "Joel, stop!" despite her being a child.
It is almost as if the anchor of Ellie is due to her similarity to Sarah, Joel's lost daughter. The presence of the girl reminds Joel of times before the pandemic, even if subconsciously; Joel only restrains himself when she is around, his former companion Tess not holding him back, allowing the man to torture the smuggler Robert despite such violence arguably not being needed.
This anchor with Ellie though can result in Joel being even more violent than previously thought, Joel going on a killing spree inside of St. Mary's Hospital in an attempt to save her life from the Fireflies attempts to create a cure from her. Joel even brutally tortures his guard, Ethan, just to find out "where is the operating room" and later kills Marlene (Ellie's surrogate mother) for fear she’d "just come after [them]".
"Wait, let me go…please"
"You’d just come after her"
Joel vs Marlene - are they so different?
Regarding the Firefly leader, Marlene represents the exact opposite of Joel. While Marlene leads a group of militia in an attempt to find a cure for mankind, Joel prefers to go in alone and resist mankind around him to better himself in his job as a smuggler. Joel has always been about himself, having learned to detest humanity; typical of his character trait not doing anything that won't gain him wealth (guns in his case); while Marlene has always been about the other man, risking her life (and eventually, her surrogate daughter's) to save mankind despite how personal it becomes for her.
The juxtaposition of these two characters is what serves to fuel the need to ask Is Joel a hero or a villain? Is Joel morally wrong for saving a little girl's life even if it means mankind will never have the chance to thrive again? Is it wrong of Joel to choose Ellie’s fate? Well, yes, to some degree. Joel is, as Marlene rightly said, refusing to let Ellie decide her own future despite it being "what she'd want and [he] knows it". But then Ellie is just a child. Does she really understand the weight of what the decision is? She didn't know she would die, she was left asleep, evident by how she asks "what am I wearing?" and "what happened?" upon awaking, Marlene never confirming the girl's decision. Do we let children decide what they should do with their lives at such an age; well no, there are lines that aren't crossed, especially one of such grandeur.
"How long before she's torn to pieces by a pack of Clickers? That is, if she hasn't been raped and murdered first?"
"That ain't for you to decide"
"It’s what she'd want, and you know it!"
A man of his setting?
Now their world isn't quite the same as ours but the point still stands as the people (Joel and Marlene) deciding Ellie's fate have lived in our world so still hold some of our boundaries outside of the survival aspect. While Marlene's decision is warped due to her desire to save humanity, Joel's decision is arguably still rooted in the old world; he has changed back to his old self due to having met Ellie unlike Marlene, who has distanced herself from the girl time and time again, abandoning her at a Military Prepatory School or better put by Ellie "a nice name for an orphanage."
The only problem with Joel's decision is the extremity to which he acts on it. Did he have to slaughter the Fireflies and their leader to protect Ellie? No. Marlene in particular holstered her gun away from Joel, having asserted "[He] could still do the right thing here" yet Joel still feels the need to, "almost savagely" to quote ‘Teens React’, kill her with a bullet to her head just because he presumes "[she'd] just come after [them]". This overt paranoia Joel has creates the downfall of his character; he lies to Ellie. There's no noticeable regret in his face either, despite Ellie having confessed her survivors guilt:
"I’m still waiting for my turn...Swear to me. Swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true?"
It's quite fitting that the developers had the perspective of the player shift from Joel back to Ellie for this short walk through the woods. It changes the eyes of the player enough that they can now observe Joel, almost turning us against him. We see a sad old man being senile, lost in the far gone world of when he would "take hikes like this with Sarah", his daughter, the player unable to help but criticise Joel for his choice, evident by the various 'Let's Plays' found on Youtube.
Scarred by the past?
The interpretation of whether Joel is a hero or a villain is a rather fine line to cross. If everyone knew of what Joel did (like Tommy's community for instance) would they still like him? The only person left in the world who knows of Joel’s 'true' dark side is his brother Tommy, the pair having lived in this world together for a many years.
Interestingly, the only character to know of Joel's darkest days did undoubtedly abandon him in favour of the Fireflies; the very thing Joel isn’t like at all; epitomising how "Tommy saw the world one way. [Joel] saw it another." Now Tommy does forgive Joel when they meet again years later, "[giving] him a second chance" as is his new philosophy in the world that can "give us all a second chance". Though the tension with him and Tommy is partially buried, it quickly arises when the brothers are left alone to talk; the dark memories ("nightmares" as Tommy claims) resurface and result in a conflict one could presume had occurred years before. This altercation reminds us of one simple fact; Joel can’t escape his past:
"Took care, that's what you call it? I got nothing but nightmares from those years"
"You survived because of me!"
"It wasn’t worth it"
Try as he might, the man can't completely wash out scars that have been imprinted on him. While he avoids talking of Sarah, he still wears the watch she gave him (its crack symbolising how Joel is "broken"). Although he has been a Hunter (evident by how he knows their tactics and by his brother’s remarks) he doesn’t outright say it, preferring to comment "I've been on both sides". Despite Joel refusing to take the photo of him and Sarah, he finds himself being gifted it by Ellie months later, admitting "I guess you can't escape your past"
One now must decide if Joel is a villain because of his dark past, violent tendencies, grim philosophy and controlling relationship with Ellie or that he’s a hero due to saving a girl's life, consoling her in times of need, being a strong survivor, and had an almost idyllic relationship with his family before the events of the game?
The answer which one may conclude with is... he's both! Joel is all of these things which is "his greatest asset and his greatest curse" to quote The Doctor (shout out to all you Whovians out there). Being both of these things neither makes him bad or good, which is fitting for the world they live in; there are no good men or bad men:
"You ain't a girl you ain’t a boy, you ain't smart, you ain't strong. You're just either dead, alive or one of them" - Quoting Chuck from The Walking Dead
Conclusion - Hero or Villain?
So, is Joel a hero or a villain? The answer might even be more accurate as neither; he's just trying to survive, as are all the people in the world around him are. This is why one can see him as more heroic than evil; the choice to save Ellie matches the setting, survival of the fittest over restoration to the way things were. Joel's decision matches how the world will never return to the way it is in our time, representing the overarching theme in The Last of Us; humanity isn’t worth saving!
Why? Because it was nature that started the extermination of man in the first place. The ‘cordyceps’ that has created this barren world was a fungus, a thing of nature, not man made design. Man hasn't caused the downfall of man, nature has. In such a world, it isn't wrong to imagine that humanity will fall and become extinct, earth taking itself back from its residents. It may not be even far-fetched to presume Ellie could pass on her immunity to her offspring, as is the way with evolution and mutations. Do we really want to sacrifice a child's life to save a race that has willingly "burned soldiers to death for pure sport", hung "men for not standing with [their] way of life" and executed children (Sarah) just because someone told them to?
In The Last of Us, Joel isn't perfect; in our world, he's a villain, an anti-hero at best. But for the world he has found himself placed in, he is undoubtedly the closest thing to a hero we are going to get. Will he change in the sequel? Will Ellie abandon him? Just what should we think of this man? Only we can decide.
Thanks for reading! What did you guys think? Share your thoughts in the comments below :D