A DISSENTING OPINION ON TLoU ENDING, in four acts by Aleksandar Kuktin
Three main points: (1) Joel didn't lie to Ellie, (2) the Fireflies' scientists were attempting to study the cordyceps with no direct intent to produce a vaccine (and may have well caused the outbrake in the first place) and (3) Joel chose the best from both worlds: he saved Ellie while NOT jeopardizing the possibility of finding a cure/vaccine (because he can always find another and more ethical medical team).
Also: In the epilogue, Ellie is coming to terms that Fireflies are no different than other people she met. Various additional nuances are explored in the text.
First, I'd like to begin by stating that what follows is a rehash of my beliefs and understanding immediatelly after the end of the game. To me, the ending didn't feature any lies or false swears and, honestly, I was appaled when I went to the Internet and discovered everyone talking about Joel choosing to doom (so to speak) humanity over the life of a single girl, not to mention lying - a far worse offense in this case.
So, I chose to write this opinion in order to, first, voice my understanding of the events, lay out the logic of it, point out the false dichotomy inherent in taking Marlene's argument without thinking it all the way through and finally maybe convince people to see the events as I see them.
In this, I am only refering to the game itself, without any external resources.
ACT I: Joel didn't lie.
There are two central claims that Joel made to Ellie while in the car: (1) there are other immune and (2) the Firefly scientists were not trying to find a cure. It is presumed he also told Ellie many other things in the days after they escaped but those things are not subject to this analysis.
It should be obvious that the claim about dozens of immune people is not suspect in and of itself. With any disease, just as there are people who are extremely susceptible, there are also people that are not susceptible. While the game does not show us any such people, the game takes place in a geographically isolated environment: the continental USA. There may very well be immune people in other places, like China, Indonesia, India, Europe, Africa. Furthermore, this information could have come (and I believe it did) directly from Marlene herself. In the cut scene that shows Marlene confronting Joel as he carries Ellie out of the elevator, Marlene is shown coming closer to Joel in a manner that may be understood to be her talking to Joel. At the same time, Joel is shown listening. It was and is my understanding that the two of them comunicated at that time. I believe that Marlene was trying to give Joel a quick infodump to soften him to the idea that it is okay for him to give Ellie up. Her not shooting Joel at this point (glaring in that she previously told the soldier to shoot Joel if he tries anything) and even trying to rationalize with him is quite interesting and I will be exploring it more later, in "acts" II and III.
My analysis of the second Joel's claim is twopart. Here, I will lay out the argument on the basis of what Joel can be reliably expected to have known, and then in "act" II, I will drill deep into the scientists acts, as shown to us by the game to try and bring out to the light of day proof the Firefly scientist had a different agenda.
So what does Joel know? First, he knows that everyone (except the people in Salt Lake City, presumably) has given up on the cure. Second, he knows the Fireflies are no different that any of the other people he met and are therefore highly unlikely to have the good of humanity on their hearts. And finally, Marlene's infodump by the elevator gave him enough cause to set his previous knows into stone and come to the conclusion that they were not looking for a cure.
There is also an aditional factor. Between the time he leaves the elevator to the time he talks to Ellie in the car (10-15 minutes) he has had enough time to reflect on the intricacies of vaccine development (I will lay these out in more detail below) and further set him in the belief that the Firefly scientists were not looking for a cure. At this point I would like to point out that any counter-arguments of the form that Joel would not be knowledgable in vaccine development are probably not applicable because he was living in that world for 20 years. In those 20 years, when scientists gave up on the cure, they MUST have explained to the public why are they are giving up. Joel certainly heard that argument and remembered it when he was being escorted out of the compound.
Given that his claim to Ellie that the Fireflies have given up on a cure came from his personal beliefs and understanding, he was not lying.
ACT II: scientists were only interested in cordyceps, not the cure
Before I begin, I would want to point out that my education and training is in medicine, so I will be dropping the hammer on the Fireflies quite hard. Because they FUCK. UP. on *every* level.
First, lets begin with the obvious. Why the hell do they need to remove the cordyceps growths in the first place? I'm serious. If they really want the vaccine, why remove it?
There is really only one place where we gain some insight into the disease, barring the head X-ray in the University. That is in the recording that Joel finds on the top level of the hospital. Summarised, this informs us that the disease and the body are in an equilibrium, where the body completely ignores the fungus and the fungus does not cripple the body.
This, all by itself, is a landmark find. You know what I would have done? Nothing. I would have just observed the patient and the disease (non-)progression for several months and try to get my bearings. Instead, the ungratefull meatsack that dares call itself "surgeon" decides to scoop up the brain almost as soon as he sees it. And that is the Firefly's first fuckup. They fail at the basic fenomenology of the problem.
Their second fuckup has to do with the fact that they are throwing the solution of the problem away. Assuming this is trully the revolutionary find everyone in the Fireflies claims it to be, then it has to be obvious that the specimen (Ellie) MUST be preserved at all costs.
Let me back that up. There are two basic sources of her immunity, plus an extra one that is up there in science fiction-land. The first option, and the one that is presumed throughout, is that the source of Ellies immunity is within her own body. In other words, she is unique. The second option is that the cordyceps strain is unique and "watered down", much like how T. pallidum (which causes syphilis) "watered itself down" over the centuries - originally syphilis was a horrible disease which made peoples' fingers and other fall off and now it is becoming comething more akin to ghonorrhea. The third option is that there is a previously unknown (or unnoticed) third organism living on/in Ellie that forces the cordyceps into a state of dormancy. And lets also not overlook the option of enviromental factors which may be disease-stage specific. For example, maybe she breathed in a particular coctail of industrial exaust gasses in a particular stage of the disease that inactivated the cordyceps. You never know. And because you spoon her brain out the same day you see her, you will NEVER know.
And the second backing up: what if their first attempt fails? Then what? Wait another 20 years for the next immune person to come along (assuming that Ellie really is the only immune - a completely and ridiculously preposterous claim)? Saving and preserving Ellie would give them a second, third or any other go at the vaccine.
Next fuck up. How about the way they ABSOLUTELY AND ULTIMATELLY fail at disease modeling? "Disease modeling" refers to the way scientist look for or create animals that have the same diseases humans have and then try to either cure them or study the disease. Now we know for a FACT that the Firefly scientists tried this because the game at some point shows us a pack of monkies that were infected. The absolutely glaring thing about those monkeys is that they behave (as far as we can see) as completely normal monkeys. THAT IS YOUR DISEASE MODEL AND ELLIE IS THE HUMAN ANALOGUE OF IT!!! Study her! Get those monkeys, or infect a new batch of monkeys, put them alongside Ellie and STUDY THEM! Over time! Look for similarities. Look for what Ellie and the monkies have but normal humans don't. We'll get back to the monkies after the break.
Time for the fourth fuck up. *WHAT THE HELL IS FUCKING WRONG WITH THAT "SURGEON"*?!? I mean, from what I wrote above, it's pretty glaringly obvious that the "surgeon" didn't go through a proper medical school. Further proof for that is that apparently he never heard of the "primum non nocere", "minimally invasive surgery" and, most importantly, "biopsy". Yes. Biopsy. I know the scientists convinced Marlene that the only option is to scoop up the entire brain, but I don't buy it, primarily with the background above of long-term studing. Here is my main bone to pick: what possible good would it be to get the cordiceps growth inside the brain, but without understanding what you are looking at? The brain is not the only part of the body, you know. If immunity is from the Ellies body, than the key to that is almost certainly not in her brain but in the rest of her body. There may be (and probably is) much that can be gained from studing the brain tissue samples but you do not need a whole brain for that. The only possibility that arises where Ellies life would be lost is if for some reason they need a sample from the brainstem. And nothing shows us they need that. On the contrary, the interesting things happen in the limbic system (infodump: the limbic system is a collection of parts of cerebral cortex, some cerebral ganglions and a curious structure called the hippocampus. It implements volition, emotion and explicit memory - you wanting to do something is because some neurons in the limbic system are firing). Taking biopsy samples from the limbic system should be safe and not produce significant mental defects (but its always possible she will become a vegetable). An additional problem with the brainscoop operation is that her brain is not the only place where there are fungal outgrowths. There are about a half-dozen around the bite on her arm.
Before I go on, let me recap the things Fireflies didn't do, but would have done if they really were intending to create a cure. First, they didn't take their time to understand the dynamic between Ellies' body and the cordyceps, second, they are not making any effort to preserve the (supposedly) one human on Earth that is immune for the possibility they don't get the cure right the first time around, third, they make absolutely no attempt to create an animal model of Ellie and, fourth, they focus on the wrong thing (the fungus in her head instead of, say, her cell receptor genes).
Now let me change the tune and go in the opposite direction and instead of trying to show what the Firefly scientists were not trying to achieve, let me try to show and convince you what they were trying to achieve.
Again, lets begin with the "surgeons'" recording on the top level of the hospital. After relaying us the rough status of Ellie, he trails of on what looks like a rather typical mad scientist ramble where he, right after name-dropping penicillin (which has nothing to do with the cordyceps cure) states that "[we will] bring the human race back into control of it's own destiny". While it is possible he was reffering to the way penicillin supposedly gave humans control over their own destiny (a dubious claim at best since antibiotics have been discovered several times in history but fell into disuse a century or two later due to growing microbial resistance), there is an alternate interpretation. The interpretation is that it may be possible Firefly scientists somehow convinced themselves that cordyceps can "better" humanity. Let me lay out other arguments for this hypothesis.
The monkies. I wrote we would come back to them, and here we are. Let me repeat myself: the monkies that were infected didn't succumb to the infection, rather they behaved completely normally (as far as we can see). This is very, very important. It means the scientists had exactly what they were looking for, a dormant infection, right under their noses, and failed to capitalize on it... Assuming they were looking for a way to cure people (or monkies) from the cordyceps infection. But if they were trying to control the infection, to "perfect it" if you will, then that would explain why they didn't do anything usefull with the infected monkies.
Let's think for a moment about how long they handled those infected monkies. It has been 20 years since the outbreak and I think it is a good idea to assume they had the infected monkies for the entire 20 years. By way of comparison, HIV came to be in 1986. Twenty years later, effective antiretroviral therapy was developed. By year 2006., a HIV positive person that regularly takes his or her medicine has the same life expectancy as a HIV negative person. And, unlike cordyceps infection, outside of Africa, HIV is not exactly threatening the world with an apocalipse.
As for my last argument that Fireflies were trying to mess with cordyceps and not cure it, I would like to once again present you with the curious case of the "surgeon" and the speed with which he decided to remove the brain from Ellie. What if he already knew everything he could about the interplay between the body and the fungus and instead of trying to figure out how to create a vaccine, he wanted to study the fungus and try to make a strain that replicated that functionality all by itself. A self-limiting strain. And he decided to scoop up Ellie's brain because he was invested in other pursuits (more on that in a second).
At this point I want to point out that you do not need to remove someones' brain to create a strain that is self-limiting. Genetic engeneering of a wild strain with cultivation and... testing.. is enough. And I would also like to point out that you absolutely don't need Ellie or any other immune human to try that idea out, the monkey disease model will provide you with enough data to zero in on the relevant fungal genes (provided the idea can work in the first place).
So, to recap arguments that Fireflies were interested in developing the cordyceps are thus: the apparent "omnipotent mad scientist" vibe the "surgeon" displayed in the recording, the fact they were sitting on a good disease model (monkies) for 20 years and didn't produce palpable results and the fact the Fireflies went straight for the cordyceps in Ellies' brain when they were finally presented with her.
The above analysis of Firefly scientists' motivation, acts and past performance got me thinking about a rath er disturbing possibility that I will only lightly point out in a few sentences lest this dissent be taken over by what is currently mere speculation. The speculation is that the cordyceps fungus was artificially engeneered to produce certain nefarious effects in people (such as affecting their will, will being implemented by the limbic system as I noted above). It may have in fact been produced by the very same people that now work for the Fireflies under the cover of creating a vaccine for the infection. It, ofcourse, may have escaped the laboratory, or it could have been let loose, perhaps as a way to enhance it.
After that speculative excursion, let me now finish this "act" by explaining how it is possible that some Fireflies were working in one way and other in another. The discrepancy is in the fact that the scientists were, as stated above, not trying to create a cure, while the military wing was apparently working hard to procure and protect "resources" necessary for creating a cure.
In my opinion, the discrepancy can be shockingly easily explained if one invokes the "need-to-know" principle and the general indoctrination that all military members go throught. I would like to call on Marlene's journal that Joel recovers as he goes through the hospital. In it, Marlene writes that, in effect, she thinks of herself as a grunt. This basically means that she views herself as a soldier, which further means that she is *not* the fabled leader of the Fireflies. In reality, she was - at most - the highest ranking military comander of the Boston division/brigade (but a battalion was probably the most they ever had). And it also means she probably wasn't the highest ranking Firefly in Boston and also wasn't the highest ranking Firefly in Salt Lake City. Meaning that she and her men were subject to "need-to-know" and "we do the thinking for you" that would have been imposed by both the higher ranking military leadership and the civilian leadership of the Fireflies. We will return to Marlene (and her stunt with not shooting Joel) in the next "act".
And last, lets not forget the politics of the conflict between the Quarantine government and the Fireflies. The Fireflies are, for all intents and purposes, an armed insurgency. As such, the first, largest and most important battleground is for the peoples hearts and minds. To have a chance at winning, the Fireflies must be capable of promising (if not actually delivering) more than the Quarantine government. The Cure for Cordyceps is one such promise. As long as they have someone (no matter how incompetent) working on it, the Fireflies can claim that they care more about the people then the Quarantine government.
ACT III: Joel chose the best from both worlds
It appears the fandom has suscepted to the old failure to debate the question but not the form of the question. Specifically, the form of the question at hand is this: "Is it better to kill one of your own to save humanity, or is it better to save them, potentially dooming humanity?" In a more clear fashion: "Is it good to sacrifice a few to save the many?" But this is horribly misleading, especially in the world of TLoU.
In-game, this is presented as a dillema: give Ellie to us to spoon her brain out, or be responsible for continuement of human suffering. In my act II, I hope I was able to convince you that spooning her brain out was actually not a good idea and that it would actually push back progress on developing the vaccine (not that anyone is trying anymore) but the rabbit hole goes even deeper.
Far better then taking the question as it is presented to us is to think about the objectives at hand. The objective (for Joel and Ellie anyway) is to produce the cure for cordyceps infection. They are presented with one possible option: let the Fireflies kill Ellie (a very, very bad idea, as explained above) and attempt to produce a cure (there are no guarranties). But they also have a second option: go find someone else who is also capable of finding a cure and let them study Ellie using proper medical and scientific approaches to produce an actuall cure. Assuming a cure can be produced - and this is a good point - as stated above, 20 years after HIV, we have a more-or-less working treatment, but after 20 years of cordyceps research there is no cure.
An argument that there is no one else working on it is, in my mind, bad because, as Tommy's settlement clearly demonstrates, the post-apocaliptic world of TLoU has no shortage of highly skilled professionals capable of performing at the same level as pre-apocalipse professionals. Tommy's settlement has, by his admition, 12 families. In principle, that works out to 24 adults, 2 of which are electrical engeneers or equivalent. 2 college-level educated people out of 24 total is 8% which is above-average when looking at a long-term average (5%) both for USA and for the world as a whole.
My argument in the previous paragraph is that the world of TLoU is definitelly capable of supporting an intelectual class at least as big as the pre-apocaliptic one. Such a class can always be expected to produce enough able people to make a cure.
Joel's apparent calmness when he saved Ellie from the Fireflies plays well into this reality. While we have not been shown it and can therefore not be sure about it, it is absolutely plausible that between shooting the escorting soldiers' balls off and exiting the elevator, Joel realised that he was actually presented with a false dichotomy and that there does, in fact, exist a Third Option.
Marlene, on the other hand, does not show such clarity of thought or mind. In my opinion, this is most readily evident in the way she not only didn't shoot and kill Joel upon exiting the elevator but also pointed her gun away from him. In my understanding, this discrepancy between her acts and her orders to the now-dead soldier show that she herself was not sure her own acts were good and was actually asking Joel to reassure her that she did the right thing. Note that this entire dynamic would have played out sub-conciously for Marlene so she may have not even been avare of the things she was doing. If true, this would also explain why she would tell Joel about other immune people (recall that I firmly believe Joel didn't lie about anything to Ellie). She was trying to validate her own choice by having Joel repeat her footsteps. Note that had Joel done that, her choice in the matter would have been validated in actuallity, on the principle that two heads are smarter than one.
A final, and absolutely most important by any measure, observation about this regards Ellie and her (intact) agency. It will be listed in the fourth "act".
ACT IV: once again, Ellie survives the worst of humanity
The fandom has correctly recognised that Joel and Marlene have taken agency in the matter of brainscooping away from the only person that is entitled to it - Ellie. What the fandom overlooked, in my opinion, is that Joel's approach actually preserves her agency in toto.
The argument is simple: if Ellie really wants to have her head busted open, she could have just returned to Salt Lake City. Better yet, she could have not even left it.
Of course, in reality, Ellie never made up her mind about the "surgery" and was certainly never even confronted with the option.
Consider this: what proof do we have Ellie knew about anything that was happening to her? The only information we have about her state of mind comes from the two sentences she said in the car, as they were exiting Salt Lake City. "What the hell am I wearing?" and "What happened?". The fact she asked what she was wearing, followed by the question on what happened and all of that uttered in a way which implies she saw nothing strange or unusual with being on the back seat of the car with Joel, in my mind, proves she was utterly oblivious about what the Fireflies had in store for her. It proves she was either never concious after nearly drowning in the tunnels outside the hospital, or was continuously under effect of amnesiacs, or was prepared for "surgery" (unneccesarry murder more likely) without ever being informed it would have been performed. For all we know, she was told Joel was fine and would soon see her.
The reader of this dissent has followed Ellie through the entire game, and remembers how she acts and behaves. Ask yourself: if Ellie REALLY gave her informed consent for the "surgery", WHY, in the whole wide world, did she not lose it after waking up on the back seat of the car next to Joel?? I would expect her to not only lose it, but go completely off the rails. Yet what is the response? Nothing bigger than a concern about her clothing.
We should point out Ellie has killed. The Winter chapter and the implied interlude between the Fall and Winter chapters (remember, in this dissent we are only taking into account the original game), shows us Ellie not only taking care of herself, but also of a greviously wounded Joel. There is little in the way of us concluding she could have either made Joel take her back or left him and came back all by herself.
The possibility that the abovementioned sorry excuse of a "surgeon" is the only "scientist" the Fireflies have (had) is real. However, if true, that only reinforces the correctness of Joel's response in getting Ellie out. In my act II I have explained why the "surgeons" methods are hopeless, and I have pointed out he may have motives other than the good of mankind on his heart. If that is the best Fireflies can come up with, they do not deserve Ellie.
Therefore, what do we have? We have a post-apocaliptic world filled with far too many monsters to count. In the end, the shadow of a doubt from the beggining of the game shows itself to have been very real all along. The Fireflies, the Quarantine government and practically everyone else Ellie and Joel meet are exactly the same in their ways and the only difference is in the emblem on the shoulder sleeve.
It is this realisation that has plagued Ellie in the epilogue of the game. Remember, she lived her entire life in the military. Her only parental figure that we know about, before Joel, was a high-ranking officer in the Fireflies. It is fairly certain Ellies entire world-view had Fireflies as the eponimous "good guys". Coming to terms with that world-view unraveling required her to ask Joel to swear to her that everything he said about the Fireflies (and this includes far more than just what he said as they were exiting Salt Lake City) was true. And the closing "Okay." with her eyes was nothing more than her coming to terms of her new reality, much like the way Joel came to the terms of his reality back when Henry saved him from drowning and Ellie showed him the same wall as he did to her at the end.