As a writer, curating a beloved character’s death is one of the hardest things you have to do. It’s probably a time when you take into account audience reaction more than any other, as for better or for worse (probably worse), audiences consider death as one of the most important parts of any story. If an audience feels let down by how a character meets the proverbial maker, they’ll let you know about it.
Not surprisingly, people have had a few things to say about The Last Of Us Part II.
Now, there’s no getting around the fact that the discourse around this game is pretty toxic since even before its release, which is disappointing because I think there’s so much to talk about and break down, and it’s sad that so much of the legitimate criticism gets drowned out, or talented writers/video makers don’t even want to engage with it because of the bullshit it might entail. My analysis and criticism of any part of this game should never be taken as a sign of support of anyone who is a bigot or harasses the creators of the game.
On that note of positivity, let’s start with what I like! From the moment Abby blasts a shotgun spread into Joel’s leg, this scene is highly effective. I love the fact that Joel doesn’t go out guns blazing, it reminds you that he was just a man in a shitty world where someone can just pull a gun on you and end your life. In the world of The Last Of Us, life is fragile no matter who you are, and Joel is just as vulnerable as anyone else, no matter his importance to the central narrative to the games.
What I do have a problem with, is how the events leading up to that death were executed. I don’t think I’m blowing anyone’s mind when I say that there is an extreme level of ‘convenient’ storytelling happening in the lead up to Joel’s death. I mean by this of course that in order for the events to play out in the order they do, characters have to get ‘lucky’ rather than rely on their agency to succeed. Abby doesn’t have a plan when she storms off in the snow towards the outpost, other than ‘forcing’ whoever she finds into giving her info about Joel. She doesn’t make it far before a blizzard rolls in, and quickly turns her thoughts to survival. Miraculously, this works out for her, as she is saved by none other than Joel and Tommy, and then convinces them to return to her friends, neatly falling into her trap and leading to Joel’s eventual death.
Now don’t get me wrong, some of our most celebrated narratives across history have an element of chance or luck built into them, but it’s how you deploy it that matters. It’s pure chance that the Pevensie children discover Narnia in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but it’s their agency as characters that allows them to succeed in that world and enact change. I know you didn’t expect me to compare this bleak video game to a beloved children’s classic, but the point is if Abby learning about Joel’s whereabouts is her ‘finding Narnia’ then everything after should come down to the characters actions and how they react to events, and Joel shouldn’t be strung along in a series of highly unlikely occurrences, which undermine his ability to react as a character, and lead to his eventual demise.
It’s not just Joel that is affected by this poor use of convenience, but also Abby. Abby comes across as absolutely incompotent the first time you play as her. She lets her emotions get the better of her and puts herself in danger because of it, stumbling around in the snow and needing to be rescued by the very man she wants to kill. This was probably meant to make her look more ruthless when she finally takes action, but it has the opposite effect and instead makes her revenge look undeserved. It also seems to go against how her character is described later on. I get that there was an emotional stake to getting Joel, but would ‘Isaac’s number one Scar killer’ really travel half-way across the country, get this close to killing him, and then almost die in a blizzard because she got mad about needing to come up with a plan that her crew would partake in? This whole scenario of Joel’s death being a product of chance sets the game off on the wrong foot, and undermines the rest of the story.
So, how could this be changed to enhance its impact as the catalyst for the story? Well, if you’ve been on the internet you’ve probably seen a bunch of different suggestions already, but they all have a common theme; characters utilize their agency. The specifics don’t really matter so long as Abby, Joel and Ellie play an active (or have agency taken away from them in Ellie’s case) role in Joel’s death. In Abby and Owen’s conversation on the cliff overlooking Jackson they talk about how well protected Joel is and how difficult it’s going to be to get to him. This should have been true, and Abby succeeding through her actions despite this, would have set up a much stronger initial impression of her as a character. If Abby’s role in Joel’s death sets her up as a character, it’s fitting that Joel’s own role should summarise who he was. By that I mean his actions leading to death should be one last hurrah to him and how he should be remembered.
Here’s a quick scenario I’ve just thought up just to illustrate my point. What if, instead of Abby rushing off on her own like an idiot, her, Owen and Manny stake out the outpost and catch Dina and Ellie as they pass through. They subdue them, interrogate/rough them up a bit, then send Dina off to get Joel, with Ellie kept as a hostage. This, importantly, would give some much needed time for Ellie and Abby to occupy the same space and set them up as adversaries, even though there wouldn’t be a lot of actual conversation going on. Upon finding Joel (probably at the outpost they were meant to meet Jesse at, so they’re cut off from reinforcements and Joel has more reason to act impulsively), Dina explains what happened and Joel rushes off, despite Tommy’s insistence that it’s a trap and to wait to devise a plan. Joel turns up with Dina and Tommy following from afar. Dina and Tommy are incapacitated by the other members of Abby’s group they weren’t aware of, and Joel faces Abby alone, Ellie screams at him to leave but of course he doesn’t, and the same fate befalls him while Ellie watches on powerless.
Now, is that scenario I outlined perfect with no room for criticism? Of course not, I made it up off the top of my head, and it even uses some plot convenience with Ellie and Dina being the ones caught at the outpost. Crucially though, what it does have is every character taking an active role in the events that unfold. Abby and her crew come up with a plan and use their training to force Joel into a vulnerable position and eliminate him. Joel makes the choice to come to Ellie’s aid, even whilst knowing it’ll put him in harm’s way and may lead to his death. This solidifies the themes of his character and gives him an end that reflects who he was in (at least recent) life. This depiction of events also greatly helps justify Ellie’s motivation for her murderous rampage across Seattle, because not only was her autonomy taken away by Abby and her crew to save Joel, but also because she was forced to become complicit in his capture. With this being the catalyst for the events of The Last Of Us Part II, you have a stronger motivation for Ellie and Dina to go after each individual crew member as they were more involved in the events that unfolded, and shows Abby as a ruthless individual who competently orchestrated Joel’s demise. This allows more room in her story for reflection and atonement later in the game, and creates more propulsion for the events that unfold.
Convenience has its place in any good story, but not when it undermines a character in their final moments. By orchestrating Joel’s death through a set of circumstances that are so unlikely they don’t feel earned, not only does it make a beloved characters demise feel unjustified, but also weakens the establishment of a character such as Abby, who is meant to act as a contrast against an already established and empathetic character like Ellie, between which the narrative for the entire game is designed to thrive. Even though I think The Last Of Us Part II does hit the emotional low points it’s aiming for, something more could have been achieved by its narrative, starting with its catalytic event.