Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
run down hospital
Interior of an abandoned hospital corridor. Generative AI
Image licensed via Adobe Stock

The Last of Us, Episode 9

Getting to the central moral question of the entire series

The episode begins with another flashback, showing how Ellie was born. Then, we see that Joel and Ellie have finally reached Salt Lake City, and once there, the writers retell some of the classic scenes from the game. During these scenes, it becomes evident that the two characters are much closer now. I’d say the writers did manage to successfully transition Joel and Ellie from an adversarial partnership to a father-daughter like relationship. Before long; however, the two are disoriented by a flash grenade, and Joel is knocked unconscious.

When he wakes up, he sees Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, standing in a doorway with armed guards around her. They made it to the medical facility after all, but the Firefly patrol didn’t know who they were, so because apparently everybody takes extreme measures in this world, the patrol decided to hit Joel and Ellie with a flash grenade and then take them to the hospital since they’d probably need to go to a hospital anyway. But regardless of the circumstances, Joel has completed his mission.

Joel asks where Ellie is, and Marlene says she’s fine, but the situation feels off, and it doesn’t take long to figure out what the problem is. Turns out, Ellie really is the potential cure for the virus, but the doctor Marlene has found believes that the immunity is coming from the fungus itself, and that fungus grows inside the brain. So, in order to create this cure, he’s going to kill Ellie and take out the fungus. A little detail, Marlene forgot to mention when she first recruited Joel and Tess for this task. Joel is, of course, not happy about this, and Marlene tries to have him escorted out of the building by the guards she’d brought with her, but Joel gets the jump on them, and proceeds to wipe out a good portion of the Firefly army in what is probably my personal favorite scene of the series. It’s one of the best shootouts I’ve watched in a long time.

Joel takes Ellie from the operating table and heads down to a parking garage where he has one last conversation with Marlene, who tries to persuade Joel to give Ellie back. He kills Marlene instead, then escapes the Firefly facility. When Ellie wakes up, Joel lies to her, saying that the doctors had stopped looking for a cure. Ellie suspects this is a lie, and at the very end of the episode, she demands Joel swear he’s telling the truth. He swears, and she looks at him and says okay. Then the episode ends.

Sticking to the Source

This ending is what made The Last of Us famous, and I was glad to see the writers stick to the source material so closely. The reason people celebrate this conclusion is because of its moral ambiguity. Should Joel have saved Ellie at the cost of humanity? To be honest, I never found there to be anything morally ambiguous about it. One could argue that Joel shouldn’t have lied to Ellie, and that’s a sentiment I understand and agree with, but when it comes to the idea of Joel stopping the surgery to save Ellie, even if it meant the end of the world, I’d say of course Joel should’ve stopped the surgery. The writers try to spin the argument in such a way as to suggest that Joel only did it because he didn’t want to lose his daughter again, and that may very well have been his motivations, but even if he wasn’t thinking about the grander implications of his decisions, the fact remains the doctor and Marlene were clearly in the wrong, and we have a rather famous childhood fable that demonstrate why. Who remembers the story of, The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg by Aesop?

Once upon a time, there was a goose that laid a daily golden egg until the farmer got so greedy that he killed the goose to get all the eggs at once, but instead, he was only left with a dead goose because he didn’t know how the bird was laying the eggs to begin with. Now, whether or not Ellie is a goose, the point remains that the doctor is opting to kill the girl right out of the gate. He’s greedy and risks losing the cure, once and for all, without even trying to test his theory. Remember, they have Ellie, literally, for the rest of her life. They could take all the time they need to find another way to create a cure. Instead, they opt to kill her after a couple hours. The doctor didn’t even try to spare the girl’s life. And what does that say about the people trying to make this cure? If they were willing to kill a little girl without so much as trying to find a way to spare her, does anyone really believe they’d give the cure to other people out of the goodness of their hearts? No. Of course, not. If they didn’t make everyone pay an absurdly high price for this cure, they’d, at the very least, deny it to their adversaries. In short, they’d have a Rings of Power situation on their hands, and humanity would only succeed in wiping itself out further by trying to capture this cure. If the Fireflies were willing to kill for the cure, then they wouldn’t be altruistic with that cure once they had it.

Ancient Motif and Moral Dilemma

And there’s an even more interesting idea buried within this situation that I’m not sure the writers realized was there. It’s the idea of the old killing the young to preserve itself, or if you rather, the idea of sacrificing the virgin to the volcano. I would argue that perhaps the doctor knew Ellie represented something new, and based on a subconscious impulse, decided to kill that new thing, devising a risky, all-or-nothing solution as a pretense. Say Ellie lived a full and healthy life. Say she had kids, and those kids were immune. In that case, Ellie would be the Eve for a new kind of humanity, but by necessity, the old humanity would have to die, which is the natural way of things. But the old doesn’t want to die, so when it doesn’t wish to accept the designed order, it devises a way to murder the young to preserve itself, the same way an old oak tree will block the sunlight, killing all the saplings around it.

Again, I’m not sure the writers realized they were recreating this ancient motif. They wanted you to focus on Joel, a father who lost his child and was seemingly making a selfish decision. But if you stop and think about it, then you realize that common sense would demand any self-respecting doctor to be curious about whether or not Ellie’s children would be immune. This might create a whole set of moral conundrums by itself, but the point remains. The doctor banished the idea of Ellie representing a new kind of humanity from his mind and decided that killing her was the only way to save the old world he knew. And Joel, protective parent or not, was the only one who could see past such an irrational and selfish assessment. He realized that Ellie’s life had to be spared because he was a father, and that paternal impulse recognized something the doctor couldn’t or wouldn’t see. Children are the future. They represent unlimited potential and can, perhaps, create a better world. The earth does not belong to a single generation forever, but people who cling to life too tightly will never see this. Sometimes only a parent can. And so, I’d say that Joel’s decision was both natural and selfless. Perhaps, we have paternal affections for a reason.

But the beauty of a morally ambiguous story is that it does allow someone to ask such questions and gives the viewer permission the see the problem however they like. So, I will give the writers credit for that. I’ll give my final thoughts on the series in the next review.  

Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

The Last of Us, Episode 9