‘The Last Of Us’ Restarts The Great ‘Was Joel Right?’ Debate

It’s a moment I remember clearly all these years later. Reaching that hospital room in The Last of Us, seeing Ellie on the table and doctors and nurses standing around, about to kill her to supposedly save the world.

I remember thinking the game was presenting me with a choice. That after a narrative that left nothing up to the player, this was one of those games that would present you with a big final decision. But it wasn’t that. This wasn’t your story, it was Joel’s, and there was no choice. There was no leaving that room without killing the doctor (even if you tried to shoot him in the leg as I did in one playthrough). The decision was made for you.

Now, the debate over whether or not Joel did the “right” thing has found a new home with the sprawling TV audience for The Last of Us. The situation plays out almost identically to the game, Joel’s rampage, his execution of the doctor (a necessity for season 2) and even his lie to Ellie afterward.

Everyone seems to have a different take on the situation, and it turns out your own view may be informed by your real life circumstances. On The Last of Us’s post-episode podcast, Neil Druckmann revealed that in early testing, most players were split about the final decision and what they would do if actually given the choice to potentially save the world or just save Ellie. Except for one group. Parents, Druckmann said, were 100% in Joel’s camp. No exceptions.

It’s a more practical application of a theoretical philosophy question. Would you choose to save your child or diffuse a bomb that would blow up a million people you’ve never met? Perhaps the “moral” answer is that for the greater good, you should in fact choose to make that sacrifice. But for an actual parent forced to make that call about their actual child, I mean, screw all those people. No matter what the cost.

Personally, I’ve always gotten hung up on the logistics of the situation, which everyone tells me is not the point, but it bothers me all the same. Simply put, I have a hard time believing the idea that this singular doctor with a single immune patient and a single untested theory would in fact be the great, worldwide cure that it’s promised to be. So if the debate is between saving the world and saving one girl, I’m really just not convinced the cure would have happened in the first place. The point, however, is that either way, it doesn’t really matter to Joel, as even if it was guaranteed, he’d do the same thing. And the idea is that most parents would too.

I also don’t think the Fireflies exactly have the moral high ground here either. Marlene tries to guilt Joel into getting him to admit what Ellie would have wanted, were she conscious. And yet we know Ellie was purposefully never given the choice by Marlene in the first place. She was put under not being told she was going to die, or asked if she would make that sacrifice for a cure. Even if I agree Ellie probably would have said yes, the point is she was not given the option. And what, if Ellie said no, would Ellie and the Fireflies really have let her just walk out the door rather than harvest her brain against her will? No, hence why they didn’t even give her the option in the first place.

The general consensus seems to be that Joel did the selfish, morally wrong thing in this situation, and yet you, in the same circumstance, probably would have done the same for your own child. But it’s not black and white, and never has been, and it’s fascinating to watch this debate bloom a decade after the original game all over again.

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Pick up my sci-fi novels the Herokiller series and The Earthborn Trilogy.

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