This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us, Part II. Like, big ones.
Continue reading if you, A) don’t mind potential spoilers for The Last of Us, or, B) were even vaguely aware of the COVID-era controversy around the game’s sequel, The Last of Us Part II.
The scandal began a few months before the game’s launch in 2020, when a studio leak revealed that at the start of the second game, the first’s protagonist, Joel Miller, is beaten to death with a golf club, allowing Ellie to take over as the main character.
I don’t know how fans will react if Pedro Pascal’s Joel meets the same fate in the hit HBO adaptation. But I do know that gamers were very, very angry about it. Although critics liked the game, players review-bombed it on Metacritic and harassed voice actors and designers, prompting studio Naughty Dog to beg people to leave its staff alone. Even well-established streamers and YouTubers delivered lengthy screeds about how The Last of Us Part II had done Joel dirty.
If you’re hoping the TV show will decide to change course, I have bad news: Showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann (the latter being the creative director of both games) remain committed to the game’s storyline in spite of—or even because of—the backlash. Sorry, folks, but Joel’s days are numbered.
To be fair, it will only be Pedro Pascal’s second-most brutal character death. The first came in Game of Thrones, just one season after that show served up possibly the greatest death shocker of them all: The Red Wedding, in which a whole family of fan-favorite characters got the chop.
Will The Last of Us, whose popularity has surpassed that of Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, serve up TV’s next Red Wedding? Or will viewers revolt?
I think the show can pull it off—if they do things right.
First of all, they have to understand the outrage over The Last of Us Part II, even if it was bullshit. And it was bullshit. Joel’s death was a good choice. It happens an hour or two into the game, when he is ambushed by a band of survivors led by a woman named Abby, who carries out the Tiger Woods–inspired execution. We continue the game as Joel’s sidekick and surrogate daughter Ellie as she hunts down Abby and her companions across the befungused hellscape. But just before their showdown, the game goes back in time and tells the same story from Abby’s point of view.
Playing as Abby, we learn that she killed Joel because he gunned down her father back in the Firefly base. Nameless NPCs that Ellie had killed almost out of hand are given motivations and lengthy backstories of their own. One was even pregnant. From Abby’s perspective, Ellie is the villain in a slasher film: a ruthless juggernaut picking off her friends one by one. And when the two finally meet, it’s Abby, not Ellie, who stays her knife—a shocking act of forgiveness that sets up a haunting final act.
It’s an ambitious story for any medium. And from a narrative standpoint, Joel’s death makes sense. His character starts the story at the far end of a character arc, while Ellie’s is just getting started, and murdering him was an excellent first drop into a rage-fueled rollercoaster that makes the first game look like the spinning teacups ride.
As for why gamers hated it: First, it didn’t help that the plot beats were leaked and they had weeks to make up their minds before booting it up on their PlayStations. When they finally did play the game, their arguments were all over the place. Some called the death a cheap gimmick. Others said Joel wouldn’t have walked into Abby’s ambush, as if the specific plot device were the important thing. Some claimed the hyperwoke developers just wanted to kill off the straight, white man. YouTuber Jason Gastrow, known online as Dunkey, quipped: “I don’t know why people are mad at this game, because they don’t know why they’re mad.”
The most valid criticisms appealed to storytelling conventions, particularly that Joel’s death felt unearned. And to be fair, it is abrupt. If the show sticks to the game’s timeline, Joel would die in the first or second episode of the season. The Red Wedding, by contrast, came after three seasons in which Rob Stark puts himself in ever more tenuous positions. Even Ned Stark’s Season 1 decapitation had nine episodes of buildup. It would be as if Ned defeated the Lannisters only to be randomly shot by bandits on the way back to Winterfell—that is, if you don’t actually finish the story. Joel’s death does have buildup, but it’s meted out in flashbacks over the course of the game. We eventually learn that Ellie and Joel had become estranged after Ellie pieced together the truth about what happened at the Firefly base. She shuns him for years, and when he dies, she sees the consequences of clinging to her anger. But rather than letting it go, she channels it into a new vendetta that costs her her friends, her lover, and even a few fingers.
It’s the kind of narrative autostereogram that might have worked in a film. But a medium where you have to blast zombies for 20 hours before it all comes together? Maybe not. And honestly, I’m not sure it would work for a multi-season TV show, which doesn’t even have the gameplay to fall to back on if audiences get bored or confused. Indeed, another hard-case-meets-teen-girl story, The Witcher, has already tested viewers’ patience with a nonlinear season of its own—and that was without killing off its leading man.
Fortunately, the Last of Us can hedge its bets: It doesn’t need to deviate from the game’s story, it would just need to take all the flashbacks and time jumps and arrange them chronologically. This would make the second season about Ellie’s search for the truth and Joel’s choice to shield her from it, culminating in a shocking, end-of-season death that sets the stage for a showdown between two excellent women leads.
That would split a single game into at least two seasons of television, but there is plenty of content in The Last of Us Part II to fill them out—and Mazin has already indicated that the plan for the show includes more than one additional season. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, Part II incorporates a coming-of-age story, a war story, two different love triangles, a prison break, cultists, bandits, slavers, and homophobes. On paper it sounds like a pulpy mess, but the game manages to weave its threads into a realistic, powerful tale of hatred and forgiveness. If HBO can pull it off in the show’s sophomore season, another Red Wedding will just be icing on the cake.