Spoilers Ahead for both
You know that feeling you get when you’ve just finished a lengthy story you care about so deeply? Often times, it’s a bittersweet feeling, as you know the characters you’ve grown to appreciate have — for better or worse — completed their journey. This, I find, is an especially profound feeling when the ending you received didn’t give you a great amount of blissful pleasure; instead, it’s something far more somber and nuanced.
The Last of Us Part II is the latest such story to make me feel this way. The game, which has sold okay (read: it broke records), has sparked plenty of conversations given how multi-layered its narrative is. Some of this has resulted in some unhealthy, toxic discourse, but I found it to be one of the most interesting, daring, and complicated stories I’ve ever played in a video game; I loved it.
But The Last of Us Part II didn’t end in a way that made me think “Wow, that was great!” but rather “Oh man, I know that was great, but I’m going to need some time to process and accept it.” I promise those are two very different things, and such an ending — in more ways than one — brought me back to when I first finished another story I cherish deeply: Cowboy Bebop.
Separate Worlds, But Equally Complicated
On the surface, The Last of Us Part II and Cowboy Bebop couldn’t be more different; one is a survival-horror video game, the other a Japanese anime about space bounty hunters. Basic premise aside, the former is also far more violent, with a surplus of excessively violent scenes that make The Walking Dead look pedestrian by contrast. Even the music choices are drastically different.
They both clearly exist in different worlds on an aesthetic level, but they are each more deceptively complex than they initially let on. The Last of Us Part II gets touted largely as a revenge story, while Cowboy Bebop is more of a spontaneous adventure series following an unlikely mixture of crew members. But they’re so much more than that. In fact, they’re both so complicated that it’s a disservice to view them as anything less than that.
The Last of Us Part II, while centralized around hatred and revenge, is also about consequences, forgiveness, and even religion. Cowboy Bebop, on the other hand, deals plenty with nihilism, revenge, and shades of environmental politics. You could conceivably talk about all these respective aspects for hours; they both can mean different things to different people depending on who you ask. However, the theme that stuck out to me, and has stayed with me far more than I expected, is the idea of the past and how it defines us — especially in the ending.
Desperate Pleas On Deaf Ears
The final acts of these stories both center around our main characters — Ellie and Spike, respective — going on one last crusade because of their inability to move on. Ellie, unable to come to grips with the people she’s lost due to Abby’s actions, ignores the sentiment of her partner (Dina) to go on one last spree for vengeance. Spike, who we see throughout the series is incapable of getting over his past, ignores Faye’s pleas for him to stay. Instead, he leaves the safety of the Bebop in order to exact revenge against Vicious and the Red Dragon syndicate for everything they’ve done and, especially, for what happened to Julia.
In the end, both characters have their desires met — at least somewhat. Ellie has her chance with Abby to resolve things, while Spike does manage to kill Vicious and put an end to the Red Dragon Syndicate’s schemes. But at what cost? Ellie left the quiet, peaceful life she had with Dina and the daughter they were raising together, ending up alone; Spike presumably dies, having been unable to start a new life with the Bebop crew.
While the personalities of the two protagonists are completely different, the endings for them feel eerily similar. It’s the kind of ending that sticks with you; you can’t quantify the decisions as simply right or wrong. The entire thing makes you think. It’s tragic, yes, but also feels appropriate. Perhaps it’s best summarized by one Steve Rogers in Avengers Endgame: “Some people move on, but not us.”
Unable to Let Go
It’s a surreal experience to see two characters I love struggle with that same thing I struggle with: Letting go, and overcoming, the past. There are people who are “family” that I would rather not bestow with that honor. So I don’t. I have trouble coming to grips with my family, my relation to them, and their past; watching other characters go through that struggle is an incredibly poignant, powerful, and relatable thing to witness.
I think our past—our heritage, and the mistakes we make along the way—is something with which we actually all struggle. Most of us, I like to imagine, are able to come to peace with those things in time; we grow, adapt, and move on. But what makes The Last of Us Part II and Cowboy Bebop so special is that it shows us what happens when you don’t; sometimes people can’t just let whatever happens, happen.