The Deeper Dimension to Joel and Tess’ Relationship in THE LAST OF US

As a series adaptation, HBO’s The Last of Us has achieved remarkable success in shaping and elaborating upon the game’s skeleton. This does a great service to the game, which boasts strength in the subtlety of pre-woven plotlines. The expansion in the adaptation creates a world that appears to have gone on despite the apocalypse. One of these rich aspects of the story is notably the partnership between Joel and Tess. This is so engrossing that it often leaves players heartbroken after only a short amount of time spent with the two characters together.

Joel and Tess look at each other in The Last of Us.

However, the details and depth of their relationship were at the most speculated upon by passionate fans. At the least, the game hinted with certain contextual and dialogue clues from the limited interactions between Joel and Tess. That is, until the HBO adaptation blew Joel and Tess’s history wide open, amplifying their relationship. The choice ultimately proves to be an undeniable asset to the overarching narrative of The Last of Us season one. 

The dynamic between Joel and Tess in the game is full of banter their loyalty to one another unquestioned. However, HBO elevates their rapport across the board; the adaptation presents a small portrait of a life Joel and Tess have together, including the apartment they share in the Boston QZ. In their first scene together, Tess crawls into bed with Joel and wraps an arm around him. It’s a move leading viewers to understand the level of intimacy between them. Their rapport comes more into focus the following day when Joel jumps forward as soon as he sees Tess’s black eye, instantly prepared to jump to her defense.

Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Tess (Anna Torv) looks through trees toward downtown Boston.

Additionally, with the new plotline of Joel planning to go find Tommy in Wyoming, Tess demonstrates utmost loyalty to Joel in seeking out a car battery and trading with Robert, which puts her in a bind. At this point, before Ellie arrives in their lives, the series sets up an unyielding bond and partnership of high fidelity, making the stakes of losing one another potentially devastating. 

Much of the trip of transporting Ellie to the Capitol Building is the same as in the game. The series even maintains some degree of ambiguity in their relationship outside the walls of their apartment. The adaptation effectively demonstrates this when Ellie asks Joel what he is to Tess. He responds, “Pass.” Ellie receives her answer when they arrive at the Capitol Building and discover Tess’ infection. One of the few hints at a romantic history between Joel and Tess appears at the same time in the game, though with different context.

Joel, Tess, and Ellie make it to the museum in The Last of Us game.
Sony/Naughty Dog

Tess’ dying wish from the game is for Joel to carry out the mission with Ellie. “There has to be enough here for you to feel some sort of obligation to me,” she pleads. In the series, Tess doesn’t have to appeal to their unspoken relationship. It’s seemingly too deep for that. Conversely, she appeals to his emotional limitations. “I never ask you for anything, not to feel the way I felt…” which is more devastating; Tess dies thinking Joel didn’t love her. When he tries to refute it, she cuts him off because her time is running out.

The choice to elevate the relationship between Joel and Tess not only serves Joel’s backstory, but also the believability that Joel will faithfully protect Ellie until they reach the Fireflies. Love and loyalty to Tess even after she is gone are the only motivations for Joel to venture West with Ellie. His cynicism has totally eclipsed the possibility for him that a cure is possible. Tess’s legacy is sacrosanct to Joel, underscored by the small cairn he builds with stones by a small stream just after Tess dies, laying her to rest in the only way he can. This display of vulnerability attests to how much Joel loved her, which elucidates Joel’s decision to take Ellie west after discovering that Bill and Frank were dead.

Pedro Pascal looks intense as Joel on The Last of Us
Liane Hentscher/HBO

When Joel and Ellie arrive at Bill’s town, and Joel reads the line in Bill’s letter telling him to protect Tess, Joel loses his composure. This is the first time he does, between both the game and the series. He runs out of the house with the letter and seems lost, though not permitting his own tears. The adaptation allows Joel to feel the stabbing pain of losing the woman he loved for two decades, reminding him of the promise he made to her; even though Joel’s rules to Ellie mirror the cutscene from the game, including prohibiting her to speak about Tess, he doesn’t follow the rules himself.

Joel tells Ellie that “You keep going for family, and Tess was like family.” He pushes down all of his feelings, and when Tommy asks after Tess a few episodes later, Joel lies, saying “She’s fine,” until he finally tells the truth about their journey to him. 

Tess (Anna Torv) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) confront each other as Ellie (Bella Ramsey) looks on.

The fleeting moments of screen time between Joel and Tess ultimately are what give way to their back story. Tess comforting Joel; her telling him to take a deep breath; Tess encouraging them to take Ellie to the Fireflies so they could get a car battery — all of these moments contribute to the idea that Tess kept Joel going. While the quiet love story between Joel and Tess is important on its own, it also sets up a parallel with the parental relationship between Joel and Ellie. Over time,  Ellie becomes the person who makes life for him worth living again. It’s a cycle of people helping people, even when hope is gone.

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