What would you do to protect the person you love most? The one who gives you a reason to get up every day because they make you feel—despite everything you might fear and hate about yourself—that you have value simply because you matter to them? The answer seems so obvious and so easy, doesn’t it? Anything. You’d do anything and everything to keep them safe. And the more they needed and depended on you the harder you’d fight for them. That’s why, in the moment, it was impossible not to root for Joel as he gunned down Fireflies in The Last of Us‘ incredible season one finale. Ellie is his purpose. And even if she wasn’t, she deserved to be saved.
But just as it did throughout the season, the show didn’t make any its most important ethical quandary obvious or easy. Rescuing this one innocent young girl was so morally complex that doing so as was just unforgivable as killing her. And when there’s no difference between right and wrong there’s no such thing as either. The only thing that matters is learning to live with the consequences of our decisions.
Marlene’s decision to let doctors kill Ellie seems reprehensible on the surface. She swore to protect her dying friend’s daughter. And that child is also mature beyond her years and capable of deciding if she wants to sacrifice herself. Even if she wasn’t, she’s still a person with a right to live. But Marlene knew what Ellie would decide to do. That kid would have willingly given her life to save all humanity. “There’s no half way with this.”
So if that’s the decision Ellie would have made anyway, wasn’t it better not making her know the fear of death? Wasn’t Marlene—who raised Ellie—being merciful in granting that kid the peace of ignorance? It’s not like Marlene wasn’t making a sacrifice of her own in doing so. She loves Ellie and would have to live with what she did to someone she loved.
Joel knew Marlene was right about what Ellie would decide. He lied about the doctors and other people with immunity because he knew what would happen if Ellie learned the truth. She’d find another surgeon to crack open her brain and take what’s inside. And even if Joel believed he was right to save her from herself, he was wrong to hide the truth from her. He took away Ellie’s autonomy same as Marlene.
Of course, Ellie is not just any kid. She is mankind’s only hope. What’s one life, no matter the person, against every other life in the world? As Marlene said, there is “no one else” coming to humanity’s rescue. It’s either Ellie’s life today or total annihilation tomorrow.
Plus, as Marlene also correctly pointed out, what exactly was Joel saving Ellie from? All he did was buy her a little more time in a dying world. He can’t protect her forever. He doomed Ellie to live in a wasteland without hope where she’ll see everyone she cares about die from Cordyceps until she’s inevitability torn apart by a monster or killed by raiders. What kind of life is that? What kind of life is that for all the other Ellies and Rileys and Sams of the world? Didn’t Joel owe it to all of those kids to protect them, too? And since Ellie would have said yes, wasn’t Marlene right about everything even if she was simultaneously wrong about everything, too?
The Last of Us isn’t a powerful story because it explores hypothetical moral conundrums in a fictional world. It’s a personal tale of individuals—each with tragic pasts that shapes their wants and needs—and the bond they form. And yet, even on a personal level what Joel did is ethically dubious at best. Even if we could magically justify his actions in saving Ellie, we can’t pretend his motives were entirely selfless. By saving her he saved himself. He was ready to end things after his daughter Sarah died. He wouldn’t be able to go on after losing Ellie, too. As he told his brother previously, Joel was barely able to handle the mere thought of something happening to her. Failing her is what he feared the most, but on some level failing her also meant failing himself.
But does any of that really take away from what he did when it was also responsible for keeping her alive before? Yes, he needed her as much as she needed him, and dooming everyone else was selfish for many reasons. But that same unflinching, desperate, pure love kept her safe. Without Joel’s love for her and Ellie’s love for him she never would have been on that operating table in the first place. Everything that motivated Joel to fight and protect her from the Fireflies is what allowed him to keep her safe crossing the country. Marlene barely made it there with a whole team of armed guards. And it’s not like Joel valued himself above Ellie. He begged her to leave him to die in that abandoned house. He didn’t care what happened to him if it meant she got to live.
This episode gave us so much to think about with its unanswerable ethical choices that unto itself it’s a stunning hour of television. But what made it a great season finale is how it worked in the context of the entire season. The finale was both framed by and reframed everything that preceded it. Bill and Frank’s love story defined the show’s main idea about finding purpose and meaning in others. But the finale shows why purpose is neither inherently good or bad. There’s only what we do because of it. And what it makes us do isn’t always clearly right or wrong. It’s why Marlene’s justification for killing Ellie sounded like another version of Kathleen yelling that maybe sometimes it’s better to let a kid die. Kathleen was a monster, but wasn’t letting Ellie die a case where Kathleen was correct?
From David letting his people eat human flesh rather than letting them perish, to Joel killing innocent people to keep Tess and Tommy alive, to gunning down little girls who might be Infected and soldiers who would willingly shoot them without knowing if they were, what’s the value of one life versus another? Versus countless others? Often times the answer seems so obvious and so easy, but only because one person means more to us than all others, not because it actually is.
The Last of Us didn’t tell us what’s right or wrong because sometimes no one can. Loving someone more than life itself doesn’t come with an easy set of rules to follow. It can make us do things we can’t justify anymore than we can justify not doing them. And understanding that difficult truth is one of the hardest parts of being human, because being human means living with the knowledge of what you’ve done without ever being able to know if what you did was right. It’s why sometimes the best we can hope for is allowing ourselves the mercy of not forcing ourselves to know, as Ellie did in the season’s final moment.
Before they went “home” to the commune in Wyoming Ellie finally told Joel what she did when Cordyceps took Riley. No one would fault Ellie for that, but she does. She believes she killed her best friend and has to live with that knowledge forever. That’s too much for anyone to live with, let alone a kid. How could she also live knowing she essentially killed everyone through inaction? She couldn’t anymore than Joel, Henry, Kathleen, and Bill could stop trying to protect the ones they loved the most. As strong as she is, Ellie understood that Joel was keeping her safe from something terrible. So even though in her heart she knew he was lying about the Fireflies, she allowed herself the gift of ignorance. “Okay,” she said when he swore to her.
It was a perfect summation of both the episode and the season, which never told us if characters were right or wrong, good or evil, justified or damned. All it told us is there are times when those concepts don’t even exist. The only thing that does exist are the people who must live with the realization that often the best any of us can hope for is being okay with what we’ve done.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.