Spoiler warning: This article discusses The Last of Us Part II, including the ending. If you’re interested in the story, click the X in the corner, finish the game, and only then come back to see whether you agree with my interpretation. You have been warned!
Released in June 2020, this game has evoked very strong opinions. Some of story choices are still controversial, but for the most part the game has been well-received. As I write, The Last of Us Part II has a Metacritic rating of 93% and has won a growing pile of awards.
Among the strongest aspects is the story.
The Last of Us Part II tells a gripping and chilling story of revenge. But there’s much more to it than that. Its real strength lies in how it dramatizes the deeper emotions motivating revenge. A key theme is that revenge is not primarily about anger or about the person you hate. It’s about you and your attempts to hide your feelings of pain and loss from yourself.
The game illustrates this theme by first telling us the story of how Ellie chases her revenge before shifting to a story about how her adversary, Abby, responds to having gotten revenge.
Ellie’s Guilt and Despair
The Last of Us Part II starts with one of the hardest-to-watch scenes in the game: Abby beats Joel to death in front of Ellie.
Afterward, Ellie becomes quiet and numb. She sheds no tears and expresses little anger—not nearly as much anger as she expressed before his death in response to much smaller matters. If you read her journal, you learn that she has stopped eating and sleeping. Although she quickly embarks on a quest for revenge, her emotions are muted, as though she simply shut down after Joel’s death.
This numb obsession is also evident in how Ellie feels after killing a few members of Abby’s crew. Halfway through the game, she chases down Abby’s friend Nora and tortures an answer out of her about Abby’s location. Although Nora was clearly going to die anyway as a result of inhaling spores, Ellie is deeply traumatized by what she’s done, as revealed by her interaction with Jesse and Dina.
Later in the game, encountering Mel and Owen in the aquarium, Ellie is still not in her right mind, acting like someone who can’t help doing what she’s doing. After killing Owen and Mel and learning that Mel was pregnant, Ellie has a breakdown—after which she seems to have no problem leaving Seattle without killing Abby.
As Ellie carves a path of vengeance through Seattle, she derives no satisfaction from what she’s doing. By a certain point, it doesn’t even seem as if there’s any agency behind her actions; she has lost control. Even when she leaves Seattle and tries to live her life, she can’t do it without suffering debilitating flashbacks to Joel’s death.
Ellie’s conflict and changing perspective is confirmed during the final encounter between Ellie and Abby. Despite her original intentions, Ellie ends up saving Abby and is about to let her and Lev go when she remembers what happened to Joel. Her words to Abby are illuminating: “I can’t let you go.”
In addition to this depiction of an unhappy avenger, we get several flashbacks to what happened between the end of the first game and the beginning of the second. The flashbacks tell the story of Ellie’s search for answers about what happened in the hospital at the end of the first game and how she reacted to the truth. Joel had killed many of the revolutionary Fireflies to prevent them from using her to create a vaccine, a process that would have killed her . . . even though, earlier in the game, she had all but expressed her willingness to allow this usage of her.
We learn that after discovering what Joel did, Ellie told him that she was done with him, and that for the next two years they barely spoke to each other. But the night before Joel died, Ellie told Joel that although she wasn’t sure she could forgive him, she would like to try. After a year of separation, they were going to try and patch things up.
Abby took that chance away from her.
In the first game, when Joel was about to leave Ellie with Tommy, Ellie bolted, feeling that Joel had abandoned her. After Joel tracked her down, she explained why: everyone in her life had left her or—more often—died. In part because of his ruthlessness, Joel was the only one who stuck around. In some ways, their relationship was grounded in the fact that Ellie could count on Joel to be a constant in her life.
With all this in mind—Ellie’s reluctant quest for vengeance, her split with Joel, her loss of any chance to repair their relationship, and the fact that she had never fully acknowledged Joel’s death—we can piece together the answer to one of the big questions raised at the end of the game.
During their final fight, Ellie has Abby dead to rights, but then she remembers seeing Joel on the porch on the night they decided to patch things up. She pulls Abby up and, for the first time since Joel died, starts to cry. Through her sobs, she tells Abby to go.
Why, after everything that has happened, does Ellie let Abby live?
Because Ellie suddenly realizes that her obsession was never about Abby. It was about herself, about her guilt over staying away from Joel for so long only to lose any chance to reconnect with him. Ellie hasn’t cried until now because only now can she accept the fact that Joel is gone. She had never been hunting Abby because she hated her—but only to hide from herself the reality of what she has lost.
But now she realizes that killing Abby won’t bring Joel back. Nothing will. Joel is gone, and she has to live with that.
The game isn’t only about Ellie. It’s also about Abby, and about a third of it is played from Abby’s perspective. At the beginning of her part of the game, we learn why she was so obsessed with killing Joel: the doctor that Joel killed at the end of the first game was her father. He had seemed to be a kindhearted man . . . one who probably wouldn’t have approved of her splitting Joel’s head open.
But killing Joel doesn’t provide Abby with any solace. Her friends seem to be judging her—even those who don’t openly blame her for what she has done. Abby herself has nightmares about finding her dad dead in the hospital. Clearly, having killed Joel isn’t helping.
Then Abby meets Lev and Yara, members of the Seraphite cult she’s been at war with. To her own surprise, she winds up helping them and taking a special interest in the younger brother, Lev. To many, this development seemed like an attempt to draw a parallel between her and Joel, who spent the first game regaining his humanity through his relationship with Ellie. But this is only part of the truth.
Abby damn near admits that she is helping Lev and Yara in part because she has something to atone for, her murder of Joel. Indeed, only after risking her life to save Lev and Yara do Abby’s dreams change: now when she enters the hospital, instead of finding her father’s dead body or some other horror, she finds him smiling at her.
Abby’s character arc, then, is about someone who gets the revenge she wants but who is not saved by it. Instead, she is wracked by a guilt for which she must atone. Her years-long quest for revenge was never about Joel. It was about losing her father. Not until she does something that would have earned her father’s pride can she finally begin to move on.
Loss and Emotional Shielding
In other hands, this story might have become a typical Hollywood-style tale of revenge. But the developers made it so much more.
Human beings are complicated creatures. Our emotions exist in layers. We may use some emotions to hide or repress others, as when we use anger to hide and repress pain and loss. You can act on anger. You can do nothing to bring back someone whom you have irrevocably lost.
The Last of Us Part II excels by telling a story not so much about revenge as about the emotional complexity that motivates its pursuit. Ellie’s story is that of someone searching for revenge in order to cover up her loss; Abby’s story is that of someone who realizes that revenge won’t cover up her loss but is an act that requires atonement. Much of the game is devoted to flashbacks that provide the emotional context supporting this conclusion.
The Last of Us Part II is a phenomenal story because of how effectively it portrays the emotional complexity of loss. Few stories can pull that off; even fewer can do it so well.