Is Joel Miller a hero or villain in ‘The Last of Us’?

The end of the first season of The Last of Us showed both sides of Joel Miller (Peter Pascal). While during the HBO adaptation his duality was made clear, the ability to make questionable decisions along with others that could be celebrated, this time the contrast was more explicit. It is even valid to think that it was represented in a more compromising and controversial way.

Joel Miller, like the bulk of the main characters of The Last of Usis marked by his past. The death of his daughter was compounded by a series of decisions and situations that transformed him. It is a life and death context. Joel adapts pragmatically in most cases, setting aside ethics and morals in several of them.

However, something happens that changes the logic: his relationship with Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey). This approach to Joel a kind of passport to be able to go further and find his brother. But, as the series develops, his connection with Ellie ceases to be something bureaucratic, just another responsibility. It becomes a bond that allows him to redeem part of his past. Does this justify his behavior?

The Last of Us is the premiere of the year and you can only watch it on HBO Max.

The Last of Us:
the struggle against the traumas of the past

During the first episode of The Last of Usthe HBO series plants the key event in the development of Joel’s character: the death of his daughter. Together with his brother, the three of them try to escape from the source of the apocalypse. The girl’s death leaves Joel with a void within the family, which now consists only of his brother.

When the two must separate, a need arises in Joel: to find, at some point, his brother. That possibility opens up when he meets Ellie. To enjoy ‘free transit’. With the excuse of taking the girl to a place where they can test her to find a cure, he can move around. The protagonist is a rough being, uninterested in Ellie’s quests and curiosity. He could be recognized as a civil servant who has to fulfill a task, to deliver a package.

The Last of Us, pathogenic fungi.The Last of Us, pathogenic fungi.

After several events that bring Joel and Ellie emotionally closer, when he finds his brother he is no longer the same character. He has become warmer and has had to go back over his fears to begin to face them: the girl’s responsibility reminds him of the one he had with his daughter. Ellie, progressively, is ceasing to be a strange girl, an acquaintance, a friend. She is becoming someone who fills a void in Joel’s life.

Without that transformation of his relationship with Ellie, his fear at the moment of taking her through unknown lands, over which it is said that no one returns, is not explained. Then, once Joel has found his brother and has realized that he has already rebuilt his life, he raises the possibility of him taking her. The protagonist no longer fears so much for himself, but for the girl’s life and the possibility of finding himself, once again, having to go through a heartbreaking loss.

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It is the girl’s trust in him that removes any doubt: they are going to move on. No longer as two people accompanying each other, but as a small team that must accomplish a mission and intends to be united until the end of it. It is a moment when the father-daughter bond, which begins to suggest itself, is not stable. The Last of Usthrough other characters and details, makes it clear: it is a story in which the different forms of love are the driving force.

Lies and deceit:
does the good of one justify horror for all?

This bond tightens in the last two episodes. In them, Ellie has to take care of Joel and then he has to come to her rescue. But not everything is so simple. She is also transforming. Through the chapters, progressively, she has been losing her naivety and her human side has been contaminated due to the corruption of the environment. In opposition, Joel has become humanized, to an extent that those who have only followed the HBO series (without going through the video game) may never have thought.

In chapter 9 of The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie find themselves, abruptly, with the future they were looking for. Both are kidnapped and separated. Upon awakening after a blow to the head, Joel learns that the plan is to open her skull to find a cure. This is a high-risk surgery. This is not explicitly stated, but is interpreted by the look on Joel’s face when he hears the plan: the girl is not going to survive.

Joel Miller, in The Last of UsJoel Miller, in The Last of Us

Then, Joel, who had already fully assumed the paternal role, finds himself, once again, in a scenario in which he must lose his daughter. But between one moment and the other there is a differential detail: this time, he can do something more and oppose. This opens up another moral debate in The Last of Us: is the good of one above the good of mankind?

Ellie is one of the keys to a better future.. But, without her, Joel wants none of those days. The Last of Us told part of Ellie’s past, the one that Joel has been discovering little by little. Why is this relevant? The protagonist not only has a bond with someone who is filling a void. But rather also thinks about his traumas, about the life Ellie never had and now must give up for the common good..

Joel is at a personal and collective crossroads. One decision or the other is the difference between being a hero for humanity or a villain who put over the greater good a personal desire, his self-love and relationship with Ellie. On the other hand, how can one not sympathize with that individual quest, after having seen the protagonist of the story go through so much pain and horror? It is special, considering that together they represent one of the few remaining loving bonds in such a perverted environment.

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The notion of the hero

Joel bets on himself before humanity, on his relationship with Ellie and the possibility of her living through some of the questions she has yet to discover. Even in a corrupt, post-apocalyptic context, that desire is justified within The Last of Us. However, if interpreted beyond the series, it makes the protagonist a villain.

Driven by his emotions, Joel crosses a boundary over which he will sooner or later have to return: he deceives Ellie, lies to her to omit that he has killed a handful of people for fear of losing her and that, perhaps, he is taking away from humanity the possibility of a cure. She, in that saga of measures taken in haste, with the speed of bullets coming and going, had no voice, no decision-making capacity.

Sixth chapter of The Last of UsSixth chapter of The Last of Us

If all of the above is looked at from another place, Joel, by acting in this way, is giving Ellie a choice.. Perhaps this was the only possible option so that the girl’s future, and perhaps that of humanity, would be in her hands and not in the hands of adults who respond to various interests and have multiple traumas that condition their behavior. This puts Joel’s role as the hero of the story in a complex place to dimension. Is it for saving Ellie, using methods that will come back on him like a boomerang? Can he be considered so, for saving her reunion with her more human side? Is he a villain for not giving up a girl so that the rest of the population can be saved?

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In that sea of questions that can be asked, his figure is that of the anti-hero, the guy who looks out for his own interests before the collective ones, without these being totally ruled out (the possibility of a cure is still on the table). Joel, defending an idea of love, the paternal, is also leaving open the door to a future conflict: the one he will have with Ellie when he learns what has happened. Then, later on, in the next few seasons, this whole debate may turn on her. What will she do at the moment when she has to decide?