The Last of Us Episode 6 Presents Joel With His First Real Choice


This piece contains spoilers for The Last of Us Episode 6. If you’re not caught up yet, check out our spoiler-free Season 1 review of the HBO Series.

Throughout The Last of Us, Joel (Pedro Pascal) has been pushed into situations with the same force as a bulldozer with a brick on the pedal wrecking its way through the remains of a devastated city. But in the sixth episode of the show, he’s posed with his first real choice. One that makes the weight of his journey so far — and where game players know he has to go — even more pronounced. And it all begins with a long awaited reunion. 

Predominantly adapting the game chapter “Tommy’s Dam,” the HBO series once again expands what we know of the world. After Joel’s years of pain and suffering, his quest for Tommy (Diego Luna) leads him to a harsh truth: his brother, who he sacrificed so much for, has been living a near normal life in an idyllic Wyoming commune with his new wife Maria (Rutina Wesley). In almost every episode we’ve been offered a character who poses a reflection or lesson for Joel. And in “Kin” it’s his own brother who shows Joel just what can be possible for those who move on. 

Since Sarah’s death, Joel has been in a holding pattern and it’s one that nothing can break him out of. Despite spending years with Tess (Anna Torv), that relationship was fragile and built on violence. As we heard Tess express more than once, Joel is averse to any kind of hope or good news. He’s stuck in the darkness of the worst moment of his life and nothing will change that. Until Ellie (Bella Ramsey). But, up until now she’s just been another burden he was forced to take on. Joel had no interest in Ellie or her potential to create a cure, he just wanted an exchange that would get him the car battery he needed to reach his brother. That motive shifted slightly once Tess died, but even then it was barely a choice to take on Ellie. Instead, it was a promise to someone he loved that just happened to include helping the young girl get to her destination.  

It’s an interesting representation of the gaming experience. Because while Joel’s choices are ostensibly given to the player, the truth is that we never really have an option to change the way that the story is going. Just like Joel in the series, we’re always going to take Ellie to the Fireflies, no matter how reluctant and cranky we may be about it. One of the biggest changes from the game though is that the Joel we follow in the series is far from the mass murderer that we control in the original. In that story the player, as Joel, murders many, many people. From FEDRA soldiers to Hunters to random henchmen… and that’s all before we get to the infected. In the HBO series,he’s apparently become weary of his murderous past (an assumption that is confirmed in an intimate chat with Tommy). Luna and Pascal are at their best here as they swerve between restrained joy at being reunited and fierce hurt at what they’ve had to do to get there. 

It’s during this exchange that Joel poses a huge ask to Tommy: He wants his younger brother to take Ellie to the Fireflies. In a rare moment of vulnerability, Joel explains that he’s terrified of letting her die. He’s old, has barely survived the journey to Wyoming, and believes Tommy has a much better chance of getting Ellie to her destination in one piece. It’s an interesting expansion of what we know of Joel in the game. In the opening prologue, players learn Joel was on anxiety meds before the outbreak. This episode seems to expand on that, as we see him regularly stop to catch his breath, apparently on the edge of a panic attack. His revelation to Tommy that he’s afraid lines up with that, hinting that his fear and anxiety might be about to overwhelm him.

The fact that Tommy is convinced to take on Ellie and leave his safehome is a huge moment for Joel. It presents a situation that forces him to make an active choice for the very first time. His brother offers him a way out of the mission that he never wanted to take on. Joel can leave Ellie and know that she’ll still make it to her destination and that the world still has a chance, but he doesn’t have to be the one to deliver her. It gives him the option to return to the “freedom” he had in the Boston QZ, without betraying Tess and her last wish. And it means he wouldn’t have to continue being afraid of dying for a quest he doesn’t even really believe in. 

Of course, — just like in the game — Joel chooses to continue his journey with Ellie. But, first, he finally recognizes her agency in the story. Instead of once again pushing through to the inevitable end, Joel waits for Ellie and asks her what she wants and who she wants to continue her journey with. It’s the first time that we’ve seen him do that in the show, it’s a far cry from the rules that he set out that she has to “do whatever he says,” and it seems to mark a huge change in their relationship. As they head out to the University to find the Firefly lab, it seems like the pair have gone from cargo and delivery man to near-partners. 

But, as game players know, this is just far from the last of the hard choices Joel will have to make as he accompanies Ellie to the Fireflies. 

Rosie Knight is a contributing freelancer for covering everything from anime to comic books to kaiju to kids movies to horror flicks. She has over half a decade of experience in entertainment journalism with bylines at Nerdist, Den of Geek, Polygon, and more.

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