The Defiant Individualism of The Last of Us
Like the video game, the HBO series makes the case for the morality of an individual who refuses to sacrifice for the collective.
In the world of politics, few arguments are more consistent than the debate about what an individual owes to society: Their time? Their money? Their talents? Their entire lives? You can see this back and forth in debates about everything from tax policy to family formation to war and the draft; the individual versus the state or the collective is a—and perhaps the—defining conflict in democratic politics.
When transmuted into narrative form, this argument is barely an argument. Instead, it almost always lands on the side of valorizing great sacrifice, in which an individual gives up everything in order to save the collective. Pop culture tends to deliver stories in which noble self-sacrifice is not only good, but the highest good and even, at times, the only good. The underlying assumption is when the individual and the collective are in conflict, the individual has an affirmative duty to sacrifice, no matter what it takes.
This moral assumption can produce great pop culture. To take an obvious example, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a better movie for the totalizing sacrifice Spock makes at the end, and even for his reasoning: "The needs of the many," he and Kirk say as he dies to save his shipmates, "outweigh the needs of the few." Spock's commitment to his moral code, his sense of what is right and just in a world of difficult choices, is what allows the story's heroes to survive.
But this assumption is rarely interrogated at all, much less with any seriousness: In popular stories, those who oppose individual self-sacrifice are always portrayed as selfish or cowardly or just fundamentally villainous. They are, quite literally, enemies of society.
What makes The Last of Us—a video game adaptation that recently finished its first season as an HBO series—so piercing is that it essentially reverses the moral assumption. Or, at the very least, it suggests that a reversal is not only possible but morally defensible. In The Last of Us, society is the enemy of the individual.
That viewpoint is built into the particulars of its post-apocalyptic premise, in which small bands of human survivors inhabit a world overrun by a fungus that turns people into twitching, terrorizing, zombie-like monsters of various sorts. A form of American government—FEDRA, a militaristic outgrowth of the federal disaster-response bureaucracy—still exists, but it presides over a cruel and authoritarian security state.
In the show's third episode, we meet Bill, a survivalist gun-nut loner (Nick Offerman) who falls in love when a stranger wanders onto his property. Years later, when his partner exclaims that Bill is a paranoiac who thinks the government are all Nazis, the exasperated Bill responds, "the government ARE all Nazis!"
In another sort of show, Bill—with his firearms obsessions, his muttered rants about the "new world order," his loner status, and his suspicious instincts—might be treated as a nut, a malefactor with a dangerous worldview. But in The Last of Us, he's treated with dignity, as a capable if cantankerous survivor, whose suspicions about society's authorities and their motives are essentially legitimate. Bill believes that the organized collective—the government as it exists in the story's post-apocalyptic setting—is a threat to his existence. And viewers are meant to understand that he has a point.
Bill's worldview is a preview of the show's larger theme, which comes into focus in the final episodes.
(To explain will require major spoilers.)
The Last of Us is primarily the story of Joel and Ellie, a middle-aged man and a teenage girl, who make their way across the country. Joel's daughter died decades before as the apocalypse dawned; Ellie becomes a kind of surrogate child with a special purpose. Early on, it's revealed that she is immune to the infection. An anti-FEDRA resistance group known as The Fireflies want to usher her from Boston to a West Coast lab facility in hopes of finding a cure.
Along the way, they encounter various conflicts between individual and collective survival. There's a FEDRA resistance group that executes collaborators with the previous regime on the hunt for an informer who, it turns out, was just trying to protect his younger brother. There's a creepy, cult-like organization run by a religious fanatic who demands that his followers submit to his will or face violent punishment; he justifies his aggression as necessary for the survival of the group.
Eventually, Joel and Ellie reach the Firefly lab. But as soon as they arrive, Ellie is taken and prepped for surgery.
The Firefly scientists believe they can make a cure—but it will require them to kill Ellie in the process.
Joel, then, has a choice: Kill the Fireflies and rescue Ellie, or allow her to die hoping that a cure can be made and saving humanity in the process. For Joel, it's not a choice at all. He mounts an assault on the hospital, killing the Firefly rebels and the doctor who is prepping Ellie for the procedure. And then he lies to Ellie, telling her that no cure was possible, and that the Fireflies were killed by raiders.
Ellie, the show implies, might have allowed herself to be sacrificed. But Joel wouldn't. He couldn't, because he loved her so much, because she had become a part of him, an individual who he valued more than the rest of humanity. He chose the needs of the few—or the one—over the good of the many.
The Last of Us does not make an argument that Joel is right so much as a case that his choice is understandable and relatable, that it is based in a recognizable morality. As in Khan, it's Joel's sense of what's right and what matters in a world of painful choices that allows the characters to survive.
The story demonstrates, over and over again, that the choice not to sacrifice for the collective does not make one a monster. On the contrary, to defend one's self and one's loved ones, to love someone so powerfully that one will do anything for them, even at great cost to society, makes one intensely human. That's because the collective does not and indeed cannot care for individual needs and desires, for the specificity and strangeness of love, for the prioritization of close friends and family over the masses.
It is an attempt to answer the question of what a good and moral individual owes society with a startling and provocative response: Maybe—just maybe—nothing at all.