April 14, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Katherine Moynihan

Content Warning: This article contains spoilers for the TV show “The Last of Us.”

My mom visited me a few weeks ago in Colorado, and we talked about which TV shows we were watching. While I mentioned I was waiting for the fourth season of “Ted Lasso” to drop, she raved about “The Last of Us” on HBO.  

“The Last of Us” is HBO’s latest smash hit. Based on a video game, “Contagion” meets “A Quiet Place.” The post-apocalyptic pandemic drama follows Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) and fourteen-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) as they embark on a dangerous journey across the country. After a fungus pandemic has ravaged modern society, and Ellie is the only known person immune, Miller is tasked with the near-impossible job of safely taking her from Boston to a vaccine lab out west. 

“The Last of Us” begins on an airy day in 2003. Cordyceps – a type of fungus – has contaminated Indonesia’s food supply. The cordyceps fungus infects factory workers in Jakarta and eventually spreads into the food supply in Austin, Texas where Joel Miller lives with his daughter Sarah Miller (Nico Parker) and brother Tommy Miller (Gabriel Luna).

Cordyceps infection hijacks the brain’s motor skills and transforms victims into terrifying, mushroom-headed monsters. Like most viruses, the host does not die. The host lives just enough to keep the virus alive by passing it on to others. As infected victims turn into monsters, they relentlessly attack others, bite and infect others.

The pilot episode follows the terrifying day of the cordyceps outbreak. Sarah Miller wakes up in her pink bedroom on a seemingly ordinary day. But as the day goes on, the eerie undertone of the show grows. Police cars whizz back and forth. The day ends when Joel Miller comes up from work, and they curl up together to watch a movie. Sarah Miller falls asleep on his lap, and Joel Miller tucks her into bed. The suspense of danger grows until Sarah Miller wakes up to a world turned upside down in the middle of the night.

Viewers get the first look at the horrifying victims of cordyceps when the Miller’s elderly neighbor gets infected, presumably from eating contaminated biscuits. Sarah Miller finds her crouched on the kitchen floor, feasting on her caretaker. Stringy fungi spill out of the mouth. Just as she tries to attack Sarah Miller, Joel Miller kills her. 

Joel Miller’s natural fatherly instincts, love for Sarah Miller, and determination to protect his family shine when he attempts to evacuate Sarah Miller and Tommy Miller out of Austin. They jump into the pick-up truck and head for safety. Chaos ensues, a plane crashes into their car, and a police officer shoots them, killing Sarah Miller. She dies in Joel Miller’s arms. 

Flash forward to 2023, the present day. Modern society is destroyed. Cites are in embers, and nature has reclaimed its space. The military, known as the Federal Response Agency (FERDA), has built Quarantine Zones (QZ) all over America, where non-infected people live bitter lives. FEDRA residents work jobs – burning infected people, cleaning the sewers, etc. Joel Miller is still alive, working terrible jobs and bartering pills for money with FEDRA officers. His only silver lining is his partner, Tess Servopoulos. The two of them have been working for the Fireflies, a rebellion group trying to overtake FEDRA and liberate the QZ.

Joel Miller is motivated to reunite with his brother Tommy Miller, who is living in Wyoming somewhere. He needs a car battery to leave the QZ in Boston and endure a long and dangerous journey to Wyoming, where he may or may not see Tommy Miller again, dead or alive. 

Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, strikes a deal with Joel Miller. She confronts him with Ellie Williams, who was bit by an infected but has not “turned,” suggesting that she is immune to Cordyceps and holds hope for finding a cure.

Marlene tells Joel Miller that if he can safely get Williams to a lab out west where doctors are trying to develop a cordyceps vaccine, Joel Miller can have her car. Joel Miller reluctantly accepts the offer and finally agrees because Servopoulos convinces him. The three of them escape the Boston QZ, and Servopoulos gets infected. Her dying wish is for Joel Miller to take Williams and find Tommy Miller in Wyoming. Joel Miller has no choice. He and Williams set forth on a dangerous – and very deadly – trip across the country. 

The diamond in this show is Joel Miller and Williams’s relationship. In their first few hours in the car together, he calls her “cargo.” By the end of episode seven, he calls her “baby girl.” He tries hard to protect Williams and resents himself when he fails.

When they find Tommy Miller in Wyoming, Joel Miller tells him, “I know she’s going to die. I can feel it.” Plagued by the loss of Sarah Miller, Joel Miller initially resists caring for Williams and admitting her as a surrogate daughter, but when Williams saves his life, his love for her shines through. :I’d love to teach you guitar on open day,” he says in episode nine. “I bet you’d be great at it.”

The show’s finale is a controversial one. In this episode, Williams and Joel Miller make one last trip to Colorado together to finish their mission. As Joel Miller and Williams walk around the area, the Fireflies wipe them out. Joel Miller wakes up in a hospital room with Marlene, who tells him that Williams is being prepped for surgery, doctors intending to extract her brain in hopes of creating a cordyceps vaccine.

Marlene tells Joel Miller that she has cared for Williams since birth, and even she has made peace with the fact that Williams must die to save humanity. Joel Miller, however, is not exactly on board. When security guards escort him to the exit, it’s not long before Joel Miller turns them and slaughters everyone in his path to find and save Williams without a mere flinch.

When he does and shoots Marlene on the way out, asking viewers the question: would you save your child at the expense of the human race? 

I argue that Joel Miller did save the world. He saves his world, which is Williams. 

I watched the finale after handing in my thesis. I walked to Weber Street Liquor, bought champagne, ordered takeout, and loaded up HBO. When it was over, I texted my mom. “Would you do what Joel did? Would you save me at the expense of humanity?” She texted me back, “I could never sit by and let someone remove your brain.” I should be thankful someone has my back, but maybe I’d want to have a say. 

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