Wasn’t it the Dalai Lama who said that choosing to be optimistic is the way to live a better life? The prevalent discourse on “positivity” and the “live, love, laugh” train of thought present around us often eclipse what optimism really looks like. It doesn’t mean trying to find the good in every situation. Instead, it means not losing hope in the possibility of goodness. We don’t live in a fair or easy world. We firmly believe that “trying to find the positive side of things” is a capitalistic idea that indirectly preaches satisfaction to the point of eroding ambition. Our belief stems from the fact that this philosophy is sold most often to people on the lower rungs of the social ladder. Capitalism says, maybe not directly, but certainly, that the right to a good life must be earned. But we must think about why that is. Basic rights like food, healthcare, clean water, security, and others are what one needs for survival. These shouldn’t be aspirational; they should be basic and within reach of everyone. Sadly, that is not the reality. For a person like that, what could be the “bright side of things”? They would just try to get on with their lives as best they could. Even ambition comes at a perilous cost to most of them. We believe we saw an example of this in the recent Korean series “Reborn Rich.”
The point we are trying to make is, what does optimism look like for people who are just trying to survive? We see that through the journey of Tess in “The Last of Us.” She was a hardened smuggler who was trying to live by any means possible. Society as she knew it had collapsed completely, and there was no organization to hold people accountable to certain morals or to a code of conduct. FEDRA existed, but it had turned into an organization that relished exercising the unchecked power vested in it rather than trying to do some good for the survivors. It was each person to their own, and Tess was privy to the brutal reality of it. There was no “good” for her to find in that world. All she was trying to do was live, when she found Joel. We believe she liked him, probably more than a friend or a partner you live with or trust when all humanity is lost. Towards the end of “The Last of Us” Episode 2, she mentions how she has never asked him for anything, not even to feel what she feels. Well, Joel already had a lot of trust and respect for her, and we know that they had been together for a long time. We wouldn’t be surprised if Tess was in love with him. When he was tying a tape to her ankle, she looked at him with such soft eyes that we knew she was experiencing a rush of tender feelings, the kind that makes one believe that everything is alright in the world as long as one person is by their side.
Joel was a simple man who mostly saw things in black and white. Tess had a broader view; maybe that is why she was in charge of the unit comprising her and Joel. She says as much to Robert that Joel answered to her, when he was scared that he might harm him after what he had done to Tess. This interaction tells us a few things: Tess mattered a great deal to Joel, and Tess was pragmatic to a fault. Regarding the first one, it must have meant so much to Tess to have someone she could count on to understand her and have her back. Joel took care of people he considered his own, and we don’t doubt that over the years, Tess had become his family. He was someone Tess could trust with her eyes shut, though she might not want to, considering how nice-looking he was. No wonder Tess had so many feelings for him. Remember a while back when audio was going around on Tik Tok that said that while the hero would sacrifice the individual for the greater good, the villain “would burn the world down” for the one he loved? Well, Joel is our protagonist, but he is the kind to give precedence to individuals over the world. Deep down, maybe Tess sensed that. We are not praising this attribute, but it must have been comforting to know that there will always be that one person for you, no matter what. It had to be moments like this that made life worth living for Tess. Nobody dreams of growing up and becoming a smuggler in a world that is on the brink of collapse. But when there is someone you love, whether the emotion is unrequited or not, it gives you a reason to go on.
When Ellie came into Joel and Tess’ lives, she wasn’t just reminding the former of Sarah; she was also bringing out the maternal side of Tess. Before the pandemic began, Tess had a husband and a son of her own, but they were infected. Tess had to kill her husband, but she couldn’t do the same to her son. She locked him in a basement, where he must have turned into a clicker by the time the events of this episode took place. Ellie being immune to the fungus meant that there was a cure out there for people like Tess’s husband and son and for many more like her who were grappling with the lives they had lost to the Cordyceps Brain Infection.
In a world of absolute chaos, Tess had found people like Joel and Ellie who meant something to her. If it was a different time, Ellie might have been Tess and Joel’s daughter. As much as Tess tried to see her as cargo, she couldn’t help melting at the antics of the child. Ellie was a teenager who was forced to grow up before her time, but she was still young enough to enjoy life with a laugh. Tess and Joel often rolled their eyes at the number of expletives Ellie used and the way she gave answers as if she were a much older person. But they also protected her with everything they had. When they were watching her sleep, they weren’t just waiting for her to wake up and give them answers. They were taking care of the needs of a child and treating her with as much gentleness as they could. Joel hadn’t seen it yet, and probably neither had Tess, but they were already acting like a family.
When Ellie tells Tess how she was bitten when she snuck into a mall by herself, the latter compliments her on her courage. Ellie’s smile makes us think that she hadn’t really received a compliment like that before. But what we, as the audience, saw was that it felt like a mother telling her daughter that she was proud of her. Tess also takes care of Ellie in subtle ways, like passing her a magazine when the latter goes to do her business in the morning or telling her to join them for breakfast. It is not just an adult looking out for a child but a mother taking care of her daughter. When Tess was bitten, she knew that she did not have much time left. Her alerting Ellie to the ways in which she was vulnerable, even if she was immune, was one of the last things she could do as someone responsible for her. Ellie might not have understood the whole thing, but she felt attached to Tess. That is why she kept yelling that she did not want to go with Joel when Tess decided to stay back. She had found a security in Tess that she hadn’t yet found with Joel and losing her meant losing the person she trusted to take care of her. Ellie and Tess were cut from the same cloth, and if they had the time, they could have been there for each other more.
Joel’s trauma made him apprehensive about thinking of someone as family, but Tess had not completely shut out her softer side. That is why she still hoped. When she saw that Ellie was unaffected by the virus, she knew that things could be different. It wasn’t just about her but about all the survivors out there who would have a chance at family and love if the world returned to normal. During the scene when Joel is taping up her leg, love is not all Tess feels. Tess is annoyed at Joel because he can’t keep thinking about the worst that could happen when Ellie is the best thing to happen to the world in 20 years. She tells him to take the good news because, for once, she wants him to share the hope she feels. The thing with pessimists is that they tend to think of optimists as delicate fools, not realizing the strength it takes to hope for the best when the odds are against you. It is possible that this very thing had kept Tess silent all these years, but with Ellie in the picture, her hope found solid ground to stand on, and she wanted Joel to acknowledge it.
Tess had done things to survive that she wasn’t proud of. But seeing Ellie gave her hope of a world where one need not live like that and is free to seek happiness without the fear of death. When she was bitten, she knew that she didn’t have long to live, but she could not allow her death to be in vain. Hence, she sacrifices herself so that Ellie and Joel may have a safe exit from the building. Tess is desperately trying to make the lighter work because she wants to set the place on fire so that the infected die along with her. But that is not her only objective. She has been bitten, and it is not going to be long before she starts turning. If there was one thing that defined Tess, it was her faith in humanity and her hope for their future. She refused to turn into one of the infected people. When she told Joel that they must “save who they can,” she also meant her sentient self, and setting fire to the building to destroy the scores of infected along with herself was her way of doing exactly that. She did not die just for the two of them but for the good of all surviving mankind. It was the love she had for Joel and Ellie and the bond she had come to share with them that gave her the strength to do what she did. It just remains to be seen whether her sacrifice served the purpose she wanted it to.