We recently saw an interview by one of the creators of the show “The Last of Us,” where he spoke about how the series was an expansion of the storyline of the game itself instead of being an adaptation of it for a different format. It would be a lie to say that we did not find that jarring initially, but it took some perspective to understand that this is not just about an adrenaline rush but about the love for a story, which has just been made richer by taking this detour. One of the things it brought to the forefront was the matter of Ellie’s lost childhood, something we may not have considered before. Having grown up in military school, skills of survival are the first things ever taught to children.
Ellie probably never had a parent figure. Even though she was a bit of a rebel, her entire life was about staying away from the infected, listening to an authority figure (FEDRA), and staying alive. Emotional complications brought on by hormones should be the biggest problems of teenage life, not figuring out guns and tanks. While her upbringing certainly has a role to play, we must also consider that her unaddressed past with Riley could also be a factor in why she tries so hard to be good at combat. At the beginning of “The Last of Us,” Episode 4, Ellie is looking at herself in the mirror, holding a gun. She disassembles it, trying to figure out its machinations. The moment we could tell that she was trying to derive some sense of power from it and not just use it for self-defense was when she smelled the gun. According to her, knowledge is power, whether it be about combat or cars. Most people would just accept that gas can be siphoned off the car in a particular way, but Ellie wanted to know the exact science behind it.
When discussing Ellie’s innocence, one scene particularly stands out to us—the one with the magazine in the car. When a teenager gets their hands on a magazine like that, there is undoubtedly curiosity. But with Ellie, she already knew why the pages were stuck together. It wouldn’t be wrong to believe that nobody thought of protecting the eyes and ears of a child in military school. Ellie had definitely seen magazines like that before, which is why she did not hesitate to throw it out of the car once she had played her prank on Joel. It might be a funny scene, but it also tells us something about her. In fact, later, when Joel pointedly tells Ellie that they cannot light a fire because the people who will see it will have “way more in mind” than robbing them, we believe he is referring to the number of ways in which Ellie can be assaulted. She understands what he is saying, indicating that she has either heard such stories or been in similar danger before.
Notice how Joel assumed that Ellie would know what he was talking about, yet he was hesitant to let her read the magazine or tell her why the pages were stuck together? This is the balance he has found between protecting a child while letting them know of the dangers ahead. He cooks for her, stays up nights to protect her when he realizes that she is scared, and has started talking to her instead of sticking to his stoic silence. He must have had quite a laugh when he found that she did not like coffee. It is a surprise to us that Starbucks still exists in the post-apocalyptic world, albeit only in the quarantine zones. Had Ellie been a normal teenager, we don’t doubt she would have been a regular customer, the kind who orders a very extra pumpkin-spiced latte. But in this world, she became a fan of the expired ravioli.
The fourth episode of “The Last of Us” did a good job of reminding us that Ellie doesn’t just act older than her age; she actually has the sensibilities to go with it. When Joel knew that Brian was faking an injury to get help, Ellie was surprised that he knew that it was fake. When she asked him how he had gauged that, she was probably asking it as a lesson for herself. But when Joel tells her that he has been on the other side of it, we can see the difficulty of such an acceptance on her face. She doesn’t judge Joel because she understands what one must do when survival is paramount, but it is not easy for her, especially considering her survivor’s guilt, which has recently intensified in the face of Riley and Tess’ deaths.
When Joel is overpowered by Brian, Ellie steps in to shoot him. While it wasn’t a fatal wound, it allowed Joel to take Brian’s life. Joel feels incredibly guilty about it. He knows that innocence has no place in the new world, but he has grown to have a soft corner for Ellie. In “The Last of Us,” Episode 1, he tried to protect his daughter Sarah by underplaying the situation outside so that he could shield her mental state. That is because he understands that, as a parent, his responsibility includes the physical, mental, and social well-being of his child. The knowledge of its importance hasn’t left him. Even when he tells Ellie that she is not family but cargo, it looks more like he is reminding himself than establishing the status quo. Maybe he did not consider Elle his daughter yet, but the time they had spent together, the jokes they had shared, their agreement on the good taste of decades-old pasta, and the smiles she had brought to his face made him realize that he cared for her. That is why he tries to reassure her that it isn’t her fault. Say whatever about the difference between the game and the show; we can’t deny that its world-building is immaculate.
We see a poster for “Matchstick Men” in one of the scenes. It is a movie about the relationship between an estranged father and daughter, which goes really well with Joel and Ellie, who are going to eventually find their way as each other’s family. Just like a father cheers up his daughter after a tough situation by giving her candy or taking her shopping, Joel treats Ellie by giving her a lesson on how to correctly use a gun. The dystopian comparison aside, he does make Ellie smile. That also means that she has started trusting him now. When he tells her that they will get through this, she nods, saying that she knows. This was a stark difference from the end of “The Last of Us” Episode 2 when she wasn’t willing to leave Tess behind to go with Joel.
The whole incident with Brian really opened up Joel’s eyes to how young Ellie was, to the extent that he reached out to her himself. We don’t think he has done that with anyone since Tess. He asks her again if she is okay since her statement that it isn’t her first time is lodged in his mind. He understands the importance of her being tough, but at the end of the day, she is still a child who has the innocence to laugh at jokes adults are embarrassed to admit they find funny. Ellie might not be a typical teenager, but she was one nonetheless, and she had to find moments to live that life wherever and whenever she could, sometimes alone and sometimes with the help of a grumpy old man who was hard of hearing on one side yet would do anything to protect her.