In the world of zombie apocalypses, we’re used to seeing characters dying, to cruel things happening because, hey, it’s the apocalypse. With civilization ended, betrayal and cruelty are the order of the day, and humanity as we know it is no more.
In the world of “The Last of Us,” however, suffering is disproportionally assigned to Black characters, with the likes of Sam, Henry, Riley, and Sarah not just dying, but suffering horrible and pointless deaths. What’s more, most of these characters are just kids. To see any kid die on a zombie show is bad enough already, but the games — and now the TV show — only seem to introduce Black characters to immediately kill them. All these characters have in common is that they are treated like emotional roadblocks for Joel and Ellie to confront, like lessons to be imparted to them.
When Sarah died in the first episode, it was the first big death on the show: the one that signaled the seriousness of the story, the one that sent Joel on a bleak path of nihilism and self-hatred. When Sam and Henry died tragically in a murder-suicide, it gave Joel panic attacks that made him reconsider his ability to keep Ellie safe. In episode 7, Riley’s death happens at the same time that Ellie gets infected, leading to the discovery of her immunity and kickstarting the events of the show — while also teaching her about the cruelty of the world and motivating her character throughout the first season’s story.
At every point, Joel and Ellie’s story is written with Black bodies. What characterization they do have is in service of making their deaths mean something to Joel and Ellie’s overall story, rather than to give them any real depth.