As a story, “The Last of Us” is as much about what’s happening within the two main characters as what’s happening around them. We meet Joel when he’s a father. He doesn’t initially seem like an above-and-beyond dad-of-the-year type, per se, but he’s still a good dad who cares deeply about his daughter Sarah. Then she’s killed, and in the 20 year interim, Joel becomes closed off. Much of the game is about the emotional barriers Ellie and Joel break down together, and the bond they build despite the fact that they live in world where love and hope aren’t meant to thrive.
Joel’s not a good guy, though. He may do some heroic things, but he does some terrible ones too. He’s a killer, and a criminal, but nothing he does is as questionable as the decision he makes during the shocking climax of the first game. It’s a decision he makes out of pure fear and selfishness, and it’s one that — if you look closely — you can see echoed and inverted in his scene with Tess this week.
In the video game, in Tess’ final scene, she says the quiet part loud: “We’re s***** people, Joel. We’ve been that way for a long time.” He isn’t ready to accept it, snapping back, “No, we’re survivors.” When Tess shows him her infection and says she’s going to stay behind, Joel seems incredulous and frustrated, but he obviously wants to stay with her. She has to talk him into letting her sacrifice herself, pushing him away when he tries to stay. He pauses for a second, blinks hard, then leaves with Ellie.