“The Last of Us” is set in a world overrun with fungi-infected zombies, cloaked in death and destruction. The series opens with the same devastating loss as the game, with Joel’s daughter Sarah meeting an untimely end. Much of Joel’s motivation is in response to Sarah’s death, but her story is more than just a plot device. Although Sarah is only shown in the first episode, her presence and influence hang over Joel’s every waking moment whether he acknowledges it or not. His apprehensive relationship with Ellie is absolutely a result of the pain he has from losing his daughter, forced into a parental role that he was denied.
The same can be said for the second episode, in which Joel’s longtime smuggling partner Tess was killed in a way that diverts from the game. Her final moments are tragic but triumphant, taking control of her fate in whatever way she can. Tess’ final wish to see Ellie taken to safety becomes the compass that directs Joel through the wasteland, turning him into a man who operates predominantly under the influence of deceased loved ones.
Death is an inevitable part of life, and there are plenty who view a character’s death as “cheap” story motivation, but I’ve never subscribed to that sort of mindset. When my family found out I was “going to die,” it inspired life-altering changes all around. America is a death-denying culture, and the fact we consider death to be too morbid or too taboo to effectively process has a direct impact on the way we view death in entertainment.
Neither Sarah nor Tess needed to die for “The Last of Us” to tell an impactful story, but they did die because death is a part of every life’s story.