How ‘The Last Of Us’ Ruined Joel

“The devil might be in the detail, but sainthood is in the subtext." Words by Merryana Salem

By Merryana Salem, 23/3/2023

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

The first season of HBO’s explosively popular adaptation of The Last of Us has been universally praised for “breaking the curse” of video game adaptations, even outstripping House of the Dragon’s ratings and catapulting stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey into the hearts and minds of gamers and TV fans alike. But, looking back on the now-finished first season, I can’t help but wonder – is The Last of Us a better version of the game’s story, or a more palatable version? 

Heads up, this piece discusses trauma in television and contains spoilers for season one of The Last Of Us

Trying Too Hard To Make Sense Of Joel Miller 

Originally portrayed in Naughty Dog’s award-winning game by Troy Baker, Joel Miller is very different from his TV counterpart – contrary to what the numerous side-by-side game-to-show videos would have you believe. Pascal’s Joel quite literally goes through the same motions, but the Joel Miller in the game is much less forthcoming and far more brutal. 

Unlike in the show, Joel does not experience panic attacks or post-traumatic stress flashbacks. The character shows how he deals with the loss of his daughter by showing almost no emotion. The only implication of his trauma is that he has nightmares. Beyond those nightmares, Joel is a disinterested, mechanical presence – efficient and empty.   

Even Joel’s relationship with Tess, which the show makes explicitly romantic, is more restrained in the game. The opening sequence of the game shows Joel’s concern for Tess’s injuries and that he trusts her as his smuggling partner-in-crime. There are no scenes of them spooning or flashbacks to double dates with Bill and Frank. It’s clear Joel cares for Tess, but the exact nature of that care is for the player to decide. 

The game also holds nothing back when it comes to Joel’s criminal exploits. While the show makes Joel a drug dealer, his primary concern in the game is smuggling guns, for which he and Tess kill plenty of people, Firefly and FEDRA alike. One of the first combat sequences you play as Joel in the game is killing arms dealer Robert, his cronies and the unfortunate FEDRA officers who get in your way – all for personal gain. There are no pills to help soldiers sleep. No seeking of car batteries to find lost brothers.

As a player, you get the sense Joel is a man running on auto-pilot, taking one smuggling job after another to fill his days and pockets (with food rations). The player is not privileged to Joel’s inner life because, without his daughter, he has none. Joel is not so likeable or even accessible to the player until he begins to connect with Ellie. 

Developing Joel Makes Him Less Interesting

The Last of Us game was groundbreaking because of the cinematic quality of its story and characters. That’s why the show could imitate scenes from the game shot-for-shot and line-for-line. 

There’s just one problem. For all of its compelling cinematic cutaways and character arcs, The Last of Us is still an action-driven game where players push the plot forward and learn about these characters through action. Indeed, much of Ellie and Joel’s conversations and banter only happen when the player is moving through the game correctly. 

But when it comes to TV, it’s not enough for a character to be playable, they must be watchable.

Of course, this kind of active participation in the plot is not possible in a passive medium like television. As Vulture points out, when one plays a video game, one is responsible for the character and this responsibility creates the foundation of a player’s investment in the character’s fate. Joel only needs to be capable for the player to assume basic investment and see the character through to the end. 

But when it comes to TV, it’s not enough for a character to be playable, they must be watchable. So screenwriter Craig Mazin and game creator Neil Druckmann gut much of the game’s action to prioritise the fleshing out of Joel and Ellie. The series is not without its action sequences, but they’re secondary to character exploration. Action sequences from the game – Joel and Tess tussling with FEDRA and the fireflies, Joel and Ellie fighting through Bill’s booby traps to find a working car, Joel helping Tommy clear the dam of infected and fix the colony’s electricity supply – are swapped out for intimate character portraits. So Bill and Frank get a dedicated episode in which neither encounter Joel and Ellie, Joel and Tess’s relationship becomes a doomed partnership with unrequited romantic feelings, and an entire episode is dedicated to Tommy and Joel debriefing each other in a self-sufficient Jackson settlement. 

These are hardly drastic changes to the elements presented in the game. But they do add up. Joel Miller goes from being a disconnected man going through the motions in the game, to an anxious, grief-stricken wreck with a dead girlfriend desperately searching for his brother in the show. 

All these adjustments make Joel a more sympathetic, or at the very least, more watchable character. The changes also make his motives and internality more visible. It’s much easier for an audience to invest in a guy failing to hide how broken he is than a guy who’s gotten so good at it that he’s a shadow of a former self we never got to meet. 

Fleshing out a character to make them more accessible, even marketable, isn’t a bad thing in every case, but demystifying Joel’s trauma only makes The Last of Us less impactful in the end. By conditioning the audience to expect a trauma response from Joel, the series’ iconic ending becomes obvious, having been explained implicitly, leaving us to ask: When does fleshing out a character become detrimental to the story?

“The Trauma Plot” – How To Soften An Iconic Ending 

As a series, The Last of Us goes to great lengths to draw parallels between Joel and Ellie’s traumas, specifically how their losses shape them into complementary characters. 

Ellie traumatically losing her girlfriend Riley explains why she can’t lose Joel. Her trauma with the cannibals helps Joel see her as his daughter, similar in some ways to the one he lost. Joel’s explanation that the scar on his head is from an attempted suicide helps Ellie, and therefore us, understand the depths his grief went to.

In the game, Joel and Ellie’s trauma isn’t exhibited so obviously. Joel does not have panic attacks or confess to attempted suicide. As for Ellie, there is only a brief mention of losing Riley. The Left Behind expansion which allowed the player to play as Ellie during her last night with Riley was released almost a year after the initial game.

Thus, viewers of the show are offered a more detailed insight into the characters than players of the game. But, as a player, when Joel murders the Fireflies to save Ellie, cure be damned, it is a far more visceral and effective ending. Being forced to play as Joel as you kill all the Fireflies to finish the game forces you to consider why Joel (you!) would do this yourself. (I myself had a hard time doing it – and I didn’t have Joel and Ellie’s trauma laid out for me to understand and feel the horrifying moral complexity.)

But this kind of active engagement is not possible in a series. So what takes its place is the Trauma Plot. As literary critic Parul Sehgal wrote in her iconic essay, The Case Against The Trauma Plot, this writing device employs past trauma as a replacement for characterisation. 

The devil might be in the detail, but sainthood is in the subtext

The trauma plot is not concerned with the future, it is concerned with the past and the explanations it provides for a character’s current actions. “Evoke the wound and we will believe that a body, a person, has borne it,” Sehgal writes. In the show, Mazin and Druckmann are obsessed with constantly reminding the audience of Joel’s losses to the point that he goes from being a character of action in the game to a walking wound for Ellie to heal at her own expense. 

The exhaustive mapping of Joel’s trauma in the show renders any discussion or nuance around his motivations moot. 

In the game, the player examined and evaluated Joel’s actions as those of a man with a complex life. In the show, they are reduced to an extension of a painful past, with little room left for any substantial questioning of Joel’s personal morality. 

There is a certain insecurity to the way Druckmann and Mazin adapted The Last of Us, as if the pair felt they had to circumvent the game’s controversial beats by rooting them in the palatable testimony of trauma. But in this case, an adaptation that dilutes the discomfort of its core dilemma with sympathy proves to be a weakened version of its source material. There has to be more to an adaptation than mere justification. 

In the show, Druckmann and Mazin went to great lengths to imitate the visuals of the game, but they ultimately bogged themselves down in retroactively explaining the actions of their characters with reminders of their trauma. Unlike the game, where players have 30 hours to be with these characters, the show only allows a third of that time. Any adaptation that involves translating characterisation and backstory into a totally different medium necessitates the addition of exposition. Some expository streamlining, with emotional dialogue and flashbacks, was always going to be on the table. It is, after all, necessary to tell the audience who these characters are.

But is signalling characterisation by drawing constant attention to the past in flashbacks and exposition the only way to show who a character is? Yes, some might argue. Yet in a show like Succession, there is not a single flashback or emotional tear-jerking monologue from the characters in which they explain how their past trauma has informed their actions. The audience is left to parse the Roy family’s motivations and backstory from what they do and say from moment to moment. This approach does not make Succession or its characters ineffable. It makes for compelling television as the audience feasts on the crumbs of insight dropped in each episode’s wake. The devil might be in the detail, but sainthood is in the subtext. 

Druckmann and Mazin opted for a more expository approach, in which past trauma is revealed at every turn. It’s a baffling choice and I can’t help but feel that the story loses intrigue in over-explaining, in the decision that everything, even one of the most iconic endings in video games, needs to be justified and explained with trauma. Maybe it makes Joel more palatable for the TV audience, more suited to all those Apocalypse Daddy memes and TikToks, but it makes him far less compelling. 

This is an opinion piece, written by Merryana Salem (they/them), a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster. They are on most social media as @akajustmerry.

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.