Joel and Ellie standing on a rooftop from The Last of Us

Spoiler Notice: Season 1 of The Last of Us

On some level, The Last of Us (TLOU) can be enjoyed as a series of dramatic vignettes that unfold as the characters travel. The potential zombie vaccine is just a MacGuffin, giving Joel and Ellie a reason to move from point A to point B. But that changes in the season finale. There, Joel faces a trolley problem: either he allows Ellie to die so a vaccine can be created, or he saves her, sacrificing the lives that would be saved by the vaccine.

Joel chooses Ellie; he even goes on a killing rampage to save her. Afterward, he lies to Ellie about all of it. Because Joel has come to love her like a daughter, he might lie simply to protect her innocence, but we can sense there’s more to his motivation. As viewers, we’re meant to empathize with Joel while perceiving this as incredibly dubious.

What was the right thing to do here? Were Joel’s actions for Ellie’s benefit or for his own? Was Joel’s love of Ellie admirable or infantilizing toward her? Was his lie selfless, or was it to maintain the idyllic status quo of their relationship? Finally, was Ellie really convinced by Joel’s lie, or did she look the other way to avoid seeing her new father as a monster? 

This is all great stuff to leave viewers contemplating. And Joel’s choice matters: following the storyline from the games, we can presume season two will further explore the implications of his actions.

Unfortunately, setting up this trolley problem was clearly difficult for the show writers. It’s contrived, and the stakes aren’t properly established. Let’s get these problems on the table and come up with possible solutions. 

Problem 1: The Vaccine Would Be Useless

A huge zombie in front of a burning building.

This might come as a surprise, but based on what we’ve seen, a vaccine won’t actually save many people, even if it could be made! While characters tell us the vaccine is a big deal, what we see contradicts this. The infected behave like angry velociraptors, killing anyone they can get their hands on. A vaccine can’t stitch someone back together. It’s only in contrived or unusual circumstances that people get bitten once but not killed. Fluke infections just aren’t high on the list of things to worry about in this setting.

It doesn’t help that the infected’s presence is strangely low in the latter half of the show. After episode two, there is exactly one major infected incident that isn’t in a flashback. And in this incident in episode five, we see the infected ripping off people’s heads and killing them left, right, and center. That’s not exactly behavior that makes us believe the vaccine would be a miracle.

To fix this, the vaccine must be portrayed as something that would clearly do good. Otherwise, what are Joel and Ellie even doing in the first place, taking such a dangerous trip? What are the Fireflies doing, planning to kill a teenage girl for a vaccine that won’t make a difference? Without a useful vaccine, the entire dramatic setup falls apart.

Problem 2: The Setup Is Inexplicably Rushed

Doctors about to operate on Ellie.

For now, let’s assume we’ve got a solution to the above problem. The next issue with this trolley problem is its setup in the final episode.

Let’s review: After sharing their love for each other in a beautiful, touching scene, Joel and Ellie finally arrive at the Fireflies’ lab. But the guards think Joel and Ellie could be hostile and knock them out.* Joel wakes up and receives a rushed explanation from the Fireflies’ leader, Marlene. She says the only way to “maybe” produce a vaccine is to crack open Ellie’s skull and kill her.

Moreover – surprise! – this is already underway. Ellie’s in the operating theater now, under anesthesia. Holy crap! Weren’t Joel and Ellie captured like… 30 minutes ago? They spent months crossing the country to get here, and the Fireflies sprung into action like ER surgeons who have to operate right this second or their patient will bleed out.

Nothing we’ve been shown suggests there’s any rush, and this is the Fireflies’ one shot to obtain a vaccine. Why not take some more time, run more tests, and try to get the maximum possible certainty about the most effective course of action? That would be far more reasonable than acting as if there’s not a moment to lose.

Why does the show include this inexplicable rush, anyway? It’s because this is not a story where Joel, Ellie, Marlene, and the doctor collaborate to make a difficult decision. It’s not a story where Ellie gets to be involved in deciding whether to heroically sacrifice herself to save untold numbers of people. It’s not a story where Joel accepts that Ellie’s a big girl now, capable of making such a decision with his support and love. No, this is a story where Ellie is unconscious and Joel has to decide alone. While it’s perfectly fine that Joel gets the trolley problem to himself, we need a less contrived setup for it.

This is a big constraint. Ellie has to be in the dark for the duration so she isn’t involved in the conversation about what to do. Otherwise, the decision is no longer just Joel’s, and we get a different story.

But Ellie can only be unconscious for so long, and if she’s woken up but kept in the dark, she’ll grow suspicious. The more suspicious she gets, the less likely she is to trust Joel’s lie at the end. The show writers clearly want this to end with Ellie either believing Joel or choosing to look the other way. If we want to keep this, we need a reason for Ellie’s surgery to proceed as soon as they arrive.

Problem 3: Marlene Is Inconsistent

Marlene looking pensive.

Even without the inexplicable urgency, Marlene acts strangely. She comes off not as a cold-blooded killer but a competent pragmatist. She also has some history with Ellie. Marlene was friends with Ellie’s mother and rescued Ellie as a baby. It’s safe to say Marlene cares for Ellie on some level. 

So even if Marlene was willing to kill Ellie, surely she’d prefer Joel and Ellie’s cooperation. Why doesn’t she at least pretend that she wants their input? Because then, Ellie would be involved in the choice, and it wouldn’t be solely in Joel’s hands. But that’s an out-of-universe reason, not one that makes much sense for Marlene’s character. 

Maybe I have Marlene wrong. Suppose we are meant to believe Marlene’s an awful person. In that case, why does she tell Joel the plan and let him go? I’d expect this silliness from a villain in a James Bond movie, not from a competent person like Marlene. The show gives us an utterly flimsy justification: she owes Joel. That actually draws attention to the contrivance, making it even more noticeable.

Marlene can’t be both things. If she’s a monster willing to kill Ellie, she’d be willing to kill Joel, too. If she’s somehow unwilling to do that, then at the very least, she’d leave Joel in the dark about what’s happening until the deed is done. Or perhaps she’d tell him some lie. She might say Ellie’s been moved to a different building for some testing and she’s perfectly fine. She could have a minion walk Joel over to the other building so that by the time Joel realizes what’s up, it’s too late. Anything, really.

The reason Marlene doesn’t do something sensible is that for Joel to have a moral dilemma, he needs information about what’s happening, and he has to receive it while he’s still close enough to rescue Ellie. But that’s not good enough for viewers. Marlene needs a better reason to act the way she does.

Solving the Problems With Marlene

Marlene smiling.

With all those problems on the table, let’s look at some possible fixes. The uselessness of the vaccine is the hardest to solve. Let’s come back to that after we deal with the inexplicable urgency and Marlene’s character inconsistency.

One option is to introduce some urgency so the surgery on Ellie has to proceed right away. Perhaps some raiders are nearby, about to break through the Fireflies’ defenses, and they don’t know how long Marlene’s villainous vaccine doctor has to work undisturbed. Assuming we have some source of urgency like this, Marlene might reasonably feel like she just needs to act, without Ellie or Joel’s consent.

Does this work? Not exactly. It doesn’t explain her Bond-villain behavior: telling Joel what she is doing and then giving him ample opportunity to escape. That’s still silly.

An external source of urgency also feels contrived. Joel and Ellie have spent months crossing the country from Boston, and they arrive at the Fireflies’ lab at the exact moment when there’s no time to lose?

Instead, we might consider a more radical option: Marlene can be dead when Ellie and Joel arrive. Presumably Marlene got infected during the trip west, and her former lover and ruthless second-in-command has taken over. Let’s call him Bob. Bob’s still anguished about Marlene’s death, and he’s going to get this vaccine, goddammit. Bob has no relationship with Ellie and Joel. As far as he’s concerned, they’re just the delivery vessel for the vaccine. In his mind there’s no reason to delay, and he’s not the most patient man. Bob instructs one of his minions (let’s call her Alice) to go kill Joel, and then he goes to supervise the surgery.

In this edit, Bob and Joel don’t even meet or have a conversation. Bob isn’t so incompetent that he’d reveal his sinister plans before they’ve been carried out and then let Joel walk free.

But unbeknownst to Bob, minion Alice turns out to be one of Joel’s old contacts. Alice doesn’t want to go through with killing Joel, is conflicted about killing Ellie to obtain the vaccine, and isn’t a fan of Bob for Reasons. Joel manipulates the conversation to draw all this out of Alice. And once he knows what’s going on, he can snap and go on his killing spree to save Ellie. The rest can play out as before.

This solution works because the specific character of Marlene isn’t that important. Neither Ellie nor Joel are shown to have a strong relationship with her. She serves the plot by setting up the pieces for the trolley problem, but anyone can serve that role. Picking someone with fewer constraints is just the ticket.

Fixing the Vaccine: The Sleight-of-Hand Option

A dead infected, with fungus spreading from them across a wall.

Alright, we’ve finally come to it. We need to make the vaccine a big deal, something that could save a lot of people.

One option is for the infected to behave a bit more intelligently, biting their victims nonlethally before retreating. Or perhaps they could send out a puff of spores that can travel short distances.

Does this do it? Kind of. If the only way to get infected is to get within striking distance of some mindless creatures, the infection will have a difficult time spreading. How will these mindless creatures get close to humans who can intelligently organize themselves and their settlements for protection?

But we don’t need to give up on this, because the show can use some sleight of hand. It’s the same sleight of hand used in every zombie movie since the dawn of time. By showing us more infected and people getting infected, the risk of infection will seem higher than it would be if this were a real scenario. At least, it will if we don’t think too hard about it.

This, incidentally, is more or less what the games do. The fungus has some limited-range airborne spores, which aren’t in the show. But mostly, the games have more encounters with the infected, making any vaccine feel like a bigger deal. We don’t know where all those infected are coming from, but they’ve got to be coming from somewhere, and presumably the vaccine would have prevented it!

The show is subject to different constraints than the games, though. Games can get away with some ludonarrative dissonance in service of making the gameplay enjoyable. That means Joel and Ellie can work through hordes of mindless infected baddies using ridiculous amounts of ammo and firepower. Put those scenes on TV, and it looks silly.

Yet the show could also do better than a total absence of infected after episode five.

One good spot to amp up the infected’s presence would be Joel and Ellie’s stop at the Fireflies’ old base in Colorado. Let’s say Joel and Ellie arrive at the campus and Joel spots some bandits on the outskirts, foreshadowing his later stabbing by said bandits. As our heroes sneak toward the presumed Fireflies base, they spot infected shambling about in the distance. Then some more. Geez, the place is crawling with them. The two proceed with mounting tension, eventually entering an abandoned university hospital with signage pointing to the Fireflies’ old headquarters. An infected screeches in a distant hallway.

As Joel and Ellie make their way through the hospital, they might even fight some infected boss* or simply get past one in a creative way. Eventually, they reach the Fireflies’ HQ. In addition to learning the new whereabouts of the Fireflies, they can discover the base relocated because of the sudden spike in infected nearby. If the reason for this spike is unknown, that could make the vaccine seem more important, because it would be harder to prevent future spikes through other means. 

Does this sleight-of-hand option work? To some extent, sure. But let’s see if we can take it a bit further, exploring solutions that can hold up to real scrutiny.

Fixing the Vaccine: The Airborne-Fungus Option

A child looking out over the ruins of Boston.

The trouble is that people can only be infected by getting within punching range of zombies, and those zombies are incapable of an intelligent or coordinated attack. Anyone who gives the matter scrutiny will realize it’d be difficult for such a thing to spread effectively. We can accept this as a conceit, but it still detracts from the seriousness of the work, which is otherwise grounded.

So what if the fungus had a long-range means of spreading, one capable of generating new infections in a way humans can’t fully control?

Most obviously, the fungal spores could be airborne, perhaps capable of traveling long distances with the wind given the right conditions. There’s some issues with this, including its filmability, but let’s explore.

Suppose that when the story starts, infections are suddenly on the rise after years of decline. No one quite understands why, but we get reports of mysterious infections popping up in random places, seemingly from people with no bite marks. Some people claim it’s gone airborne, while others claim it’s in the water. Everyone’s got a theory, but no one knows for sure. Joel finds out that Tommy’s gone radio silent and grows concerned.

The trip out west proceeds as before. But in a scene before the opening credits roll, we see some other settlement wiped out by an infection arriving with the wind. Tension mounts. Has Tommy’s settlement been wiped out too?

Then Joel and Ellie get to Tommy’s. It turns out Tommy’s settlement is okay, thankfully, but they’ve been fighting the airborne infection. We get confirmation the fungus can and does arrive randomly via the air. During the settlement’s first airborne outbreak, their radio equipment was all destroyed, hence the radio silence. Since then, they’ve reorganized to handle random infections, but a healthy dose of paranoia remains. It’s an idyllic place but also a place that feels impermanent: any day, disaster could strike.

Maybe Tommy’s settlement even has a scientist character who’s been studying wind patterns and can give us some technobabble about how she thinks this is a new adaptation: the spores have become extremely resilient, capable of traveling long distances, etc.

This solution works in the sense that it makes the vaccine clearly important and rather urgent, too. Every day the characters wait is a day anyone might get infected, both at Tommy’s and elsewhere.

But it has some undesirable consequences for the story. If the infection can arrive with the wind at any time, then nowhere is safe, including Tommy’s. So even if Joel saves Ellie now, he or the people at Tommy’s could get infected anytime later, even the next day.

The story relies on Tommy’s settlement as a place of safety that Joel and Ellie can return to. Part of Joel’s motivation for killing the Fireflies and lying to Ellie is returning to this idyllic bubble to start anew. We can see that he’s fooling himself and it’s not so simple, but the story wants to present Joel with that fantasy, and the airborne spores get in the way of that.

The presence of airborne spores also paints Joel’s actions in an even harsher light. Without the spores, Tommy’s settlement will probably be fine, vaccine or not. That way, we might view Joel’s choice as one that protects himself and his community. Joel was willing to go to some length for the possibility of a vaccine, but not as far as letting someone he loves die. But if his decision to save Ellie ultimately condemns Tommy and his settlement to death as well, it’s much harder to understand and empathize with Joel’s decision. And I don’t think the show wants us to view Joel as a monster.

There’s another problem with airborne spores, which is that they aren’t very filmable. In a visual medium, we don’t want our very talented actors wearing gas masks all the time, which is what you’d do in any place you thought spores could be nearby. In the games, characters automatically put on gas masks just before entering the clearly marked “rooms that have spores,” but in a more grounded show, that approach doesn’t work.

Fixing the Vaccine: The Mycelium-Network Option

Fungus covering a doorway in The Last of Us.

Alright, if airborne spores don’t quite do it, what are we left with? We need to give the fungus a ranged attack that humans can’t fully guard against, but what else can a fungus realistically do?

Well, the article that mentions why the writers removed spores from the show hints at a solution: mycelium networks.

We see mushrooms when they burst through dirt. The pieces we see are the fruiting bodies of the whole organism; the rest lies hidden underneath the surface of the Earth. That part is called the mycelium, the threads that spread underground and connect mushrooms and trees into a “mycorrhizal network,” a natural network not unlike the internet — some mushroom experts call it the “woodwide web.” 

Nicole Carpenter, Polygon

In the current show, these fungal networks don’t play much of a role; they’re only used to get infected to swarm toward the same target. This “mycelium as a zombie hive mind” concept feels less grounded than the rest of the show and does little for the plot.

Instead, why don’t we repurpose this fungal-network idea? Suppose the mycelium tendrils can spread underground, branching out over vast distances, and then rise to produce innocuous-looking mushrooms. These mushrooms release short-range spores if ruptured, infecting unlucky people walking about. Or the network might entwine itself with root systems of trees and crops, infecting food supplies. Together, this can explain a rise in randomly occurring infections.

A scientist at Tommy’s settlement could make it crystal clear that these spores don’t survive long in the air or travel great distances. Phew, no gas masks needed.

This approach can still have the same mystery setup as the airborne spores, where infections are on the rise, no one knows why, and everyone has a theory. Only when Joel and Ellie arrive at Tommy’s do we get the explanation confirmed. This marks a more satisfying midpoint for the season. The mystery of rising rates of infection is solved, and the resolution raises the stakes and urgency of the zombie problem, driving the latter half of the season toward the finale’s climactic trolley problem.

This does it. The fungus can be underground anywhere and everywhere the writers want, but it’s not so virulent that everyone needs to be wearing gas masks all the time. Furthermore, once Tommy’s settlement becomes aware of how the infection spreads via these mycelium networks, one can imagine a protocol for ensuring the town’s safety. Perhaps patrols burn outcrops of the fungus, dig trenches, and so on. Tommy’s can still be an idyllic place of relative safety that serves the same role in the story.

However, such protocols would be complex and difficult to perfectly execute. We can see how infections continue to be an issue, especially at settlements that aren’t in the know. The vaccine would still be a big deal.

This approach also has the potential to generate some interesting drama in later seasons. The knowledge that Tommy’s settlement has about the mycelium and their protocols for dealing with it could be lifesaving if widely known. Some people at Tommy’s settlement might be willing to leave their idyllic bubble to spread the word, while more isolationist members are unsupportive of such risks.

Are These Issues Worth Addressing?

Joel and Ellie in their truck.

Joel and Ellie’s relationship feels real to me, because of both the writing and Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal’s amazing performances. Over the course of the story, Joel softens and comes to love again. Ellie comes to trust and love Joel as the parental figure she never had. I was so touched by the scene just before they reach the Fireflies where they admit their love without saying it. How often does a line like “I’ll follow you anywhere you go” feel so earned and true?

In contrast, the trolley problem at the story’s end felt noticeably contrived, as if the writers and the characters were all contractually obligated to achieve the intended result.

How much of a problem is this for the show? And should writers devote effort to making every aspect of the story’s logic airtight?

Well, every story has some logic issues. How much of a problem these are depends on the seriousness of the work and how foregrounded the issues are in the story. For instance, in your average superhero movie, audiences are pretty forgiving of logic issues even when they notice them. Why? The inconsistencies are often in service of epic battles, a big reason people go to see such movies in the first place. In that sense, it’s similar to the ludonarrative dissonance gamers gladly accept in service of fun gameplay.

TLOU’s issues are noticeable for two reasons. First, it’s a gritty show, so tolerance of contrivances is generally lower. When a show feels realistic in so many other ways, aspects that feel like the writer put them there stick out. Second, the issues are entwined with this climactic trolley problem, and trolley problems are deliberately infuriating. Either choice has consequences. We don’t want Joel to be put in an impossible situation, so we give the setup a lot more scrutiny. That means problems are more noticeable.

Let’s compare TLOU’s ending to another gut-wrenching moment in a popular story: the death of Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. By the time of his death, we’re quite attached to Ned and don’t want to see him executed, so the setup leading to it is also scrutinized. Watching the scene of his final moments, I remember thinking “this can’t really be happening, it can’t be, there has to be some deus ex machina on the way…” yet also understanding his death was inevitable. 

As much as I didn’t like it, the logic of the characters and the world led inexorably to this conclusion. After the death, I wasn’t thinking about the writers or the writing. I was thinking about what Ned and the Starks did wrong. In contrast, after completing TLOU, I was thinking about how forced the setup was.

This is the effect of contrivances in crucial moments: they take us away from the world of the story and make us think about the writing. The good news is that with careful thinking, it’s possible to come up with solutions that make even gut-wrenching story elements immersive and believable.

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