The Last of Us Part II: Lesbian Love and Complex Ethical Questions

Last of us II review

Warning: major plot spoilers for The Last of Us Part II

The Last of Us Part II was perhaps the most hotly anticipated game of 2020. As the sequel to Naughty Dog’s smash hit survival horror game, Part II had a lot to live up to – after all, seven years later, The Last of Us remains one of the best-selling video games of all time.

The release wasn’t straightforward. Portions of the game were leaked early. This led to a lot of review-bombing, and inevitable knee-jerk opposition to its ‘gay agenda.’ Still, most critics agree that Part II succeeded. The story is compelling, the graphics are seamless, and the combat high octane. Just as in the original, a beautiful script and talented cast bring this world to life. But there are two areas in which The Last of Us Part II outshines the original game: difficult ethical questions, and lesbian representation.

Perhaps to begin with Ellie’s sexuality was more about mitigating the potential awkwardness of a 14-year-old girl traveling cross-country with some random middle-aged man than anything else. But, with the DLC for the original game and now the sequel, that decision has blossomed into positive representation.

In The Last of Us: Left Behind – DLC released in 2014 – players joined Ellie on a magical night with her first love, Riley. The girls snuck out of military boarding school to explore an abandoned mall, taking pictures in a photobooth and trying on Halloween masks. In one of the most intimate cutscenes to date, Riley plugs Ellie’s Walkman into a speaker system and they dance together. It’s an adventure that leads to Ellie’s first kiss – and ends in tragedy. The infected are attracted by the loud music, and both girls are bitten. But whereas Riley succumbs, Ellie doesn’t turn – immunity crucial to the main story.

Three weeks after being bitten, Ellie has shown no symptoms of the cordyceps brain infection. The longest anybody has gone before turning into one of the infected is two days. There is something unique about Ellie. So Marlene – leader of a resistance group known as the Fireflies – convinces a smuggler named Joel to take her outside of the Quarantine Zone. But between the threat of the Infected and the soldiers who shoot on sight, the meet up doesn’t go to plan. Realizing that she holds the cure, Joel agrees to take Ellie to the Fireflies’ hospital in Salt Lake City.

During the journey, the duo grows closer. Ellie fills the void left by Joel’s teenage daughter Sarah, who was killed during the outbreak. And everyone Ellie ever loved has left her or died – Joel is the first adult to stick around and care for her in a world where doing either has become rare. But when they finally get there, he discovers the price of a vaccine: Ellie’s life. Doctors would need to remove a portion of her brain to work out the source of her immunity and reverse engineer a cure.

Joel rampages through the hospital, killing everyone who stands between him and Ellie. Unlike the game’s previous combat scenes, he’s not killing in self defense. Joel is the aggressor. He even murders the surgeon – perhaps the only person in the world capable of developing a vaccine – and in so doing denies humanity even the possibility a cure for the cordyceps plague. Joel’s actions raise the difficult ethical questions that only become more pressing during the sequel. And Joel’s violence is the driving force behind the bloody cycles of retribution at the heart of Part II.

Part II begins five years after The Last of Us ended. Ellie and Joel are part of a survivor community in Jackson. As we later learn, their relationship took a hit when Ellie found proof that Joel lied to her about what happened in the hospital. Before they have a chance to reconcile, Joel is murdered by Abby – the daughter of the surgeon he killed in Salt Lake City, and a member of the Washington Liberation Front. Ellie swears to avenge his death. She follows Abby back to Seattle, accompanied by her girlfriend Dina, and the sheer scale of her retribution makes Joel’s actions at the hospital look like child’s play.

The Last of Us Part II deploys flashback scenes, giving some much-needed context to the game’s otherwise relentless brutality. Though some critics claim the game’s flashback scenes interrupt narrative flow, these moments offer valuable insight into the love that propels Ellie and Abby both into doing terrible things.

Most action/adventure games are formatted so that players kill an endless string of bad guys without ever thinking about the consequences. But, through Abby’s eyes, we see the flip side to Ellie’s violence: the pile of bodies in the WLF medical tent; the loss of friends, lovers, and even a beloved dog. In this respect, The Last of Us is revolutionary. Many gamers responded negatively to Abby, to the extent that Laura Bailey – the actress who voiced her – was sent a deluge of death threats and abuse. The extremity of this reaction may come from a place of discomfort; a dislike of being asked to look directly at the results of violence through a medium that often glorifies it, or presents violence as an ethically neutral phenomenon.

The flashbacks reveal motive and allow for a moral complexity that would otherwise be missing from the game. On a lighter note, they also offer some rich moments of lesbian representation. In one memory, Ellie struggles over coming out to Joel, who is the closest thing she has to a father. Even after the zombie apocalypse, it doesn’t get any easier.

In another memory, Ellie shares a slow dance and a kiss with Dina in a hall strung with fairy lights – an Instagram-worthy scene marred only by the barman’s homophobia. Like the Seraphites, a cult who serve as secondary antagonists, he sees the zombie apocalypse as an opportunity to return to ‘traditional’ values.

Despite these threats to the rights of lesbians, and women in general, Ellie is secure enough to be herself. Tattooed from wrist to elbow, wearing men’s shirts more often than not, Ellie lives up to the best of lesbian stereotypes. In the later stages of the game she models classic Sapphic couture: a white vest. Hell, even in the middle of a zombie apocalypse our girl finds the time to journal her thoughts and feelings.

From her notes, it’s clear that the main source of joy in Ellie’s life is her relationship with Dina. The game’s happier moments are all born of their love. Only through exploring a Synagogue with Dina (who is Jewish and bisexual) does Ellie find calm in this chapter of the story. Although the trip to Seattle ends in tears – Jesse, Dina’s ex-boyfriend, is shot by Abby – this shared experience brings them closer as a couple.

With Dina and their son, Ellie builds an idyllic life on a farmstead. They grow crops, rear sheep, and live that wholesome Stardew Valley life together. It’s the most detailed and positive depiction of a family with two mommies in any mainstream video game to date. But Ellie is still carrying the trauma of Joel’s death. And when his brother Tommy appears with news of Abby’s whereabouts, she can’t resist the siren call of revenge.

The final chapter of the game garnered mixed reviews. A persistent criticism is that the whole thing could have been significantly shorter. That’s not entirely wrong. While Ellie fights the infected and struggles to survive her encounters with the sadistic Rattler gang, you can’t help but think: she could be on the farm with Dina and baby J.J. (Jesse Joel?) right now. Instead of being afraid and in pain, Ellie could be safe and loved. This lesson – the futility of violence – is a central theme in The Last of Us Part II. It’s the darkness of this last chapter, contrasted with Ellie’s joyful life on the farm, that drives this message home.

The ending is brutal. Both Ellie and Abby are broken by the violence they’ve inflicted on one another. But The Last of Us Part II inadvertently ends on a hopeful note. Despite the danger they face, the injuries they sustain, both Ellie and Dina made it to the end. In an ideal world, this detail wouldn’t be significant. But lesbian and bisexual characters have a long and painful history of being killed off by straight creators. Witnessing the survival of a same-sex couple in a mainstream game is like catching sight of the first snowdrops – you let yourself hope that the long winter of Burying Your Gays is finally coming to an end.