“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” Matthew 5:38
In my review of The Last of Us Part II, I mention that the game’s portrayal of revenge is worth a closer examination, and that is what I will provide here. Naughty Dog’s 2020 action-adventure title goes to great lengths to expose the destruction that revenge wreaks, weaving multiple plotlines with differing viewpoints, and taking some surprising twists and turns along the way. How does Naughty Dog execute on this ambitious goal? Where do they succeed…and are there any stumbles along the way? Take note that this article contains major spoilers for The Last of Us, The Last of Us Part II, and Uncharted 4.
It all begins with Joel’s fateful decision at the end of The Last of Us. Over the better part of a year, he’s escorted Ellie, a fourteen-year-old girl immune to the Cordyceps virus, across the United States, from Boston all the way to Salt Lake City. Their goal has been to reach the Fireflies, a militant group that had sprung up in the post-apocalypse, who claimed to be able to take Ellie’s immunity and turn it into a cure for mankind. But while Ellie’s determination grows stronger during their journey, Joel’s wavers. He still aches from the death of his daughter twenty years prior, and he has started to view Ellie as a proxy for her. When he learned that making a vaccine would kill Ellie, Joel selfishly decides to take her out of the Firefly base by force while she is unconscious, murdering any who stood in his way, including the doctor who would have performed the procedure. Joel lies to Ellie about what happened in TLOU, but several years later, during a flashback in TLOU II, she gives him an ultimatum, that he must either tell her the truth or watch her walk out of his life. He finally reveals to her what really happened, and Ellie is devastated as a result, leaving her relationship with Joel badly ruptured.
Even so, Joel remained one of the few people who could be thought of as her family, and so when she hears one day that he has gone missing while on patrol near their home in Jackson, Wyoming, she is concerned. That concern turns to shock and horror as she finds a strange woman—who Ellie later learns is named Abby—savagely beating him with a golf club, his face mangled almost beyond recognition. As a group of people pins her to the floor, Ellie can only watch helplessly as Abby delivers the killing blow, and Ellie vows her revenge upon this seemingly senseless act of brutality before being knocked unconscious.
Now Joel was guilty of some nasty stuff, but I still sympathized with Ellie as she ventured into Seattle to hunt down Joel’s killer. However, as Ellie’s journey progresses, the game makes it clear that this quest will take her deeper into darkness. The wisdom of the entire enterprise is thrown into doubt—or further into doubt, seeing as how Joel’s brother Tommy tried to dissuade Ellie from leaving Jackson in the first place due to a lack of manpower—when Dina, Ellie’s love interest who is travelling with her in Seattle, reveals that she is pregnant with the child of her ex-boyfriend, Jesse. Dina is already too exhausted to join Ellie on further excursions within the city, so continuing the mission means going out alone…and attempting to complete it before Dina’s condition deteriorates further. But despite the foolishness of pressing on, Ellie proceeds further into Seattle. She eventually tracks down Abby’s friend Nora and forces her to rat out Abby’s whereabouts by slowly beating her to death with a pipe—a fate not unlike Joel’s murder, and one that leaves Ellie herself shaken and in disbelief as to what she’s just done. Ellie later encounters two more of Abby’s accomplices, Owen and Mel, and their confrontation ends in a scuffle with both Owen and Mel dead…along with Mel’s unborn child, as Ellie realizes afterward to her horror.
Here, Ellie seems about ready to de-escalate; both Jesse and Tommy have reconnected with Ellie and Dina at this point, and the concern over Dina’s health forces them to plan a return, even with Abby still at large. But the game hasn’t driven its point home yet; in fact, it’s far from over, farther than the audience might expect. The stakes rise dramatically when Ellie suddenly finds herself ambushed by Abby, who kills Jesse before anyone can fully process what’s going on. Just as a major conflict appears set to break out, TLOU2 rewinds back in time and takes a bold, ambitious, and risky turn in its storytelling: now we are going to play as Abby, the one responsible for killing multiple characters who have been portrayed in a sympathetic light. And the first thing we learn in this section is that Abby’s senseless murder of Joel isn’t as senseless as it first appeared. To Joel, the doctor he had killed in the operating room several years earlier was just another Firefly. But to Abby Anderson, that doctor was her dad Jerry.
After spending her life looking up to her dad, the brilliant doctor and leader of the Firefly’s Salt Lake outpost, the image of his lifeless corpse on the operating room floor is burned into Abby’s memory. The grief haunts her, and inside her heart she harbors resentment toward her father’s killer. After relocating with her friends to Seattle and joining the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), she committed herself to intense physical training and became a ruthless killer for her new faction, all in the hope that one day she could make Joel answer for his crime. This obsession ultimately ends her relationship with her boyfriend—and fellow former Firefly—Owen. Make note of this, as we’ll be coming back to it later.
Eventually, the pain, anger, and resentment that Joel inadvertently planted in Abby’s heart sprout their hideous fruit. Abby finally discovers a lead on where Joel lives, and convinces her friends, including Owen, to travel with her to Jackson and exact their brutal vengeance. The fruit of revenge that burst from Abby thus plants its own seeds into Ellie, irrigated with Joel’s blood.
The pattern formed in TLOU II becomes clear: one act of murderous violence leads to grief, and that grief can form into a resentment which lasts for years. That finally leads to more violence, followed by more grief, and so on. Indeed, when the audience begins playing as Abby, they discover that, during the same time frame in which Ellie perpetuated her own cycle of violence through her journey, Abby becomes entangled in another cycle of death and vengeance, one between the WLF and a nearby cult called the Seraphites. Both sides prove guilty of horrific atrocities: the WLF broke a truce with the Seraphites by killing some of their people, including a group of children in retaliation for some of their own losses; the Seraphites, meanwhile, have a penchant for hanging and disemboweling anyone who opposes them.
Yet a glimmer of redemption takes place in this context. Seconds from death at the hands of some Seraphites, Abby catches a lucky break when her captors are distracted by Lev and Yara, a pair of Seraphite siblings who have come into conflict with their own tribe. In the ensuing chaos, Abby, likely out of nothing more than self-preservation and deadly instinct, saves Yara from their common enemy; Yara, given the opportunity to let this unknown WLF soldier hang to death, instead convinces Lev to free her. This simple act of countercultural kindness slowly bears its own fruit; Abby escorts the children to safety and then leaves, but later—and to her own surprise—finds herself compelled to further help these kids, going out of her way to save them from other Seraphites and eventually even standing up to the leader of the WLF in their defense. It isn’t an easy road for her—her habit of referring to Seraphites by the derogatory term “Scars” betrays her ingrained prejudices—but by helping Lev and Yara, Abby takes her own concrete steps toward rejecting the cycle of violence in which she has taken part.
When Abby finds Owen and Mel slaughtered, however, grief and anger well up in her, and it once again becomes her “turn” to respond in kind, as she kills Jesse, maims Tommy, and chases after Ellie, triggering a previously unthinkable boss fight in which the player must now fight Ellie! It’s a clever turn of events, and one in which I was not entirely comfortable; while Abby’s actions are understandable in context, I still didn’t want to fight Ellie, who I’d come to like over two whole games, and I was suddenly forced to grapple with the potential consequences of seeing revenge played out to its logical end. Upon completing the fight, Abby brings down Ellie, and when Dina rushes in and to Ellie’s defense, Abby and Lev subdue her as well, and Abby is ready to kill her. Ellie pleads with Abby to spare Dina’s life and the life of her unborn child, but Abby is so enraged—and perhaps eager to retaliate for the death of Mel and her unborn child—that this only encourages her. Just as she’s about to do it, though, Lev calls out to her, and after a few moments of reflection, her countenance changes and she releases Dina from her grasp. Lev didn’t need to make any grand speech to snap Abby out of her anger; the bond that the two of them share, forged by mutual trust in the face of external danger and internal prejudice, is strong enough on its own to bring Abby back to her senses and allow her to the opportunity to step out of the cycle of violence between her and Ellie.
At this point, that cycle could have ended. In fact, Naughty Dog might want you to think that it has. The story cuts ahead a couple or so years later, with Ellie, Dina, and Dina’s infant son JJ living happily together on a farm outside Jackson. The scene is positively picturesque as Ellie carries JJ around the farm, examining items within the house and herding sheep in the fields. I couldn’t help but think of the ending to Uncharted 4, as Cassie Drake wanders around her family’s beachfront property and Nate’s journey comes to the happiest possible conclusion. But the story here in TLOU II still isn’t finished.
We soon discover that all is not right with Ellie. She still suffers from PTSD as a result of Joel’s death, and his cries of agony haunt her in the midst of her happy new life. And really, who could blame her? Trauma can last for a lifetime, even when you surround yourself with loved ones and seek consistent therapy, and I can think of few things more traumatizing than watching helplessly as your father figure is savagely murdered right in front of you. Time simply cannot heal all wounds. Unfortunately, this wound is soon ripped open anew, with further devastating consequences. Ellie hasn’t yet conclusively dealt with her desire for revenge, and that desire is more persistent and pernicious than anyone would like.
One day, Tommy comes over to visit. This delighted me at first, as when I last saw him, he lay in a pool of his own blood after Abby shot him in the back of the head. It seems the bullet only went through the right side of his face, and while his face is now disfigured and he cannot walk very well, he’s alive! But even before we see him onscreen, TLOU II begins sending subtle hints that something is not right. Dina doesn’t sound delighted to tell Ellie that Tommy is here when she greets her at the door, and their early pleasantries with Tommy reveal that he and his wife Maria have split up.
The game doesn’t explicitly tell us the reason for their separation, but the direction the conversation takes next heavily implies an answer. Remember when I mentioned how, years prior, Abby and Owen’s relationship deteriorated because of Abby’s all-consuming desire for revenge? The same thing has happened here: Tommy, who up to this point was always a voice of reason and caution, has been consumed by revenge himself, reaching out to people for months in an effort to find Abby, and this obsession has destroyed his relationship with his wife. His efforts have yielded fruit, though overly-ripened, as he finally knows where Abby is—and he seeks to convince Ellie to once again go after her since he cannot. Ellie’s timid refusal infuriates him, and Dina gives him an earful as he leaves, but the seed has already been planted.
In the very next scene, we see Ellie packing up her backpack in the middle of the night. Dina finds her and immediately recognizes that she is about to leave. She tearfully begs Ellie to stay, to fight through the emotional pain as she herself has done for both Ellie’s and JJ’s sake. But Dina’s cries fall on deaf ears; Ellie cannot see any way to handle her grief other than to once again hunt down Joel’s killer.
For the third time in this game, revenge has damaged a relationship. TLOU II is making it crystal clear: revenge damages not just you and the object of your revenge, but also those around you. It eats you apart from the inside, twisting you to the point that you’re willing to abandon those who love you the most.
What Ellie finds when she catches up to Abby surprises her, however. Abby and Lev have been kidnapped and held hostage by a gang in Santa Barbara, strung up on wooden poles and left to die after months of mistreatment. Abby, once described as “built like an ox,” is an emaciated husk. Ellie says nothing at first as she frees her target from her restraints and watches as a confused Abby rescues Lev and directs them all to a pair of boats on the beach that they can use to escape. For a moment it seems as though Ellie might finally be ready to let go of her quest for vengeance, as she loads her backpack into one of the boats and examines her own injured state. But the memory of Joel’s bloodied face flashes to her mind yet again, and the music grows ominous as Ellie turns to Abby and insists on fighting her. Abby refuses to fight, even as Ellie tosses her into the shallow waters. But Ellie is willing to do anything to get the fight she wants, forcing Abby’s hand by putting a knife to Lev’s throat and thus initiating the game’s final battle. While I still sympathized with Ellie’s grief, murdering Abby would perpetuate pain, not bring healing, and I dreaded the thought of seeing either of them perish. Abby, despite all her faults, has a better head on her shoulders now, fighting only because the fate of the innocent Lev hangs in the balance. The grim tone and gruesome nature of the fight reflects this reality, with Ellie slashing Abby with her switchblade repeatedly during the encounter, and Abby biting off two of the fingers on Ellie’s left hand.
Your…reward…for completing this gameplay sequence is to watch Ellie, her bloody face contorted in anguish, pin a struggling Abby underwater. The outcome of this fight is seemingly set in stone, and Ellie’s revenge is literally in her grasp. Just moments before accomplishing her goal, however, another memory of Joel appears before her. This time, instead of seeing his bloodied, mangled visage, she recalls a moment when he was sitting outside his home in Jackson, strumming his guitar. This flashback lasts for only a couple seconds, but it causes Ellie to do a complete 180, as she suddenly releases Abby, who rises from the water gasping for air. Ellie tells Abby to just go and take Lev, and Abby doesn’t argue, firing up her boat’s engine and whisking away into the fog, leaving Ellie sobbing and nursing her wounds. Seeing this turn of events left me with a great sense of relief, but also with a huge question: what exactly about that memory caused Ellie to give up on the quest for revenge that had controlled her for years?
In the game’s final scene, Ellie returns to the farm, her missing fingers a physical representation of what she’s lost in her obsession with revenge, which includes Dina, who has taken JJ and moved out, leaving the house barren except for Ellie’s possessions stashed in one room. As Ellie picks up her guitar and plays a few notes with the fingers she has left, we now see the full flashback of what she recalled at the beach. It was from the night before Joel’s death, when she went and talked to Joel after he stood up for her in front of someone who was harassing her at a party. The awkward conversation eventually turns to the topic of Joel’s decision to take Ellie out of the Firefly base all those years ago. She may have kept her promise to remain in Joel’s life in exchange for hearing the truth about what happened in Salt Lake, but she’s still mad at him; her survivor’s guilt continues to eat at her, and she feels like he took her life’s meaning away from her when he kept the Fireflies from operating on her. Joel defiantly insists that he would still do it all over again if he somehow had a chance to go back. And then, in Ellie’s next lines, we hear her utter a word, and a sentiment, that has been absent through the entire game:
“Yeah…I just…I don’t think I can ever forgive you for that. But I would like to try.”
Joel, choked up, weakly replies, “I’d like that.”
In this brief moment, Naughty Dog shows how forgiveness—or even the first steps in that direction—can change everything; because Ellie was at least willing to try to walk the difficult path of forgiveness, there was hope for reconciliation between her and Joel. Whether or not this change in attitude would have lasted and restored their relationship, we’ll never know; Abby robbed Ellie and Joel of that chance shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, this realization is what gives Ellie the ability to let Abby go. We don’t get any further insight into Ellie’s exact thought process, but given the critical role this memory serves in Ellie’s decision, perhaps she thought to herself, “If I can attempt to forgive Joel, who stole my life’s very meaning from me, then maybe I can forgive Abby for stealing Joel’s life…and my chance to forgive him.” It’s a poignant moment, and I love how it emphasizes that redemption can break through even the darkest of times, and that it’s never too late to turn back from evil and make the right decision.
However, in the context of TLOU II’s story, this revelation and change of heart come out of nowhere. At no point are these moments foreshadowed, and that’s a problem; since Joel and Ellie’s conversation took place just before Joel’s death, it should still be fresh on her mind as she journeys through Seattle and Santa Barbara. And if this memory is so powerful as to change Ellie’s mind when she’s mere seconds from achieving what she set out to do, why have we not seen her wrestling with it before now? A sprinkling of foreshadowing throughout the game would have gone a long way in making this outcome feel natural. It’s easy for me to imagine it: at brief moments during her travels, Ellie might recall glimpses of this event and temporarily waver in her commitment to hunting down Abby; she quickly shakes them off and presses on, but they keep popping up, finally coming to a head during the fight on the beach when she can no longer deny that revenge isn’t what she really needs. We saw Ellie question herself after murdering Nora, so this wouldn’t be out of character.
Maybe the reason TLOU II’s ending isn’t well integrated into the rest of the story is because, for a long time, this wasn’t the intended ending. In an interview with IndieWire, TLOU II director Neil Druckmann reveals that Ellie was originally going to kill Abby:
“Also I should say that for more than 50 percent of the production, Ellie used to kill Abby at the end. Which gave a whole different kind of feel to the ending, and then another character would have to stop the cycle of violence. But at some point, through our conversations about Yara and Lev, we came to the realization that it wasn’t as honest to Ellie’s character that way. Deep down inside there’s goodness there.”
I agree with Druckmann’s sentiment here; throughout both the first and second games, Naughty Dog clearly establishes that goodness exists deep within Ellie—even when buried by grief and anger—and I’m glad that they chose to highlight this in the final product. I only wish they had more explicitly shown how that goodness would realistically triumph over her inner demons.
TLOU II closes on a bittersweet note, as Ellie sets down the guitar and walks away from the farm, leaving the last vestiges of her old life behind her. Where she goes from here is unclear. She had to hit rock bottom to reach her point of redemption, but now that she’s here, she has a chance to rebuild. Hope, if only a faint hope, prevails, made possible by a willingness to lay down one’s weapons, halt the cycle of violence and revenge, and start a new journey toward forgiveness. It’s a powerful message, and about as uplifting as could be expected coming from the bleak world portrayed in TLOU II. While the ending lacks the setup it needs to truly shine, the story as a whole nonetheless stands tall, providing a brutally honest look at the nature of revenge and how much it costs you and those around you, all while showing that deeply flawed people can change for the better.