I Shot the Sheriff, But I Didn’t Shoot the Clicker: Military in The Last of Us

clicker copy

Major spoilers for The Last of US. Didn’t watch/play? DON’T READ!

Discussion of spoilers in World War Z, Half-Life and Half-Life 2, but I’ll warn you beforehand.

Hi all, I’m working on a piece about the DLC now, but in the meantime, I thought this would set up most future blog posts about The Last of Us/it’s DLC. No worries if you haven’t seen the DLC yet, there is no information in here that isn’t told to you in the main game.

One of the things I noticed in my re-watch of The Last of Us is how quick TPTB/military turns against its citizens. The catalyst for the entire game is the death of Joel’s daughter. She isn’t killed by an Infected or by accident, she doesn’t even get popped off at the hands of some trigger-happy survivor – she is shot by a soldier.

That struck me as pretty… intentional. It’s the first days of the outbreak, before the government even really has time to get its shit together and suddenly they are ordering this man to kill a little girl and her father.

So I started looking at military presence in the rest of the game, which led me to look at every other large organization.

Now it’s a common theme in post-apocalyptic fiction that TPTB cannot/will not save you. In fact, one of the most common antagonists in post-apocalyptic fiction is the government. In Half Life and Half Life 2, **SPOILER** the military attempts to take Black Mesa down in order to save their own skin and later the government is aligned with and absorbed by an alien regime bent on exploiting and eradicating the human race.**/END SPOILER** A+ effort there, guys.

Even when the military/government has a kinder characterization, they are still ridiculously ineffectual. A really insightful example of this is Max Brooks’ World War Z. **SPOILER** In the novel, the military attempts to save its citizens but fails as their weapons and their battle plans are designed for living combatants. In South Africa and, soon enough, the rest of Brooks’ dystopian future governments sacrifice a significant portion of their populace in hopes of protecting enough people to later repopulate the world.  **/END SPOILER**

(Side note: this is a seriously good book if you are interested in the mechanics of world-wide apocalyptic crises. It’s an intricate study of not only what each country might do and their effectiveness, but also the physical and psychological effects of surviving during the zombie apocalypse. And I promise it’s not as dry as I made it sound.)

While it’s not shocking that the government/military is not shown in the best of light, The Last of Us opens with a surprisingly brutal message about them: within the first ten minutes of gameplay a soldier is ordered to kill uninfected Joel and his young daughter. He shoots them, and Joel must watch as Sarah dies.

The military foundations that remain twenty years later are little better: they keep civilians safe with constant scans, eliminating all who are not cleared, but they also use food rationing to subdue the civilians and execute all who are suspected of being Fireflies without any concrete evidence. As far as the gameplay goes, the only time you are not in conflict with the military is when you are en route to find Robert, after that they are your enemies.

I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a plain-old anti-military message – I wondered about that initially, but I started looking at the rest of the big groups and communities in The Last of Us and I saw a pattern.

Almost every big community that you come across is your enemy. *The Hunters are groups of people outside of the quarantine zones who systematically kill and loot ‘tourists’ or unsuspecting travelers. The Bandits pretty much do the same thing. The Cannibals eat people. Even the Fireflies, in whom Ellie places her trust, become your opponents by the end of the game.

Now look at our allies: Henry and Sam, who were part of a slightly larger group and are now on their own; Bill, the sole occupant of a town whose only ally hung himself.

In some ways these friends reflect Joel’s own suffocating isolation. In Joel’s early narrative, community itself has become something that is undesirable: sure, the more people there are, the more strength you potentially have, but also the more chances there are of mistakes, of being spotted and of being betrayed. The fact that only the stragglers and loners are Joel’s allies plays into his beliefs that emotional connections with people and larger communities only end in disaster. Bill illustrates this directly when he tells Joel:

“Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time I had somebody that I cared about. It was a partner. Somebody I had to look after. And in this world that sort of shit is good for one thing: getting’ ya killed. So you know what I did? I wisened the fuck up, and I realized it’s gotta be just me.”

Later the notes left behind by what seems to have been a large, peaceful community in the Pittsburgh sewers validate Joel’s rejection of community and closeness. The group was run by a man named Ish, who initially invited Kyle, Susan and their children in to the sewers because of his loneliness. They built a larger community, but were ravaged by clickers and runners when one door was left open. While Ish, Susan and some children escaped, Kyle was forced to kill the children he was hiding with before committing suicide.

“One open door. That’s all it took,” Ish notes in a findable artifact.

When Joel later finds a note from Kyle reflecting on Ish’s initial invitation, Joel remarks: “Well, that wasn’t a good idea now was it?”

Soon after this, 13 year-old Sam becomes infected, forcing his brother Henry to put him down. Unable to cope with his loss, Henry commits suicide soon after. As Bill said, looking out and caring for someone “is good for one thing: getting’ ya killed.”

Now I don’t think this is the broader message of The Last of Us, but I think it shows us and in some ways validates Joel’s early beliefs.

These incidents also demonstrate something of a recurring theme for Joel: the tragic deaths of loved ones who are often weaken or younger than their companions. Sarah, Frank, the Pitttsburgh children, Sam – they all represent to Joel that as accomplished and as dangerous as he, Bill, Ish, Henry or any other person is, they can no longer protect their loved ones.

So don’t get too attached. Good luck with that, Joel. I would have been calling Ellie ‘babygirl’ the moment she tried to whistle.

Anyway, if you take Joel’s view to be somewhat standard for people in that situation, it means that community can no longer be structured on the basis of love, it must be maintained through fear, anger and greed. A quarantine, a need for food, a sense of righteousness. And the communities that are built during the infection – the army, the Fireflies, the Hunters – cannot be trusted to protect or care for loved ones. It is, Joel has decided during the 20 year jump, better to not love and endure than to love and lose.

 *The counterargument to this, of course, is Tommy’s group, who are Joel’s allies and appear to be surviving well as a community. I think this is a turning point for Joel: this is the same place where he chooses to stay with Ellie, not out of duty or obligation to Tess but for other reasons. This is the beginning of a shift in Joel’s perspective to something closer to Ellie’s and Riley’s belief in Left Behind: how long you survive is less important than how long you have with those you love.
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