The last time we had a Lessons in Depression, it was about the Channing Tatum driven, The Vow. Now, things get real, with The Last of Us. (Some Spoilers)
On October 1, 1968, at a theater in Pittsburgh, Night of The Living Dead premiered. In the present, we honor it as the first zombie movie made; lost now among the thousands that have overrun our instant streaming – much like their own antagonists. Then, in 1968, it was one of the first films to depict brutal violence, the desperation of the human condition in times of dire need and put a subtle-mirror up to the face of racism and fear in America.
There was no hope in the film. It opens in a cemetery and ends with a funeral pyre of the reanimated corpses that had since been re-disposed of. The films protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones) is an African-American male who throughout attempts to quell the emerging panic amongst the group of survivors he’s been left behind with, but to no avail, due more than likely to his skin color. Him along with five others seek refuge in an abandoned farm house after the outbreak. They slowly die off, one by one each person makes a horrible decision or is unfortunately stuck in the worst possible situation in order for their survival to continue.
Everyone dies. All the survivors either turn or are torn to shreds by the masses of undead that parade towards the farm house. The only survivor left, Ben. Yes, in the first zombie film, hell one of the first genuinely terrifying films of all time, the black guy lives.
And that’s where fear and racism turns it’s ugly head. The worst part of this apocalypse in ‘Living Dead’ is that, yes the zombies are the worst part; undead hordes coming at you in an endless chain, all with the same goal of tearing your flesh from bone. But the human element of fear is the more terrifying element. You can out run hordes of the undead, they can’t think – they are purely after sustenance with no parameters as to how they attain it. They’re like a machine with a certain prerogative.
With human beings though, it is premeditated. At the end of ‘Living Dead’ Ben is gunned down as he makes his way out of the house he’s been surviving in. A militia taking down the remaining horde take him in their sights and without any question, put him down. There’s two ways you can look at this:
A. They killed him purely because they thought he was a zombie. Most though, including many an educated reviewers and others that make a career out of assessing cultural incidents in film, agree that it’s:
B. They shot him cause he was black. Pure and simple. Just a whole lot of hate; no worries of who survives, this is their new world. A world without rules, ran by merciless militias.
This brings us to The Last of Us.
In the The Last of Us you play as the character Joel, a hardened veteran of the end of times who’s seen his fair share of tragedy – as is anyone’s case in any form of the apocalypse. An unexplained fungal infection has hit the world and now, you’re tasked with transporting the possible cure-child to a research laboratory that can find a cure using the girl’s genetic mapping. It’s all very cut and dry. Go from point A to point B, kill a few infected on the way and get this girl to the checkpoint, find a cure and call it a day.
None of this game plays out like that. There is nothing cut and dry, no grey area, not even black and white. It’s just all darkness. From the instance you discover your partner, Tess – who’s the whole reason you’re having to transport the miracles child – has been bitten, you know that no one will be off limits. The slow realization at that point, that the only person living through this experience might just be the little girl you’re trying to transport.
Ellie, the miracle child, you learn was bitten by an infected and didn’t turn. Her wound still shows – her bite that is – but in no way has she been taken over.
The only shining moment in this game is when Tess is showing you her wound and comparing it to Ellie’s, saying “this shit is real, Joel!” as they’re waiting for impending doom to crash through the front door, and execute them. Tess sacrifices herself in order for you to make a break for it, and thus begins the dark and twisted road that is a man attempting to atone for past sins he made in the name of survival.
Joel is lost in every sense of the word. He doesn’t have a moral code that sets him aside from most. He’s just like the hunters (name for people who hunt other people, not only for cannibalistic needs, but other survival needs) you fight through. He’s faked his way into someone picking him up, only to take those people’s stuff. He’s killed in order to survive. But this isn’t the man you meet when you first turn on the game. ‘Last of Us’ opens from the perspective of Joel’s daughter, who has woken up in an empty house with the sonic sounds of the end of the world outside. As you examine the downstairs, looking for your father Joel, he bursts through the back door, spouting nonsense about the neighbors attacking. Soon after, that same neighbor bursts through the sliding glass door, and Joel is forced to kill him. From this moment, you know Joel’s humanity has begun to slip. His soul isn’t completely broken until him and his daughter come upon a lone military officer. The soldier, only doing his job – but to a fault – is ordered to eliminate the father and daughter he’s come across. Joel spins out of the way of the gunfire while holding Ellie. Ellie is struck by a bullet and slowly dies in Joel’s arms. It’s easily one of the most moving scenes in a video games to date.
This is the catalyst for Joel’s loss of morality. The death of Tess at the hands of the same government that killed his daughter, while he’s transporting the daughter figure he’s about to inherit, is the end for what was left of Joel, the semi-decent human being.
Ellie represents a new beginning for Joel though. This is what you get to experience throughout their travels. Joel is cold and distant at first. Reluctant to transport Ellie across the country, just so a world that’s been long gone for the last 20 years, can have some semblance of hope. Joel warms up to Ellie, and she starts to become the daughter he had lost.
All of this sounds like it’s leading toward a grand light at the end of the tunnel. Joel, although losing his partner and daughter, as well as anyone else he lost over the 20-year period that the game skips over after his daughter dies, seems to be on the right path. Instead of abandoning the last chance for humanity, he carries out Tess’s final mission and decides to take the girl to the Firefly’s labs so they can find a cure. The Firefly’s are a rag-tag group of rebels that are fighting the tyranny of the government while trying to find a cure for the infection. The world has fallen apart, although there is still government. The government though has taken on shoot to kill policies, established curfew and done all the things people don’t want government to do, your usual tyrannical crap.
Now, let me tell you, the thing that brought me to doing this Lessons in Depression was the ending of this game. SO, before I get into anything else, SPOILER ALERT!! You’ve been warned.
That light is quickly shot down as you progress through the game. You enter Pittsburgh with the hopes that it’ll be a quick drive to a bridge that crosses to the town your brother has taken refuge in. Instead you’re met by Hunters and forced to fight your way through the metropolitan area of Pittsburgh. Urban combat surrounded by overgrown concrete jungles. You meet brothers in your travels through Pitt – and for those of you that have played the game, in no way do I mean “brothers” because they were black. They literally are brothers that are black, now that that’s out of the way.
You escape with the brothers only to be betrayed by the oldest and left for dead, when the shit hits the fan. You end up meeting them again, you threaten their lives, get over it, and move on. As you’re progressing with the brothers, you learn about them. You learn about what they lost. What they were going after by leaving Pitt. You get to know them, and you develop a bond. And you find out you’re an idiot for feeling those emotions. The young one is bit, his older brother is forced to kill his younger brother, then turns the gun on himself.
Prior to all this, and after you’ve made it past Pitt. The brothers and you are tasked with rummaging through a sewer that was set up as a survival outpost. The imagery of macabre, as you find tarps with adolescent bodies piled underneath, the caretaker dead from a self-inflicted gun shot. A note rests next to the scene, he asks for forgiveness – only because the banging of the infected on their chamber door was growing ever louder, and the only fate you face is to either be torn to pieces, or enjoy a guilt-filled suicide.
These are the things you fight through, as you try to supply the last hope for humanity to the Fireflies.
The Fireflies, the ones who have you running around like an infected in heat, are the last straw to break Joel’s back. After fighting across the united States, after losing everyone you cared for aside form your brother, the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, tells you the only way they can extract the possible cure is by killing Ellie – that the infection rests at the stem of the brain. They hole you up a floor below Ellie in their hospital fortress, and you’re left to wait as the girl you’ve cared for like the daughter you lost before, is yet again taken away. Joel doesn’t take this, you fight your way to Ellie and escape with her, still alive. Confronted by Marlene, you decide that your personal battle is more important than the fate of humanity.
This is where the lessons in depression become apparent. You fought for everyone else, you fought for the world the entire time. Then the world was almost taken from you again. This time though no one was getting in your way. As you ascend to the hilltop over looking your brother’s stronghold, Ellie asks, “what happen to the Fireflies in Salt Lake City?” Joel responds that they weren’t there and that further west is their best option. Faced with survivors guilt, Ellie asks Joel if what he’s telling her is the truth. Joel lies and tells he yes.
The fate of humanity, the fate of everything is lost. There is no real hope. Joel reminds us that, even manufactured hope is better than none at all though. You’re reminded , at what cost, as it flashes back to Joel executing Marlene, she begs him to comprehend what he’s doing, to which he responds, “You’ll only come after her.” And that’s exactly it. Joel has been running his whole life and into the arms of loss and loneliness. The world they knew is gone and Joel was given a second chance to have the daughter he lost.
Much like ‘Living Dead’ it’s ends with no hope and the fear of humanity at it’s end. In ‘Living Dead’ they fear each other, they fear race and they fear the living dead. With Last of Us, the fear is also the infected, as well as the depravity of humanity when all is lost. Joel though, fears loss – he’ seen too much – and his fear is what further brings the downfall of humanity.
We all would like to think that we’re Ben from ‘Living Dead’, a sort of martyr for a cause, when we think about how we’d react to the end of humanity. Last of Us is a reminder, that when faced with what you want, and what someone else wants, when you have the power, you control the situation to your needs. Joel lost everything, the Fireflies were about to take the last thing he had, and much like any survivor, and anyone who’s down to their last bastion of relative happiness, when you’re backed into a corner, you fight your way out. whether it’s for the greater good or not and whether or not your damning the rest of civilization to hell. It’s no longer about others’ well being. Only yours.