The Politics of “The Last of Us”

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NOTE: This post features some spoilers for The Last of Us.

HBO’s new series The Last of Us, which aired its season finale yesterday, has rapidly won plaudits and become a hit. It is set in a world where a devastating fungal pandemic has wiped out much of humanity, turning many into zombies who spread the disease further. In this dystopian world, predatory humans are often an even greater menace than the zombies. Smuggler Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) is tasked with escorting teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the country to a research facility where her apparent immunity to the pandemic can be use to develop a vaccine or cure. On the way, they encounter all kinds of perils, more often from humans than zombies.

The series, which is based on a popular video game of the same name (I have not played the game, and will not try to comment on the similarities and differences between it and the show), features great acting by the two leads, and solid plotting. It has also stimulated a debate over its politics, with some claiming the show promotes left-wing “wokeness,” while others argue it’s actually conservative.

In reality, The Last of Us cuts across standard left-right ideological lines. It doesn’t easily fit either side’s narrative. Claims that the show is left-wing primarily revolve around Episode 3, which featured a (very favorably portrayed) relationship between Bill and Frank—two gay men, who survive the apocalypse together, and find meaning in their love. The show also gradually reveals that Ellie is a lesbian (or at least a bisexual; the latter possibility is never ruled out). This has annoyed some hard-core social conservatives (though same-sex marriage and same-sex relationships command widespread public support, with even a majority of Republicans approving of them).

But one of the gay characters in Episode 3, is Bill, a “prepper” who has long believed in all sorts of right-wing conspiracy theories about the US government. The episode—and the show as a whole—at least partially validate his ideology, as the pandemic-era US government rapidly becomes tyrannical and oppressive. Also, Bill’s seemingly paranoid stockpiling of weapons and equipment is what enables him and Frank to survive and (to some extent) even prosper.

More than strict adherence to either conservative or progressive ideology, The Last of US  features extreme skepticism of government. From very early on in the pandemic, the US government rapidly descends into horrific tyranny. Within hours, the military begins to shoot innocent civilians in hopes of preventing the fungal virus from spreading (this is how Joel’s daughter Sarah dies on the very first night of the outbreak). Within days, they start committing large-scale massacres.

By the time of the main action of the show (twenty years into the pandemic), what’s left of the US government has become a series of “quarantine zones” ruled by FEDRA, an oppressive, quasi-totalitarian military bureaucracy. Ellie’s life as an orphan being raised in a FEDRA school is thoroughly dystopian.

FEDRA can, perhaps, be seen as a kind of right-wing military dictatorship. But left-wing alternatives aren’t portrayed much more favorably. When Joel and Ellie reach the ruins of Kansas City, they find that the the FEDRA government there has been overthrown by a more progressive resistance movement. But the new regime, led by resistance leader Kathleen Coghlan (who becomes a major antagonist of our main characters), is just as cruel and repressive as the old.

Another episode features a community led by a venal, near-psychopathic religious cult leader. His theocracy doesn’t seem any better than secular government.

The vaguely progressive Firefly resistance movement is depicted a bit more favorably (they are the ones who sent Joel on his mission). But they too are often seen as ruthless and potentially authoritarian. With the exception of a small group in the last episode, we never see an actual Firefly-ruled community. But what we do see of them doesn’t inspire confidence that they would rule much more justly than the other regimes in the series.

The one significant exception to the extremely negative portrayal of political institutions, is Episode 6, where Joel and Ellie encounter a well-functioning “communist” (the leader explicitly refers to her settlement in this way) communal society in Wyoming. Unlike every other society the lead characters encounter, this one seems happy and (relatively) prosperous.

Here, I wish the producers had read up on the history of actual small-scale socialist communities, most notably Israel’s kibbutzim. While these institutions have generally avoided the repression and mass murder characteristic of large-scale socialist states, those that have survived over time have generally had to bring back private property and market incentives in order to stave off disaster and prevent talented people from leaving. Economic liberalization has proven popular with kibbutz residents, despite the fact that most were previously raised on socialist ideology or moved to a kibbutz because of their adherence to it.

But even the Wyoming case is more an exception to the rule than a model for others. At one point, Joel tells Ellie that such a system could not work on a large scale, and it seems like the producers mean for us to believe him. That’s a major constraint if you want to be able to interact with more than just a small group of a few hundred people. Among other things, such a small community is unlikely to ever rise much above subsistence-level poverty, especially after the stock of goods left over from pre-pandemic times runs out.

If there is little hope in government, perhaps the message of The Last of Us is that true salvation lies in personal relationships and the love of friends and family. This idea is implicit in the relationship between Frank and Bill, and in the growing father-daughter like attachment between the two main characters. At the start of the series, Joel has little to live for. But his life takes on new meaning as Ellie gradually takes on the role his daughter Sarah previously had.

But the series also stresses that love and familial attachment have a dark side. Several times, Joel’s zeal for protecting Ellie leads him to engage in morally questionable violence, including killing defenseless prisoners. In each case, there is at least some possible justification for his actions (e.g.—the prisoners might have escaped and harmed Joel and Ellie). But the moral of the story is not that paternal love is an unalloyed good.

This issue comes to a head in the season finale, where Joel and Ellie finally arrive at the Firefly-controlled research facility in Utah. It turns out that Firefly scientists believe the only way to create a cure for the Pandemic involves extracting material from Ellie’s brain, killing her in the process. The Fireflies detain Ellie so they can force her to undergo this procedure; but they are willing to let Joel go. He, however, goes on a violent rampage in which he kills nearly all the Fireflies, including several who threw down their weapons in surrender and the doctor who may be the only one who knows how to synthesize a cure for the fungal pandemic.

Whether Joel’s actions in the finale are justified is an issue much-debated by fans of the show. The episode raises the classic question of whether it is justifiable to kill one innocent person in order to save the lives of many. At the very least, it seems hard to justify Joel’s killing of the doctor and those Fireflies who tried to surrender. The Fireflies’  actions are also questionable. They could, at least, have tried harder to find a way to synthesize the cure without killing Ellie, or (failing that) given her a choice.

In sum, The Last of Us doesn’t offer a clear ideological message, whether left or right. While highly skeptical about government of almost every kind, it also suggests that personal and familial attachments should not be taken too far.

This ambiguity may disappoint viewers who want the show to offer a clear ideological message, or a compelling solution to real-world political problems. But it does have the virtue of making you think.

The Last of Us has been renewed for a second season (expected to be based on Part 2 of the video game). Perhaps its political themes will be further developed there.

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