We’ve met many questionable, morally gray characters whose actions can never be justified if looked at from a righteous point of view, but then again, what is righteousness when loved ones are threatened and people stand at a crossroads? Daenerys Targaryen from “Game of Thrones” burnt down the whole of King’s Landing, while Wanda Maximoff committed mass murders because her imaginary children were taken from her in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Similarly, HBO’s Joel Miller in “The Last of Us” went berserk in the Season 1 finale when it came down to saving the life of a girl whom he had come to see as his second daughter. A thoroughly complex man with deep wounds etched across his heart, Joel is a character who underwent redemption by being able to connect with a girl named Ellie and coming to accept her as the daughter he lost. Here’s a breakdown of his character as seen in HBO’s frontrunner show, which had its Season 1 finale this Sunday.
At 35 years of age, Joel Miller was a contractor who worked in construction with his brother Tommy after his teenage daughter Sarah woke him up every day and made them breakfast. Joel was the usual blue-collar dad whose simple pleasures in life were strumming his six-string guitar on his porch and watching his favorite movies with his daughter by his side—until a breed of fungus attacked the earth. When the cordyceps fungus mutated and started attacking humans, an apocalypse befell the earth, and one of the collateral damages of this modern plague was Joel’s daughter, Sarah, who was shot dead by a soldier. Ever since that day, for 20 years, Joel has retreated into the shell of the loving dad and family man that he once was, and his heart has hardened into a cold, brooding self. The finale revealed that he didn’t originally plan on living through the two decades that came after his daughter’s death and wanted to end his life. Standing on the edge of his life, with all hopes and dreams dashed from him, Joel was ready to pull the trigger and end everything for good, for his life without Sarah didn’t seem worth living. In the end, though, a second of doubt made him miss the shot, leaving him almost deaf in one ear but alive, for his life’s purpose wasn’t over yet.
For the next two decades, Joel worked as a smuggler and an arms runner and even burned the corpses of the possibly infected, with each crease on his face symbolizing the pains he never brought out. He had a partner called Tess, but his trauma was so severe that he lost all ability to connect with anyone on an emotional level. Throughout the time they were together, Joel never recognized their relationship as a romantic one or even accepted Tess as anything more than what he saw them as—survivors. In between this life of hardships and living on scraps, Joel found a purpose—to track down his brother Tommy, whom he hadn’t heard from in three weeks. As a contract, Joel and Tess agreed to transport a 14-year-old bratty teen named Ellie to the Fireflies’ HQ on the orders of Firefly leader Marlene, and Joel fully knew that this girl traveling with them was nothing more than human cargo. Thus it’s strange that when outside the Boston QZ they were faced with a soldier who pointed his gun at the cargo and barked at Joel to move out of the way, something clicked in him. The vision from 20 years ago zoomed back into his mind, and the deafening ringing in his ears reminded him that he had failed to protect his daughter. Joel lunged at the soldier and punched him till his face caved in, oblivious to the fact that he fractured his knuckles because he was a man letting out the anger that had grown in him like a cancer.
As the trio proceeded through the deserted ruins of a once-bustling and populous city, Joel kept his gun aimed at the annoying girl ever since Tess spotted the FEDRA monitor detect Ellie as infected. They fought through a group of Clickers inside the Civil War museum, and Joel proved how he’s the best man for the job by eliminating all the infected, but it didn’t end all too well for everyone, as Tess got bit. Before Joel’s partner stayed back to blow up the whole Capitol Building along with a horde of zombies, she made Joel promise that he’d take Ellie to the Fireflies and fulfill their mission. Brooding, silent, and entirely closed off, Joel’s silence was probably aimed at Ellie because Tess would’ve been alive had they not agreed to transport this foul-mouthed brat. But the two of them had no other option but to tough it out till the end of their journey, so they headed to Bill and Frank’s—Joel and Tess’s acquaintances—and Ellie asked him questions all along. Interestingly, Joel started answering with a little more detail, as opposed to his decision to pass on most of her questions in Episode 2. The first time Joel smiled in what was probably 20 years was when the girl whipped out a joke book and started reading the worst possible puns.
At night, upon learning about Ellie’s concerns about their safety while sleeping underneath the stars, Joel stays up standing guard, and it’s hard to believe that a man who dismissed the girl as cargo sacrificed his sleep to watch over her. However, in the post-apocalyptic world, life can never be all smiles and games, and reality soon kicks in. Joel’s constant forbidding Ellie from using a gun for herself was part of his duties as a guardian to transport a girl to her destination, but soon enough, he ended up on the receiving end of the protection he had promised Ellie. When she shot a young attacker named Bryan to get him off Joel, the 56-year-old man was unbelievably grateful that he wasn’t dead yet, but he couldn’t shake off the feeling that it was his failure as a guardian that made her take up arms in the first place.
When Joel saw Ellie play football with the 8-year-old Sam, he couldn’t help but remember his daughter Sarah, who also was a prolific football player, based on the photos we saw in their living room in Episode 1. By the time Episode 6 rolled in, he was trying extra hard to keep that wall of emotional distance up so that he didn’t let Ellie enter. Terrified after having lost one daughter, he knew that if he accepted Ellie as his daughter and became the father figure he knew she needed, having to let go would be immensely traumatic for him. He’d lie to her that he dreamed of having a sheep ranch, away from everyone else, when all of this was over, but in truth, his dreams were severely impacted by his past trauma. In an Emmy-worthy performance, Joel later confessed to his brother Tommy that he’s terrified in his dreams, and he wakes up feeling nothing but failure. Having failed to protect Sarah all those years ago, the bottled depression and hurt have led to panic attacks and erratic breathing. At moments when he realized Ellie might be in danger, all he could do was freeze on the spot as his ears began ringing and fear rendered him motionless. The thought that he’d fail to protect yet another girl who could be his Sarah left him catatonic, so he begged Tommy to lead Ellie to the University of Eastern Colorado, where the Fireflies were supposed to be. However, when Ellie clarifies that the only way she’ll ever feel safe is if Joel goes with her, he finally agrees. The previous night, though, the two had a spat where Ellie brought up Sarah, and Joel stopped her in her tracks because he had buried Sarah’s memories in the deepest crevices of his heart, and being forced to dig them out only hurt him. It’s only after Joel deliberately thinks of the daughter he lost after spotting a girl who looked eerily similar to Sarah in Jackson that he realizes it’s time he let go of his hurt. He realized that life had given him a second chance at being a father again and protecting the girl who could become his daughter. As the two ride a horse to the UEC, Joel finally opens up about his dreams and wishes and who he was before the world went to hell.
The duo of Joel and Ellie met with unannounced danger in the form of raiders, and even though Joel snapped the neck of his attacker, he got stabbed in the side of his gut with a sharp wooden stick. The child had to become the parent now, as Joel had to retire to a blanket in a rundown house with an infected wound while Ellie scoured for food and medicine. After Ellie gets kidnapped by a pack of cannibals, while trying to save Joel by injecting him with antibiotics; Joel wakes up from his sick bed and goes wild in search of his daughter. He brutally tortures two hunters and kills them mercilessly, trying to extract information about Ellie’s whereabouts. When he does find her, though, she’s traumatized and terrified, having just hacked the diabolical David into pieces with his own machete, and she’s walking aimlessly. Joel hugs his daughter, and whatever distance stands between them falls away when he calls her by the same name he had used to address Sarah when she was dying—”baby girl.” That’s it; Joel has accepted Ellie as his daughter, his second chance at being a better father, and will protect her till his last breath.
The finale is one where we meet a different version of Joel—cheerful, chatty, and nudging Ellie to read him some puns. He also opens up about his deepest secrets, like his attempted suicide, and confesses that she saved him. For the last 20 years, Joel lived as a cold, hard man, surviving on rations and doing dirty jobs to get by. Ellie taught him a purpose in life. By this point, the whole idea of taking Ellie to the Fireflies so that they can develop a cure using her immunity to cordyceps has taken a backseat, and all Joel cares about is getting his baby girl to safety and being the father that she needs. He even offers her the option of shaking their hands off this responsibility and returning to Tommy’s so that they can live safely without caring about what happens to the world. When Ellie wants to see an end to the mission they started, he agrees, but things soon go south when the Fireflies attack and take Ellie away.
When Joel wakes up in the hospital room, his first thought is about Ellie, and when Marlene tells him that he has to lose his second daughter as well for the sake of humanity, Joel loses his mind. He had finally found redemption and purpose in life, and he’d be protecting Ellie till he drew his last breath, and these guerrilla soldiers wanted to take away his reason for being. It didn’t matter if it was selfish, nor did it count that she was the key to saving humanity. At that moment, while being escorted out by two armed men, Joel decided that Ellie’s life mattered more than the entirety of humanity, and as a parent who had already lost one child, he was unable to look at the bigger picture and what humanity could achieve in exchange for Ellie’s life. So we see a never-seen-before version of Joel as he goes terminator mode on everyone who opposes him and even on those who don’t. He’s not heroic; his actions can’t be justified in this situation. Joel is murdering people who might have children as old as Ellie, but none of that matters to the vengeful Joel. For him, the ones he’s mowing down are obstacles that stand between him and his daughter, including the unarmed doctor, whose brains he blows out casually because he refused to let Ellie go. He then carried Ellie away, killing Marlene in the process, while trying to decide in his mind if he’d be able to justify his actions to Ellie. When she wakes up, he chooses to lie instead of coming clean with her. At that point, Joel knew whatever bond he had established with Ellie would be shattered if she learned what he did to keep her alive, so lying was the safest course of action, according to him.
By the time they’re hiking back to Jackson, Joel recounts memories of his daughter, now fully comfortable in being able to discuss Sarah and wondering about the beautiful possibility that Ellie and Sarah could’ve been friends in another life. Ellie makes him swear that whatever he told was nothing but the truth, and he lies again, but all his actions have one motivation: protecting the girl who taught him to live again. Joel was a broken man before Ellie arrived into his life with her switchblade and foul mouth, but she quickly grew on him as the daughter he lost, only a lot more comfortable with guns and ammo than Sarah ever would be. Over the course of nine episodes, Ellie went from being cargo to being Joel’s daughter, and even if the population of Jackson was the last of us, Joel would gladly redo everything he did inside the hospital if it meant Ellie would survive. She was his redemption and reason to live far longer than he ever planned on living.