The death of Joel’s daughter, Sarah, at the start of Episode 1 in HBO’s “The Last of Us” series left a hole in his artist large that he had become a stone-faced mercenary quick to shoot at a moment’s notice. Then a teenage girl came along, and he was faced with a problem that he couldn’t fix with his fists or his weapons. Ellie, the 14-year-old human cargo that Joel was tasked to deliver to the Fireflies, becomes much more than just his co-passenger with each progressing episode. The first time Ellie met Joel, she charged at him with a knife, so it’s obvious that she wasn’t thrilled to learn that the man who kicked her favorite knife away in Episode 1 would be her guide. Over the next three episodes, however, the dynamics have undergone a lot of change, and both Joel and Ellie have started seeing each other in a different light. Here’s how their relationship went from hostility for each other to laughing over a joke while sleeping inside bedrolls.
The first time Ellie learned from the dying Tess that she’d have to head to the Fireflies HQ with the grumpy man with anger issues called Joel, she protested vehemently. She didn’t like how Joel had a scowl on his face and wouldn’t give honest answers to her questions, and she had a lot of them. Although Joel came off as a brooding guy who particularly mentioned the rule that they’d be better off not sharing their histories, Ellie’s curiosity was boundless to hear about the stories her guardian—that she didn’t ask for—could tell. However, Joel had his reasons to keep the girl who’s the same age as his daughter Sarah was when she died at arm’s length. Suffering from PTSD after Sarah’s death, Joel is terrified of opening his heart up to anyone because his 56-year-old heart can’t take another loss. So much was his trauma that he never opened up to Tess about the actual dynamics of their relationship because labeling needed the courage his emotionally bankrupt heart couldn’t offer.
We see this external layer of coarseness that Joel wore as armor starting to chip away by the end of Episode 3 when he helps Ellie strap the seatbelt on, and a tinge of fatherly emotions leaks out, although he quickly checks himself. By the fourth episode, Joel isn’t exactly snarky like in the beginning and is tolerant with her at worst and quietly accepting at best. It’s thanks to this teenage travel companion of his that Joel hears a joke in what’s probably a very long time, and at first, his reactions range from exasperated to incredulous. The confident and yet cheerful nature of Ellie is too endearing for him to stop her from things like reading puns from a joke book or finding an adult magazine on the backseat of a car. He can’t snatch the magazine away from her hand, but he can’t condone it either because such magazines aren’t for children—according to his mentality of yesteryear, so he bears with the fact that Ellie needs to quench her curiosity on her own. Additionally, he has to constantly check himself from being overtly paternal as the instincts he had long since buried come flooding back at several instances. However, when they rest in the middle of nowhere for the night, Joel answers Ellie’s pun correctly, in spite of himself, and smiles to himself. He can feel himself being dragged back to the person who used to have breakfast with his daughter and brother. It’s not just words though; Joel starts going out of his comfort zone as a sense of responsibility overcomes him to keep Ellie safe, beyond the promise he made to Tess. He could’ve gone to sleep with the gun next to him, but when Ellie asked if they’ll be safe sleeping under the stars, he stands guard the entire night, rifle at hand, and sacrificing on the much-needed sleep. With each passing day, his failure to save Sarah and the likeness of his daughter in Ellie becomes apparent to him, and, promising to not fail the ones who depend on him ever again, he goes above and beyond to keep her safe. This is also in contrast with the second episode, where Joel stayed up keeping his gun pointed at the sleeping Ellie, ready to shoot at the first sign of her turning. Two episodes later, he stays awake with his back to her to protect her, throwing light on how much she has grown on him.
Sure, he doesn’t consider Ellie a member of his family while talking about his brother—a welcome change from choosing to pass on sharing his past to going into great detail – and calls her “cargo.” He’d rather view Ellie as the package Tess entrusted him to deliver as a way to maintain his promise because if he mistakenly sees her as the daughter he could have had, he won’t be able to hand her over to a bunch of armed people, no matter whom he promised. Interestingly, the cassette that Ellie hands him during their car ride is titled “Alone and Forsaken” by Hank Williams, and it mimics the way Joel felt these 20 years until Ellie came along. Ellie, on the other hand, starts seeing the vulnerable side of Joel, especially when he tries telling her that a girl of her age shouldn’t know what using a gun on a person is like. She can see him struggle to find the right words and realizes that he was never eloquent, but he’s trying his best. It’s not lost on her that a man who treated her like actual luggage was making an effort to help retain her innocence. She had no reason to share jokes with a man old enough to be her father; if she thought of him as a contractor hired to deliver her from point A to B, being civil would’ve been enough. The jokes she reads to him, the cassette she asks him to play, and the questions she has for him show that he means more to her than a contractor, and she thinks of him as a friend she can trust to watch over her when she sleeps.
There was mutual distrust between Joel and Ellie in the beginning. Towards the start of their journey, he didn’t trust her not to turn into one of the infected, let alone trust her enough to give her a gun. However, by this episode, there’s a marked improvement in the dynamics because Joel is seen teaching Ellie how to use a gun. Consider this the post-apocalyptic equivalent of dads showing their kids how to drive a car. The reason the two are able to quickly bond is because, in some ways, Joel and Ellie are similar—he hides his emotions so well that she used to think all he felt was anger towards her because of Tess’s death. Likewise, Ellie knows how to hide her feelings as well—when Joel stabs the raider Bryan to death, tears roll down her cheek despite herself, but when he calls her, she doesn’t let him know of her moment of weakness. Instead, she wipes her face off immediately and puts on a brave face, much like Joel did at the face of insurmountable odds like being chased by hordes of infected or being shot at by raiders. The two begin trusting each other, sure, but they’re still afraid to bare their hearts out because each is scared of coming off as weak—Ellie for her teenage pride and Joel for the maturity of his age.
The last time Joel and Ellie go to sleep inside their bedroll, the two enjoy a hearty laugh at one of the puns she had been reading from in the episode. It’s the first time that Joel has enjoyed a laugh that free, and if he doesn’t laugh till his stomach hurts, at the back of his mind, this is the most alive he has felt in years, and he knows whom to thank for that. When Bill drank the wine laced with sleeping pills in Episode 3, he told Frank that he had been Bill’s purpose and having saved his life and grown old with him, he had fulfilled that purpose. That night, while sharing a laugh with Ellie over a joke about diarrhoea, Joel finds his purpose: – protect her and care for her like he’d care for his family.