In a podcast with the voice actor of Joel Miller of the 2013 game “The Last of Us,” the creator of the eponymous HBO series Craig Mazin said that parental love is a dangerous thing – it can drive people to do things that they won’t even consider under normal circumstances but don’t need to waste a moment’s thought if their offsprings are in danger. The theme keeps coming back in multiple plot points throughout the series because, at the heart of it, the show is a testament to what love can do. Love can be sunshine, rainbows, and happiness, like in “The Notebook,” and it can also be tragic and heartbreaking, where love makes people do the worst of things, like in “Requiem for a Dream.” “The Last of Us” shows how violent a person can become to protect their loved ones while also representing how it can change a person for the better. With four episodes of the series out for streaming now, here are several ways the series plays with the theme of love for loved ones in several situations.
Perhaps the most obvious example of what parental love is like is Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), the father figure/guardian in the show. At the start of the series, Joel is a single dad working a construction job by day and watching movies with his daughter at night, and although he may not say it out loud, Sarah, his daughter, is everything he cares about in the world. When the cordyceps infection breaks out, he hits an infected old lady in the head with a wrench to save his daughter and then drives halfway across town before running to safety. All his efforts, however, are for naught because Sarah is fatally shot in the gut by a soldier, and he can’t process that his daughter is dead. Left alone in a world gone mad to fend for himself, Joel loses the only person who kept him sane. Twenty years later, Joel resembles a tree struck by lightning because of how devastated and broken he looks. A patient with PTSD, he lives with the daily regret that he failed to save Sarah, perhaps wishing every day that it should’ve been him instead. The rage and burning passion of a parent who lost a child comes alive two decades later when a girl he’s tasked to deliver is faced with an armed soldier. Joel tackles the soldier and caves the man’s face in with punches, even fracturing his knuckles in the process. The physical pain matters not while trying to quench the burning hatred he has dragged along in his heart to punish the people who hurt his little girl. This is the violent side of love, where murdering someone feels moral to keep one’s loved ones safe—exactly what Mazin had to say.
The ferocity with which Joel protected Ellie in the first episode gives way to a softer nature in the man he’d reserved for Sarah while she was growing up. By the fourth episode, Ellie is no longer cargo, despite what he might say to himself. Thus, when faced with an ambush or being chased by the infected, his first thought is protecting Ellie and ensuring her safety. Joel stabs a man to death because he might compromise their wellbeing and stays up all night as a guard while his surrogate daughter sleeps.
The same paternal love that makes Joel do awful things to keep Ellie safe is the reason Henry, a character we’re briefly introduced to at the end of Episode 4, might have ratted on Kathleen’s brother. Henry has a little brother named Sam, who’s almost as old as Ellie, and Henry is more of a father to the kid than an elder brother. When we meet them in the game, the elder brother doesn’t mind abandoning his crew to keep Sam safe, so he truly will do everything possible to ensure the safety of his brother. Love and responsibility go hand-in-hand, so both Henry and Joel know what it means to be responsible for a younger one, which can excuse even the worst of acts in times of emergency. Henry is being hunted by Kathleen because he’s suspected of giving up her brother’s location to the FEDRA and indirectly getting him killed. In times of emergency or war, morale usually takes a backseat, and even the biggest saints among us will turn to a life of crime if it means their family can live through another day. Whatever Henry did, he did it for Sam, and in times when humans have turned into flesh-eating monsters, and the ones who haven’t turned yet pillage others for need of resources or because it’s a sport for them, snitching on the brother of a leader of a band of mercenaries doesn’t seem very unjust, if it means that a kid will live. Much like how Joel didn’t think twice before killing a soldier with his bare knuckles, Henry wouldn’t think twice before putting a bullet in Joel’s skull if he were to hurt Sam. In this respect, the two men seem to mirror each other.
Similarly, there’s Kathleen, who turns desperate to find Henry, to the point that she suspends all logic and reason while persecuting the man who ratted her brother out. Love also makes us fools, and it’s difficult to think logically when emotions overpower reason. Blinded with rage upon finding the mortally wounded bodies of her men—and thinking it’s Henry’s deed—Kathleen shoots a doctor dead that she was holding captive. The doctor probably knew about Henry’s whereabouts, and in times when a man of medicine is more valuable than any other profession, Kathleen decides it’s fair to kill a doctor. “Love is the suspension of all reason.” A competent leader who actually worried about the wellbeing of her followers would understand how a doctor would be able to help a camp, but emotions weaken Kathleen. She also chooses to ignore the biggest threat that might befall her camp—a Bloater that might be lying in wait underneath the cracked cement floor in the episode. A Bloater is the final form of the infection, and it’s like an armored car that could throw poisonous projectiles in the game. Kathleen chooses to seal off the building instead of alerting her people and dealing with what could essentially lead to the extinction of her camp.
The contrast of them all are Bill and Frank. They’re the definition of how love can calm you down and soften the harshest of the lot. Bill was an insular man who distrusted everything from technology to the government and had planned to live out the rest of his life as a hermit inside the fortress he had built, all alone. However, he allowed himself to love again when Frank came along. Bill spent the rest of his life caring for Frank, and was likewise cared for himself; they had good days and bad days, but they stuck together. Sure, their relationship was romantic, but wherever love is involved, a fierce sense of duty is involved as well. Their relationship serves as the momentary respite in a world where reliefs are few, and struggles are a constant. Although, since the other name of love is responsibility, we see a prime example of the same when Bill makes himself the barrier between Frank and the raiders trying to invade their community. Their relationship was never a bed of roses always, but they stood by each other, and spent almost two decades living it up, instead of just barely surviving, as Bill would’ve if Frank never showed up.