Antihero with a Heart: Analyzing Joel from 'The Last of Us'
The central character in the TV adaptation of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi video game The Last of Us is Joel Miller. He is a multi-layered antihero who evolves throughout the story, a quality that makes him so fascinating to audiences. In his character design, we get to experience his change in becoming more of a traditional hero. Joel starts his journey having survived tragedy and loss, but ultimately, he learns to open up and connect with others through his journey of transporting Ellie, a 14-year-old girl who holds the key to saving civilization.
Here we will delve into the character of Joel, analyzing his origins, personality, strengths, flaws and how all of those character traits and elements affect those around him.
Note: Beware of The Last of Us Spoilers!
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As revealed throughout The Last of Us, Joel's origins showcase him as a loyal, loving, fun, and protective single father to his daughter Sarah. The year is 2003 when Joel, Sarah and Joel's brother Tommy flee their Texas home as the infection begins to spread rapidly, creating dangerous and lethal infected humans that continue to multiply.
During their escape, Sarah is shot and killed by a soldier.
Twenty years later, Joel is a smuggler embedded within the quarantined zone of Boston, run by the corrupt and authoritative Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA). He's been desensitized by the death of his daughter during the beginning of the pandemic. He's also separated from his brother Tommy, who lives in Wyoming. He struggles to find a way to escape Boston and reach Tommy, but it's been difficult to find the transportation he needs to do so. He and his smuggling partner Tess are duped into buying a needed car battery that the dealer has sold to a group of Fireflies, a rebel group that opposes FEDRA. They soon encounter Marlene, the head of the Fireflies. She begs Joel and Tess to smuggle Ellie out of the quarantined Boston, offering them a working truck in exchange.
Joel's Antihero Qualities
An antihero is someone who does not exhibit the traditional qualities of a hero. For example, he does not run into battle crying, "I shall conquer you!" Instead he is methodical, reluctant and abrasive in his approach to the conflict of the story.
But, he has ever reason to embrace this attitude. Joel lives in a global pandemic caused by a mass fungal infection of mutated Cordyceps, causing its hosts to transform into zombie-like creatures that prey on the uninfected and spread the infection. The results of the pandemic collapse society, pitting humans against each other as groups and individuals struggle to survive.
Joel is tasked to smuggle a young girl, Ellie, out of a quarantined city and across what remains of the dangerous post-apocalyptic United States. It's revealed that Ellie is immune to the infection and may carry the key to humanity's survival. This could be good for everyone. But at this point in the story, Joel is only concerned with his own survival. He does not want to be tasked with the responsibility of someone else's survival.
Lucky for him, that's exactly what makes for a good character arc. The reluctant hero. This complexity is what draws us to his character.
Read More: How to Develop and Write Great Antiheroes!
The Goodness Within
That said, his character has been expertly built with glimmers of goodness within. The audience loves these hints at the man who Joel could become if only he could harness the light inside himself.
Joel showcases some loyalty when it comes to Tess (his smuggling partner), as well as his pursuit to reunite with his brother, but beyond that, he'll punish anyone that gets in his way. And when he lets someone into his bubble of loyalty, he'll do whatever it takes to protect them as well.
His personality slowly changes after he meets Ellie. At first, he's the no-nonsense, antihero smuggler that looks upon her as nothing more than cargo to be delivered in exchange for a vehicle that can get him back to his brother.
However, as they begin to travel together and survive multiple threats, Ellie does her best to knock down his barriers. And in the process, Joel slowly begins to show what we saw in his origins — the loving and protective side of him that also has a sense of humor. Ellie unlocks those personality traits, making him laugh. Even more important, she unlocks his sense of love and loyalty. She is no longer cargo to him. She's a replacement for his daughter whom he lost two decades prior. And because of that, we see more personality come out in him.
Joel's Strengths and Flaws
Beyond the military skills (and others) he clearly learned earlier in his life, Joel's strengths lie in his various weaknesses — and vice versa.
Joel is initially laser-focused on survival and getting back to his brother. These survival instincts are unparalleled, which drives him to overcome nearly every obstacle he comes across. The weakness in this otherwise strength is the necessity to shut off all emotions and disregard the ethical and moral dynamics of killing and sacrificing others for the task at hand. That is what it takes to survive the world he inhabits.
Even when Ellie comes into the picture, he needs to embrace those antihero elements for them to both survive. At first, self-preservation — both a strength and weakness — prevails. He looks upon her as nothing more than cargo, which allows him to react to threats with keen precision, and without any emotional attachment. She is nothing more than a means to get what he needs to get back to his brother.
However, as their relationship grows, he begins to rediscover his humanity. His ethics and morals resurface. He's even beginning to rediscover his sense of humor, allowing some levity to their otherwise dire situation.
These are strengths, to be sure, but they also become flaws down the road for him. He takes risks that may sacrifice his ability to survive and reunite with his brother — all to ensure that Ellie survives. These are admirable flaws, mind you. Once he learns that Ellie may have a cure for the infection within her, he now has a chance to ensure not just his survival, but humanity as a whole. As they become closer, that shifts. By the end of the first season of the series, he doesn't want to sacrifice her when he learns that to save humanity, a procedure must be done that requires her to unknowingly sacrifice her life. Joel isn't willing to allow that, no matter what the cost to humanity. So he goes on a rampage of death to free her, killing many in the process, and, therefore, taking away humanity's only hope for a cure.
His strengths helped to save Ellie. However, the strengths of his love and loyalty become flaws in the big scheme of things.
Joel is a loving, loyal, and kind-hearted character haunted by the past and forever scarred by the death of his daughter. His undying struggle to survive this barren world of turmoil has created mental and physical scar tissue that covers his more endearing qualities. After two decades of mourning the loss of his daughter and using his skills and instincts to survive a brutal post-apocalyptic world, only the responsibility of protecting a newcomer (Ellie) can shed that scar tissue one tear at a time as he slowly rediscovers love, loyalty, and kind-heartedness — even if it clouds his reason when she may need to be sacrificed for the greater good of saving all of humanity.
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Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, and Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries BLACKOUT, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller HUNTER'S CREED, and many produced Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies and Instagram @KenMovies76.