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Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) sit on the floor together, lit by a lantern in front of them in The Last of Us. Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

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The Last of Us has a bleakness problem that goes beyond ‘apocalypse fatigue’

We don’t live in a society just because we live in a society

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

There is an absurdity to complaining that an apocalypse story is too bleak.

“We are the walking dead” — Robert Kirkman’s distillation of the zombie genre down to its most fundamental elements — was published in 2005’s The Walking Dead #24, and Andrew Lincoln brought a version of those words to the audience of The Walking Dead TV show’s fifth season a decade later. The comic’s TV success sparked a wave of fascination with the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, not merely the outbreak. At this point, we know very well what a zombie story is really about.

But if The Last of Us’ fifth episode demonstrates anything, it’s that it’s not the zombies and the violence and the death that bend this particular apocalypse to nihilism. It’s the insistence that cruelty and selfishness are widespread — through revolutionaries, authority figures, and everyone in between — and that there’s nothing anyone can do about it, so you may as well grab a gun and defend yourself and your own. It’s not that we’re the walking dead. It’s that they are.

[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for The Last of Us episode 5, “Endure and Survive.”]

There’s something I don’t like about it that I can’t quite put my finger on… Oh, right! It’s that I don’t like to be told — especially by corporate-produced media — that deep down, everyone’s a monster, so there’s no point in getting rid of the monsters in charge.

Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) surrounded by other Hunters looking intense Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Maybe it’s the way “Endure and Survive” opens with revolutionaries torturing their oppressors to death and mutilating their bodies, as the citizens of Kansas City’s quarantine zone celebrate the overthrow of their city’s FEDRA outpost. Maybe it’s the scene where Henry — who is fleeing the revolutionaries after FEDRA extorted him into betraying them by withholding lifesaving medicine from his deaf and mute little brother — describes these events to Joel, and a young Black man tells the Latino guy next to him that if you push people down long enough, this is just what happens. It’s a line right out of the “If we give up our power to the folks we’ve oppressed, they’ll use it to oppress us right back” playbook, written by the Committee for How to Justify Your Continued Chauvinism.

There’s a sense in The Last of Us that this is supposed to be unfortunate, but inevitable. While people under FEDRA rule trade their freedom for safety and are right to rise up, everyone we’ve seen who lives in “freedom” are inhuman gangs of raiders or gun-hoarding preppers who watch tripwire decapitations for fun. This is just how people are.

Maybe it’s that I just listened to a 51-minute debunking of the veneer theory — an almost 400-year-old philosophical position that morality is a thin “veneer” over humanity’s default state of selfishness and brutality — from NPR’s Throughline podcast. Or that we just went through a period of global plague in which a lot more cops beat up unarmed protestors than the other way around, and that the “protests” that led to police deaths were the ones full of gun-toting preppers ostensibly aligned with actual cops. It seems pretty discordant to be saying that resistance against an established oppressor always ends in equal violence in return.

Maybe it’s that I’m a die-hard Batman fan from back before all his recent movies were low-key about how terrorists and Occupy Wall Street are basically the same thing. It’s a cinematic palette for superhero stories that can be traced back to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, even though the quote is “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” not “All men just want to watch the world burn.” It seems difficult for some to remember that after so many promises that people are only as good as the law allows them to be, the point of that movie is that the Joker was wrong.

the joker the dark knight ending
Hashtag the Joker was wrong
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Maybe all this has made me tired of guys who get fat paychecks to tell me stories about how our laws are oppressive, but the people pushing back on them are violent reactionaries, so whaddaya gonna do? Stories that offer no approved way to advocate for broad change, and therefore, stories that tell me there is no “good” way to make things different. “It is what it is,” the stranger tells me about the boot on my neck.

I remember playing The Last of Us in the summer of 2013, when the game felt grueling, but also cathartic. The point of telling a story through a game, after all, is to give the audience a sense of agency (whether real or merely expertly fabricated) within that story itself. And with a sense of agency comes a sense of power.

The Last of Us, the game, put me in the position of fighting and winning. It conferred a feeling of eventual invincibility: I could always go back and try again until Joel and Ellie escaped to fight another day. If the story of the game had really wanted them to die, I wouldn’t have been able to stop it, but — spoilers for a 10-year-old game — it didn’t.

The story of the game did want Henry and Sam to die, though, and either ironically or tellingly, the past decade had erased them from my mind until they showed up in the fourth episode of HBO’s The Last of Us. I have tangible memories of scenes from the beginning arcs of the game, and from its infamous ending, but many of the steps along the way have faded. The game put me in a position of moving forward, gave me the illusion of working toward a goal: I (Joel and Ellie) was going to cure the Cordyceps plague and put an end to this madness. (Until the story of the game — spoilers for a 10-year-old game — decided I wasn’t.)

Sam (Keivonn Woodard) sitting in a toy room Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

But The Last of Us, the TV show, has me helplessly watching Henry make dire choices from a place of loving desperation, and be rewarded by having to mercy-kill his own baby brother and then turn the gun on himself — in front of another child, and her guardian who’s been through essentially the same loss. I sit there for a scene where Kathleen (the revolutionary leader) baldly explains that she’s fully aware that the success of the uprising has given her the freedom to be kind, but that she’d like to murder children anyway, simply because she thinks it’ll make her feel better — and all of her followers are kinda just fine with it? I don’t get to try to save Henry and Sam, and I don’t get to fight back against Kathleen.

So maybe it’s the passivity of television compared to games, or the decade of experiences I’ve had in between, but I’m not in a position to escape my thoughts, however intentional or unintentional the show’s creators were in telling a story that prompts them. I sit there thinking, This is the story that you write if you believe — perhaps only in a quiet, unarticulated way — that deep down, the natural state of humanity is monstrousness.

Either you think that this is how you would behave if societal codes and conventions broke down, and if you would, then everyone else would, because the idea that you’re monstrous beyond the mean is unthinkable. Or, worse, you don’t think that you would, but you think that other people definitely would, an idea just a step away from “My people would never do this, but they would” — a line right out of the “How to perpetuate the hierarchy that puts you at a societal advantage” playbook of the Committee for Colonialism and Genocide Throughout Human History. The belief that humanity is fundamentally monstrous is the parent of monstrous realities.

So maybe what it actually is, is that I don’t like when people project their own bullshit onto me.

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