[WARNING: Spoilers for The Last Of Us Part 2 beyond this point.]
Naughty Dog’s sequel The Last of Us Part 2 draws an ellipse, departing and arriving at two points in devastating symmetry. On the first point we find a vulgar demonstration of violence delivered without meaning, a torture sequence that is cruelly unkind for fans of Naughty Dog’s story thus far, a suffering ordeal which the player must endure alongside their beloved heroine Ellie. By the game’s brutal, unflinchingly bloody finale, players attempt to grasp a narrative that has wildly plummeted into chaos.
The original game offers us a brief diversion in the role of Ellie when Joel is grievously injured, a section which complicates the pair’s union, a parental inversion that successfully feeds our investment in their survival. Joel and Ellie save each other and themselves throughout, which adds meaningful complexity to their face-value father-daughter dynamic. The Last of Us Part 2 is similarly about fathers and daughters but, this time, the wider post-apocalyptic world’s tensions tumble that framework, adding additional context to Joel’s original lie.
[FINAL WARNING: Spoilers for all of The Last Of Us Part 2 beyond this point.]
Losing control of Ellie at the approximate halfway mark of the game is sudden, discordant, and sobering. It’s not the first time in gaming that we’ve been asked to reckon with a role reversal that contradicts our immediate expectations—consider, for example, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty—but it’s no less jarring here, something of an outright betrayal. Players are thrust into Abby’s shoes, rewinding the timeline of the tale to reveal a day in the life of a “Wolf” — shorthand for members of the Washington Liberation Front, a paramilitary cabal which includes the marked individuals Ellie hunts down in the game — and intimately introducing this muscular, better-equipped counterpart.
It’s somewhat hard to describe Abby and Ellie as simply two sides of the same coin, as the game is less interested in such straightforward echoes; they are just two young, very different women desperately seeking retribution. By the powerful final act of the game, there have been heavy losses of life accrued on each side, but also a kind of shaky peace; Abby ventures ahead with her young Seraphite ward/adopted sibling Lev, while Ellie retires to a picturesque farmhouse in the countryside to pursue domestic bliss with her girlfriend Dina and their newborn son, JJ (that’s never broken down, but we can assume it stands for “Joel” and “Jesse”). They are both new families forging onward.
The scenes and moments ahead of this final portion of The Last of Us Part 2 are ineffably tainted with uneasiness and doubt. It’s hard not to think of the epilogue of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Naughty Dog’s previous PlayStation 4 project, which attempted to contrast Nathan Drake’s murderous past adventures with a new quiet life as a parent. Here, though, Dina and Ellie’s baby feels like just another dreamlike aspect amid their serene golden field of wheat and breathtaking country views. None of this is a dream, though, and Tommy paying a quick visit to the homestead to explain how he finally sniffed out a lead on their nemesis feels appropriately vulgar, a disturbing shoulder-shake that threatens the couple’s sanctum.
There are a few points that should be made about where Ellie really is by this portion of the game, why she chooses a return to violence, and how the tragedy left to endure is not positioned as mere misery for its own sake. The Last of Us Part 2 isn’t some sadistic undermining of the original’s expression of friendship and family; lest we forget that the first game is a tormented and gruesome experience in its own right, qualities which seem to be frequently ignored in light of some idyllic recollection. The Last of Us is a horrifying story of bloodshed, tragedy, lies, and loss, despite the light granted by the found-family conclusions and the protagonists’ charm.
Tommy’s talk of Abby unsettles Ellie, before he is firmly chased away and chastised by Dina, who seeks to safeguard the new loving family encountered at the farmhouse. Dina sensibly clocks the situation as it is; as much as they love Joel’s brother (who can be safely described as Ellie’s uncle, really) Dina has already fulfilled her role as trusting partner in passionate retribution, and then some. She first risked her life without question, and her new motherhood is an earned reward. That’s her all-important role, and she expects the same sense of priority from Ellie.
Ellie sends a few sheep back into the barn at sundown that night, but one stray lamb cowers underneath a shovel leaning in the hay. On approach, the animal impulsively knocks the implement down, causing a sound which immediately resurrects Joel’s final moments of suffering in Ellie’s mind. The barn door shuts, sending Ellie into blackness, until Dina eventually finds her partner screaming incoherently in the dark, all while their son is crying and yowling, strapped to Ellie’s body in a sling. JJ’s perfectly fine, albeit shaken, but Ellie’s recovery of her senses predicts what’s to come: she’s going back out on the road to hunt down her nemesis, once and for all.
Some might read this moment as irrational, or as a sequence which describes a character unrealistically pursuing violence for closure in service of an action game premise. The truth is, the circumstance in the barn cements how facing Joel’s murderer once again doesn’t circumvent logic and reason; Ellie is afraid that she presents a true threat to the child, prone to incoherent terror which risks her son’s safety, seemingly prompted by Joel’s unavenged murder. It’s not just a loose end — avenging Joel may be critical for Ellie’s survival, and even JJ’s safety.
The next day, Dina confronts a geared-up Ellie in the kitchen, insisting that she put this behind them. What Ellie has trouble communicating then is that her journey doesn’t feel like a choice. She is compelled to follow the trail, to hopefully rid their family of these unpredictable and potentially dangerous nightmares. From her perspective, Ellie may never truly be a mother until this is done, and so she puts her entire potential happiness at risk. Sadly, The Last of Us Part II’s story cannot end in a country-living postcard. As the player, this is probably more than heartbreaking, and is the kind of thing that tormented early reviewers. The Last of Us Part II doesn’t offer players any kind of choice here, but it also doesn’t feel like one to Ellie.
After a brutal fight which most any player would want to interrupt or prevent, Ellie’s violent quest is over. It doesn’t resolve itself with a triumphant defeat counted for either side, though the damage is visibly severe and copious blood flows into the coastline surf. Abby even bites off two of Ellie’s fingers before being strangled, beaten, stabbed, and almost drowned. And yet, by the end of it, the two women remain alive to part ways.
Rather than a bittersweet climax, The Last of Us Part II’s final action sequence seems just bitter, full stop. Both Ellie and Abby have faced the barest limits of their endurance of violence and suffering, but each of them carries reasons to go on, the most vital aspect to which they can relate: family. Maybe that’s what slowed Ellie’s hand, how defeating her final target did not have to end in murder to be completed. Ellie may think of Dina and their child in that distant farmhouse, a vision of love and trust, betrayed and distant now but intimately recalled. Abby, after having suffered indescribable (and literally, so far as the game is concerned, undescribed) torments as a captured slave of the ruthless opportunistic Rattlers, has secured Lev’s near-death body safely in a boat for escape.
That’s the real echo here: the family we opt to live for, despite any risk or uncertainty. As with many things, these are the details which may have united Abby and Ellie in some other narrative, where both their fates aren’t constantly at odds. For two main characters, there is incredibly little spoken between them, even in the final fight, leaving us to endlessly pontificate on whether the conflict could have been resolved with less harm. In the end, Abby goes off to find a peace and purpose for her and Lev that is neither guaranteed or coherent in the narrative (since the Fireflies may yet survive, in some capacity) and Ellie returns home with the lingering doubt of her departure. Neither family’s future is promised, but only one is observed in the finale of The Last of Us Part 2’s story.
When Ellie finally arrives back at the homestead, most would not consider its cavernous vacancy a surprise. Dina cannot tolerate a partner willing to escape her familial responsibilities in the dead of morning, regardless of purpose, and it’s hard to think that Ellie anticipated otherwise. Wandering up to the sanctum of her studio room, the player sees that here in the house — and only here — remains any sense of character or proof of once belonging. It’s the only untouched and furnished space that Dina has left behind.
There are several moments in the game where Ellie lifts a guitar to play, practice, and even perform for others. Using the touchpad of the PlayStation 4 DualShock controller (or via several other methods, indicative of the The Last of Us Part II’s incredibly detailed range of gameplay and accessibility options) she scouts and strums the chords she knows… it’s just that now they don’t ring out the same. They’re muted, fractured, and damaged, even incomplete.
Ellie has lost the better part of two fingers on her left hand to Abby in the final fight. What’s remained has apparently healed over on the trip back, but it doesn’t afford her full mastery of the instrument as she’s learned it thus far. It’s a quiet but brutal moment in a loud and brutal narrative, communicating the final stroke with piercing sincerity: revenge and rage irreparably corrupts and deforms those who deliver its payload.
Still, the most poignant echo of Ellie’s guitar is its direct link to Joel, who once gifted her this same instrument and taught her how to play. By now he is long gone, but the lessons and the artifact remain, the potential for creative growth and progress outlasting his own breath. At this particular moment, alone in what was once her haven, Ellie may have lost that last ethereal connection entirely.
That’s a doomed interpretation, though. Whether Ellie knows it or not, she may recover her capacity to play music. One of the most famous and important guitarists of all time was Django Reinhardt, who overcame a burning injury which mutilated his hand by inventing a new stylistic approach, one that is still revered to this day. Ellie may now be physically transformed, but there’s nothing that precisely states she cannot or will not adapt and recover, and least in part.
Of course, we know that Ellie doubts this herself, and the very last moments of The Last of Us Part II can hardly be called outwardly optimistic. That’s because we see her leave the guitar behind, along with most of her personal effects, as she heads off for unknown, undescribed, probably infected roads beyond.
Will Ellie return to Jackson County? It’s never outright confirmed where she’s headed, one way or the other, but it’s doubtful. Tommy may or may not have returned and could be dead, killed by Rattlers or the infected on the road, and it’s likely that his ex-wife Maria would not take kindly to the sight of Ellie returning to the gates. Her continued mission has committed irreparable damage to her family, and has probably rendered her completely alone.
In the end, there is no eye for an eye, and any apparent symmetry in justice is a feverish illusion that is not to be trusted. It’s likely that Ellie understood this in the final confrontation with Abby, which really was a deliverance and rescue more than anything else. There is no grand balancing of the scales, just the desperation to keep hold of what precious little remains intact: the last of us.
More: How Long The Last of Us 2 Takes To Beat
The Last of Us Part 2 is out now exclusively on the PlayStation 4.