Confucius is known to the current generation as the originator of many great one-liners. The man really knew his stuff about the human condition and philosophy though. After reading the fantastic Paul Tassi’s review on The Last of Us Part II, where he quoted the ancient Chinese philosopher, I was inspired to lookup more of his quotes. Throw in a bit of Nietzsche and one from Marvel, and you’ve got something going.
CONFUCIUS: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves”
I can’t think of a more perfect way to start the discussion of Ellie’s journey than this quote. This was the main theme of the game, stated from the beginning by Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann. Revenge, obsession, and the cost to everyone involved is the story of this game. Confucius knew that the price paid by the one seeking revenge is just as great as the ultimate price they hope to visit upon the one who wronged them. As we see Ellie return to a sullenly empty homestead at the end of the game, she is not physically in the grave but a huge part of her has died all the same.
Abby’s journey starts in the same place, but because her revenge is realized so quickly, the destination is very different. After killing Joel, she seems to lose some of the zeal with which she approaches her duty to the WLF. When her life is saved by Yara and Lev, she sees the fallacy behind the war that Isaac’s faction is waging against the Seraphites, and questions the established narrative about the group. She knows that she must make a change, lest she end up too far down the same path as Ellie. She realizes that Lev doesn’t stand a chance in the world with either faction, and knows that by saving him she can save herself.
NEITZSCHE: “Man is the cruelest animal”
This simple fact has been a focus of both games in the series, and has become somewhat of a trope in zombie apocalypse fiction. It was clear by the end of the first game that Joel was the bad guy, killing dozens of people who were ostensibly just doing their jobs, trying to support the search for a cure. We saw bands of criminals just trying to profit at the expense of others, cannibals who did what they did to help their group survive, and innocents just trying to make it for another day.
In Part II, the idea is turned on it’s head a bit, where both main characters have a reason and understandable motive for the cruelty they are inflicting upon others. Even the two groups most prominent in the game have nuance to their cruelty. The WLF grew from the remains of the Fireflies, both dedicated to fighting the oppression of FEDRA. The Seraphites were following the doctrine of a leader who preached a retreat from what she saw as the morally corrupted ways of the country as it was before the apocalypse.
Can cruelty ever have a moral compass, a mandate from the people who need saving to the ones doing the saving? Both factions saw it that way, but the ultimate answer is left to the player to decide in their journey through the game.
CONFUCIOUS: “To see and listen to the wicked is already the beginning of wickedness”
I made the point in another article that the Ellie of Part II is not the same Ellie we left on the outskirts of Jackson all those years ago. She has endured a year’s journey with Joel to that hospital in Salt Lake City, and four more years learning to live in the world that is left in the infection’s wake.
That’s five years surviving in a nearly un-survivable world, against both unthinking wickedness in the infected, and that of the human survivors, the much more intentional and horrifying kind of wickedness. It’s not hard to imagine those experiences would change a person, more that it would be surprising if someone were able to remain unchanged in the face of all that.
NEITZSCHE: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster“
Ellie and the inhabitants of the game’s world fight literal monsters nearly every single day. It’s no surprise then that some of the humans have become an even worse kind of monster, preying upon the weak and isolated among them, and prompting others to band together for safety. That those groups formed for mutual safety have become their own kind of monsters, however well intentioned, is indicative of Nietzsche’s prescience on this point.
I’ve often wondered if the real world would devolve in the same way this fictional world has, given similar circumstances. Would we surrender to our basest instincts, killing and raiding as we saw fit to ensure our survival? Would be fall back into religious fervor, praying to any god that we thought might deliver us from the horrors of our everyday existence? Or would we elevate our thinking, finding a way to work together by marshaling the scarce resources and taking care of one another? They say that adversity doesn’t create character, it reveals what was already there, so I expect the answer lies in that infamous gray area between the extremes.
CONFUCIUS: “When anger rises, think of the consequences“
One of the harder pills to swallow for those playing Part II is the lack of agency they have in Ellie’s actions. Myself and many others were screaming at the screen, willing Ellie to make different decisions. From the beginning of the journey to her choice of leaving the farm to pursue Abby in California, we just wanted to shake her out of her obsessive trance.
Ellie let her anger and obsession cloud her judgement, not considering the consequences or how it would effect those around her. Right up to the very last moments, she never considered that it might be the absolute last thing Joel would want her to do as well.
Did you do it? Yes. What did it cost? Everything
As soon as I saw Ellie approach the farm, returning from her journey to the coast, this quote popped into my head. It is from the end of Avengers: Infinity War, after Thanos has snapped out of existence half the population of the universe. A vision of the daughter he killed during his pursuit of ultimate power asks him the questions, and for the first time he realizes precisely what his obsession cost him.
Ellie walks slowly into the house, searching in vain for the family she knows has vacated the building and her life. She finds the room where Dina stacked all her stuff, her eyes eventually settling on the guitar she received from Joel. It is a symbol of everything she has loved, but she can no longer play it without the two fingers that Abby bit off in their final titanic struggle. At that moment, she finally understands the full impact of her obsession, and everything she gave up for that which she thought would make her whole once more.
She flashes back to a conversation with Joel, where she acknowledges that she may never forgive him for his deception, but pledges to try. Setting aside the guitar, we watch from the window as she makes her way through the wheat field, walking away from her old life and her quest for vengeance. We don’t know her destination, but I certainly hope it was toward Jackson, toward Dina and JJ. We have all come to love Ellie, and hope for her to be given a chance at the forgiveness and redemption she had pledged to give her father.
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