Beware those who have yet to play The Last of Us as there are heavy spoilers and many spoilers ahead.
It may be strange to consider one of the protagonists in a game involving murderers and infected hoards to be the most threatening entity in the game. This is my opinion and feel free to debate in the comments below however here is my argument as to why Joel is the real monster in The Last of Us. Did the apocalypse and the loss of his daughter change Joel? Most certainly as it would change any reasonable person however, it is the way that Joel overcame these obstacles that makes him an extremely scary individual.
Those who paid attention would have noticed hints to Joel’s dark past throughout the story. There are more subtle things like Bill telling Joel that it’s not infected but people who scare him and then saying that Joel of all people would understand that. The implication that the uninfected are more capable of nefarious, calculated evil things then mindless murder mushrooms heads and that Joel knows because he had done such things.
Even during the opening section in Boston there are NPCs against a wall discussing the fate of a friend, when Joel gets near the guy he tells you to go away at which point the other NPC recognizes Joel and apologizes profusely. It is when you walk away you hear the apologetic NPC asking his friend if he had any idea who he was talking to, hinting at an earned infamy.
His brother Tommy shows that you can survive and still be a moral person. The player is informed through a conversation between Ellie and Joel that they had a disagreement over philosophical differences which is later revealed as how you survive in post-apocalyptic America. Joel exclaims to his brother that he survived because of him is met with the statement “it wasn’t worth it” and that he still has nightmares about the past. Tommy was an adult at the time of the apocalypse and showed that Joel chose to be ruthless in his goal of survival despite it not being the way. The ends justify the means for Joel.
The meeting with Tommy hints to how they previously survived which strongly suggests that Joel murdered innocents. If you think back to when Joel was ambushed in the city by Hunters and knew the man wasn’t injured Ellie asks how he knew. Joel says he has been on both sides, Ellie realizes that this means he had murdered innocents and Joel replies to the inquiry with a grunt, it suggests that whilst he is not proud of it he does not regret it.
A glimpse of Joel’s cruel and driven nature is when Ellie is taken by the cannibal crew. The way Joel keeps two thugs alive after a scuffle and ties one to a chair whilst torturing the other is an indication of experience of this horror and a man driven by emotion. The unflinching way he stabbed the knife into the man’s leg and twisted it to get what he wanted, the confidence that the person he killed was not lying making it trivial to kill the other man. He seems experienced at torture, look how he handles Robert at the start of the game as if snapping a person’s arm is a common occurrence. It should be noted that Tess is also not fazed by this and she also outright says at one point that they are both shitty people.
The ending, oh lawd the ending. This is the first time we see Joel kill innocent people with the first being the surgeon and the other being Marlene. The choice to kill the other unarmed surgeons is surprising and almost encourages the player to murder them. It is not killing in the ending that makes Joel so horrific but rather the choices he makes.
Throughout the game we learn that Joel has tried to bury the past with rarely bringing up the passing of Tess and declining the photo of himself with his daughter from Tommy. This grief is what defines Joel, his attachment to the broken watch enforces this. Joel actively doesn’t want to get attached to Ellie and risk another tragedy, just take a look back when they reach his brother and he tries to offload her. It was to no avail and it is from this point onward that Joel has his daughter back in a sense.
When Ellie is lead on the surgery table and Joel picks up Ellie it is immediately haunting the similarities between the hospital escape and the way he carried his daughter Sara before the unfortunate incident. Joel does not let the fate of Ellie match the fate of his daughter. There is a moment of hesitation and clarity when Marlene says it is what Ellie would have wanted with the surgery but it does not overpower Joel’s selfish want for Ellie to be live and to prevent that trauma of losing a daughter repeat. Ellie poignantly says after watching the giraffes that all they have and she has gone through “can’t be for nothing.” Unfortunately it pretty much is; Tess’s death, Ellie’s life changing experiences that will forever haunt her, all in aid of Joel filling the void in his life that his daughter once occupied. Not to mention he stole away a potential end to humanity’s woes.
The lie to Ellie at the end is one of the worst things he does though, betraying the trust. It is the facial expression on Ellie that is most powerful, she doesn’t believe what he says is true however accepts for now that she and Joel will remain together. Though Ellie wasn’t told prior that she would die during the surgery and in fact did not know (asking Joel if it would hurt in which he says they would probably take some blood and the constant references to what they will do after) she knew her role and purpose and her speech about how she and a friend got infected shows that she was willing to die for the cause.
Joel is morally reprehensible however, after playing the opening of the game and understanding the loss that changed Joel in addition to how bleak life for all humanity has become you can understand how he got there. A controversial character but also an incredibly human one, however I’d be hard pressed to decide to face a Clicker or Joel.