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Our Violent Hearts: Storytelling Lessons from The Last of Us

The Last of Us
HBO’s “The Last of Us” has officially ended its first season, and the creators appear to be fine leaving viewers distraught and heartbroken while we anxiously wait for Season Two. What is it about “The Last of Us” that captivates us so entirely? We’ve been through apocalypse shows before (“The Walking Dead” or “The Leftovers”). And yet, there is something uniquely harrowing about this story. Is it Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s Emmy-level acting? Their character’s unwilling connection to one another?

Moments of lightness

“The Last of Us” has shown us the complexity of morality as we witness the dark pasts of Ellie and Joel intercepted with moments of lightness, of before. A reluctant smile from Joel before they go to sleep. The pure joy of Ellie riding an escalator. But what makes these main characters so interesting to follow is how they understand the situation. It’s quick to dim the moments of happiness; it’s a constant weight on them both. For Joel, the reflex of fatherhood follows him the further he and Ellie get out west. We catch glimpses of him, tired and delirious, unable to sleep because Ellie asks, “Is it safe?” Unsure of how to process his protective instinct over Ellie, we see him label her as cargo, minimizing her to something transactional, something profitable.

Connecting with characters

Maybe what makes the show so unique is how easily we connect to the other characters who enter their narrative briefly. Bill and Frank’s somewhat normal life together is shortened because of the cruelty of age and disease, just not the one causing a massive pandemic.

"Paying attention to things. It’s how we show love." -Frank

"I was never afraid before you showed up." -Bill

Sarah Miller showed us a brief glimpse of her unconditional love for Joel, who must bury that excess love deep inside himself to survive the world without her. Henry and Sam risked becoming wanted fugitives together because Henry would rather die than abandon his brother for a single moment. It’s love in different forms. Forms that we all can recognize, sympathize and understand. In episode 8, Ellie and Joel are forced to survive the harsh winters as Joel weakens from his injury. The roles are reversed when Ellie becomes the protector in their dynamic, watching over him, cleaning his wound, and hunting for their food. She can no longer whisper, “is it safe?” when she feels threatened. Instead, she must face the dangers of the unknown alone. Almost immediately after her successful hunt, she is approached by two strangers who change her life forever. It is a graphic and violent episode, but beyond the blood, it speaks to the irrevocable damage of a young girl losing her final piece of innocence. The brutal rage Ellie expels as she kills David is symbolic of the injustice of her situation and the rage of having to go through this by herself. Ellie is her own hero, yes. She has endured and survived. But the bond between her and Joel has frayed when she must endure alone once again. Despite denying that she sees Joel as a surrogate father, the pain of his absence in her most vulnerable state still haunts her, even though she wants to forgive him.

"Endure and survive."

Love is essential to survival

"The Last of Us" has identified us, even if what it exposes isn’t how we want to be perceived. We’ve been caught. How far would we go to save the ones we love? Would we do something immoral if it meant saving our family? In the season finale, Joel Miller faces the difficult decision of saving Ellie or the world. It sounds like a simple choice, in theory. She was cargo. A means to an end. But a primal obligation to protect Ellie takes over Joel when he discovers the Fireflies plan to operate on Ellie’s brain to obtain the Cordyceps in her system. We’re taken into his point of view, becoming him as he journeys through the hospital. Faced with the decision of love or survival, Joel submits to the emotions he’s long kept buried since the death of Sarah but is the coldest, most detached we’ve ever seen him. His humanity seems to vanish as he shoots to kill anyone who stands in the way of saving his Ellie. How can we justify this? How can we still see ourselves in Joel when his rage has overtaken his morality? I ask myself these questions while still secretly applauding his choice. Love is essential to survival. Even if it’s a reluctant, resistant, painful love. It’s the only way we can endure and survive.

"It wasn't time that saved me." - Joel

Keep reading on Fable

Considering the potential fate of our civilization can bring both awareness to problems that plague our world in the present day and help us prevent a dim future. Here are some classic dystopian novels in our bookstore.
Dhalgren  by Samuel R. Delany digital book - Fable

Dhalgren

By Samuel R. Delany

A young half-Native American known as the Kid has hitchhiked from Mexico to the midwestern city Bellona—only something is wrong there . . . In Bellona, the shattered city, a nameless cataclysm has left reality unhinged.

Never Let Me Go  by Kazuo Ishiguro  digital book - Fable

Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro

A devastating novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss. As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at an exclusive boarding school. Kathy begins to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special.

The Road  by Cormac McCarthy  digital book - Fable

The Road

By Cormac McCarthy

The searing, post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son's fight to survive. The Road boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son are sustained by love.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam digital book - Fable

Leave the World Behind

By Rumaan Alam

Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their kids and a taste of the good life. But a late-night knock on the door breaks the spell.

The Country of Ice Cream Star  by Sandra Newman  digital book - Fable

The Country of Ice Cream Star

By Sandra Newman

Fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star and her nomadic tribe live off of the detritus of a crumbled civilization. Theirs is a world of children; before reaching the age of twenty, they all die of a mysterious disease they call Posies.

Severance  by Ling Ma  digital book - Fable

Severance

By Ling Ma

Maybe it’s the end of the world, but not for Candace Chen, a millennial, first-generation American, and office drone meandering her way into adulthood in Ling Ma’s offbeat, wryly funny, apocalyptic satire.

Riot Baby  by Toni Onyebuchi  digital book - Fable

Riot Baby

By Toni Onyebuchi

Rooted in the hope that can live in anger, Riot Baby is as much an intimate family story as a global dystopian narrative. It burns fearlessly toward revolution and has quietly devastating things to say about love, fury, and the black American experience.

1984  by George Orwell  digital book - Fable

1984

By George Orwell Fable Club Pick

Winston Smith is a man caught in the webs of a dystopian future, and his clandestine love affair with Julia, a young woman he meets during the course of his work for the government.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin digital book - Fable

The Fifth Season

By N. K. Jemisin

At the end of the world, a woman must hide her secret power and find her kidnapped daughter in this twisted Hugo Award winning fantasy novel of power, oppression, and revolution.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood digital book - Fable

Oryx and Crake

By Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human.

Fable makes it easy for dystopian fiction fans to share their thoughts and connect with others through book clubs. Explore more post-apocalyptic worlds by starting Fable book clubs with these dystopian classics!The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley RobinsonRead a desperate, yet hopeful, and remarkable vision of climate change over the coming decades. The City We Became by N.K. JemisinRead a hopeful story about coming together to fight oppressive forces in this fantasy fiction about New York City.Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. ButlerRead this cli-fi about race and class with iconic champion of storytelling LeVar Burton.

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