The ‘Last of Us’ Moment I Was Waiting For Finally Happened in Episode 6
Thus far, there’s been a painful hole in the middle of Joel and Ellie’s relationship in The Last of Us. Ellie, for all her bluster, genuinely wants to get close to Joel. She tells him jokes. She tries to strike up conversations. She opens up (a little) about her experience firing a gun. But Joel, for the most part, hasn’t reciprocated.
From Ellie’s point of view, it’s easy to assume that he’s grieving the loss of Tess, and that’s certainly true. But so far, Ellie has had no way of knowing the deeper reason Joel refuses to get close to her: his daughter, Sarah.
In episode 6, that finally changed.
Joel’s grief for Sarah is at the heart of his character
After Sarah dies in episode 1, we don’t see any overt references to her until episode 6. That doesn’t mean her presence isn’t palpable, though. We think of her when Joel tosses the child’s body into the bonfire, seemingly inured to the deaths of children. We think of her when he resolutely keeps Ellie at arm’s length, telling her over and over again that he’ll get her to the next stage of her journey and no further. He’s so gruff and closed off that even when he finally laughs at one of her jokes, he does it in the dark, facing away from her.
Watching their dynamic—Ellie trying to chip away at his armor, Joel stubbornly keeping it up—makes Sarah’s presence even more tangible. A huge part of the story’s emotional tension is that you want Ellie to find out why Joel is so icy toward her: because he’s afraid that Ellie will fill the void in his life that Sarah left behind.
Why is he so afraid of that? We can’t read his mind, but there are a couple of likely reasons. He might be afraid that he’ll forget or dishonor Sarah if he lets Ellie in. Sarah was his baby girl, and any parent would want to hold their child’s memory close forever, even (or especially) at the expense of their own happiness.
The other reason, of course, is that Joel lives in an extremely dangerous world, where kids die all the time. The thought of growing close to Ellie, only to lose her, is unbearable to him—as he reveals when he begs Tommy to take her off his hands, tearfully running through a litany of all the times he feels like he failed to keep her safe.
All of these layers are what make it so satisfying when Ellie finally finds out about Sarah.
Sarah returns—in a way—in episode 6
We start to see hints of Joel’s grief for Sarah throughout episode 6. He has panic attacks. He thinks he sees her at the Christmas tree in Jackson’s town square, but it’s another girl with similar hair. At one point, he’s overwhelmed with a memory of her, and we see a flashback to her decorating a Christmas tree and looking up at him.
Ellie finally finds out about her when she sees a shrine set up on Tommy and Maria’s mantle. Maria explains that Sarah is Joel’s daughter, and Ellie sits there silently, processing the information.
The real catharsis comes later, when she finds out Joel has foisted her off onto Tommy. “I’m not her,” she says, in a line taken from the original game. When Joel realizes who she’s talking about, he cuts her off, and angrily tells her that he isn’t her father. It seems like he’s succumbed to the urge to do what feels safe in the moment, and keep himself closed off. Even when Ellie tries to tell him how devastated she is, and how much he’s hurting her by abandoning her, he chooses to retreat into grief and fear.
And yet. The next morning, there he is, ready to take her. After that, something quietly magical happens. Their relationship relaxes and deepens over the course of their weeklong journey to Colorado. Joel tells her about his former life as a contractor. The two have (relatively) easy conversations over campfires. They start to enjoy something resembling camaraderie, or perhaps even friendship. Maybe even love.
For a monster survival thriller, The Last of Us has a surprising lack of monsters. So why is it still such an engrossing story? It’s because the real heart of the show is about grief, healing, and connection. And after episode 6’s cliffhanger, I can’t wait to see where those themes take Joel and Ellie next.
(featured image: HBO Max)
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