Part 2: Ellie
I waste no time getting back into it. The next part of this game’s equation to look at is Ellie. The moral center of the game? Well, yes and no. She does give Joel his humanity back, but her own humanity is just as much in question in this game. That plays into her arc, and is what makes her such an interesting character. Now, I will head off expectations of talking about the Left Behind DLC. While that is interesting, and gives us a lot of insight into her character, it isn’t strictly necessary for talking about the game. I found her character compelling and interesting when I saw the game, long before the DLC came out.
When we first meet Ellie, she’s in a Firefly safehouse. Marlene escorts Joel and Tess there, to negotiate the two of them smuggling her out of the city. Seeing that Marlene is injured, Ellie’s first motive is to attack Joel. Thankfully, Tess heads that off, and thus begins the rocky relationship between her and the gruff man. As you see when you first meet her, Ellie is loyal to her people. She will fight and do whatever it takes to help those she cares for. You don’t know much about the history between her and Marlene. In the DLC, it explains that Marlene had had people who checked in on her, or at least made sure that she was alright. But she never wanted Ellie to be part of the Fireflies. As much as Joel doesn’t want to smuggle her, she doesn’t want to go with them. It’s understandable. These people are strangers to her, and they are clearly not the kind of people to be messed with.
The establishment of Ellie’s character is done in the city. You see that she’s loyal to her friends, scared (she’s a kid, after all. That’s natural), and putting on a tough face. It shows internal struggle with her, but the full amount of that is not known until later. They also establish her as a snide and sarcastic little twerp as she is heading to another safehouse with Joel. The two talk, and it is kind of unpleasant. Joel is curious about what is so important about her. She lies and heads off discussions, which in turn leads him to not care even more. Then, they get to the next safehouse and thus we have the very first establishment scene for their relationship. Joel crashes on a couch, waiting for Tess to return. Ellie remarks that his watch is broken. I love that. A subtle way to get the audience thinking about Joel’s daughter, along with a metaphor for Joel. Well played, Naughty Dog. When he wakes up, the two actually have a moment. Ellie remarks that he was talking in his sleep, as she looks out the window at the outside world. She muses that it can’t be as people say it is, but looks to him as if to get confirmation. There are a lot of clever ways to show that she’s a kid.
Which is something that people often forget when they talk about this game. Ellie is a kid. A well-written kid. She talks to herself, makes dumb jokes. She gets scared easily and plays tough when she knows that she’s scared. There are a lot of great character moments where you understand that she is young. It’s what makes the amount of personal baggage she has on her shoulders that much more impressive. That will come into play later in the story.
Again, like with Joel, the changes with Ellie are over the seasons. While Joel is more-or-less indifferent to her, she hits it off with Tess, who is much nicer. It makes when Tess is killed by the soldiers that much harder. Now, her and Joel are alone together, and they don’t hit it off particularly well. But that doesn’t deter her from trying to be his friend. She is a kid, after all. That’s what kids do. They want to be liked and be friendly with the people they are stuck with. Unless they don’t like them, but in Ellie’s case, she realizes that the two are stuck together, so they might as well make the best of it. And their friendship does start to grow. After the events in Lincoln, there are signs that the two are starting to have a bond grow. More than just traveling companions. Joel’s paternal side even shows. There is also a great bit where she remarks that she’s not even tired, and the next shot has her asleep. I love that.
The next group of people we meet are Henry and Sam. Ellie immediately gravitates towards these two. Partly because they are much more pleasant than her current companion, and partly because there is someone around her own age. The fact that she is so alone plays into the growth of her character throughout the story. The bonding with Henry and Sam is SO well done. They are their own people, with their own objectives. So, when everything’s going to shit, they choose to abandon Joel and Ellie. However, they come back and rescue the two later on. For a time, it looks like they will become part of the larger context of the game. But, as is the case so often in her life, it wasn’t meant to be. Sam gets infected from a bite, and turns in the night. He tries to kill Ellie, but then gets shot by Henry. Having to kill is own brother does a number on him, and when Joel tries to get the gun from him, he turns it on the two of them. The season ends with him putting the gun to his head and shooting. Another person in Ellie’s life who dies.
Fall has the two now at a dam. It’s here that they meet Joel’s brother, Tommy. After some bandits attack the dam, and Ellie figures out that Joel means to leave her with Tommy and go, she runs away. The confrontation when Joel catches up to her is powerful. You have her, a girl who is starting to heft some emotional baggage that isn’t entirely clear at this point. The fight between the two shows off both of them trying to fight against how they feel. Joel wants to escape, as he is starting to care for Ellie and doesn’t want that. And she doesn’t want another person to abandon her, the way that it implies she believes that Marlene did. As she put it, people have either died or left her. Everyone except Joel. He’s the immovable center in her life, and now he’s looking to abandon her too. It makes for a nice, cathartic moment when you see him tell Tommy to take his horse back, and tells Ellie to climb on to his. In that instance, he has made a choice to stand by her. It sets the stage for everything that follows after.
The next part of the fall story is in Colorado. It is here that we see the side of Ellie that is nervous about her role as a catalyst in saving the world. That element is probably the most subtle in this game. It changes from time to time. The first time that Ellie is in a Firefly facility, she is clearly on edge. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her, and it frightens her. There is even a nice pun with that, when it is clear that the two are the only ones there. However, more people come. A bunch of bandits come into the facility, and everything goes to shit. After scrapping with one, Joel falls through a railing and is impaled by a piece of rebar. It begins a desperate bid to escape, where Ellie is having to help him. She’s scared to death, but trying to stay tough. Now, she is very much on her own. It sets the stage for the next part of the story.
It’s telling that the first thing you see in Winter is a rabbit dying. A cute little bunny getting skewered by an arrow. Ellie is on her own now. We don’t know what happened to Joel. We only know that she is on her own and looking for food. After chasing a deer down into an abandoned lumber mill, she runs into two people. They are part of another group. One of them is named David. He is an unassuming man. He looks thin, has some pretty rough facial hair. He’s the kind of guy that you don’t think too much about when you see him. It’s part of what makes him a great villain. As I said before, this game goes out of its way to establish characters in ways where their morals are ambiguous. You don’t know what to think about David when you meet him. Clearly, he doesn’t think much of Ellie. When you take the rifle from him and put it to good use, he is amazed that you have as much skill with it as you do. He quickly comes to respect her, as you hold off the undead hordes. When it’s all said and done, the two settle down and talk. David tells her a story, about some of their people who went off to scavenge for supplies. They came under attack, from what they said was a “crazy man” with a little girl. In a flash, Ellie is on her feet, rifle in hand. It’s also then that the other guy arrives with the medicine she asked for. The girl doesn’t push her luck, so she goes back to where she left her horse and takes it to where Joel is.
This is where you understand just how deeply Ellie feels for him. She injects him, and then lays down next to him, even going so far as to put her hand on him as she sleeps. That’s a very nice way to show how much she’s come to care for him, without having to get into any bad exposition. That’s another thing about this game – no exposition dumps. None. There can be conversations with exposition, but never some huge dump of it. The relationships and the feelings of the characters are things that you have to pick up on your own. I like a game that respect my intelligence enough to do that.
The bandits have found where she is. Ellie quickly realizes that she has to lead them off, fast, to protect Joel. A chase ensues, which leads to her horse getting shot and her tumbling off a cliff (which, in real life, would have broken a dozen bones, but whatever). She makes her way through a town, but ends up getting captured by David.
Thus begins one of the most emotionally unnerving conversations in the whole game. When she wakes up, the first thing Ellie sees is one of the bandits chopping off a human hand. These people are cannibals. When confronted about that fact, David says that it is done out of necessity, since they don’t have enough food to survive without it. The confrontation between Ellie and David is so intense! It’s a psychological game where she is trying to get the upper hand, when she knows that any mistakes will end up getting her killed. After a few minutes of back and forth, you realize that David finds her interesting. In more ways than one. He puts his hand on hers, and she realizes what he is looking for. That’s when she makes her move. He’s close. She breaks one of his fingers and grabs at the keys. He smashes her against the bars several times, and asks how he is going to be able to justify keeping her alive after this. Seeing that she has no way out, and that she is going to die anyway, Ellie decides – screw it. She finally gives her name, and telling him to tell the rest that it was her who broke his fingers.
The next day, they drag her out of the cell and put her on a table, ready to chop her up while she’s alive. But she thinks fast, telling them that she’s infected. She had bitten David as he grabbed her. They look at her arm and you can almost hear how they are immediately unnerved. David is facing the reality that he may be infected, and it gives him pause. Long enough for Ellie to grab the meat cleaver and stab one of the bandits in the neck with it. She runs, with David firing off shots with his handgun after her.
Making her way through the town, alone, with only her knife to defend her. She gets to a restaurant that was used as a meeting place for the bandits. Thinking that she’s home free, she suddenly gets stopped. David’s back. The two play a cat and mouse game through the restaurant, with one mistake meaning a quick death. After beating him down, he throws her to the ground. Both are unconscious. When she wakes, he’s waking too. The girl, beaten and tired, realizes that the only thing she can do now is to get out of this. He’s bigger than her. He’s stronger than her. But she sees his weapon, under one of the tables. All she can do is crawl over to it. He gets up, and the game of psychological pain continues as he beats her. Driven by despair, she keeps crawling toward the machete. Finally, he flips her over, and then, in no uncertain terms, makes her understand what he’s about to do to her. It’s heavily implied that he is going to rape her. But fortune gives her a way out. She gets his weapon and thus her ultimate act of anger occurs. Over and over, she strikes the man with it. His blood goes everywhere, with her screaming at him. When Joel pulls her off him, it is one of the most beautiful moments in anything. The last we see of David is the machete’s handle, left where she stuck it in his face.
Spring brings Ellie into a new place, emotionally. It is clear that she’s distracted. Something is bothering her, in a big way. Joel isn’t oblivious to it. He tries to talk to her, but she’s now walled herself off. She’s found a part of herself that she doesn’t like. Something that Joel discovered years ago. In a way, it makes a nice contrast. He has discovered that dark part of himself that can kill without mercy. She’s beginning to, and it frightens her. Makes her question her own humanity. Given the emotional baggage that she was already carrying, this just makes it worse.
Given that she is asleep through the biggest scene of this segment, there isn’t that much to talk about with Spring. Though, there is one scene where you see her given an option. A way out. I think that part of the reason that she was so sullen and quiet throughout the events of this chapter were because she had finally accepted that she was going to die. Back in that restaurant, she accepted death. Just like the scenes in Saving Private Ryan, where it gets all quiet and you see Tom Hanks’ face, she accepted that she was going to die, and decided to move forward. Now, she had reached a juncture where she was unable to come back. She had gone to the point of no return, and seen into that abyss. So, when Joel tells her that they don’t have to keep going, that they can turn around and head back to Tommy’s compound, it gives her pause. However, she presses forward. It lends credence to the idea that Marlene had – that she would have wanted to die to save humanity.
This is reflected after Joel gets her out of the hospital. As they are driving away, she wakes up, seeing that she is still in a hospital gown. Confused, she asks him what happened. He tells her, “we found the Fireflies.” Then, he makes a bald-faced lie that they weren’t looking for a cure anymore. It hurts her. She actually had been ready. Now, she had to live with the person she had become.
Thus brings us to the very end of the game. Here is where the biggest amount of exposition is, and where we learn the truth about Ellie’s emotional baggage. She stops Joel, just before they enter Tommy’s compound, and tells him what happened. See, she wasn’t alone when she got bitten. Her best friend had been with her. That was the first person to die in her life. Then came Tess, then Henry and Sam, and even Joel, for a time. All of those lives she carried with her. Blamed herself for. The cost of her immunity, as she saw it. The reason that she had come to care about Joel so much. All that weight was crushing her. So, she asks him something. She demands that he swear to her that everything he said about the Fireflies was true. Without missing a beat, he swears. That’s where, for me, the emotional strength of this game came from. That one scene.
We all have to accept lies in our lives. Whether it be the ones we tell other people, or the ones we tell ourselves. We all accept lies. Lies are part of the world we live in. Be they little white ones, or huge black ones, we all lie. Ellie and Joel both accept the lies of their lives in different ways. Joel accepts what he has done as the cost of staying alive. However, he had lost all reason to keep going. But Ellie gave it back. She was the catalyst that gave him a reason to keep going. For Ellie, she has been unable to accept who she is. She’s actively fought against it. Part of her is terrified of the person that the world has made her become. However, in that one moment, we see who she is. In that moment, she accepts Joel’s lie. It’s because she loves him. He is the father she never had, and even though he’s lying to her, she is willing to accept that to be with him and keep going.
At least, that’s my take on it. There will be one last part to this Critical Examination, where we look at Marlene, David, and the themes that I’ve been talking about. If you have an opinion on this stuff, please, feel free to post in the Comments.
Until next time, a quote,
“Everyone I know has either died or left me. Everyone, fucking except for you! So don’t tell me that I would be safer with someone else! Because the truth is that I’d just be more scared.” -Ellie, The Last of Us