Hello and welcome to a brand-new series once again: character studies, a place where we take a look at some of the characters from our favorite video games and talk about their qualities and what makes them memorable. Now, the characters we’ll talk about don’t necessarily have to be the protagonist of the game in question and can be anyone from our hero to the antagonist to the supporting character and anyone in between. It also goes without saying that these articles will be full of spoilers and will talk not only about the traits of the characters but also about their journeys and potentially even their ends, so consider this a spoiler warning. I have always wanted to do something like this, and the recent list of iconic protagonists from video games we posted here on our site was my tipping point to finally try this out. Today’s character is Joel Miller from “The Last of Us.”
What better way to start a new series than to talk about a character who is beloved by the community and is in the spotlight as of late, all thanks to the HBO series The Last of Us starring Pedro Pascal as Joel? While Pedro’s portrayal of the character is sure to go down in the history books as one of his most memorable performances, let’s not focus on his rendition but on the rendition of Troy Baker and how he truly brought Joel to life in the games. There’s one more thing I feel like I should clear up before starting. When someone creates a character or a world, they have a set vision or idea behind the character in question, perhaps even an inspiration from someone they know or an event that happened in their life. Once the character is created and shipped out into the world, it becomes public domain, and some people accept it as it is while others refuse to, and then there’s a third group that tends to delve deeper and deeper and reach out for things that may or may not be there. They tend to reflect their own version/vision onto the embodiment of this person and convince themselves and others around them that the way they see things is the right way. As much as I admire people for spending so much time dissecting fiction, we won’t be doing that here. My goal with these articles is to clearly separate objective fact from subjective speculation and not talk about the stories or inspiration behind why these characters were created but simply talk about the ink on the paper and see them as they are presented to us. I hope that makes sense and is digestible, so with all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at Joel Miller.
What makes a hero a hero? Is it that they are always righteous and stoic? Is it because they always tend to be selfless and inspiring? Or is it because they always see the world as half full and push themselves and the people around them to become the best versions of themselves? The funny thing is, if you were to ask Disney, then their version of a hero would check all these boxes, but the real world isn’t that black and white but instead full of shades of grey. A hero doesn’t have to be right all along or be an adorable Mr. Goody Two Shoes; they just have to be righteous enough to stick to their words and not hurt anyone unnecessarily. So long as they do that, with every step they take, we, as the audience, take the steps along with them. As long as they stick true to their guns, the audience embarks on countless tales of vengeance with them and slaughters everyone who stands in their way. Not only do we accept that, but we commend those actions and sing high praises for how badass they were. That’s not very heroic, now, is it? And yet, we tend to celebrate those actions like there is no tomorrow. That’s just how thin the line between a hero and a villain is. Give a villain a goal that is not as simple as world dominance, and we start understanding and sympathizing with their motives. Just like that, give a hero an emotional backstory of love and loss, and suddenly everyone they kill along their way or no matter how deep down a bottle they are found, it all becomes acceptable because they are trying to come to terms with all they lost. Joel is just that person. A victim of circumstance. He is a man so horrible and wretched in a world that is even worse that despite his horrendous actions, he gets the tag of a saint among the sinners. We cite reasons like his grief turned him into what he is, and it is understandable and acceptable but is it really? Let’s take a closer look.
Joel Miller was a single father from Texas who worked as a carpenter and spent his life with his daughter Sarah and, on occasion, his younger brother Tommy. We know his wife left him, but why she did that was never mentioned. We also know how much he loves her as any responsible father would and the lengths he’d go to protect her and keep her happy and safe. On his birthday in 2013, all hell broke loose as massive panic spread across the nation, all because of an unknown infection that was turning people into monsters. Joel, in an attempt to flee with his daughter and brother, ends up in front of a military officer who shoots at them, and in the process, Sarah dies in his arms. Some argue that alongside Sarah, Joel’s humanity also died that day, and everything that follows after that is justified because of his loss. That is relatable to someone like me who has also faced a loss so great that it has left me shattered and taken a piece of me with it. It didn’t turn me into a monster, though. Losing something is bad, but losing someone, especially someone you hold dear, can rip a person from the inside out, and yet, they live because that’s what life is. Life gives, and life takes—an endless cycle that cannot be stopped or changed. We always find something that glues us together and grounds us, and no matter how jaded and cynical we may get, there’s always something that puts a smile on our faces.
In the years that follow, we learn that Joel and Tommy ambushed and killed countless innocent people in the name of survival until they ended up in the Boston quarantine zone, where Tommy parted ways with Joel and Joel met a woman named Tess. Tess and Joel partner up to become the most infamous duo of smugglers inside the QZ and are not to be trifled with. Then a day arrives that changes their lives forever as they encounter Marlene, the leader of a rebel group named Fireflies, who, due to unforeseen circumstances, hands a young girl named Ellie to Joel and Tess and asks them to take her to the Capitol building. A coincidence or destiny?
I mentioned how humans don’t usually turn into monsters when they suffer loss. We all have that in us, no matter how empathetic we may be; deep inside us lies a primal instinct that won’t hesitate to kill, rob, or hurt someone in the name of our own survival. We may feel guilt afterwards, but for how long? There comes the point when you get used to your actions and become so numb that you don’t feel a damn thing anymore. Despite that primal instinct, we still don’t turn into monsters because society won’t let us and because we always find another reason to keep pushing and moving forward. But what if the society in question doesn’t exist anymore? What happens when the gatekeeper leaves the keys and his post behind, unguarded?
In the case of Joel, since the death of his daughter Sarah, he turned into a man who has nothing left to lose, which won’t be a problem on its own; however, with the death of his daughter, the world he lived in died alongside it, as it fell deeper and deeper into chaos and madness, all thanks to the Cordyceps brain infection. The floodgates were opened at that point, and there was no way to contain the rampant flow of water. The man turned into a beast, and a man like Joel turned into a demon. How do you keep a tree in the middle of a forest alive when the entire forest is engulfed in flames?
As Joel, Tess, and Ellie start making their way towards their destination, they learn why Ellie was so important to Marlene and why she risked her life to protect her and handed her off to these so-called smugglers. The answer to that question was that Ellie was bitten and somehow remained immune to the virus, which might be the key to ending it all. Although skeptical at first and ready to shoot Ellie where she stands, Joel soon finds out that Ellie is telling the truth as he, unfortunately, witnesses with his own eyes his partner in crime, Tess, getting bitten and slowly but surely turning. To buy them some time and save herself from the horrible fate of becoming a monster, Tess sacrifices her life, and Joel once again suffers loss and is left alone. Tragedy surrounds this man wherever he goes, it seems, but unlike the last time, someone keeps him afloat this time around and doesn’t let him sink further into the abyss. That someone is Ellie. That little girl he was ready to shoot not moments ago unintentionally becomes his reason to keep pushing. As they make their way across the barren and desolate lands of America, they come across groups of scavengers and thieves that they fend off, all the while also encountering friendly faces that they are forced to part ways with due to either tragedy or just because the road came to an end. Throughout all of this, Joel grows closer to Ellie and starts seeing Sarah in her, and Ellie becomes more comfortable around Joel and starts to feel safe with him, a natural thing.
One friendly face they encounter along the way is none other than Joel’s long-lost brother Tommy. After the brothers reminisced about the years they lost, and there was a disagreement between Joel and Ellie, both of them came to terms with the fact that they trusted and cared for each other, and Joel and Ellie started their march towards the Firefly base in Colorado. We start to see a more caring side of Joel as they move along. A side that was reserved for his daughter. a side that he thought was long dead and buried. Once they reach their destination, they are attacked by a group of hunters, and in an attempt to protect Ellie, Joel falls down from a balcony and gets impaled by a metal beam through his stomach, which mortally wounds him, and he goes out of commission for some time.
Imagine that for a second, everywhere you look, you see death and despair with no hope, no matter how hard you try, and when you finally get accustomed to this new lifestyle, someone shows up and brings out a side of yours that you believed didn’t exist anymore. What a shock to your system and psyche it’d be. A man who turned into a monster and did horrible things to countless people was suddenly reminded once again that he was still a man and not the facade of this monster that he had convinced himself to be. What does he do at that point? What kind of reality does he grasp? Was everything he thought or believed a lie, or was it true circumstantially, and now the story is different?
The events that follow put Ellie in a position where her life is on the line while Joel is still recovering. He finally gains consciousness and notices her absence. He pushes through the pain, mercilessly killing a few people to learn where Ellie is, only to find the poor girl in shock and covered in blood as she is seen stabbing her assailant nonstop. Joel embraces Ellie and lets her know she is safe now, but someone who sees the girl he considers his daughter in such a state is bound to be left with even more hatred in his heart towards the world. There is no innocence in this world, and yet what little innocence was left was robbed from the poor girl as she was forcefully turned into a monster to defend herself from the monster that was attacking her. For a father figure like Joel, this was like seeing the already battered roof that he tried to build and maintain despite all the holes in it getting blown away by the wind as he just stood there and saw it all happen and had no control over it. Joel as a person was already scarred and seeing Ellie get her first scar left the man with no choice but to bring out the monster once again. From this point onward, we see both of Joel’s sides flourish and take center stage. The caring father who catered to the inquisitive nature of his daughter and kept her cheery at all times just to assure her that she was safe alongside the somewhat monstrous side(which was not very monster-like and was quite reasonable actually) that would go to any extent to keep her safe. Joel risked life and limb and threw himself in danger countless times to keep Ellie safe, and he dragged himself from hell and back as slowly, but surely they reached their destination.
The connection they built across their journey brought a long-lost comfort to Joel, so the idea of separation simply haunted him as they got closer and closer to the point of no return. Fairly close to their destination, Ellie almost drowns, and as Joel tries to save her, he is ambushed by a group of people who knocks him unconscious. When Joel regains consciousness, he is greeted by none other than Marlene, who apologizes to him for her men acting hastily and thanks him for bringing Ellie to the destination. Joel wishes to see Ellie, but Marlene denies his request and tells him that she is being prepped for surgery. This is where Marlene informs Joel that she won’t survive the process, and Joel tries to reason with Marlene to find someone else. Marlene lets him know that there is no one else, and as Joel argues with her, she commands her men to escort him out of the building and to shoot him if he tries anything.
As Joel is being forced out of the building at gunpoint, he turns the tables on the guy holding him hostage and makes his way to the operation theater, killing every Firefly member along the way. In the OT, he spots Ellie, and as the doctors try to stop him, he mercilessly kills them to save Ellie. He grabs Ellie and goes down to the parking lot, where he finds Marlene once again, who, despite aiming a gun at him, tries to reason with Joel and convince him that this is for the best of everyone. Joel, not willing to listen to reason and only wanting to save Ellie, kills Marlene and drives away toward Tommy’s settlement with Ellie in the backseat. As they get close to reaching the settlement, Ellie questions Joel about what happened in the Fireflies base, to which he lies and tells her that there are countless people out there who are immune and that the Fireflies don’t need Ellie anymore. Ellie, though skeptical, believes Joel after she asks him to swear to her, which he does.
A few years pass since Joel and Ellie start to live in Jackson, Wyoming, with Tommy and the other residents, and the truth can never stay hidden and is a bitter pill to swallow as we know it. Ellie learns about the heinous actions back at the Fireflies base and distances herself from Joel, believing that Joel took away the one chance for her life that meant something to her. Joel, being the scarred and battered individual at this point, doesn’t put up much of a fight and accepts the situation one unfortunate day while on patrol, he stumbles onto a group of survivors who get cornered by the infected and saves their lives; a decision that would bring his demise.
A development we see here, for the worse in Joel’s case, is that because of the time he spent with Ellie and finally found purpose in his life, he became soft. The old Joel would have left those people to die and wouldn’t have flinched at the decision he made, but because of the hell he went through with Ellie and the lengths he went to protect this girl, he started seeing things in a more humane way and, in a way, left his dog-eats-dog philosophy behind. A side effect of aging even, perhaps?
As the group seeks shelter, one of the members realizes that the man who saved them is none other than Joel Miller, the person they had been hunting for years, so they grab him and beat him to a pulp. Ellie, scared of Joel being gone for quite some time, now ventures out to look for him and tracks down the location where he is being held. She tries to save Joel but gets outnumbered and overpowered as she is forced to watch her father figure get held down and bashed to death with a golf club by a woman named Abby. A sad and unfortunate end for our “hero” and yet, ironically, a fitting end. Actions have consequences, and what we do is what we get; that’s karma, isn’t it? The acts of violence and depravity that Joel committed throughout the years were sure to come and haunt him at some point, and low and beheld, this woman, Abby, wanted Joel dead because she was the daughter of the doctor Joel killed while trying to save Ellie. Violence breeds violence, and if you live by the gun, you die by the gun. There’s a lot that happens after these events, but this is where the story of Joel Miller sees its tragic and brutal end.
Despite everything, Joel will always be remembered in our hearts as a good guy. We will forgive all the acts of violence, the murders, and his selfish instinct to put Ellie’s life over the lives of millions(potentially), all because we related with this character. That’s what I love about him personally; he is not a good person, and he knows it, but what other choice does he have? The world around him breeds monsters, so he has to become a monster himself to live to see another day. The complexity of his nature, the morality he left behind, the consistency of his ability to not trust anyone and leave them behind to die (until the very end), and all the shades of grey in between make Joel a protagonist who, despite his own demons, is someone we will remember as a good person. Joel is the definition of how we keep pushing forward no matter how much we lose because we always find a reason to fight. After the death of Sarah, Tommy became his own reason to live. When Tommy left him behind, Tess became his reason to live, and after Tess died, Ellie became his reason to live. He kept pushing through to the end and faced it the only way he was bound to meet it.
The writing was sharp and ambiguous at times, but it all would have meant nothing if it weren’t for the stellar performance by Troy Baker. Troy understood and embodied the character in a way that most actors could only dream of, and the end result gave us a protagonist who, despite not being a good person, reserved a place in our hearts. Joel Miller was not a good man—far from it—but that’s okay. People have to adapt to situations and make the most of them, and that’s what Joel did; he unleashed his demons to survive hell, and in the end, despite everything, when we remember Joel, we will remember a good man who lived by his own terms and gave his life to protect the ones he loved the most.