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The Dangers of Love in HBO’s “The Last of Us”

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This article includes spoilers for first season of HBO’s 'The Last of Us.'

“This is a love story and that’s not good.” Craig Mazin, the writer and creator of HBO’s The Last of Us, wrote those words on the cover of the television series’ show bible.

Initially, we may recoil at that sentiment. How can a love story not be good? Our culture and most of our stories have trained us to assume that “love is all we need” or that “love always wins.” Love is assumed to be the ultimate and unimpeachable good, but deep down we know that’s not the case.

* * * * *

In The Last of Us, Joel’s daughter Sarah is killed at the beginning of a zombie apocalypse. He remains a shell of himself until he meets an orphan girl named Ellie, who is somehow immune to the zombie infection.

Initially, Joel is hesitent to open up, but he and Ellie bond as they fight off not just zombies but people who have revealed the worst of themselves in the worst of times.

In the finale, doctors believe they can use Ellie to create a vaccine, but that process will kill her. Once Joel learns their plan, he murders almost everyone in hospital and takes Ellie away. He saved her life, but at what cost to humanity — and at what cost to his relationship with her?

Love, like every other human impulse, can spoil.

For a show set in a zombie apocalypse, we don’t see many zombies in The Last of Us. We’re used to seeing them everywhere in these stories because the zombies are the threat and the primary villain. That’s not the case in The Last of Us. The real villain is human love.

Love leads to death and destruction across the first season. People commit suicide after losing a loved one. A sister’s love for her brother drives her to torture and murder so she can find and kill a small child and his brother. A twisted form of love results in cannibalism. Finally, a father’s love leads him to ruthlessly slaughter a hospital full of people and lie to the one he was supposedly protecting. Yes, love is good, but love can also turn deadly.

“We think of love as this solely positive thing, a beautiful thing, and it is, but love—especially the love a parent has for a child—is primal and it can lead to the most intense fear and the most intense can lead to the most intense behavior including violence,” Mazin said. “If you scratch the surface of tribalism, racism, xenophobia, you will find love. Love is not always good.”

Love, like every other human impulse, can spoil. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis points out how even our best impulses, like love of a child or love of a country, are corruptible.

  • It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses, say mother love or patriotism, are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad. All we mean is that the occasions on which the fighting instinct or the sexual desire need to be restrained are rather more frequent than those for restraining mother love or patriotism. But there are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage the fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother’s love for her own children or a man’s love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people’s children or countries.

In The Last of Us, others would sacrifice Ellie to save all of humanity. Joel will sacrifice all of humanity to save Ellie. Who’s right? The show is ambivalent on which course of action is correct, but it doesn’t shy away from the consequences of Joel’s choice. He may not care that when he saved Ellie he potentially sentenced everyone else to die, but he does care that he may have still lost his daughter.

Before they reach the hospital, Joel tells her that she doesn’t have to do this. They can just forget it all and go somewhere together. “After all we’ve been through … everything I’ve done … it can’t be for nothing,” she said. “We finish what we started.” Joel took that opportunity from her, then lied about it. The season ends with her realization of his dishonesty. What he did out of love for Ellie has now soured his relationship with her. His love has turned the object of that love against him.

In C. S. Lewis’ tale of the afterlife, The Great Divorce, we meet a mother in a similar situation. The narrator encounters ghosts who have been allowed to leave the “gray town” and visit the outer edges of heaven. One such ghost is a mother who has lost her son. Her brother, visiting from heaven, tries to convince her that the love she has for her son destroyed her life and is now ruining her afterlife. After rejecting his help, she finally screams, “No one had a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine for ever and ever.”

As the narrator is told later, our love for others can be good and wholesome, but it can also serve as a trap preventing us from going further. “There’s something in natural affection which will lead it on to eternal love more easily than natural appetite could be led on,” Lewis writes. “But there’s also something in it which makes it easier to stop at the natural level and mistake it for the heavenly. Brass is mistaken for gold more easily than clay is.”

Joel has been mired in the clay of a world without Sarah and filled with flesh-eating zombies and cold, ruthless people. Ellie was the bright, shiny person who inspired him to climb out of the pit, but she can’t live up to all Joel’s expectations and dreams. It’s unfair to ask her to bear that weight. She is only brass.

Joel, like the rest of us, is looking for a golden love. Even if he doesn’t realize it, he needs the love of someone who can handle all his past mistakes and his hopes for the future. In fact, Joel needs the love of Someone who faced the same heartbreaking choice he did—their child or the world—and made a different decision. Love can be destructive, but it doesn’t have to be. Love can bring our salvation if it’s directed beyond the last of us and toward the One who is the best of us.

A version of this article originally published at Aaron Earls’ Substack, The Wardrobe Door.

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Aaron Earls

Aaron Earls is senior writer/editor of LifewayResearch.com and a freelance writer living outside Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and four kids. He earned his M.Div. in Apologetics from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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