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Twenty years go by. The "crazies" in Austin were infected by a fungus similar to cordyceps which takes over the host's brain, eventually mutating them. Only a few major cities remain in the form of Quarantine Zones run by the military. No government exists, though a group calling themselves the Fireflies is fighting both for a cure and return to sanity. Joel seems colder now, a grizzled veteran of this new world. He and his partner, Tess, are smugglers, and what begins as a mission to retrieve stolen goods, ends up in as a quest to unite a 14-year-old girl, Ellie, with the Fireflies. Ellie is immune to the infection, and her survival could mean the restoration of all of humanity. Together, Joel takes Ellie across the country, fighting off hunters, cannibals, infected, and eventually, even the Fireflies.
The Human Condition
On the surface of things, the world is a simple place. You live and try to survive. You kill anyone who stands in your way. The only thing that matters is you and your group. It seems that everyone in this future-world lives by these same rules. Joel and Tess are smugglers, so when someone steals their guns and effectively inhibits their survival, the thief is killed brutally. The interesting thing about this new world is that the meaning of life no longer seems to matter all that much because the meaning is what it is...life. Despite all odds, humanity continues to crawl forward.
Death is everywhere, and life, while precious to some, is not so precious to others. Hunters kill innocents to ensure the lives of their fellows. Cannibals eat those they kill to ensure the survival of their group. And Ellie and Joel...well they kill anyone who might stand between them and their goal (I'll get to that in a minute). What's even funnier is that I haven't even mentioned the infected! The infected are EVERYWHERE, and yet, they seem like the lesser threat because they aren't exactly unpredictable. But because the infected are the cause of the mess the world is in, they seem like they might be the villain. The real villains are the remnants of humanity, who rather than working against a common enemy, fight primarily against one another. One might argue this is exactly how things operate today.
Another interesting aspect of the story involves Joel and Ellie's journey. Their goal seems simple. Joel was hired to take Ellie to the Fireflies so they could find the cure to the infection. After Tess is infected and then killed, it seems Joel is fully onboard with taking Ellie to the Fireflies. After all, it's what Tess wanted. And Ellie, well she wants everybody cured, too. She wants to know that all the death she's witnessed and caused has meant something more than just death. She needs to know that some good can come from it all. With those two thoughts in mind, it seems Joel and Ellie have a common goal.
While Ellie's goal remains unchanged throughout the story (as evidenced by her final lines), Joel's goal changes dramatically. The obvious parallel between Joel and Ellie is her similarity to Sara, but because Joel is so closed off emotionally, so focused on moving forward, we don't see Joel acknowledge it until very late in the story. Joel begins to realize that he's taking Ellie to the Fireflies because it's what Ellie wants and what Tess wanted. All the death that had been visited upon the world could finally mean something, including the death of his own daughter. But when he learns the Fireflies will kill Ellie in order to find their cure, he sacrifices the cure for Ellie.
Why? Joel never stopped moving forward. Even when he acknowledges that Ellie is so much like his lost daughter, Joel realizes that this is the world they live in now. Finding a cure, taking everyone back to the way things were, it doesn't ever justify the death. It will never undo the brutality and destruction. The best thing to do is to simply move forward. To live as well as you can. To find love and to survive. The true meaning of life perhaps.