The Last of Us Needs to Abandon This Tired Dystopian Trope
Leave this trope at Hogwarts, on Pandora, or in District 12, please.
Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Kal-El, Buffy Summers, Usagi Tsukino, Po the Panda: what do they all have in common? They’re the only ones who can save the world.
There’s a reason why the Chosen One trope is a beloved one, used time and again by authors and screenwriters. The concept of one single messiah carrying the fate of humanity in its hands is powerful — dating even further back than the Bible, found in texts and scrolls and hieroglyphs from ancient civilizations and centuries-old religions.
It’s easy to see how Chosen One characters have survived in literature and media through all of these years — our rescue, bound to the destiny of a single hero, makes for a tantalizing but comforting read or watch because deep down audiences know that, no matter what, the Chosen One saves the day at the end.
So it may seem odd to make the claim that Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey) of The Last of Us, who spent all of Season 1 traversing a bleak zombie fungus-ravaged Earth with a sad, grizzled man (Pedro Pascal), is, in fact, another rehash of the Chosen One trope. (Particularly because her allegedly only opportunity to stop the total destruction of personhood by inoculating people was just snatched away by Joel by the end of the HBO horror drama’s first installment.)
But that’s exactly what Ellie is — a foul-mouthed 14-year-old messiah who shoots zombies, kisses girls, giggles at puns, and stabs a pedophilic cult leader to death. Series viewers, as well as most other TLOU characters, are led to believe that Ellie is the only person in her dystopia to be immune to the Cordyceps brain infection that has decimated mankind.
Her status as the Chosen One was doubled-down on at the very start of Episode 9 of The Last of Us, entitled “Look for the Light,” when the secret behind Ellie’s immunity is revealed to be via immaculate conception. Well, an immaculate conception of sorts, anyway.
Viewers see Ellie’s mom, Anna Williams (Ashley Johnson), pregnant and about to pop, entering a decrepit house sweaty, dirty, and alone. She’s looking for someone there, but finds herself needing to sit down. The baby is on its way. As she is crouching down, an Infected attacks Anna. Anna realizes that during the altercation, she gave birth. She quickly cuts off the umbilical cord for fear of her infection passing to baby Ellie.
And thus, an unknown father, an infected mother, and a zombie create the Chosen One — a disturbing twist on the Holy Trinity that reaffirms Ellie’s role as TLOU’s ultimate redeemer. When Ellie is eventually infected at the mall with her friend and crush, Riley Abel (Storm Reid), we discover that she was, in a way, resurrected. She survives an infection that eternally damns everyone else.
While Ellie as Chosen One was a trope that sensibly drives the plot forward in The Last of Us Part 1, giving Joel a mission and Ellie a purpose, we see both that mission and purpose terminated by the end of Episode 9. So where will the story go from here?
Gamers already know how The Last of Us pans out in Part II of the Naughty Dog game (though they still don’t know the full story, since Part III has yet to be released by the devs), but HBO has the leeway to make certain alterations to the show that aren’t faithful to the game’s canonical storyline— even with Neil Druckman, the game’s story creator, at the helm of the show along with Craig Mazin (Chernobyl).
That means that HBO now has the chance to leave the tired Chosen One trope behind in Season 1, and expand the possibilities of how humanity is restored and rehabilitated, including how the Cordyceps pandemic is mitigated and stopped dead in its tracks. If the show’s narrative exceeds its source material’s narrative — as in goes beyond a Part II adaptation before Part III is released — then it has the chance to do something wholly subversive and unique. Why does Ellie have to carry the hero’s burden all on her own? It’s entirely plausible that Ellie wasn’t the only child that was born from the womb of an infected parent and carries these sort of hybrid human-zombie genetics that keep her from transforming into a monster. Exploring that possibility could take the narrative in exciting, and dare we say even hopeful, directions.
But then again, there’s nothing quite as moving as one martyr’s sacrifice for the good of mankind. Whether or not Ellie will consent to giving up her life for the sake of a cure — on her own terms and without Joel’s well-meaning intervention — remains to be seen in Season 2, as well as whether or not she’s the only one cursed with this sick fate.
The Last of Us Season 1 is streaming on HBO Max.