How The Last of Us Episode 6 Uses Western Tropes to Deepen Joel's Character
All the best cowboys have crippling insecurity.
The Last of Us Episode 6 was quite literally a departure from the rest of the series. After weeks of trekking across the country, Joel and Ellie find Tommy and the commune of Jackson — a bustling community full of families, movie nights, communal property, and even electricity. But alongside the well-earned rest, Ellie and Joel also have to reckon with some hard questions about the journey ahead of them.
To balance the emotional gut-punch of the tough introspection Joel undergoes in this episode, The Last of Us adopts some classic tropes from a genre very familiar to its Wyoming setting: the western film.
Western movies are all about ideals and archetypes, usually with a steely-eyed hero who manages to impart wisdom and save the day without ever showing any insecurities or tenderness. In the Wild West, much like the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us, each man is out to survive by himself by any means necessary, and there’s no law and order beyond personal morals.
It’s evident from the old westerns starring John Wayne, to the more contemporary takes on the western seen in series like Justified and Yellowstone. It’s not a setting that usually allows for emotional vulnerabilities, which makes Joel’s breakdown in The Last of Us Episode 6 all the more heartbreaking.
Despite not including any Infected, the latest episode of The Last of Us was still a fraught and tense chapter in Joel’s story. Reunited with his brother Tommy, Joel realizes he now has an alternative to taking Ellie all the way to Colorado where the Firefly research lab is. Sitting down with Tommy, he asks him if he’d be willing to step in and take Ellie the rest of the way.
It’s a great moment of internal conflict, but it’s made even better by the setting. When Joel and Tommy have this conversation, they’re sitting in an old tavern, drinking whiskey. It’s about as stereotypically masculine as a conversation can get, which underlines the emotional vulnerability Joel shows.
This should be where Joel feels most in his element, most like the western hero he’s tried to be since Outbreak Day, but the ability to get out of survival mode forces all the feelings that Joel has been hiding under the surface to finally bubble over. He was never truly able to process Tess’ death and lashed out at Ellie when she brought her up. He even has some leftover grief from the death of his daughter, hallucinating a vision of her in the commune.
These elements are set against a backdrop of looming mountains, horse stables, and campfires, signifying the kind of man Joel wants to be, the firm and fearless protector that Bill described in his final letter. But still, Joel is shaken. Eventually, he breaks down, admitting, “I'm failin' in my sleep. That's all I do. It's all I've ever done, is fail her, again and again.”
But just like any great western hero faced with his own insecurities, eventually, Joel realizes the only way he could fail Ellie at this point would be to not follow through to the end with her. To make her feel betrayed and abandoned after a lifetime of others doing that to her would be the only way Joel could possibly hurt her.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, the world of the ideal man Joel sees himself as — a leader, a provider, a protector — and the realization that in order to get there, he would have to deal with his past trauma and allow himself to be that figure for Ellie. It’s the hidden secret of every good cowboy: they have to care about something a lot in order to be the fearless hero we see in the movies.
The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO Max.