The Last of Us

Did the Fireflies Get What They Deserved?

The complicated morals of The Last of Us, explained.

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The politics of The Last of Us are muddled, to say the least. While gamers well-acquainted with the Naughty Dog source material may have a deeper understanding of the ideological factions in the dystopian Earth that has seen most of humanity ravaged by a fungal brain infection, the HBO show makes the morality in this beleaguered world far more ambiguous.

The Last of Us Season 1 ends with a particularly prickly ethical conundrum that has fans questioning who are the heroes in this series, and who are the villains. Who was right and who was wrong in the Season 1 finale? Or is that even the right question to be asking? Let’s take a closer look.

Warning! Huge spoilers ahead for The Last of Us Episode 9.

Joel (Pedro Pascal) in The Last of Us.


What happens in The Last of Us Episode 9?

The Last of Us Episode 9, titled “Look for the Light,” kicks off with a flashback to Ellie’s birth. Her mother, Anna Williams (Ashley Johnson) is revealed to be a longtime friend of Firefly leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge). In a cruel twist of fate, Anna becomes Infected during childbirth. She begs Marlene to shoot her and save Ellie, and Marlene tearfully complies.

We then flash-forward to Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) as they head to Salt Lake City and the Fireflies. When they arrive, a pair of Fireflies discovers them and knocks Joel out. They take both Ellie and Joel to St. Mary’s Hospital.

When Joel regains consciousness, he sees Marlene but not Ellie. Joel panics, but Marlene informs him that they are prepping her for surgery. They are going to remove the fungus from Ellie’s brain to obtain the vaccine. However, Ellie won’t survive this procedure.

Marlene and her fellow Fireflies are convinced this is the only way to ensure the salvation of mankind. But Joel doesn’t buy it. He goes on a murderous rampage to save Ellie. Marlene pleads for mercy, but he shoots her too. Joel drives Ellie away from St. Mary’s Hospital. When she awakens in an anesthetized daze and asks what happened, Joel lies.

The Fireflies vs. Joel: Who was right?

Joel in front of Firefly propaganda.


Putting the complex issue of Joel’s actions aside, the Fireflies haven’t exactly exemplified upstanding virtuosity throughout most of the show. This is a highly-trained, revolutionary militia group. Although they are in an ongoing war with FEDRA — described by several characters as a fascist organization — they are often described as domestic terrorists. The Fireflies even recruited a teenager (Ellie’s friend Riley) to build bombs for them. (Then again, FEDRA was training kids to join the military, too.)

But it’s the Fireflies who prove that they are willing to kill an innocent child to cure the world of a zombifying disease. Maybe the intentions that the Fireflies have are pure and altruistic, but the way that they do it seems far less dignified. Their decision to kidnap Joel and Ellie and move forward with the surgery without any sort of consent is a huge red flag. Maybe Ellie would have said yes and sacrificed her life for the greater good, but the Fireflies never gave her the chance.

TBH, it’s unclear whether or not Marlene deserves to rest in peace.


The Inverse Analysis — The Fireflies are just one example of The Last of Us’ core message: Humans are forced to act inhumanely (sometimes even against their own moral convictions) during desperate times of survival. For every act of bravery and compassion in the show, there are three more people doing whatever it takes to get by.

In a zombie apocalypse, thinking about right vs. wrong is sort of missing the point. So did the Fireflies deserve Joel’s wrath? The answer may simply be that no one deserves to live in a world like that.

The Last of Us Season 1 is streaming now on HBO and HBO Max.

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