Before Ellie sets out on her revenge quest in The Last of Us Part II, she claims a broken watch from Joel's house before leaving Jackson, Wyoming. But what does this destroyed timepiece mean? We all loved the "eating clocks can be time-consuming" zinger from the sequel's very first scene, but the emotional throughline presented by the watch is tangled up with the guitar that Joel gives Ellie in that same opening scene. And the watch is perhaps the deepest of deep cuts, going all the way back to The Last of Us' prologue.
The way these two objects intertwine with the themes and emotions of Ellie and Joel's experiences in both games has a major significance in the way the game's finale plays out.
Spoilers for The Last of Us I and II follow.
What was the meaning of Joel's watch in The Last of Us?
When the first game opens, Joel's daughter Sarah gives him a watch for his birthday, but within a few short hours, the outbreak had overtaken their home in Austin, Texas which led to Sarah's death before the night was through. By the time the main events of the first game pick up 20 years later, the watch is broken, but Joel still wears it every day.
Even though it no longer works properly, the watch remains Joel's most prized possession. We're not given a clear explanation as to how the timepiece broke, but it can be assumed general apocalyptic wear and tear was the culprit.
The watch remains on Joel throughout the entire game and seems to function as a symbol for his survivor's guilt. Joel infrequently glances at the watch when reminded of Sarah, like some instances when he bonds with Ellie. He also touches the watch immediately after telling Ellie: "I struggled for a long time with survivin'." At this point, Joel had finally found some measure of peace.
How role does Joel's watch play inThe Last of Us 2?
Years later, Joel still thinks about Sarah and continues to wear the watch in all of his appearances in Last of Us 2. After his demise, one of the first things Ellie does is go into his house where she finds his revolver and the watch in a small box. Whereas the watch is an obvious memento that reminds Joel of Sarah, the guitar that Joel gives to Ellie is a symbol for the parental role he's taken in her life. That's why she regularly plays "Future Days" by Pearl Jam, the song that Joel sang in the game's opening scene when he gave her the guitar.
When Ellie looks at the battered watch, she remembers all the ways she failed Joel just as he remembered the feeling of regret over losing Sarah whenever he looked at the watch. In both cases, it's a kind of wallowing in self-pity, simmering in a sense of loss.
When Ellie strums her guitar, it's more about the bond she shares with Joel. Most of the flashbacks we experience as Ellie happen after she plays the guitar. For Ellie to move past her need for vengeance and anger over Joel's murder, she needs to leave both the guitar and the watch behind. They're both relics of the past, and the only way for her to finally move forward is to leave them behind.
On some level, Joel was never able to let go of his own past. Even though his continued wearing of the watch was more to remember Sarah fondly, it takes on a different meaning for Ellie.
In the final hours of The Last of Us 2, Ellie tracks Abby to Santa Barbara for one final confrontation and winds up sparing her nemesis when she remembers her final conversation with Joel, in which he expressed nothing but love and acceptance. So after she spares Abby and returns to the farm where she lived with Dina and JJ, Ellie leaves both the watch and the guitar behind. While these items might feel like accessories at first glance, they take on a much deeper meaning the longer we reflect on their importance in both games.
The Last of Us Part II is now available for PS4.