Last of Us Season Finale Presents a Bogus Trolley Problem Dilemma

As a non-fan of video games, I was one of many Last of Us viewers who had no idea what to expect from the season finale of the HBO series. But I’ve been bracing myself for weeks for a conclusion that star Bella Ramsey, who plays Ellie, promised would “divide people massively — massively.”

Who are these people, and why would they ever be divided?

Yes, I know lots of critics are dutifully acting like there was anything remotely unconventional about Sunday’s shoot-’em-up. The Hollywood Reporter had two critics talk out what it described as a “devastating finale.” The Today Show enlisted a philosophy professor to sort out our feelings.

But folks, I took a freshman ethics course, and feel well-equipped to handle the question of whether Joel (Pedro Pascal) did the right thing.

Of course he did. And every single person watching the show – who isn’t lying to themselves and others on Twitter — wanted him to do what he did. He did the only thing that made sense, not just emotionally, but within the logic of the show.

The Last of Us and The Trolley Problem

I’m assuming you know what Joel did or have no intention of watching the show, which lays out what I’m about to say much better, with its bazillion-dollar budget, than I can with this rattly keyboard, but here we go. SPOILERS.

In the season finale, Joel finally delivered Ellie to the rebellious Fireflys who claimed they could use Ellie to cure humanity of the fungal virus turning people into zombies, thanks to her immunity to zombie bites.

(We also learned in the episode that she probably gained immunity during childbirth, when her mother was bit just before delivering her. It was extremely sad.)

But: When she arrived at the Firefly facility and was put to sleep for surgery, Joel learned that the Fireflies’ method of extracting the cure required their doctors to remove cordyceps from her brain, which would kill her.

So Joel, and the audience, were presented with a seemingly simple version of The Trolley Problem, first discussed by Philippa Foot in 1967. It asks you to make the most ethical decision in various scenarios in which a trolley is about to go off a track, presumably killing many people, unless you sacrifice one person. (Who is described here as a “fat man,” which seems needlessly cruel, considering the hypothetical sacrifice he may be asked to make. But OK.)

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The trolley problem has come up kind of a lot lately, including in Knock at the Cabin, perhaps because our recent pandemic has made us think more and more about our moral and ethical obligations. It comes up in debates about vaccines and masks, for example.

What makes the Last of Us trolley problem seemingly simple is that it posits that Joel needs to decide between Ellie and all of humanity. Ellie has been sedated for this weird brain surgery, so she can’t decide what to do. Joel has to agree to be led out of the facility by Firefly thugs, so the Firefly surgeons can do their grim business on his daughter surrogate.

But the show isn’t really presenting a simple trolley problem. It’s a mess.

Why the Last of Us Trolley Problem Isn’t That Much of a Problem

First, there’s no guarantee that this medical procedure will work. This is the first time they’re trying it. And given that the procedure will kill Ellie, and may not even work, the Firefly doctors really seem to be rushing things.

Second, the procedure isn’t the only way to save humanity. As we’ve seen throughout The Last of Us, whole societies and cities have managed to survive — and in the case of Jackson, Wyoming, even thrive. There are ways to manage the zombie problem that don’t require killing unconscious teenage girls.

Third: Read that last part again. The Fireflies could have asked Ellie for her consent — to be killed — before putting her under. But they didn’t. Some people have made the claim that Joel did an unethical thing by lying to Ellie about what happened, after making Ellie’s decision for her.

But even assuming that Ellie might have consented to die, the safest decision in the event of an ethical tie is generally to not kill the innocent person. (And what about all the Fireflies Joel did kill? They weren’t innocent. They were either directly involved in the procedure, or trying to guard it.)

Finally, this is the finale of the first season of a show that will likely go on for a long time. This isn’t the final say on the matter of whether Ellie should be sacrificed to save humanity. This is just the introduction of that question. To present Joel’s decision as the final say in the matter is absurd.

Don’t Do Us Like The Walking Dead

The only ominous thing here is the possibility that The Last of Us, like The Walking Dead before it, will play the TV game of streeeeetching out storylines long past the point where they would naturally resolve, for the sake of keeping the franchise undead.

Early episodes of the show suggested that it had an admirably ruthless approach to storytelling in which anyone could die at any time. (In the first five episodes, we lost at least five very endearing characters who audiences might have liked to get to know over several seasons.) But their loss was good for the show, because it gave us the sense that we’d better stay on our toes.

In the latter part of the season, we learned the limits of the show’s ruthlessness. It did a frankly lame fake-out at the end of Episode 6, hinting that Joel might be killed off early — shades of Game of Thrones Season 1. It even ended with this Joel-free trailer of Episode 7:

But then he recovered, quite well, with help from a rampage by Ellie and some penicillin.

Nobody cried for the people Ellie killed to get Joel the medicine, because of course we didn’t: Ellie and Joel are the lead characters, and the people Ellie killed were either the architects or enforcers of murder. Just like the Fireflies.

That philosophy professor enlisted by Today – Steven Gimbel of Gettysburg Colleges — said something as true as it is obvious: “We are wired to respond more strongly to people we care about and to people we think are like us.”

There’s the rule of first-person: We become invested in characters from Humbert Humbert to Patrick Bateman, no matter how terrible they are, simply by our proximity to them. As viewers, we’re rooting for Ellie and Joel over the unseen masses, just because we’ve traveled with them for so long.

Main Image: Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us.