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On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
The Politics of The Last of Us
Duration
0:00 / 37:45
Published
April 13, 2023

Despite the progressive politics of early zombie films like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, modern narratives about zombies are often strikingly conservative, displaying a world that rewards rugged individualism and presents a pessimistic view of human nature. The recent HBO drama The Last of Us, based on the acclaimed 2013 video game of the same name, exemplifies this tendency. The show takes place two decades after an outbreak of a zombifying fungal infection triggers global societal collapse. In this post-apocalyptic world, a fascist government violently maintains order within walled-off “quarantine zones,” while a brutal resistance group called the Fireflies strives to overthrow them. The Last of Us follows the cynical smuggler Joel (Pedro Pascal) and a teenager named Ellie (Bella Ramsey), who is immune to the fungus, on their treacherous journey to meet up with a team of Fireflies who believe they can use her to create a vaccine. As Joel and Ellie bond against the backdrop of a dog-eat-dog world where no one can be trusted, the show presents a largely right-wing vision in which the only path to redemption is through caring for one’s immediate kin. According to Neil Druckmann—the co-creator of the series as well as the game and its sequel, who spent his early childhood in a West Bank settlement—elements of The Last of Us are informed by the politics of Israel/Palestine. On this week’s episode of On the Nose, editor-in-chief Arielle Angel, managing editor Nathan Goldman, fellow Dahlia Krutkovich, and contributor Hazem Fahmy discuss the politics of the show, its relationship to Israel/Palestine, and its evocations of the Holocaust.

Note that this episode includes spoilers for the HBO series, as well as the game and its sequel, which will form the basis of future seasons of the show.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Articles Mentioned:

‘The Last of Us’ Is a Very Conservative Show. Really,” Michelle Goldberg, The New York Times

The Not So Hidden Israeli Politics of ‘The Last of Us Part II,’” Emanuel Maiberg, Vice

The Evolution of Ellie,” Elise Favis, The Washington Post

“The Gray Zone,” Primo Levi (from The Drowned and the Saved)

The Last of Us Is Not a Video-Game Adaptation,” Andrea Long Chu, Vulture


Transcript

Arielle Angel: Hello and welcome back to On the Nose. I’m your host, Arielle Angel, Editor in Chief of Jewish Currents. I’m joined today by Managing Editor, Nathan Goldman, our fellow Dahlia Krutkovich, and a contributor to Jewish Currents, Hazem Fahmy, who is actually, I think, the only one of the four of us to play The Last of Us video game, which is relevant because that’s what we’re talking about today: The Last of Us. The original video game debuted in 2013, and this year, it was made into a high-budget HBO extravaganza with Pedro Pascal playing Joel, a rugged murderer in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, charged with shepherding Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, who is resistant to the fungal virus that has decimated the world population. And they are going cross country to see if they can meet up with a group of fireflies, a resistance group who will do something to turn her into a vaccine and save mankind. So if you have not watched the show, now’s the time to jump off. There will definitely be spoilers in this episode.

Hazem Fahmy: I will say also for the second video game as well.

AA: And for the second video game, so potentially for the next season of The Last of Us. Yikes. But if you’re just interested, stick around. The reason we wanted to talk about The Last of Us is zombie apocalypse fiction is kind of famously right wing. The trope is that at a certain point, you’re not usually worried about the zombies, you’re worried about other people because in a lawless world, people do not cooperate. They take what’s theirs, and they become murderous, raping psychopaths. And therefore, we need the strong arm of the state. We need arms, as David French put it and which was repeated in a New York Times article by Michelle Goldberg, called “The Last of Us is a Very Conservative Show. Really,” she attributes to David French, the conservative thinker, that zombie fiction may be the most conservative fiction of all. And she says, “After all, it often features government collapse, the necessity of marksmanship, and the brutality of man in a state of nature.” But even beyond that, this series, which was created by Neil Druckmann, who was born in Tel Aviv, moved to a West Bank settlement with his family as a child, and then moved to the US at age 11, has a number of resonances to the situation in Israel/Palestine, which Druckmann has talked about repeatedly in interviews, so we’re going to dig into that a little bit today. I thought we might start with just the idea of the zombie genre as a conservative genre, and a little bit, maybe start to suss out some of the politics of The Last of Us in general.

HF: It’s really upsetting that the tropes of the zombie genre, and post-apocalyptic fiction in general, tend to go so right wing so fast when it really wasn’t always the case. I mean, especially with George A. Romero’s films Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, they’re certainly not beyond critique, but it was a very different vision of what that kind of fiction can say about our relationship to consumerism, our relationship to the police, race. But certainly, by the time you get to the 2000s, zombie fiction is just a hellscape of right-wing tropes. It’s interesting, though, now, to see how much attention there is on The Last of Us specifically, because I feel like I haven’t seen that, at least as much, on major zombie titles in the last six years or so.

AA: I mean, I guess The Walking Dead kind of appealed to people who liked that genre, and The Last of Us, I think, just by virtue of being on HBO and being billed as premier television, commands this audience that may not normally watch zombie fiction

HF: And The Walking Dead was certainly positioned much more as a geek, nerd property. It seems to me that it’s always been marketed more towards people who like the comics, and people who are into zombies, and sci fi, and adjacent genres, whereas The Last of Us—honestly, a lot like the games—is very much, from the beginning, billed as the prime, prestige HBO show.

Dahlia Krutkovich: I’ll also say that it models itself very much in line with shows like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos that are supposed to distill these essential truths about humanity and the way the world works, and teach us about human relationships in this very didactic, kind of essential mode of how parents love children. And I think that’s kind of the kernel around which this particular show is built. It is an extremely Hobbesian way of understanding the world, right? Everyone is trying to kill your child, and you’re the only person who could, theoretically, take their life if you wanted to. Ultimately, what really stuck out to me, as far as this extremely conservative rendering of how the world is going to end, is frankly, it’s not that difficult to imagine the world ending this way. Not just because it’s a zombie pandemic, but just as far as government overreach, people being rounded up and shipped off to the QZ, or like this fascist successor state to an unfederalized mode of imagining America. We’re not actually moving beyond the society that we’re operating in today, it’s just kind of some attenuated mode of the state of nature, or just the primal fantasy of the family being the kernel of any actual society.

Nathan Goldman: Yeah, I mean, part of what was striking to me is the way that it really seems so structured, narratively, around this conflict between a belief in the possibility of the redeemability of humanity, as a whole, as a universal on the one hand, and then the care for your immediate kin on the other hand. I was talking to some friends about it and laughing when I got to this point, and I think it’s in the fourth episode, because I was noting how forthright it was about that conflict, and sort of on the nose. And then there’s a conversation that gets quoted from a lot in this episode, from this exchange between Joel and Ellie. He has this moment where he says, like, “There’s no hope for humanity. The only thing that’s important is family.” I think it’s a question to what degree the show complicates that or not. It doesn’t present a super impeccably traditionalist vision of the nuclear family, in the sense of like, ultimately, the parent-child relationship at the core of it is Joel and Ellie, who are not related. The way in which they have come together as a pretty secure father-daughter dyad is through this thing where his daughter was killed in the beginning of the outbreak, and it’s clear that she ends up being a direct surrogate figure for her. It’s interesting, even in this conversation between Joel and Ellie, that he references Tess, who was his partner, who dies early in the show, also as family, someone who is not family in the most direct way.

NG: And then—this is the focus of the Michelle Goldberg piece—is the relationship between two men, which has a very—I mean, I agree with her reading—a very conservative frame that’s just tweaked in the sense that it’s a homosexual relationship. Conservative in the sense that the one member of a couple, played by Nick Offerman, is this conspiratorial libertarian, who’s, as Michelle Goldberg talks about in the piece, his vision of the world is validated by the world breaking down and there’s this funny moment where his lover and partner says to him, like, “You think all of the government are Nazis,” and Nick Offerman’s character says, “They are all Nazis,” because in the present moment, the government is fascist. The post-apocalyptic world has validated his conservative beliefs, and it becomes this very sweet and romantic mini story that has the happiest ending of anything within the show, and is also predicated on this right-wing fantasy of like, the whole world is a threat. They survive by having like traps that kill anyone who approaches, and there’s this letter that Nick Offerman’s character leaves for Joel, which basically says the point of people like us is we’re men who protect people and who care for them, and so it’s this very directly paternalistic view of the world, where the only possible site of meaning is taking care of your kin, basically.

AA: But I just want to like complicate some of this, in fairness to the show. Because as you pointed out, a lot of this kin, post-apocalypse, is chosen kin, because the biological kin, for the most part, is probably dead. And the second piece of this is that the only really functional society that we see at any point is a communist society. And it seems more matriarchally led, like there’s a black woman who’s democratically elected but is in charge when we meet her. And there’s a moment where I think Joel says to his brother, who’s living on this Wyoming commune, “Oh, it’s like communism,” kind of in a pejorative way, and the brothers like, “No, it isn’t.” And the woman is like, “Yes, it is exactly that.” I mean, we meet several different societies through the course of the show, and there’s a only one that seems to work in this environment, except for this lonely existence of these two men, which is very sweet but clearly solitary. This is the only societal structure that makes sense in the post-apocalypse.

HF: It’s really interesting to me as well that the one community we see that is acting in this communal way is also so isolated and maintains a notoriously violent border policy, such that people in the area are terrified of them. And they add some really weird imagery going up to that, where the couple seems to be indigenous folks, and they’re on this frontier-esque Wyoming landscape. And when the people from the commune show up, they’re on horses with cowboy hats. It’s evoking this really intense border imagery, and as far as we know, they’re not really trying to reach out or really trying to open it up to any other survivors. They’re just bunkering down, and it really seems like the only reason they don’t kill Joel on the spot is that he’s Tommy’s brother.

DK: It’s a totally closed society. Joel reprimands his brother for not getting in contact with him, once they meet up, basically, “Why didn’t you answer my radio signal?” And the brother goes, “We’re really trying not to advertise what we have going on here. What we have is our stuff,” right, regarding it jealously, basically. And nobody is allowed in. In fact, when Ellie is taken in by another similarly separate settlerish colony, it’s done for completely malicious reasons, we come to find out. The guy who runs it has a vision of, she is basically supposed to be his successor in his weird, religious cult, and he is also intimated to be a pedophile. The only reason someone would take you in and keep you close is to use you in this very malicious way. Joel himself doesn’t want to take Ellie across the way, basically. The fireflies come to Joel and say, “You’re the only smuggler who can get Ellie all the way west. You’re the only guy we trust. And if you do that, we’ll help you find your brother.” And that is the only reason Joel wants to risk his neck for this girl. There’s no sense of the greater good, this greater society.

AA: I actually think there’s a salient connection to make between the Jackson Commune, which is the kibbutz system, right? The idea of a closed, socialist unit that also very violently delineates between in and out. I mean, we know that kibbutz system was very much a closed system, and that was Mizrahim and certainly Palestinians were not allowed into this closed system where everybody was being cared for, and everybody was sharing resources equally, and, in fact, were expropriated from in order to do that. So yeah, I mean, this might be a bridge for us in connecting, a little bit, the politics of the show, and Druckmann’s own background and experience growing up, at least for some time, in Israel and specifically in a settlement.

HF: What’s really fascinating to me about this, given that he has said all these things, and that the Zionist imagery and illusions are cranked up to 100 in the second game, what’s really interesting is that in the first game, there’s almost nothing, at least nothing that is very explicit or very unambiguous. There’s certainly a lot of general issues with zombie media leaning towards the right wing, having this kind of anti-leftist nihilism, like “It’s a fucking terrible world, and you just got to watch it,” like that attitude. But there’s almost nothing at all about Zionism or Palestine, and then in 2020, in the lead up to the release of the second game, in all these interviews, Druckmann just constantly is talking about his upbringing, is talking about how witnessing the Second Intifada—I cannot stress this enough, as a settler—how that influenced him and his ideas about cycles of violence. And then the actual game comes out, and that kind of logic is very much baked into it, and there’s much more explicit imagery about religious fanaticism, and this fight that’s been going on between these two factions for God knows how long, and they keep having revenge on each other. But then also, the second game starts off with the daughter of the doctor that Joel killed—it’s now however, many years later, she’s an adult—she tracks Joel down and kills him in front of Ellie as revenge for her father.

AA: Very Kill Bill.

HF: Exactly. And then Ellie sets out on a whole cross-country journey to find this girl and kill her. And across the way, there are all kinds of cycles of violence, factions clashing and whatnot. And it’s a really, really interesting shift in the ethos of the game and the way that you experience that game as a player, because the world is constantly telling you that this is an extremely difficult environment, and every resource is precious, and every fight could be your last, but you’re setting out on this insane revenge fantasy that honestly, I would find really hard to believe someone doing in a post-apocalyptic environment. Which maybe is me being too generous to the human spirit, but there’s a really massive dissonance once they introduce that theme, which also carries into some of the changes they made in the show. At least to me, it becomes much harder to buy that people would act this way in a world that’s also so rough and dog-eat-dog, and you don’t know if you’re gonna live tomorrow.

AA: Maybe it’s worth actually reading why he wanted to do this. I mean, he talks about, in his interviews, that this revenge fantasy was sparked from him watching a video in 2000, where a pair of Israeli soldiers were killed by a mob in Ramallah, and it was captured on video, and he felt this desire for vengeance when he saw the video. And he describes it in pretty intense terms. I don’t remember the exact quote, but he says something like, “I wish that I could immediately press a button and make all those people feel what they were doing to the soldiers,” you know, and then he admits to feeling grossed out and guilty about the feelings that he had about that desire for vengeance. I’ll read this quote: “I landed on this emotional idea of can we, over the course of the game, make you feel this intense hate that is universal in the same way that unconditional love is universal? This hate that people feel has the same kind of universality. You hate someone so much that you want them to suffer in the way they’ve made someone you love suffer.” I mean, first of all, do we buy the idea of like a universal hate as equal to the idea of a universal love? I’ve actually never heard it expressed this way. Not to say that hate isn’t a force in the world, but the idea of a universal hatred, there’s something in that feels certainly new to me as expressed.

HF: To me, it’s certainly horrifying. There’s something really despicable about believing that. But to me, it’s also very convenient for someone who is a settler, and who grew up in a settlement, and is sort of attempting to whitewash that experience and the fact of a colonization of Palestine, to be like, “Oh, well, it’s universal. All humans experience this kind of hate. All humans experience this kind of desire for violence,” which, of course, is itself a central talking point of Zionism, and particularly of Zionism in the last few decades. This idea that, first of all, the quote-unquote hate that Palestinians have is decontextualized, is not rightful rage at colonization, ethnic cleansing, extreme violence for however many decades now, but also that it’s not about the freedom, and dignity, and autonomy, and having control over one’s land, and being able to access one’s family. It’s just hate. They just hate us.

AA: They just hate us.

DK: I mean, it also justifies this quest that doesn’t make any sense, right? In a post-apocalyptic universe, as you were saying, Hazem, if every resource is scarce and it’s impossible to track anyone down, why would you embark on this quest to kill someone you have seen for two seconds? And yet, I was reading this interview that one of the cowriters of the second video game did with the Washington Post, and they were talking about, basically, what would be this motivator for Ellie, and what would give her life meaning? Because as Joel has taken away the meaning of her life with the end of the first season, her new meaning in life is to redeem Joel. And that is the only thing that she can really hold on to, and the only thing that motivates her as a character. It’s an extremely pat plot device, isn’t it? If all your characters are motivated by universal love or universal hatred, the show writes itself, doesn’t it? And it is this extremely consuming and gripping drama because don’t you, as a viewer, want to experience these intense emotions? But ultimately, we live in this abstracted reality with things like podcasts, so everything is mediated, so maybe our experience of the world is actually totally diluted. But like I said before, this show is trying to get to the core the essence of human emotional life, and it must be universal love and universal hatred.

AA: Well, I do want to point out the ways in which some of this vengeance idea shows up in the first season. So Melanie Lynskey, she’s the head of a newly liberated quarantine zone, which they’ve liberated from the fascist state, which is Fedra. And they have this opportunity to build a new life in this place, which conveniently doesn’t have any infected. They’ve all they’ve all been pushed underground. And it’s actually her quest for vengeance on the person who killed her brother, who was this charismatic leader, that essentially gets her and her entire inner circle killed, but also releases all of the infected from where they were hiding underground and has them running towards the city, which has no walls around it. So it’s like this desire for vengeance, even in this season, we already see it as this incredible force that unleashes more evil into the world. But I think you’re right, Hazem, it’s the question of, “Is this mere vengeance, or is this part of a campaign of justice?” is really obscured in a case like this, right?

HF: And it’s also really interesting, that character wasn’t in the game.

AA: Oh, really?

HF: Yeah. There is a level where you pass through, and you’ve liberated QZ, and you meet Henry and his brother. Some of the major beats play out similarly, but you don’t get Melanie Lynskey’s Kathleen, you don’t see this immediate shift from a supposedly liberatory group to doing the exact same thing Fedra was doing, and murdering people left and right, and being judge, jury, executioner. But then also devoting all these resources to get one guy when you fully know how rare bullets are, the risk of running into infected, and just how costly any single action could be in this world.

AA: Not to mention the fact that this liberatory force that has just liberated from a fascist dictatorship can only be just as brutal as what preceded it. What it comes down to is only the individual personality of the leadership. The character of the people or the rank and file is not relevant, in this case, at all.

NG: Yeah, in the show, you have the political in a super abstract sense, or at a high level, and then you have the kind of familial and interpersonal, and there’s no middle term. There’s something kind of satisfying about it, because it creates this sense of archetypalness and melodrama, or something. Like in that part with the liberated QZ, I don’t think we get much of a sense of the political collective of the liberators outside of the idea that there’s her and there’s her brother, and there’s also her henchman, who’s kind of seems in love with her. But everyone else is a kind of disposable mass, treated in a way that—and I haven’t played the games, but in a way that most about the show of evoked the feeling of playing those kinds of games—to me, there is a feeling of disposability of a lot of these people. I mean, there’s moments when we see Ellie kill someone and she’s very torn up about it, and so that person does get humanized, in a way, in this moment. But this somehow seems related to me to the stuff that Druckmann has talked about with his relationship to Israel and Palestine. There’s just a lot of slippage between thinking about a family relation and thinking about an idea of a political relation. It’s interesting to think about going from him watching the video of the soldiers being killed, having this kind of extreme reaction that he then goes back to and puts into this interpersonal relation, like treating the political familiarly, or something, or interpersonally. There’s this kind of collapse.

AA: Totally.

DK: There’s a quote in a Vice article about his dad talking about the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011, where Israel basically gave up what many commentators in the Israeli media thought was way too much, basically, too many political prisoners for one imprisoned soldier. Druckmann’s father goes, “Well, I think this is a terrible idea politically, but I would give up anything to save you, Neil.” And this is the moment where, for Druckmann, it all kind of clicks into place, where you would do anything for your kin.

AA: Yeah, and of course, where that provides the seed for The Last of Us is in Joel’s decision at the end. Instead of allowing the doctors to kill Ellie, humanely on some level, but still kill her in order to create a vaccine, he decides to massacre that entire operation.

HF: I’ll say that it was really interesting, experiencing it, quote-unquote passively, as a viewer, having first experienced it actively as a player. I loved that ending when I first played it, in how horrible it made me feel. I felt a very particular mix of anguish and empathy when I was done with that game, and it felt to me, at the time at least, it felt to me like that ending was touching upon this really interesting idea that could be read critically, of, well, this is the natural endpoint of this very masculinist, very patriarchal idea of “you would do anything for your kids.” It entails catastrophic, existential stakes. In entails you dooming humanity because you don’t want your kid to suffer and you’d do anything for her. In this case the surrogate kid. But in the show, what’s interesting is that even though in some ways, it’s more horrifying in the show, like for example, in that massacre sequence, there are a couple of shots where he kills unarmed people, and you don’t really do that in the game, everyone’s shooting at you. But in some ways, it felt more alienating playing it, because I really didn’t want to do it. But it’s a linear game, and you can’t opt out. If you want to finish it, you have to follow through. And in some ways, that was a more interesting experience than watching it.

AA: Because it makes you confront what you have to do in this situation.

HF: You do it yourself. Yeah.

NG: I was struck—and this could also be personal for a lot of different reasons—but it did not feel as wrenching to me as I expected. In a way, that also seems to the show’s detriment or something. But it felt to me like there were points at which the show was trying to stage this conflict between like, “Redeem humanity, do the right thing,” quote-unquote, for the universal versus protect your people. But it felt like even though it set that up, and it painted some picture of why the save humanity option like is good, leaving aside the one good communist society, which I think is fraught in all the ways we already talked about, it felt like the show was so relentless in it’s giving you, like, “This is the world. This is who people are,” and stuff that it made it feel like a no-brainer or something. It put me in a position to feel aligned in the experience with Joel’s position to such a degree that it was like, “Well, this is what you would have to do.”

AA: You mean, “We’re all living in a dangerous neighborhood,” quote-unquote?

DK: This is just how the world works. This is the logic of the show.

HF: In a sense of, “This world is not worth giving your kid up for.”

AA: Yeah.

HF: Maybe if it hadn’t been so broken and brutal and so fucking terrible, and dog-eat-dog.

DK: There’s no discussion that this medical procedure might not work. I was thinking, you know, “Who’s this doctor? Where are we? What’s this hospital?” None, no discussion of that. No, entertaining of the possibility of any actual doubt as far as like, what the outcome will be.

NG: How are they going to convince people to take this vaccine?

DK: Yeah, there’s no actual follow through on what this plan could be.

NG: I did feel like the most the show goes back and critiques the inevitability of its own outcome or something, felt to me in the exchange between him and Marlene afterward. And Marlene is this kind of firefly higher-up person, who is framed as responsible for a lot of this, and she says to him, like, “You’re not doing this for her. You’re doing this for yourself.” And that did feel borne out or supported by other stuff. To me, at least in my experience, I left not feeling as guilty about my identification with Joel as I felt I should and with the outcome of his actions, but it did feel like it was, in some way, critiquing that familial impulse as not exceeding the self, as still wrapped up in the self.

AA: Yeah. I’m stating the obvious here, but neither of them give her a choice. And it seems like if she had a choice, she would probably do it. That seems to be the implication when she makes him swear that he was telling the truth. There’s an implication that she kind of knows what the tradeoff might have been, and that she would have preferred to go through with it. Maybe I’m reading too much into that.

NG: No, I think so too. Yeah.

AA: I mean, we’re talking about, of course, the dog-eat-dog, almost proto-Zionist politics of the show, as discussed by Druckmann. Of course, what precedes that politics is the Holocaust in the show, which is the outbreak, which is the collapse of our civilization as we know it. Which for me, I’ll just disclose to the audience here that I have really struggled with watching apocalypse art, or reading it, or whatever, consuming it, because of the overt Holocaust imagery. I’ve also like, really had moments in my life where processing impending climate apocalypse or climate grief has been very difficult for me, precisely in the way that it seems to echo a kind of, at least in my own family mythology—my grandparents are survivors—a lot of these questions feel the same, like who lives and who dies, and how random that is, and collapse of civilization as you know it, and mass death, and the questions about the decisions that you might make or might not make. I found that really difficult in the show, in particular, especially in the early episodes, I found the early episodes, really, I hate to use the word triggering, but I just used it, so it happened. And I wonder if you all had any thoughts about that, and thoughts about the way that the show may or may not be playing with some of that imagery. I mean, certainly, it’s more explicit in some moments, especially when they round up towns, people who are not infected, just to shoot them into ravines so that they can’t become infected. And certainly the burning of infected bodies is a moment with more overt imagery.

HF: Another interesting difference between the first and the second games is that, with the exception of, again, the sort of generalized imagery you find a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction—a mass death, immense trauma, the randomness of that violence, the kind of horrific decisions people are forced to make—except for that generalized imagery, there’s nothing really super specific that alludes to the Holocaust. And then in the second game, one of the main characters is a Jewish woman that Ellie is dating, and as they’re going through the country, she basically educates her about Jewish history, including the Holocaust. So there’s a whole level where you’re in a synagogue, and she’s just kind of explaining what things are. But yeah, that’s not really present in the first game.

AA: So the second game makes the Jew the universal subject and kind of explicitly creates a survival narrative from the Holocaust and transposes it onto the post-apocalyptic landscape.

DK: I mean, just in the way that we’ve articulated this here, I’m thinking a lot about the Primo Levi essay, “The Gray Zone.” There’s this theoretical concept that he basically develops over the course of this essay, which is that you can’t judge anyone for the choices they made in Auschwitz. The gray zone being not just “Oh, a gray zone in which things are morally ambiguous,” but rather, a world in which none of the stable things that you latch on to morally exist at all. Everything is up in the air, nothing is constant, everything is changing, and you only have a moment’s notice to make your decision. So there’s no moral judgment whatsoever. You cannot judge what people did in the camps. And I wonder if we’re supposed to approach the show—which again, also tries to distill the essence of humanity—we’re encouraged not to judge so literally on the morality of what these characters are doing and the actions that they’re carrying out, but rather on the emotional truth of what they’re feeling, because that’s all they have, right? In some ways, it’s the only thing they have left. So it’s almost like you’re just existing in the Auschwitz of the mind almost, right? No judgment whatsoever, accept, do what you need to do.

AA: I mean, I found the vulnerability of the characters extremely painful. Andrea Long Chu, writing in Vulture, writes specifically about the vulnerability of Joel. I’ll just read it. “What distinguishes The Last of Us is the way the player character dies. In the series, Pascal’s soulful Joel is keenly aware of his own mortality — his bad knees, his hearing loss. But in the video game, Joel actually does die over and over. Each time, the game snatches back control of the camera, forcing players to watch as he is shot, stabbed, burned alive, beaten with a lead pipe; as shrieking zombies gouge out his eyes, snap his jaw apart, rip glistening red sinew from his neck. [...] As in most games, Joel’s deaths are shunted off into a noncanonical universe; the player retakes control of Joel at the latest checkpoint, and he has no memory of his latest fatality. But the player does, and this visceral sense of Joel’s death — something that, speaking strictly from the narrative point of view, never happens — comes to define their relationship to both Joel and the game as a whole. Players thus experience two Joels: the Joel presented in the story, a powerful father figure propelled to heroic heights by grief and love, and the version of Joel controlled by the player, a terrified man with poor aim, little endurance, and a perilously high mortality rate.”

AA: I think that binary is so powerful, and also—obviously, it’s not what Andrea was talking about—but does, in some way, relate to the worldview that we are intuiting from these comments that Druckmann has made, these public comments. I mean, I think the reason that it was so painful to watch is I’m experiencing a little bit of ego death watching it, not just identifying in some way with Joel and Ellie, but with all of the people that we are seeing, and just the way that they’re being picked off one by one. And I think the experience of oneself as both the hero and the vulnerable person, at all moments, is so much the siege mentality inherent in in Zionism, both the hero and the victim at the same time. And the hyperawareness of these repeated deaths feels very important in this schema.

DK: Multiple times, we see the ripple effect of these deaths. It’s not just the death in this one moment, but rather, we’re confronted, even episodes later, with family members who are grieving the loss of this person who was just kind of a body in the previous episode. The first time Joel and Ellie try and stick out the fireflies, Joel gets ambushed and kills this guy. And in the next episode, it opens with the preacher of the murderous, pedophile cult preaching about the Book of Revelations, which is the Christian vision of the end of the world. As he’s preaching with the Book of Revelations, this child starts crying, and she goes, “When can we bury my father?” And he goes, “We’ll bury your father when the ice thaws out—

NG: And spring comes.

DK: Exactly. But in the Book of Revelations, spring never comes. But at the same time, we see the emotional butterfly effect of this death, even though this guy was in the previous episode, some crazed attacker. The way that that family talks about Joel, Joel is the crazed attacker as well. So multiple times, the POV gets swapped in the way that I think the game tries to achieve. But ultimately, I still think that it presents this very narrow view of how relations can be built, which is truly just looking out for your own flock.

HF: Absolutely. And in terms of the way the Henry and Sam plotline plays out, It really, really emphasizes that. Because even when you do decide to open your heart and trust people—and even when they are good people, even when they’re not going to try and backstab you, or they’re not going to otherwise harm you—

AA: Or their children.

HF: Yeah, shit still goes down. Like he still gets infected and still almost killed Ellie. I always struggle with these kinds of plotlines, particularly in gritty, dystopian fiction, because it’s really giving “We live in a society.” It’s such overkill. It adds so much fuel to the idea that no one is trustworthy. Even when they’re good people, you cannot rely on anyone. You can’t trust anyone. You can’t let your guard down. Even when those people will not actually harm you, they could still harm you.

AA: Well, thank you for joining us. You’ll have to come back when season two comes out, and we’ll have to see what they actually end up doing with the all of the material in the game, and how overt the Israel/Palestine references become. If you liked this episode, please share it. Leave us a review and subscribe to Jewish Currents, JewishCurrents.org Thanks very much, everyone. See you next time.

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