The Last of Us Part II: How a game handled Ellie's coming out story with care
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By Elise Favis
This article contains major spoilers for "The Last of Us Part II."
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I'd never felt so nervous in my life. Sitting across a table from my father, I told him I was gay. My heart thumped in my chest and my palms clammed up. I could barely look him in the eye. But he smiled, told me he'd wondered if that was the case, and expressed that he loved me. He had a lot of questions. He didn't completely understand, but he wanted to try.
Ellie and her father figure, Joel, go through similar beats when he accepts her as a gay woman in "The Last of Us Part II." Coming out is a difficult and occasionally painful process, even in favorable situations. Though it's a delicate topic, "The Last of Us Part II" tackles it gracefully in ways few video games have managed, especially in the AAA space.
"Ellie has very solidly planted herself and knows who she is, knows what she wants, and what she likes," co-writer Halley Gross told The Post in an interview last month. Gross emphasized that cementing Ellie's sexuality in Part II was a priority, especially after the team framed her as canonically gay in "The Last of Us" DLC "Left Behind."
A harsh, post-apocalyptic world may not sound like the ideal setting for a coming out story, but "The Last of Us Part II" weaves it into the quieter moments. Ellie's queerness has significance in the main narrative, as does the story of Lev, a young transgender boy fleeing an ultrareligious community that rejects him. That particular subplot has been received as controversial, with varied critiques within the trans community. The exploration of Ellie's sexual identity, however, deeply resonated with me.
Ellie and Joel had just spent a few years in Jackson, a small town in Wyoming cut off from infected (what the series calls zombies). Mostly via flashbacks, we peek into moments of that safe universe, highlighting the ups and downs of a gay teenager navigating romance and coming out.
When Joel asks about a kiss he witnessed between Ellie and her soon-to-be girlfriend Dina, Ellie fidgets and hesitates. They both struggle with eye contact for much of the discussion, but he eventually looks her straight in the eye and says Dina would be lucky to have her. It's a moment I deeply appreciated, especially when coming out stories, in many areas of pop culture, are often portrayed as incredibly painful, with queer characters facing disapproval by family members or peers.
I've experienced disheartening moments when coming out too, but positive depictions of this vulnerable process can be just as empowering and validating (i.e. this teenage girl who was encouraged by "Super Girl"). And that's an important tone "The Last of Us Part II" strikes well, in how Ellie is confident in her sexuality and how loved ones respond to her identity. She isn't entirely removed from bigotry, but Joel comes to her defense when an older man calls her a "loudmouthed d---" when she kisses Dina.
A thoughtful buildup to Ellie's frank discussion with Joel lends more authenticity to her coming out. During a flashback, players can read in her journal that she worried about confiding in him.
"Should I tell him?" she wrote. "I don't know. I don't know how he'd react."
Ellie writes that she's envious of her girlfriend at the time, Cat, who is open about their relationship and sexuality in ways Ellie isn't capable of, at least not yet. She wants to do the same, but doesn't know how. I ruminated similar questions before coming out: What would my friends and family think? Would they understand? These questions aren't easy to voice, and often they aren't voiced at all. These vulnerable thoughts are appropriately left in the confines of Ellie's private journal.
By age 13, I knew I was attracted to women, but I couldn't accept it and had trouble understanding myself. I crushed on female friends secretly, terrified that they would ever find out. Growing up in a Christian family, I was never taught that being gay was a sin like some experience in a religious upbringing, but the topic or possibility of being attracted to the same sex never came up at all. This planted the idea in my mind that, despite the feelings I had, maybe what I wanted didn't exist. Maybe I was making it up. Because no one else spoke of it, it became weird, if not wrong, to think that way. At least that's what I told myself.
When I befriended other queer people in college, I began to embrace myself. I attached self-esteem, aspirations and fears to my closeted identity. Eventually, I found confidence in my vulnerabilities and told loved ones how I was feeling. Having someone listen and understand helped validate my lived experiences, thoughts and desires. My dad was that person for me. And that's what Ellie sought in Joel.
In a flashback midway through the game from a time before Ellie's coming out, Joel asks whether Ellie and a male friend, Jesse, have feelings for one another. Ellie says no. Joel pushes, thinking he's right in his assumptions: "I've got a pretty keen eye with these sorts of things." I imagined Ellie's eyes rolling as she responds, "Not so keen with this one."
I couldn't help but laugh; the conversation is gentle, not hostile, and it reminded me of my own teenage years in the closet. Joel, a loving parent, tries so hard to reach Ellie's world, which has become more closed off in her adolescence. She's increasingly private about her life. Joel tries to bond by reading her favorite comics, or listening when she expresses an eagerness for more responsibility in Jackson's duties, like going on patrols.
I remember sharing meaningful hobbies with my dad when I was young, such as my taste in music, and how much it meant when he'd listen. Like Joel, he also tried to gather how I felt about boys. Though somewhat uncomfortable on the receiving side as a closeted teenager, it was his kindness and interest that I appreciated. But still, it was frustrating and made me doubtful. If he was misunderstanding me now, would he have trouble comprehending or accepting me when I told him the truth? In the end, I was accepted and loved by my family in the ways I always was. I had heard all the cautionary tales, of families ripped apart or friends turning away, but I was lucky to be met with love.
Coming out is a formative moment, and Joel accepting Ellie plays a significant role in her redemptive arc, which shows just how much this means to her. Part II sees Ellie struggling with Joel's past decision to protect her life instead of sacrificing her to save humanity. She wants to reconcile with him after he accepts her, but he is murdered before they can turn a new leaf. Following her dark, soul-searching journey, his acceptance frees her from hatred by the game's conclusion. Because of Joel, she spares his killer.
Ellie doesn't get a happy ending. She suffers, losing her relationship with Dina and their child, JJ, because of regretful choices she makes, routinely opting for vengeance over love. Eventually she finds peace, thanks in large part to Joel's final liberating act of kindness. This demonstrates the power of acceptance: Loving someone, in their entirety, validates and helps a person embrace themselves.
After coming out, I could cherish something that was denied to Ellie: A loving father who took the time to understand every facet of me. Today I seek guidance from him with relationships in ways I was never comfortable as a teenager. Coming out takes courage, and in my case, incited change and paved a better future in which I loved myself. For Ellie, and for me, these moments shape us into who we're meant to be.
The Washington Post