How HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ Tackled Reproductive Justice Issues

Nico Parker as Sarah and Pedro Pascal as Joel in The Last of Us. (HBO)

Fans know HBO’s The Last of Us, a television adaptation of the 2013 Naughty Dog video game by the same title, is more than just another zombie show. It is a story that raises important questions about human rights and justice. One useful framework we can use to engage with these questions is reproductive justice theory (RJT).

The three central tenets of RJT are as follows:

  1. People have a right to have children.
  2. People have a right not to have children.
  3. People have a right to parent their children in safe and healthy communities.

In our current reality, there are many challenges to those rights. A fictional world like the one we see in The Last of Us amplifies these challenges, much as they have been amplified during the real-world COVID-19 pandemic.

Reproductive justice themes can be seen throughout the series, beginning in the first episode, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness.” When the mind-controlling cordyceps infection breaks out in 2003, the U.S. military immediately starts trying to contain it. One of the show’s two protagonists, Joel (Pedro Pascal), is traumatized when his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) dies in his arms after a soldier shoots at them.

This is a heartbreaking moment for the audience, and a traumatic one for Joel, who we later learn attempts suicide following his daughter’s death. From an RJT standpoint, the government fails to protect his right as a father to parent his daughter at all, much less in a safe and healthy community.

The show’s other protagonist, 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsay), navigates a world overrun with “infected.” Ellie, who is immune to the infection, agrees to do what she can to help find a cure. She and Joel embark on a long, dangerous cross-country trip to find scientists studying the disease so they can examine her.

The perils of the trip come to a head in the last two episodes of the season. In Episode 8, “When We Are in Need”, Ellie is held captive by a cult whose leader, David (Scott Shepherd), wants Ellie to join them. While trying to groom her, David tells Ellie he sees potential in her—and he sees her as a potential partner, before affectionately touching her hand.

Ellie doesn’t take the bait. She fights her way out of her holding cell, and ultimately battles and kills David in a dramatic showdown inside a burning restaurant. During the fight, David pins Ellie to the ground and snarls in her ear, “I like it when they struggle.” This chilling scene is evocative of rape.

This puts Ellie’s right to choose whether to have children at stake. Rape can rob people of that choice—whether through coercion, or the direct, brutal violence we see at the episode’s climax. Ellie’s fight for survival in this episode is also a fight for control of her own body.

Ashley Johnson as Ellie’s mom in The Last of Us. (HBO)

The season finale, “Look for the Light,” extends this discussion about bodily autonomy. It opens with Ellie’s mother, Anna (Ashley Johnson), fleeing an infected in the woods while in labor with her daughter. Anna enters a house, fights off her pursuer, and delivers Ellie—but not before the infected bites Anna and transmits the cordyceps to her, and to Ellie through the uncut umbilical cord.

Later, Anna’s best friend Marlene (Merle Dandridge) arrives, finding Anna, Ellie and the dead infected. Anna asks Marlene to kill her before she turns, and to look after Ellie. Marlene is hesitant but agrees.

In the present time, Ellie and Joel are taken into custody by Marlene’s group of freedom fighters, the Fireflies. Marlene tells Joel that Ellie is being prepped for surgery. The surgeon plans to remove part of her brain to study the cordyceps that has grown in a symbiotic relationship with her since birth.

Marlene, as the guardian Anna chose for her daughter, and Joel, the father figure Ellie chose, are now at odds.

Marlene knows Ellie wants to help find a cure. She feels it would be better for Ellie to go to sleep and never wake up. And as she tells Joel, she also can’t bear the thought of Ellie growing up in such a dangerous world. Ellie’s sacrifice would make the world better for other children.

Joel, outraged by the Fireflies’ actions and unable to face the loss of another daughter, goes on a rampage. He finds it unacceptable to sacrifice Ellie, no matter what good might come from it. He kills several Fireflies, including Marlene and the surgeon. He couldn’t save Sarah, but he resolves to save Ellie.

Many fans argue the choice should be Ellie’s to make. But she is never given an opportunity to assent to the full consequences of the surgery or opt out.

At the conclusion of season 1, it remains to be seen how these choices will affect Ellie’s relationship with Joel and the rest of her life.

So, what does RJT have to say about this situation? There is no single, clear answer, and that is what makes The Last of Us such a powerful story. Anyone who watches the show will come to their own conclusions, based on their own moral compass.

But contemplating the tenets of RJT can enrich fans’ discussions about the questions the franchise raises. Rather than thinking of the ending as one side or the other of the classic trolley problem, we can consider all the complexities of the situation.

We can sympathize with both Marlene and Joel, who both seem to want the best for Ellie. Whether we agree with their choices or not, we can see they make them out of love for her.

We can sympathize with Ellie, who has the most important choice of her life taken away from her. At the end of the day, both adults who have been responsible for her, failed to ask her, point blank, “What do you want to do?”

And most importantly, we can sympathize with real people making difficult decisions for themselves and their families.

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Kaelyn Ireland (they/she) is an early-career scholar currently studying political discourse around reproductive justice issues and how it is represented in contemporary popular media. They are pursuing an M.A. in American Studies from Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, GA.