False hope is a devil. It whispers empty promises in our ear that this too shall pass. That we can find a solution, no matter how dire the situation or far-fetched the cure. It leads people down a spiral of self-destruction until our financial and personal resources are exhausted, particularly our sense of reason. In our world it leads to reverse mortgages, crystal therapy, and people eating horse paste. In The Last of Us, the Fireflies face a utilitarian nightmare that makes the Trolley Problem look like a normal commute.
Marlene, Firefly leader, believes Ellie is the key to a Cordyceps vaccine. To get it, a doctor — the only remaining doctor who might be able to find a cure, we’re told by someone with every reason to lie — convinced Marlene they must extract Ellie’s brain. Joel, having grown attached to Ellie after their long journey, takes issue with this plan. He kills the Fireflies, the doctor, and finally Marlene. Unwilling to let Ellie shoulder yet more survivor’s guilt, he lies about Marlene’s fate. And well he should, because the doctor’s “cure” is crazy as f*ck.
It’s difficult to blame the Fireflies. Surviving 20 years in a fungal apocalypse can’t be easy. Supplies dwindle faster than the population. Cities are crowded, filthy places controlled by a despotic and often violent military and undermined by hordes of Infected. Isolated farmsteads are vulnerable to attack or medical emergencies. Small communities are great until harsh winters force the group to survive on a “venison” diet. It might make any single life look like a reasonable sacrifice when weighed against the entire world. But immediately testing your one subject to destruction isn’t a sane response. The doctor thinks he can replicate Ellie’s brain tissue despite living in a world where even basic antibiotics are unavailable to most people. His facility is a derelict hospital missing half its windows. The viewer — and Joel — know nothing about his qualifications as a pediatric surgeon or mycologist. Culturing a cerebral milkshake is a challenge under the most pristine conditions. Marlene offers Joel no evidence her plan will work. They don’t start with a brain biopsy. They don’t check her blood or spinal fluid. They don’t even know what this “chemical messenger” is. They go right to the ice cream scoop. It is, to quote Nick Fury in The Avengers, “a stupid-ass plan.”
Marlene is clearly uncomfortable with sacrificing Ellie. She claims Ellie would go along with the plan, given a choice, but isn’t so confident that she gives Ellie an opportunity to say no. Her uncertainty is obvious and it can be argued that leaving Joel alive is a subconscious attempt to sabotage the hopeless procedure. She had to know he would never stand down. But her desperation won’t allow her to gainsay Dr. Frankenstein’s ludicrous plan to kill their only specimen even though “he thinks it could be a cure.” There’s not a lot of confidence in that statement. Joel’s right to kill Marlene too; every fan of The Princess Bride knows you don’t leave someone behind to seek revenge.
There’s a tendency in a crisis to view any action as better than no action. It’s why inexperienced swimmers dive into the water to save a drowning person. It’s why lost hikers walk in circles rather than await rescue. Action without thought is at least as likely to make a bad situation worse as it is to help. 20 years of hopeless struggle against FEDRA and the Infected have left the Fireflies exhausted and desperate. What’s one more child’s death in a world that’s already seen millions? It must feel like a necessary sacrifice. Given the scientific leeway the show gives other issues — gasoline that doesn’t entirely degrade after sitting for 20 years, for example — it’s possible creator Neil Druckmann’s vision intended the procedure to work, if carried out. The game offers the player no choice but to kill the Fireflies, so that’s not a help. But we’ve seen Cordyceps growing in people’s bodies and not just the brain. There’s no reason to think Ellie’s Cordyceps spores are limited to inside her skull, especially since we’ve seen her fail a FEDRA blood test. That makes everything Marlene and her pet surgeon said suspect. Every interaction Joel and Ellie had with people who think they know what’s best for everyone has demonstrated their untrustworthiness.
Whether Joel’s rational enough to realize Marlene’s plan is nothing but a pipe dream is left to our interpretation. Given the loss of his daughter, his reunion with Tommy, and the conflict with the Silver Lake cannibals, either is possible. It was the right one for the situation. As was lying to Ellie (sorry, Tori!). All due respect to the agency of a 14-year-old girl who has survived zombies and religious fanatics, but there’s already too much weight on her shoulders. I doubt she believes him. The look on her face suggests she doesn’t. But it does no good to let her know her surrogate mother, such as she was, tried to murder her. Let Ellie hold onto what few good memories she had. And do not f*ck with Joel’s kid.