Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Snowflake's Chance in Hell

Martyrdom is an idea that seems burned into the human soul. We love martyrs almost on instinct, as they reflect our highest ideals, they are what we're supposed to be. The 20th century gave us a host of them, figures that still loom large over American culture, rightly venerated. And in our pop culture, we particularly lionize them, telling their stories over and over. At times, we almost obligate their demises. Earlier this year, as Spartacus reached its final episodes, some fans started speculating that the creators would pull a fast one, and let their historical hero skirt his destined martyrdom and escape into the Italian mountains. After all, we don't really know how Spartacus died. Appealing though a happy ending for long suffering Spartacus was, creator Steven DeKnight, however, quite rightly pointed out how troubling it would be for the man to let hundreds of thousands die for his cause, then walk away. DeKnight was right, of course. But martyrdom is a hefty burden and not all martyrs get such clear moral stakes. In the last act of Dragon Age II, the mage-guarding Templars are ordered to kill their charges, fed by the fear that the mages will soon become demonically possessed. For the mages, there are two options—die a horrible stabby death, or let a willing demon take over their body so they can fight. Each mage picks the latter. Many players didn't accept that the mages would make the choice that, in effect, proves the Templars right. But to me, it was a simple recognition of this truth: the moral high ground is hard to appreciate when you're dead.
            I've been thinking of this ever since I beat The Last of Us.

            The Last of Us is a dark, harrowing story of survival, evoking McCarthy and Children of Men, and it has a legitimately divisive ending, in a refreshingly good way—it's one that's split people over why things happened and what they portend. After trekking across the country, ravaged by 20 years of a fugal brain infection, the two protagonists, Joel and Ellie, have come to the end of their journey. Joel is a burdened survivor, whose daughter was tragically killed in the first hours of the panic over the infection. Two decades later, his experiences seem to have burned his feelings to ash and cinder. At the game's outset, the person closest to him, his partner Tess, describes their relationship as “whatever it is between us.” He's very common. Joel is not a bold, powerful hero who challenges and topples status quos (save in one very, very important instance). Instead, he's a sympathetic protagonist, making his way through their cracks as best he can.
            When a friend first encountered Ellie, he immediately asked why she was “the Snowflake Girl.” It wasn't a term I was familiar, but it originates in YA Fiction, shorthand for “What's the plot-mandated contrivance marking the character as 'special'?” I didn't really need any plot-mandated contrivance—she's a knife-waving, foul-mouthed brat, one of her earliest lines is “Hey, fuck you, man!” and she flips a particularly difficult character the bird. She was immediately great in my estimation. Quickly, though, we learn she does have snowflakeness, by virtue of her mysterious immunity to the infection. That immunity drives the plot, as the two make their way across the country, heading for a lab run by the insurgent Fireflies, where they think the study of Ellie's immunity can yield a vaccine. 
            The circumstances of the ending are as complex as you might expect, so, suffice to say, they make it to the lab, with Ellie unconscious. When she awakes hours later, she's clad in a hospital gown, laying in the backseat of a car, with Joel driving them both off to a known safe haven. She asks what happened, and Joel tells her they reached the Firefly lab, learned that her immunity was, in fact, widespread, but all attempts to create a vaccine had failed. So, the Fireflies weren't bothering to try anymore. Later, Ellie asks Joel to swear this story is true. He does.
            In truth, Joel wasn't willing to let the Fireflies carve her brain out of her skull, but he was willing to kill to save himself, and Ellie.
            For many, this is a dark ending to a dark story. One man selfishly damns the humanity for the sake of a stolen relationship with a replacement daughter. He'd rather have a little girl back than save the world. It's a bleak, harsh end for a bleak, harsh game.
            For me, the ending says a lot of things. But, quite simply, I disagree with the above, though I can't say it isn't a valid reading, because it is. And no matter what, it's by no means a happy ending. Our heroes aren't promised relief from their troubles—indeed, they are guaranteed more. But it does, I feel end on a powerfully uplifting note, affirming that life may be hard, and full of suffering and torment, but despite that, it is worth living for its own sake.
            This reading is by no means uncommon—many feel Joel did the right thing in saving Ellie. It's made clear that the Fireflies never explain properly to Ellie what they intend to do to her, it's never certain they will be successful, and I'd venture it's a sure thing that if they do craft a vaccine, the Fireflies will not be generous with it (after all, they spend most of their time in Boston killing and being killed by the soldiers there). While in Pittsburgh, Joel and Ellie witness a gang of men run down and shoot a couple for their shoes, which the gang deems not worth taking from their corpses. Not only do I have a hard time envisioning the Fireflies sharing their vaccine with these people, and them accepting, I remained unsure the hunters should get the vaccine in the first place. And they are hardly even the most despicable people left in the world.
            For her part, Ellie is a lovable and unique creation, smart, inquisitive, observant, critical, hilariously foul-mouthed, and more than a little hardened. At one point, she asks of an old fashion ad, if in the old days food was plentiful, why is the woman in the ad so skinny? Joel tells her that some people just chose not to eat. “Pft,” Ellie says, “that's fucking stupid.” But she's also a profoundly sad character, all the more sad because she has no clue how sad she is. Take, for example, her inventory. Among the survival gear and totems of people she's lost, there are joke books. Really awful joke books for kindergarteners, absurdly below both her age and intellect, full of references she doesn't understand, but battered joke books she's clearly carried for a long time, as they are, apparently, her only objects of comfort. Eagerly, she shares the jokes, seeming to know full well how bad they are. She wrangles her trauma with a refrain taken from a comic book, putting a psychic toll on each battle as she shakily intones “Endure and survive.” Upon entering a decrepit pizza parlor, she recognizes one of the arcade machines, some sort of Mortal Kombat knock-off, and she vividly describes a character's fatality. But she's never actually played the game, she just had a friend who did. I instantly envisioned the scene, a gaggle of children huddled together, taking comfort in having Mortal Kombat fatalities described to them. By blithely existing, Ellie breaks your heart.
            But more than anything, Ellie is a fighter and a survivor, who overcomes astounding challenges and difficulties with intelligence and skill, who earns trust with the same, and who endures hardships that fell others. “She fought like hell to get here,” Joel admiringly says, just before he's told the Fireflies intend to kill her. It seems disrespectful to snuff out her drive and will to save people who kill each other over shoes.
            The refrain from the Fireflies and their officer Marlene is that a vaccine will help them rebuild. Restore America. One doesn't have to look around for very long to see what an insane, foolish dream that is. Even if the fungal plague were lifted, the remnants of America are simply too far gone to rejoin the United States as if this were simply another recession. But shortsightedness, apathy, and dwelling on the past are common attitudes among the survivors, who even in the relative safety and security in Boston haven't bothered to remove unusable TVs and DVD players in twenty years. No one is rebuilding now, a simple vaccine seems unlikely to change that.
            In their shortsightedness, the Fireflies have missed what Ellie means—humanity can adapt, and indeed they are. I have more faith in any society Ellie and her ilk, the generation born into this world, might build than what the Fireflies think they might restore. By the time the game begins, the infection and the infected seem little more than an environmental threat. It's the encounters with people that are truly frightening. The unspoken tragic question throughout the game is just how many of the clothes piles Joel and Ellie pass, murders they witness, pounds of human flesh recorded in ledgers they find, killings they commit themselves, how many of those people were also immune?
            Joel didn't damn humankind when he pulled Ellie from the lab, it did that to itself. However, he doesn't really save Ellie until the end of the game, when she asks him to.
            Ellie's angst over her fate is hidden in plain sight throughout the last chapter, but using a trick the game has used before—hard cuts in dramatic scenes, made before the characters or we have truly processed what is happening. The prologue ends with Joel only seconds after his daughter Sara's death, before a hard cut to black, and the next time we see him, twenty years have passed. When we next see him a credit sequence later, twenty years have passed, and he still wears a now broken watch she gave him. It's easy to conclude her death made him the indifferent, closed-off, haunted man he is. The cut encourages it. But as the game unfolds, we get vague hints of the awful things he's seen and done, and it becomes clear losing Sara was just the first blow to his soul, but far from the last. Indeed, he does not dwell on Sara, choosing instead to think on her as little as possible, even rejecting a photo of her at one point, which causes him a great deal of strain when another little girl enters his life.
            And a similar trick is pulled with Ellie. The Winter chapter (which is the most intense and exhausting stretch of a game I have ever played) finds Ellie alone, caring for a wounded, comatose Joel, and suddenly beset by David, a polygamist fundamentalist who has resorted to cannibalism, and his people. She fights and runs and draws them away from Joel, who they will surely kill, gets caught and caged, gets to say the baddest ass line in the game (“Tell them Ellie is the name of the little girl who broke your fucking finger.”), escapes, and faces a machete-wielding David in a stalker's duel in a burning building. At last, she kills David with his own machete, and is releasing her terror and anger and powerlessness on his body when Joel finally finally finds her (as an aside, I've seen Winter criticized for falling into Damsel in Distress cliché—this, I will say, is a grossly incorrect reading, if for no other reason that Joel absolutely does not save her from anything). We hard cut to black, and enter the Spring chapter seconds later, where we find Joel leading a despondent, uncommunicative, and sluggish Ellie into Salt Lake City.
            We obviously assume that Ellie is struggling to cope with the fresh trauma of Winter. I certainly did. That assumption masks what Ellie is really coping with—she knows she is walking to her death.
            On my second time through the game, knowing exactly what was going to happen (rather than just have a strong, dreadful suspicion), this became very obvious. She springs back to her old self at the sight of Hogle Zoo's escaped giraffes. She has a fully open and earnest conversation with Joel about his past (in Fall, upon feeling him shut down, she asks “Too far?” and he confirms it was indeed), expresses sympathy for what happened to Sara, which he accepts. She talks, in way that sounds like very good humoring, of letting Joel decide where they will go after the lab, and him finally teaching her how to swim. She gives him the photo of Sara she stole, one which Joel had previously rejected, and he accepts that too. In Winter, when you can check Ellie's inventory, the picture is there, and when you pass it, Ellie will say “I wish I'd given this to you when I had the chance,” begging the question why now is the right time, not the months in between (established as taking place two weeks after Fall, in the Colorado Rockies, Winter could be any time from mid-November to very early December, and given the full melt of Salt Lake in Spring, that chapter must be late March at the very earliest). That she fears she will not be able to later is a very credible answer.
            As they watch the giraffes amble into downtown Salt Lake, Joel tells Ellie they don't necessarily have to keep going. They could turn around. Even shooting guns and reaching for machetes, Ellie has always seemed like the fourteen year old she is. But when Joel makes this offer, she ages considerably, and as she contemplates their trip across three quarters of a continent, all they've done and endured, and the people, helpful and harmful, who have fallen on the way, you can see the adult who will emerge from it all—if, that is, she weren't soon to die. “It can't be for nothing,” she says.
            But after all that build up, she doesn't die. Joel tells her his story in the car, she rolls over without a word and sleeps.
            “You keep finding reasons to survive,” Joel tells Ellie, and it's perhaps the best thing he tells her.  No one should be eager to die, no matter the reason. Even Jesus wasn't happy about what he had to do. But in the end, what is killing Ellie isn't someone who wants her shoes, or a cannibal, or a fungal brain infection, or the infected. What's killing her is that she's the Snowflake Girl, the most specialest in all the world, and her specialestness demands her death. Ellie is a good person, and if its in her power to help someone, she will. But she's a person, and she doesn't want to give her life away for bullshit.
            So she doesn't poke any of the obvious holes in Joel's story, though she is more than smart enough to do so. She doesn't ask why she was unconscious throughout their time with the Fireflies. She doesn't ask why they didn't stay. She doesn't ask after Marlene, who Ellie knew quite well. She doesn't even ask why she's in a hospital gown and where her clothes are. Instead, she asks what, after all he has done, will be an easy answer for Joel to give—“Swear what you said was true.”
            “I swear,” Joel says.
            In their time together, Ellie asks very little of Joel, and never directly. Early on, she asks for his trust, but she does so by asking for weapons, insisting she can use them, that she can help, that she will pull her own weight, that she is not a burden. Less than halfway through their nightmare in Pittsburgh, he gives her that. Later, intuiting Joel means to have his estranged brother take her on the rest of their journey, she asks that he not pawn her off, but intriguingly, she does so by insisting upon her own identity. “I'm not her,” she says, referring to Sara, and goes on to say she won't necessarily share Sara's fate. Joel gives her what she asks then too, and while his continued presence might seem like a big imposition, really he didn't have much else to do—they're in Wyoming by then, and all Joel says he needs from brother Tommy is enough supplies to send him on his way, but there is absolutely no indication where, if anywhere, that might be. Here at the end, she asks from him a profound act of generosity. Lie.
            Over the course of the game, a succession of antagonistic cultures are encountered—the Boston Quarantine, Bill and his town, the Pittsburgh Hunters, the Wyoming bandits, David's community, and the Fireflies. Each presents variations on taking. The remnants of the army in Boston only take rations and freedoms. Bill, who Joel says is a friend, doesn't per se take, but to him, relationships are transactional and companionship is impossible. He drove his partner away and into death, and once he and Joel are “square,” he instructs Joel to “get the hell out of my town.” He emphatically advises Joel abandon Ellie, seeing her as a lethal burden. In Pittsburgh, the Hunters want to take whatever meager supplies our protagonists have gathered (at least that's their motive until it gets overtaken by Joel and Ellie's refusal to die gets under their skin). Tommy has helped build a community that finds itself beset by bandits who want to take what they've built. David and his depraved commune (who, it becomes clear, have accepted his rule not without question, which only makes them all the more appalling) want to take the flesh from Joel and Ellie's bones. Lastly, the Fireflies and Marlene want to take Ellie's life, and they want Joel to let that happen. But the final acts of the game are of giving. Ellie has given Joel the means to move on, as he speaks healthily of Sara, and how much she would have liked Ellie. In turn, Joel gives Ellie more than her life. He gives her a reason to live—she wasn't the Snowflake after all.
            The final shot of the game is Ellie, as she processes this moment. She’s pretty inscrutable. She merely says OK, and plunges into whatever future awaits. “You keep finding reasons to survive,” Joel has told her, and it seems she found one. Schopenhauer extrapolated from the Buddhists that to live was to suffer. Just before she's killed, Marlene asks Joel what life he thinks he's saving for Ellie. The answer is clear. One. It's the best we can hope to get.

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