The Last of Us 2: Joel’s Fate Explained

Joel's story in The Last of Us Part 2 delivers one of the game's most shocking twists. Here's what happened to Joel in the game.

The Last of Us 2 Joel
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

This The Last of Us Part 2 article contains spoilers.

The Last of Us Part 2 was a creative risk for Naughty Dog and Sony. A continuation of one of the most beloved and praised stories in video game history had to not only live up to the original game but the very high expectations of fans who’d spent the last seven years since The Last of Us forming their own theories about Joel and Ellie’s future.

Naughty Dog, which is not a studio known for shying away from risk, may not have met everyone of those expectations with The Last of Us Part 2, but it certainly subverted quite a few. Some on social media have even jokingly started drawing connections to Star Wars: The Last Jedi due to all the ways it turns right when we expect it to turn left.

The Last of Us Part 2‘s biggest twist comes early on in the story when players are given control of a new character named Abby, a young woman who’s searching for someone. We follow Abby as she makes her way through the woods and mountains outside of the Jackson settlement where Ellie and Joel live in relative peace.

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As Abby crosses paths with first Joel and then Ellie, we learn why Abby’s story is important and how it sets up the events of the rest of the game. Abby is in Jackson to kill Joel and when she accomplishes this, brutally caving Joel’s skull in with a golf club while Ellie is forced to watch, players suddenly find themselves having to say goodbye to one of the series’ main protagonists.

About an hour or two into the game, Joel’s already dead, a decision on Naughty Dog’s part that’s turned out to be a bit controversial with some players. But why did Abby kill him in the first place? Let’s discuss.

Why did Abby kill Joel?

Abby finds Joel almost by accident, running into him while trying to escape a horde of runners in the snow-covered mountains outside of Jackson. Their meeting couldn’t be more opportune for Abby, who has brought a group of former Fireflies all the way from Seattle to punish the smuggler who robbed the world of a possible cure to the Cordyceps infection. But for Abby, finding Joel is about something much more personal than the fate of humanity.

We learn during the Abby section of The Last of Us Part 2 about midway through the game that Joel killed Abby’s father, Dr. Jerry Anderson, the Firefly surgeon who was trying to find a cure for the virus in the group’s Salt Lake City lab in St. Mary’s Hospital in the first game. In The Last of Us Part 2, we see as Abby finds her dead father bleeding out in an operating room, a moment that forever changed the young woman and put her on a path of revenge.

In flashbacks throughout the sequel, we see how Abby becomes obsessed with finding Joel. It’s this thirst for revenge that sets her on a collision course with Ellie. When Abby finds and kills Joel, she’s avenging her father’s death but also perpetuating a cycle of violence that will eventually lead to more loss of life, particularly the lives of her friends, who die by Ellie’s hand in her own quest for vengeance. This, in turn, sends Abby on a rage-fueled mission to find Ellie and punish her for what she did to Owen, Mel, and the others. It’s a never-ending cycle that began with Joel’s own life-or-death decision in the first game.

Why did Joel kill Abby’s father?

While the first The Last of Us game might seem like a game about surviving a zombie apocalypse on the surface, it’s really a story about what a parent would do to protect their child. It’s this story that catapulted Naughty Dog’s magnum opus above your standard zombie fare.

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The game opens with the death of Joel’s daughter, Sarah, during the initial outbreak. Like Abby, Joel is irrevocably changed by this tragedy, and when he’s charged with smuggling Ellie from Boston to Salt Lake City, he gets a chance at redemption. While he’ll never be able to bring back Sarah, he has a chance to protect Ellie and make sure she’s safe.

This all comes to a head when Joel and Ellie reach Salt Lake City and Firefly leader Marlene reveals to Joel why he had to smuggle Ellie across the country in the first place. Players learn earlier in the game that Ellie is immune to the Cordyceps infection, which is why she is so important to the Fireflies. What he doesn’t know is what it’ll take for the Fireflies to find a possible cure.

In a flashback in The Last of Us Part 2, we see as Dr. Anderson convinces Marlene that the only way to develop a vaccine is to remove the Cordyceps fungus in Ellie’s brain, a surgery that would kill the girl. This is a decision neither Firefly makes lightly, especially Marlene, who asks Dr. Anderson what he would do if it were Abby who had to die. But Abby is supportive of her father and tells him he’s doing the right thing.

Having played The Last of Us, we all know how this plays out. When Marlene tells Joel that Ellie must die to save the rest of humanity, he decides to rescue the girl, killing Fireflies, Dr. Anderson, and Marlene in the process. Joel chooses Ellie over the rest of humanity.

Why did Joel keep the truth about the Fireflies from Ellie?

Should she give up her life to save the rest of humanity? Ellie is never given a choice in the matter. In fact, she was unconscious for her entire stay in the hospital, waking up in the backseat of a car hours after Joel had rescued her from the operating table. Unsurprisingly, Ellie wonders what happened at the Firefly lab.

Joel lies. He tells her that there were dozens of immune patients at the hospital and that all of the tests had resulted in nothing. As a result, Ellie was free to go.

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While it seems like Ellie believes this story at first, the final scene of The Last of Us hints that Ellie isn’t accepting “the truth” but allowing Joel to lie to her. Years later, in The Last of Us Part 2, Ellie travels back to St. Mary’s Hospital where she uncovers a recording that reveals what really happened. After Joel killed Marlene and escaped with Ellie, the Fireflies disbanded, as there was no hope that they would ever find another immune person.

Ellie confronts Joel about the recording, telling him that if he doesn’t tell her the truth, she’s not going back with him to Jackson. Joel admits to lying to protect her. But if he’d killed the Fireflies trying to operate on Ellie, what was he really protecting her from?

Joel kept the truth from Ellie not only to convince her that her immunity wouldn’t lead to a cure but to eliminate the possibility that Ellie might make the choice to go back to the Fireflies and sacrifice herself. This is why Joel frantically chases after her when she decides to return to Salt Lake City years later. Luckily, the Fireflies are a thing of the past by that point.

Ultimately, Joel’s story was one of a father trying to protect his child no matter the consequence. The Last of Us Part II is the story of those consequences. By saving Ellie, Joel robs Abby of a father, setting in motion the violent events from which none of these characters can escape.