The Last of Us is a celebration of masculinity, despite clear progressive values
The show is a salutary reminder that in times of existential threat, it becomes clear that manliness isn’t the problem; it’s the solution
In making their entertainment choices, I realize that for many folks, any viewing experience that doesn’t scare them witless is dull fare. Yet being terrified has never been my personal entertainment jam. That said, given what COVID has taught us about contagion panic, government over-reach and survivalist fervour, the rave reviews of the pandemic-centred HBO series “The Last of Us” (TLOU) piqued my curiosity. I’ve watched the first five episodes and, although I’m scared witless for about five minutes per episode, I’m hooked.
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Based on a popular action-adventure video game, TLOU is set in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged for 20 years by a highly contagious cordyceps fungal infection (a real thing, but not in humans … yet), for which there is no vaccine or cure. Nobody is immune, except, apparently, one teenage girl.
Young, middle-aged, old: everyone is susceptible to the same fate. The brains of the infected are colonized by a fungus dedicated to self-propagation. Victims can rapidly morph into herky-jerky, zombie-like creatures. Worse, the infected can communicate via underground fungal networks. Stepping on the wrong patch of ground can trigger violent pack swarmings. (The colonized bodies are only violent to those who resist. Those who submit may be — disgustingly — “kissed” into infection. Don’t ask. Let’s just say you will take a fleeting vivid image in Episode 2 to your grave.)
In this desolate dystopia, citizens seeking freedom from quarantine zones are gunned down: first by government troops, later by power-tripping Watchmen-style militias. When they cannot be saved, infected loved ones are sacrificed in a heartbeat. It’s every man, woman and child for themselves.
Cue the heroes who resist the dehumanizing conditions that surround them. There are good men and bad men in this series, also good women and bad women. But the heroes — the agents of hope for human survival — are traditionally manly men: men who instinctively run to the fire to protect the weak and the vulnerable, no matter the risk to themselves.
Three pairings of a manly man and a vulnerable protege illustrate variations on TLOU’s celebration of positive masculinity.
The protagonist is a construction worker named Joel. Tortured by his inability to save his beloved daughter at the pandemic’s outbreak (there’s no mom in the frame, which is standard in plots where dads shine), Joel becomes an emotionally detached pragmatist, staying afloat through black-market smuggling in partnership with Tess, his friend-with-benefits.
Joel and Tess are tasked with a mission to protect 14-year-old Ellie, who may be the key to a vaccine because, although she was bitten by a “zombie” and has the telltale skin lesion, the infection never advances. Their harrowing journey from Boston to Wyoming provides the main arterial storyline. Tess is infected and dies in Episode 2. (Plucky Ellie’s own emergent heroism is impressive, but it is male-adjacent. She cannot survive without Joel.)
Henry is a supporting character who Joel and Ellie meet in Kansas City. Henry and his little brother Sam — who’s deaf, so particularly vulnerable — are in hiding from a woman-led revolutionary movement seeking revenge on him for having collaborated with the government in return for life-saving medication Sam needed to cure his leukemia. This was risk-taking of a high order.
Joel and Henry pool material and knowledge resources to escape the city through underground tunnels that are familiar to Henry. They barely survive a double attack by the revolutionaries followed by a swarming of the infected, but after their escape, an infected Sam turns on Ellie. Anguished, Henry shoots his brother, and then himself.
The anomalous — and controversial — Episode 3 is devoted to Bill and Frank. Bill is a post-9/11 conspiracy theorist who likely would have been a die-hard Trumpist. And, like many other “deplorables,” he’s a “prepper,” ever poised to live off the grid. His well-secured home in a now-deserted Massachusetts town is provisioned to the max — including fine wines — to defy the apocalypse Bill has long predicted. He is also, unbeknownst to himself, gay.
After a cute meet with confidently gay Frank, Bill saves him from a probable bad end, while Frank saves repressed Bill from a loveless life. The two men embark on a 20-year relationship, which ends in a mutual suicide when Frank, having graciously contended for some time with a debilitating neurodegenerative disease, decides to get out while the going is still partly good, and Bill decides to join him.
This episode bombed with so many viewers, it affected TLOU’s high overall ratings. The consensus blames homophobia, but it may also be that the episode’s rom-com vibe, combined with the lack of heart-stopping adventure that viewers signed up for, and the sappy covert political message (there is hope for a divided America) contributed to the episode’s low ratings.
Still, it is thematically relevant to the manliness theme. Bill had everything he needed to survive physically. All he lacked was someone in need of protection to give meaning to all that planning. Bill provides sustenance and eventually physical care for Frank, while Frank coaxes inner tenderness, trust and sociability from the misanthropic Bill.
So, two good men killed themselves when they couldn’t save their loved ones. Hope now resides entirely with Joel.
Bill and Frank had over the years forged a smuggling-based friendship with Joel and Tess. In a letter left for Joel to find, Bill writes: “I used to hate the world and I was happy when everyone died. But I was wrong because there was one person worth saving.… I protected him. That’s why men like you and me are here. We have a job to do and God help any motherf–kers who stand in our way.”
All too often in our orderly society, “toxic” masculinity is disparaged, while masculinity’s positive attributes — courage, stoicism, risk-taking, teaching constructive manliness to boys — are given short shrift. Being scared witless can, it seems, be a salutary reminder that in times of existential threat — it can happen anywhere; we are not immune — it becomes clear that manliness isn’t the problem; it’s the solution.