As a series, The Last of Us has never shied from difficult questions with unpleasant answers. The first game asked players to consider how far they would go to protect their loved ones, and, more crucially, what happens when they failed. And the sequel, more brutally, asks players to consider how far they would go in the service of vengeance. As the series' most frequent protagonist, Ellie is the primary avatar for navigating those hard topics, but now that the credits have rolled on The Last of Us Part 2, where can her story go from here?
In certain respects, one could argue that Ellie's story has reached a natural point of repose, and that Abby may actually be a better lead for The Last of Us Part 3. Ellie has not only been ruthlessly traumatized and tortured, but has done the same to others in turn. She has sacrificed a lover, deadened her empathy, and damaged her sanity to satisfy a thirst for revenge, only to realize that the closure it provides is an illusion at best. That epiphany costs her everything, and in many respects, she has arrived at the same bleak place Joel occupied after losing his daughter.
While The Last of Us is almost relentlessly grim, the games are emotionally captivating because they temper their brutality with moments of tenderness and stubborn, desperate hope. A happy ending for Ellie is likely asking too much of the world she lives in, but there is a possibility that she can attain some measure of restive peace by continuing to grow. In order for that to happen though, Ellie needs a catalyst per the series formula. Like Joel, she needs a cause to transform surviving into living. Few things are more therapeutic than helping others, and after everything she has endured, Ellie deserves some therapy.
The trap that Ellie avoids, the persistent spark of hope at the end of The Last of Us Part 2, is the realization that killing Abby won't bring her peace. It won't ease her survivor's guilt for the whole of humanity. It won't undo the trauma she's inflicted on herself by harming and killing others, but that does not mean that the rage that drove her to that point will evaporate. Ellie has always had a temper. After losing Dina and JJ, and abandoning her target, that anger will likely turn inward. To overcome that anger, Ellie needs to channel her energy into a new cause. For Joel, Ellie was that cause, allowing him to see past his own troubles and cherish a life that still had potential.
The most obvious potential cause Ellie could take up and the most prominent of The Last of Us 2's many hanging threads is the departure of Dina and JJ. But it seems highly unlikely that Naughty Dog would wash away the hurt Ellie inflicted and allow the characters to pick up where they left off before the events of Santa Barbara. Dina might be willing to take Ellie back, but Ellie's guilt (and fear of her own anger and PTSD) might prevent her from making the attempt.
It is possible, however, that an older JJ would later seek out Ellie if Dina was ever in danger. After all, she has proven herself to be a relentless, almost supernaturally capable fighter, tracker, and survivalist. This could lead Ellie on a quest for redemption, but that narrative seems a bit too neat. Pushing another troubled kid on Ellie, especially after Abby is forced into a similar situation protecting Lev in The Last of Us 2, seems too repetitive, even if it is structurally elegant.
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