The Last of Us & Fearful Fathering

It's not about surviving the end of the world

The Last of Us & Fearful Fathering

It's not about surviving the end of the world


We’re living in the golden age of television. It’s no secret that some of the best storytellers of our generation aren’t pursuing book deals anymore but are moving to screens. Even video games have become a playground for stories and storytellers. 

Then you have The Last of Us, HBO’s latest weekly blockbuster – a television show that is in fact based on the story of a video game. Since the first episode aired, more than a million viewers continue to tag on to the multimillion-person watch party every Sunday night, tuning in to see if this fungal apocalypse can live up to all the hype. And so far it has because people like my wife and me continue to look forward to our chance to tune back into an infected world where fungal zombies aren’t the only impossible problem to overcome.  

We might think we’re driven to stories like these out of a “what would I do?” sense of interest, but it seems the show is asking bigger, more compelling questions of us. The end of the world in this show really isn’t about the end of the world. Instead, it’s a pressure cooker, revealing what really matters. And surprisingly, it’s not survival but love that takes center stage. Let me explain. 

Viewers encounter the scariest scene in the opening montage of the show. I haven’t played the game, so I don’t know what’s coming later in the season, but I know it won’t be more terrifying than the terrain we already covered. It can’t be. We watched the worst thing imaginable already take place when the main character Joel loses his daughter in his arms. Society as we know it is collapsing in front of our eyes, but the thing that viscerally devastated viewers most and brought us to tears was seeing a father lose his child. 

I had not known fear until my daughter was born in 2021. I thought I knew what it was to be afraid, but then, throughout the first 12 months of being a dad, my limbic system said “hold my beer.” Catching whatever sickness she brings into our home every other week is nothing compared to the overwhelming, unshakeable sense of vulnerability. I am of the anxious parenting type that had to roll over in the middle of the night (more than once) to hear for breathing or see signs of life. As if my being awake could stop the demon of SIDS or the unending list of threats to the life of an infant. 

This is why I find the Joel/Ellie dynamic so compelling in the show. Joel hasn’t really come back to life since his biological daughter died right in front of his eyes, there has been no resurrection – no reason for new life – his heart is hiding behind a shell of self-protection, making decisions solely on the need to keep himself from experiencing more pain. But now, a force is at work in him he has not known for decades. Love, in fact, is beginning to shake him out of his zombie-like existence, as he is called to lead, and in many ways parent, a teenage girl again – to keep Ellie safe in a world that would do her harm. 

He can’t convince himself that he doesn’t care. He tries to tell Ellie that she is nothing more than cargo in Episode 4, titled Please Hold My Hand, but viewers need not wait more than five minutes to catch him in his lie. That night they are camping in the woods and after describing his plan to sleep through the night and then drive for 24 hours straight, Ellie soon asks if they are safe where they are before they fall asleep. Joel assures her that no one is going to find them in the woods. The words bring comfort to Ellie but Joel knows the threats are out there and his plan to sleep through the night is interrupted by instinct. He stays up all night, gun in hand, protecting his new daughter.

This seconds-long scene is easily skippable, but it’s one that continues to live rent-free in my mind. A sleepless father, emptying himself to keep his child safe while the world comes to an end. In more ways than one, it resembles the Bible’s own story of the end of the world – but not in the way we might first expect. 

The book of Revelation, which has endured more fantastical misinterpretations than most any other book in the Bible, is an “apocalypse” which literally means reveal. That is, the book is interested in showing us the perspective behind the curtain of heaven. What’s behind the curtain? Turns out the end of the world, like what we see in The Last of Us, is not about survival, but about a Father who loves his kid. This love sounds like the roar of a lion but looks like a lamb who was slain (Rev 5:6). Indeed, Revelation teaches that the end of the world happened 2,000 years ago when God himself lost a child. The Son of God, slain like a lamb, was strung up on a tree to save an infected world of self-protecting Joels like me from our anxious ways.

The world has come to an end, and the new is breaking forth. Fearful fathers can take a deep breath and look at the only father who is never afraid because he suffered for us once and for all. He stayed awake at night for us, slaying that which truly threatens to do us harm. This is the love that has come near to shake us out of our zombie-like existence by way of a love that never sleeps.