In The Last of Us, “endure and survive” is a linguistic North Star for Ellie. Educated in a school run by FEDRA, the last tightly clenched fist of American government rule, and forced to remain in the confines of the Boston QZ, where public hangings are common, Ellie has internalized, even romanticized, the phrase from the Savage Starlight comics. If Ellie can handle all this, she can go on. She can get a job, she can fall in love, she can build a life.
But consider “endure and survive” as more than a slogan for children in a nightmare world, and the words take on an almost proto-American, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps quality that The Last of Us reflects and distorts in unexpected ways. Ellie’s father figure, Joel, and their brief traveling companion Henry might have dismissed the phrase as redundant, but the words’ interconnected emphasis on individuality is key to unlocking the narrow-minded worldview that motivates so many of The Last of Us’s disparate groups. The phrase that drives Ellie forward says nothing about community, collectivism, or unity, and the devastated America she explores is one defined by tribalism and selfishness, filled with national archetypes — cowboys and settlers, priests and revolutionaries — who have endured and survived at the expense of others.
In the Last of Us premiere, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” the pre-outbreak United States of September 2003 is a reminder of American exceptionalism as government policy: George W. Bush as president, the War on Terror two years in. Twenty years later, the post-outbreak United States is a reckoning with American exceptionalism as internalized ideology: leaders as fascists, communities as closed doors. The creators of The Last of Us insist that their story differs from previous entries in the apocalypse genre because it is less interested in the danger of the Infected than in what humans will do to sustain themselves, but what they’ve also done is craft a series that, perhaps unconsciously, punctures the myths America tells about itself. “We’d do whatever was needed for our people. Imagine the life we could give them,” says cannibal Christian and pedophile David to Ellie in penultimate episode “When We Are in Need,” but The Last of Us has painted a portrait of an American identity incompatible with drastic change.
The term “American exceptionalism” is used both to describe the country’s unlikely mixture of defining qualities (born of revolution; ensuing democracy; capitalism that discourages government intervention), and to critique the belief that said exceptionalism is preordained, often by a Christian god, and makes America superior. Realities of America’s past, like the genocide of Indigenous peoples, slavery, and settler colonialism, are all interruptions to the idea that America’s inherent goodness and worthiness gilded it into a first-world country. Exceptionalism on a macro scale includes the arguable hypocrisy of America’s possession of nuclear weapons, use of torture, and international military intervention, while on a micro scale, it manifests as deep-seated individualism, born from “the American ethic of self-reliance and independence,” according to Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, authors of America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked.
In The Last of Us, nearly every group Ellie and Joel encounter on the road is warped by self-reliance allowed to fester and toxify, and by the certainty that any action is justified if one is to “endure and survive” — American exceptionalism, shrunk small. In “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” a global pandemic is shrugged off by an epidemiologist who rationalizes that “sometimes millions of people die, as in an actual war, but in the end, we always win.” In 2023, more than 60 years after that statement and two decades into the Cordyceps outbreak, the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA) uses those same victory-at-all-costs tactics to fight the Infected, revolutionary group the Fireflies, and regular people who live in the country’s remaining quarantine zones. Each QZ operates like its own fiefdom; although “federal” is in the agency’s name, there’s no discussion of a larger national governing body, of the decision-makers at the top. FEDRA does what it wants, and anyone who isn’t them is an enemy. All Infected, even children, are killed. Survivors are tasked with menial labor like burning corpses or cleaning sewers, soul-deadening work for which they’re paid barely nothing. Snipers post up on roofs at all times; public executions are regular occurrences; the Military Court of Justice doesn’t seem to believe in the “not guilty” concept.
The police-state panopticon of Boston seems fairly average by The Last of Us standards. While Ellie and Joel travel to Kansas City, they pass ditches full of skeletons, including a baby’s, all executed by FEDRA in the early days of the outbreak. When they make it to Kansas City, they learn that FEDRA there were monsters who “raped and tortured and murdered people for 20 years.” FEDRA’s consolidation of power, and their faith in themselves, is total. When Captain Kwong calls Ellie into his office in flashback episode “Left Behind” to remind her to follow the rules, his lure is that “when you’re an officer, you get to tell the Bethanys of the world exactly where to shove it” — Ellie’s power against people like her former bully would be absolute. And his self-congratulation that FEDRA is “the only thing holding this all together” doubles as rationale for their brutality: They were chosen to do this job, and they’re the only ones who can, and they’re better because they can. But the claustrophobia and cruelty of the QZs undermine the idea that FEDRA’s military dictatorship is successful in restoring any meaningful kind of freedom. There are people alive within the QZs, but whether they’re living is another matter.
If The Last of Us were to paint only FEDRA this way, it would simply be an examination of the efficacy of internal imperialism: How quickly can a country that was once a democracy slide into authoritarianism when the circumstances allow for it? Over and over again, though, the same type of assuredness that defines FEDRA’s version of American exceptionalism defines other groups in the series, too. They all think they’re the ones doing things the right way — the only ones doing things the only right way — and they all condone that thinking by pointing to various aspects of American identity. In Kansas City, Kathleen and her followers are revolutionaries in the mold of those who wrested the colonies away from the British: fighting against tyrants and collaborators, seizing control from those unwilling to surrender it. Their choice to ignore a sinkhole and the Infected teeming beneath it is that misguided primacy at play, and their downfall in Kansas City isn’t dissimilar from FEDRA’s; the threat they took for granted is the one that hurt them most.
As a counter to Kansas City’s spin on nationalism is Silver Lake’s version of religion, depicted in “When We Are in Need” as a mishmash of Christian doctrine that former math teacher David selects to serve himself. The Bible doesn’t say anything about cannibalism or pedophilia, but David uses Revelation 21 to anoint himself as chosen for “a new heaven and a new earth,” and to pardon his myriad crimes against both body and spirit. “I’m a decent man, just trying to take care of the people who rely on me,” he tells Ellie, which includes feeding dead fathers to their daughters, and then assuming a role of authority and paternalism in those same girls’ lives. Cordyceps didn’t kill the patriarchy, but David’s inability to truly see a young woman as his equal (a fairly American quality, actually) makes for his eventual undoing at Ellie’s hands.
Even in subplots where The Last of Us is seemingly approving of its characters’ actions, there’s an intriguing undercurrent of how American thinking defaults to exceptionalism. In “Long, Long Time,” Bill’s resistance to FEDRA as “new world order jackboot fucks” and “Nazis” and his doomsday prepping are the ultimate acts of individualism; he seals off his town and labels it for “authorized personnel only,” with himself as the only authorized person. Even when he and Frank fall in love and start a life together, Bill wants to keep being self-sufficient; even after Bill and Frank have both died, Bill’s goodbye letter to Joel focuses on how “men like you and me … have a job to do.” The Last of Us suggests that Bill was right to protect himself and Frank because of their eventual love story, but seen another way, Bill for years hoarded resources others could have used.
The show makes a similar point when Ellie and Joel reach Jackson, Wyoming, a place that Ellie is thrilled to learn “actually fucking works.” The focus is on the pride Maria, one of Jackson’s elected leaders, feels for the gated community they’ve built, the new construction going up, and the electricity they’re drawing from a nearby dam. (Although it’s not really “communism,” as both Joel and Maria call it, since there’s no production apparent in Jackson and no owner class from whom workers are restructuring profits; maybe political education dropped off after the apocalypse.) What’s fascinating is that despite all this domesticity, Jackson’s citizens have styled themselves after American cowboys, frontiersmen, and pioneers; everyone’s got a horse, a big belt buckle, and a gun. They’re tight-lipped about all the killing they’ve done to protect themselves and the infamous reputation they’ve built past the River of Death, where they dump the bodies of Infected and non-Infected alike, but insist it’s in service of the new society they’ve built. Worth pondering, though, is the possibility that Jackson wasn’t abandoned once Maria and the others showed up. The idea of manifest destiny is foundational to American lore, and The Last of Us shows it in action. The people of Jackson don’t want to share, don’t want others to know they’re there, don’t allow radio communication or signaling with the outside. This land is theirs and theirs alone, and who was there first doesn’t matter.
The question mark in all of this is the Fireflies, who with one episode to go in this season remain unresolved within the show’s imagination. Where will their seemingly collectivist thinking, which FEDRA smears as terrorism, land them on The Last of Us’s American-exceptionalism scale? Is the fact that they can’t maintain strongholds a sign of their refusal to engage in the type of exalted thinking that defined Kansas City, Silver Lake, or Jackson? The series’s primary protagonists are initially disapproving of the Fireflies’ efforts: Tess disparagingly calls Boston Fireflies leader Marlene “the Che Guevara of Boston”; Joel resents Marlene for turning his brother Tommy into “a follower”; Ellie blames the Fireflies for transforming best friend and crush Riley into a bomb-making wannabe revolutionary. Yet Marlene’s care for Ellie seems genuine, and her plan to adapt Ellie’s Cordyceps-immune blood into a vaccine for everyone is laudable. Unlike so many of the series’s other characters, whose decision-making is shaped by sectarianism masquerading as safeguarding, the Fireflies’ motives seem to be bigger than themselves — placing them on a contradictory path to The Last of Us’s opinion of the American way.
Whether The Last of Us will sanction or undermine the Fireflies’ plans for Ellie is a narrative question mark going into this weekend’s finale, but expanding “endure and survive” into more than a solitary goal shouldn’t be treated as an impossibility. After spending so much of this season in the darkness, The Last of Us could spare a light.