We examine the epic last episode of Season One of The Last of Us and ask how the writers created a sympathy for a character who is capable of so much destruction and bloodshed.

Joel Miller is the downbeat protagonist of HBO series The Last Of Us. What do we make of him? Is he a good guy or a psycho villain?

Yes, he is capable of great violence.

I mean, his rampage against the Fireflies was pretty unforgiveable. Completely unforgiveable, in fact.

But we forgave him, didn’t we?

There’s an old proverb: To understand is to forgive.

And that’s where we, the viewers, found ourselves: Understanding Joel, so forgiving Joel.

We did the work of forgiving

What the writers have done with Joel Miller is make a complex, compelling character. If you didn’t know him or his past and judged him on his actions, he’d reside on the other side of the line, firmly on the dark side.

But we know want he’s been through. We understand.

We know that he lost all purpose and hope. Not for nothing did he confess to Ellie his a suicide attempt just before he went on an outrageous John Wick style takedown of the Fireflies, his supposed allies. This is a man fighting for his soul.

The writers took us on a journey into Joel’s mindset. They gave us plenty of context, conjured his torturing demons, and gave him a cause greater than himself. In a masterful fashion, the writers offered up no excuses for Joel’s actions – instead, we scrabbled around to find the justifications ourselves.

We did the work, because – nine episodes in – we know Joel.

We made excuses for our pal.

Who is Joel Miller in The Last Of Us?

Let’s put this into context. Joel Miller is the main protagonist of the HBO series The Last of Us.

The Last of Us is an American post-apocalyptic drama created by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann. Based on the 2013 video game developed by Naughty Dog, the series is set in 2023, 20 years into a pandemic caused by a mass fungal infection, which causes its hosts to transform into zombie-like creatures and collapses society.

The series follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler tasked with escorting the immune teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across a post-apocalyptic US where her unique condition might be the seed that saves humanity.

Joel is the more vulnerable of the two in the series – he is hard of hearing in one ear due to a gunshot and his knees ache when he stands. But his mental wear and tear takes much the greater toll.

Joel is haunted by the death of his daughter, Sarah, and he is determined to protect Ellie from the same fate.

What Joel brings

  • He is a skilled survivor. Joel has been living in a post-apocalyptic world for many years, and he has learned how to survive in this harsh environment. He is a skilled fighter, and he is also very resourceful.
  • He is a protective father. Joel is fiercely protective of Ellie, and he will do whatever it takes to keep her safe.
  • He is a haunted man. Joel is haunted by the death of his daughter, Sarah. He is unable to move on from her death, and he is constantly reminded of her.
  • He is a broken man. Joel is a broken man, and he is struggling to cope with the loss of his daughter. He is angry, bitter, and he is quick to violence.

The case for the defence

Joel didn’t want the job of protecting Ellie. It was the dying wish of his partner Tess Servopoulos. The grumpy old man went about the mission with a hard heart and head. But, slowly, Ellie melted him, with her love of life, her puns, her courage.

She had a future and she was optimistic, two qualities that Joel was missing.


We watch him change. We watch him struggle to open up his life to the possibility of paternal love again. Of self-love again. It was a masterly, slow exposition. We, the audience, were being primed. We saw a wounded man, healing himself, willing to risk his life for his family.

His mission was to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies who would figure out how come she was immune and create an antidote to save the world. There was no bigger mission.

Then came that last episode – and everything flipped [Spoiler Alert].

What Joel did next

The epic last episode of the first season was called Look for the Light. Joel and Ellie finally arrive at the Firefly’s base, but he learns that they have to make one last sacrifice.

The Fireflies need Ellie’s brain in order to create a vaccine for the infection that has ravaged the world. Joel knows that Ellie will die if they go through with the surgery, but he also knows that the vaccine could save millions of lives.

In the end, Joel makes the decision to save Ellie and perhaps condemn the world. His decision is hard, its outcome bloody.

He kills the Fireflies, murders them in cold blood, and takes Ellie away from the base. She was anaesthetised so she never saw what happened in her name – but she was suspicious it didn’t happen as Joel had said.

Ellie: On my life, you’re telling me the truth about what happened at the hospital.

Joel: Yes.

Ellie (long, long pause): OK

There’s a whole book to be written about the freight and meaning of that ‘OK’ but we’re here to talk about how make an old rogue like Joel sympathetic. And the tricks a writer might deploy to keep an audience onside.

5 ways to create a sympathetic character

  1. Show the character’s backstory: Sometimes, understanding a character’s backstory can help readers understand why they act the way they do. Showing how the character’s past experiences have influenced their actions can make readers feel more sympathetic towards them. The loss of his daughter, his existential despair, his need to find meaning and keep Ellie alive put his actions into context.
  2. Make the character relatable: Even if a character is doing bad things, there may be aspects of their personality or behaviour that readers can relate to. I mean, what wouldn’t you do for somebody you loved more than life itself?
  3. Show the character’s internal struggle: If a character is doing bad things but is struggling with their actions, this can make readers feel sympathetic towards them. Joel didn’t take the decision lightly. In fact, we can guess he figured he would be damned for eternity. So he paid the price for his actions.
  4. Give the character redeeming qualities: Even if a character is doing bad things, they may have other qualities that readers find admirable. Joel saved Ellie and he sacrificed a lot to do so. This is a selfless man (most of the time) risking death every day.
  5. Have the character face consequences: If a character is doing bad things, it’s important to show that there are consequences to their actions. For Joel this happened in real time. He knew the price he was paying. Also, he must know that one day Ellie will find out the truth and explode the very kinship he was killing to save.

Famous bad characters we love

Here are some examples of fictional characters who have done bad things but are still sympathetic:

  • Walter White from Breaking Bad: Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher who turns to a life of crime after being diagnosed with cancer. He does some terrible things in the name of providing for his family, but the audience can’t help but root for him.
  • Tony Soprano from The Sopranos: Tony Soprano is a New Jersey mobster who struggles to balance his family life with his criminal career. He is a complex character who is capable of great violence, but he is also capable of great love and compassion.
  • Don Draper from Mad Men: Don Draper is a successful advertising executive who is hiding a dark secret from his past. He is a flawed character who makes a lot of mistakes, but he is also a brilliant and charismatic man.

By making the character relatable, showing their motivations, having them face the consequences and redeeming them in the end, writers can make audiences care about even the most flawed characters.