Why The Last of Us Part II’s Fourth Act is Necessary
The Last of Us Part II is a long game. Factoring in cutscenes and gameplay, it’s nearly double the length of its predecessor, clocking in the range of twenty to twenty-five hours on a first playthrough. The primary reason for this is a second half structural twist where you play a fairly large part of the game in the shoes of Abby, the woman our main protagonist Ellie is hunting down, and experiencing the same three days you spend playing as Ellie from Abby’s perspective, all leading back to the main showdown at the end of Day 3. To a lot of gamers, it felt like a natural crescendo to the story.
Except after the fight, the game keeps going. An extended epilogue gives way to a full-on fourth act which leads to another showdown between Ellie and Abby. For some, it felt like ending fatigue, an extra handful of hours tacked on to an already massive game.
But for Ellie’s journey to come to a close, it was also a necessary choice.
A Conflict of Circumstance
The first battle between Ellie and Abby in the movie theatre is built up to twice, which gives it incredible weight as an event. Despite this, it doesn’t actually serve as a culminating moment for either character, because neither one changes their course due to what happens in it. For Ellie, her pursuit of vengeance against Abby for the death of Joel is neither satisfied or tempered, nor is Abby’s redemptive path from a soldier to caretaker of Lev altered or impeded. This collision between these two characters is inevitable, and yet this particular moment also can’t act as the end of the story because of the circumstances in which it comes about.
Of particular note is that while the player experiences the build-up from both sides, and plays the entire Abby section knowing it leads to an inevitable face-off with Ellie, the actual crossover between the two segments of the game that take place over the three days is borderline negligible. Ellie’s crusade across Seattle results in numerous dead WLF soldiers, but she never so much as sees Abby until the end of Day 3. Meanwhile, you could be forgiven for forgetting Ellie entirely during Abby’s section, which delves deep into the war between the WLF and the Seraphites (something Ellie’s segment barely provides context for) as well as expanding on her cast of supporting characters, several of which the player will have already unceremoniously butchered as Ellie. The two perspectives are both intrinsically linked and widely separated.
This matters because it’s crucial to the way the fight plays out. Both Ellie and Abby are so consumed in their own narratives that the other one registers more as an obstacle than an active participant: Ellie’s ruthless pursuit of the distant spectre of Abby for emotional reasons she hasn’t fully reconciled, and Abby not even realizing that Ellie is in the city until the eleventh hour. This resolves in an explosion of violence and emotion but a profound lack of catharsis: Ellie only yields to Abby after being beaten into submission and left begging for Dina’s life, while Abby lets Ellie go (a mercy she’s already extended once before) only at Lev’s behest. The way this sequence of events unfolds ensures that Ellie is not forced to confront her behaviour, and abandoning her revenge quest is done not out of any meaningful character growth but from Dina’s life being in the balance. While that might seem like a narrative cheat to some, it’s vital because it sets up the tragic conclusion the story has really been building towards.
A Glimmer of Hope
The “epilogue” sequence at Dina’s farm is a beautiful, interactive pastoral poem. For the first time since Joel’s death, Ellie appears to be content. She has found love, is raising a child, and has a real shot at a future. Of course, happiness is a fleeting thing in this world, and Ellie’s is quickly revealed as a front: she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, suffering visions of Joel’s murder, haunted by her inability to save him, leading her to resume her search for Abby despite Dina’s protests. Quite a few players expressed that they wished Ellie could have just enjoyed her life with Dina and JJ, and that the game ripping it away from her was deeply upsetting. But wanting Ellie to enjoy this life, and being upset that she can’t, is exactly the emotional response you’re supposed to have.
It is tragic that she cannot find inner peace, even with her newfound family. It is tragic that she chooses to give up what amounts to as good of a life as she could have in this world for a second shot at revenge. It is tragic that she goes full circle into violent retribution, to the point of threatening the life of a literal child when Abby refuses to fight her on the beach. The second battle highlights the futility of Ellie’s desire for emotional resolution for Joel’s death, but it’s also an ugly, sloppy, brutal affair that dehumanizes every character involved. It’s also the only way to end this story because finally, every other element has been stripped away from Ellie. All she has is herself and Abby. When she finally chooses to let Abby go, to not throttle the life out of her with her own hands, it’s a choice she makes with nothing else influencing her but the weight of her soul.
It also means that when she returns to Dina’s farmhouse to find it deserted, Ellie has lost something of real consequence solely as a result of her own actions. Everything she lost before that point, Joel included, was something taken from her through no fault of her own. If she had stayed at the farm, she would have, in essence, been let off the hook. Without the hope spot of a potential good life, and Ellie losing it because of a conscious choice she made, the story’s emotional undercurrent would have been insincere. It also would have been incongruous with what Ellie was really robbed of: not just her relationship with Joel, but also the ability to find meaning in his actions at the end of the last game, and the chance to come to forgive him in her own time. She was never going to get that back, and she never would have learned that without undergoing this journey, for the real tragedy at the heart of Part II is that her worst fear from the first game has come true of her own making.
“I’m scared of ending up alone.”
And so she is. What happens next is up to her.