Who Would You Be If the World Ended?

The Last of Us asks a hard question that is about more than love.

Melanie Lynskey as Kathleen in "The Last of Us"
Melanie Lynskey as Kathleen in "The Last of Us" (Liane Hentscher / HBO)

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The critics and the gamers have written much about The Last of Us, the video game that became a majestic HBO series. The main story is about love and family, but there’s a dark and nagging question in the scenario: If the world had no more rules, what kind of person would you be?

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

Who Are You?

This story contains spoilers for the entire first season of The Last of Us.

Did you read that disclaimer? No, I mean it—I am going to spoil everything in the first season. You’ve been warned.

In interviews, the writers of The Last of Us have said that they intended the series to be about love. And they have indeed created a gorgeous—and disturbing—tale of how we find and cherish family. But I want to raise another question that lurks in the adventures of Joel and Ellie, a dark rumble of a thought that most of us would rather not confront: If the world ended, and all of the rules of society vanished, what kind of person would you be?

This question, I think, resonates more with us today than it did during the Cold War. Back then, and particularly in the 1970s and ’80s, postapocalyptic fiction included an entire pulpy genre that the scholar Paul Brians called “Radioactive Rambos,” in which men—almost always men, with a few notable exceptions—would wander the wasteland, killing mutants and stray Communists. (They also had a lot of sex.) Sometimes, these heroes were part of paramilitary groups, but most typically, they were the classic lone wolf: super-skilled death machines whose goal was to get from Point A to Point B while shooting everything in between and saving a girl, or a town, or even the world.

But we live in more ambiguous times. We’re not fighting the Soviet Union. We don’t trust institutions, or one another, as much as we did 40 or 50 years ago. Perhaps we don’t even trust ourselves. We live in a time when lawlessness, whether in the streets or the White House, seems mostly to go unpunished. For decades, we have retreated from our fellow citizens and our social organizations into our own homes, and since COVID began, we’ve learned to virtualize our lives, holding meetings on glowing screens and having our food and other goods dropped at our doors by people we never have to meet.

We also face any number of demagogues who seem almost eager for our institutions to fail so that they can repopulate them in their own image and likeness.

Living in a world of trees and water and buildings and cars, we can posture all day long about how we would take our personal virtues with us through the gates of Armageddon. But considering that we can barely muster enough civic energy to get off our duffs and go vote every few years, how certain are we about our own bravery and rectitude?

Although Joel and Ellie are rendered with wonderful complexity by the show’s writers and by the actors Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, some of the greatest moments in The Last of Us are with people the protagonists encounter during their travels: Bill, the survivalist (played by Nick Offerman in what should be a slam-dunk Emmy nomination); Kathleen, the militia leader (Melanie Lynskey); and David, the religious preacher and secret cannibal, played with terrifying subtlety by Scott Shepherd. (I warned you there were spoilers.)

Each of these characters is a challenge, and a reproof, to any of us who think we’d be swell folks, and maybe even heroes, after the collapse of civilization.

Bill is a paranoid survivalist who falls in love with a wanderer named Frank. They live together for years and choose suicide when Frank becomes mortally ill. It’s a marvelous and heartbreaking story, but Bill admits in his suicide note that he always hated humanity and was initially glad to see everyone die. He no longer feels that way, he says, implying that Frank’s love saved him, but right to the end, he remains hostile to almost everyone else in the world—just as he was before Outbreak Day.

Kathleen leads a rebellion in Kansas City against FEDRA, the repressive military government that takes over America after the pandemic. Her “resistance,” however, is a brutal, ragtag militia, and Kathleen is a vicious dictator who is no better (and perhaps worse) than the regime she helped overthrow. She promises clemency to a group of FEDRA collaborators, for example, and then orders them all to be shot anyway. “When you’re done, burn the bodies,” she says casually. “It’s faster.” She even imprisons her own doctor, who pleads with her, “Kathleen, I delivered you.” She executes him herself.

What’s important about Kathleen, however, is that she later admits that she really hasn’t changed. Her brother was the original head of the resistance: kind, forgiving, a true leader. She admits that she never had that kind of goodness in her, not even as a child—which raises the troubling thought that we all live near a Kathleen who is tenuously bound only by the restrictions of law and custom.

And then there’s David.

History is replete with times when desperate human beings have resorted to cannibalism, and although we recoil in disgust, we know it can happen. David hates what he felt he had to do, and he admits his shame. But it turns out that what makes David evil is not that he eats people but that he’s a fraud: He cares nothing about religion; he cares about being in charge, and he admits that he has struggled all his life with violent impulses. He is another character whom the apocalypse reveals more than it changes. When he gleefully tries to rape Ellie, she kills the former math teacher in self-defense.

Again, this raises the creepy question of how many Davids walk among us, smiling and toting algebra books, restrained from their hellish impulses only by the daily balm of street lights and neighbors and manicured lawns. We should be grateful for every day that we don’t have to know the answer.


Today’s News

  1. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan endorsed Finland’s NATO bid; he has not yet approved Sweden’s.
  2. The Justice Department is reportedly investigating the surveillance of Americans by the Chinese company that owns TikTok.
  3. President Joe Biden urged Congress to expand the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s authority to impose more stringent penalties on senior executives who mismanage lending banks.


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Evening Read

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Illustration by The Atlantic

GPT-4 Has the Memory of a Goldfish

By this point, the many defects of AI-based language models have been analyzed to death—their incorrigible dishonesty, their capacity for bias and bigotry, their lack of common sense. GPT-4, the newest and most advanced such model yet, is already being subjected to the same scrutiny, and it still seems to misfire in pretty much all the ways earlier models did. But large language models have another shortcoming that has so far gotten relatively little attention: their shoddy recall. These multibillion-dollar programs, which require several city blocks’ worth of energy to run, may now be able to code websites, plan vacations, and draft company-wide emails in the style of William Faulkner. But they have the memory of a goldfish.

Read the full article.

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Today, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and one other Russian official for their possible involvement in the kidnapping of what could be thousands of Ukrainian children. The ICC was created in 1998 by the Rome Statute, an international treaty, and began holding its first sessions in 2003, but it doesn’t have a lot of power: Russia, China, and the United States are not parties to the statute, and neither is Ukraine (which has nonetheless granted the ICC jurisdiction over its territory). A Kremlin spokesperson, of course, immediately waved away the warrant as irrelevant.

Things could get interesting, I suppose, if Putin ever travels to a nation that is part of the ICC, which is almost every other country in the world. Would another state decide to enforce the ICC warrant and arrest a foreign leader? That’s pretty unlikely, but it’s something Putin would at least have to think about if he ever decides to venture too far away from his Kremlin bunker. In the meantime, unfortunately, he and his commanders will continue their crimes in Ukraine, but the ICC warrant is at least a welcome symbolic statement.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.