It’s a strange thing to say about a show set during a zombie apocalypse, but I had a searing moment of recognition in the sixth episode of The Last of Us. It came during a rare moment of respite, as Joel (Pedro Pascal) and his young charge, Ellie (Bella Ramsey), took a break from their cross-country trek in Jackson, Wyoming. Joel’s brother Tommy, who’s set up a largely zombie-free life there, offers him a new pair of boots. A dam breaks inside Joel.
“There are moments where the fear comes up out of nowhere and my heart feels like it’s stopped,” he says in a quavering voice. “I’m failing in my sleep … it’s all I do. It’s all I’ve ever done.”
At that moment, I popped out from under my blanket on the couch and shouted, “You are not failing! You have not failed! She’s still alive!” That’s when I realized that for me, watching HBO’s latest hit show had progressed beyond mere entertainment. It was a form of catharsis to watch someone else parent through a deadly pandemic.
I am pretty sure that every new parent has been struck by fear at their baby’s overwhelming dependency. When you are first handed a newborn, its heavy head is barely attached to its body. How are you—an imbecile who once had to save herself from alcohol poisoning by throwing up—supposed to take care of a creature whose head could fall off at any minute?
Luckily, a lot of the catastrophic scenarios simply do not come to pass. The baby’s head does not fall off (usually). They eat, or get hungry and then eat. Taking care of a reliant human becomes normal.
By the time my second kid turned 2 in 2019, I thought I had learned not to sweat the small things. I no longer got freaked out about what car seat to buy or whether he slept through the night. (Sleeping? What’s that?) But something changes when the catastrophe becomes real. It’s not just in your head. What happens when you can no longer reassure yourself, “Meh, most kids go through this and live”?
Now, three years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rawness of that early fear has been blunted by time, reliable masks, and vaccines. It’s hard to remember that we were once alone, cutting up old T-shirts to cover our noses and mouths and wiping down groceries with Lysol. Having small kids (and a grouchy old dog) made the early days of lockdown both easier and harder. There were still so many moments of pure joy. But when Delta peaked in August of 2021, I made the agonizing decision to homeschool them for another four months until my daughter could be vaccinated.
Taking the long view, four months was not so long. But like Joel, I had my dark night of the soul as my then-first-grader watched everyone else troop back to our local neighborhood school, alone, from our living room window. “I can’t do this,” I cried to my husband. “If I make a mistake, they could die.”
When Joel and Henry are watching Ellie and Sam, a young child in Henry’s care, read together at the end of episode 5, “Endure and Survive,” Joel remarks that it’s easier for kids. I felt that deep in my bones. When Henry says, “We’re doing a good job, then,” it turns out to be a false promise.
A few nights ago, I had a dream. My family’s car had run off the road into one of the many rivers that surround our home in Portland, Oregon. In my dream, I reacted instantaneously. “Everyone open the doors and windows right now,” I shouted, rolling down my window to let the freezing water rush in, “before the water pressure holds them closed and we can’t get out!” I specifically thought, Not today, motherfuckers.
Who were the motherfuckers? Fauci? Anti-maskers? The childcare workers quitting so I couldn’t do my job or the people going to bars when my kids had to eat their lunch outside in the rain? In some ways, having real, live enemies to shoot and punch to death would be preferable to coming to terms with the fact that there’s nobody to fight. We just had a deadly, infectious disease, no support systems, and too little information.
I’m not the same person I was before I had to shepherd my family through a global pandemic. Now I’m a survivor, and also someone who shouts F-bombs in her sleep. I recognize, in Joel, the weariness of a parent who has exhausted all their resources and has no idea what to do but somehow still goes on because he’s come this far and has a kid tugging at his elbow who is fucked if he doesn’t get back up.
Like any good, smart piece of media, The Last of Us (and the game on which it’s based) makes people think about a lot of different things, but I believe the show gets this right. No one is good or bad; we’re all just desperate people trying to do what’s best in an unthinkable situation. As a parent, the most touching moments are when Joel starts to let go, whether that’s opening up to Tommy or teaching Ellie to use a gun. A parent’s job isn’t to create an environment where our kids never have to be afraid. Our job is to raise kids who can survive anything.