The Last of Us and the desire for dad

After the season one finale of The Last of Us, Justine Toh has marginally less 'desire for dad' going on for Pedro Pascal.

“Daddy is a state of mind… I’m your daddy.” So said Pedro Pascal – lately crowned the internet’s daddy for his roles in The Last of Us and The Mandalorian – while charming the pants off us. He dropped the line while strapped to a polygraph by Vanity Fair, a gimmicky interview set-up that was meant to catch him fibbing and make us laugh. Well, excuse me while I swoon.

Protective father figures are all the rage – and Pascal has all but cornered the market on them. Season 3 of Disney’s The Mandalorian is back on TV with Pascal’s helmeted mercenary reunited with Grogu, or Baby Yoda. The Star Wars show – part-Western, part-action adventure of the week – is basically a space daddy love story in disguise. I’m hooked.

Then there’s Binge’s The Last of Us, the hands down brilliant video game to TV adaptation. There, Pascal’s Joel has finally leant into his dad feelings for Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a teen who he’s been transporting across the wasteland after a mushroom plague some 20 years earlier devastated humanity. Ellie is strangely immune to the virus, so her blood may hold the key to a cure – and may just kick-start civilisation again.

A father going all out to save a child, a road trip across the ruins of everything, and a faint hope that the world can be saved: The Last of Us tells a story we’ve heard many times.

Neil Druckmann, the game and show’s creator, has been frank about his influences: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road among them. That story hits familiar beats: a devoted dad, a menacing, post-apocalyptic landscape, a son whose innocence means there is still hope. It makes him seem godlike to the dad (“if he is not the Word of God, God never spoke”).

No explicit religious references are attached to Ellie from The Last of Us. But Children of Men, another influence on the game and TV show, gets that the combination of hopeless circumstances and a child who becomes a figure of hope is unavoidably Christian territory.

In P.D. James’ 1992 novel, mass infertility has stricken humanity, sending civilisation into suicidal freefall. Until, that is, the miraculous appearance of a pregnant woman whose child becomes the hope of humankind.

This is a Jesus story in apocalyptic guise, although apparently Baroness James only realised she’d written a “Christian fable” after the fact.

These themes were watered down in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. But even that film’s pregnancy reveal took place in a manger, the place where Jesus was born, geddit? It’s a nod to the fact that Christianity has long seen in the figure of the child a promise that the world isn’t entirely stuffed. It can’t be, if God has become one of us.

If Ellie from The Last of Us ever develops a messiah complex, can you blame her? It’s practically a convention of the apocalyptic-road-trip-my-child-is-the-future genre. And even the most ordinary child can’t help but bear their parent’s hopes.

Which brings us back to the “parents” of these stories: the characters who find themselves simultaneously caring for kids and securing the future.

The New York Times may have noted that The Last of Us is “an extended horror story of single parenting” but it’s significant that the show puts dad love under the spotlight.

Dads are meant to protect us – okay, let’s put them in a world where no one is safe. Sure, they can punch their way out of a crisis, but their angst at losing their loved ones leaves them defenceless. That primal mix of love and fear makes them utterly vulnerable and, for that exact reason, strangely compelling.

This desire for dad – there’s no better description – partly explains all the thirst coming Pascal’s way (after all, he’s very attractive). A guy who can be both tender and tough? One who’ll always be there, ready to do whatever’s needed to make you feel secure? Whose caring has nothing to do with trying to get some? Such figures seem thin on the ground.

They also happen to push our existential buttons, our need to not be left to our own devices. Even someone who dismisses belief in God as a childish fantasy would want company in a plague-infested wasteland – our current metaphor for a godless, barren universe. We can’t help but want a more powerful Someone who is both with us and for us.

Which is another way of saying: is there a buried wish for God at work in The Last of Us? The atheist jibe that people of faith want a sky daddy is only partly true. Actually, that’s probably all of us.

Justine Toh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of Achievement Addiction.