There has been some debate over whether The Last of Us is breaking canon with Joel's panic attacks

The Last of Us’ latest episode saw Joel suffering from a panic attack, with actor Pedro Pascal clutching his chest and struggling for breath in a convincing performance that avoided being overblown and cartoonish. With Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, of all things, having just offered up one of the best interpretations of a panic attack in mainstream media, The Last of Us delivered its own gritty look at Joel's moment of vulnerability. It proves the depth the show can offer that the video game could not, and makes Joel more rounded and endearing, as he needs to be when the audience doesn't have the benefit of physically playing as him. However, the scene has also sparked a discussion on canon, but the truth is canon doesn't matter.


Another reaction to the panic attack scene has been to boil it down to a meme, with people using three stacked versions of Joel breathing in slowly to ruminate on the silliest and smallest inconveniences. I'm sure someone somewhere will argue this is ableist and shows disrespect for panic attack sufferers all around the world, but maybe we can drop the performative identity politics. It's fine. Often the shows with the most serious and grounded themes become the biggest memes - see Breaking Bad and The Boys. It's just something in our nature as human beings to subvert otherwise serious media in pursuit of humour.

Related: With Left Behind, Does The Last Of Us Have Room For Two Queer Love Stories?

What's also in our nature is to seek answers for everything. It's why we have a million and seven Star Wars spin-offs to explain every single throwaway line the franchise has ever served up. So when Joel has a panic attack in the show that he didn't have in the game, we have to whip out the deerstalkers and magnifying glass. Well, it turns out that in The Last of Us Part 1 (that's the remake of the first game which launched last year), you can see Joel is taking medication that suggests he suffers from panic attacks. So hey presto, those panic attacks are actually canon. But what does any of that actually mean?

pedro pascal as joel in the last of us
via HBO

Here's another minor detail you might have missed - at the start of the show, there's a title card that appears, with the letters 'The Last of Us' written on it. This means everything that happens in the show is part of The Last of Us. Everything in it is canon. It's not a fan project or a Treehouse of Horror episode. I know when you say 'canon' you mean 'explicitly backed up by the games' but that's such a narrow way to experience media. It happens in the TV show because it makes sense for his character and because he's given more room for introspection on TV. It's all 'real'.

We proclaimed The Last of Us as a masterpiece at the time, but looking back on it today, it shows its age. Not in the combat or visuals or in any ways that justified a remake (I remain firm in my view that it did not need one), but in its overall approach to narrative, which is untouched in the remake anyway. The Last of Us laid the foundation for meaningful storytelling in video games with relatable characters, dramatic stakes, and meaningful themes, but since then others have come along and done it better.

An image showing horsemen, people, and wooden buildings in a settlement in Wyoming from The Last of Us episode 6

In the games we don't see much of the stock angry prepper Bill, and his queerness is a minor detail delivered with a sense of callousness. The TV show builds on this with a far more tender story, acting as an apology for the game itself. Likewise, for all Joel is a heroic and iconic character, he's not particularly relatable and is a fairly generic unstoppable killing machine in the first game. In the sequel, we see more flaws to our leads. Ellie is reckless, and we watch her hopeful nature drain from her across the three days we spend in her company, before watching her endure PTSD in the game's epilogue. Abby, meanwhile, has her invulnerability punctured by a fear of heights that causes her to transform from a muscle-bound monster into a scared little girl. They're both far more human than Joel is in his first outing, even if Joel has a more grounded persona than the likes of Duke Nukem or Nathan Drake.

Joel's panic attacks are part of the show that proves the television adaptation can help elevate and change the story while remaining true to its identity, rather than recreating a one-to-one version of the game on screen. There's no point investigating how 'true' they are or debating whether they fit in the canon. They make the story richer, and that's all that matters.

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