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A Small Yet Meaningful Change in HBO’s The Last of Us Makes Joel Feel So Much More Realistic

Pedro Pascal
Image Source: HBO

A Small Yet Meaningful Change in HBO’s The Last of Us Makes Joel Feel So Much More Realistic

See any pills laying around?

It seems like showrunner Craig Mazin and series creator Neil Druckmann are determined to constantly surprise me with new, meaningful details that help flesh out the world of The Last of Us even further each week. Tess’s death scene still lives rent-free in my head, and I still find myself feeling slightly disturbed by Ellie’s darker tendencies.

This week’s episode takes us to the Kansas City QZ –which, in itself, is already a departure from the game’s Pittsburgh– where the show drops a minor detail about Joel that was never present in the game: he’s actually partially deaf in one ear.

Towards the end of episode 4, Ellie quizzes him about how she’s noticed that he’s hard of hearing in one ear. Joel responds that it’s likely the result of being exposed to so many close gunshots over the past 20 years, and he’s become partially deaf in one ear over time. It’s a really interesting tidbit that likely won’t have much impact on the overall story in the long run, but it’s one that serves to showcase the physical toll that the apocalypse has taken on Joel’s body.

Interestingly enough, Joel’s partial deafness isn’t a thing in the original game, and why would it be? In the game, you could hold down a button to make use of Listen Mode, and allow Joel to detect the locations of the infected through the walls. To make things even more video game-y, you could even collect supplements to upgrade his hearing and expand on his Listen Mode range.

Allowing Joel to have super hearing in the game certainly makes sense from a video game perspective, as Naughty Dog clearly wanted to give players a slight advantage when it comes to navigating their way around the infected. Having Joel be partially deaf just wouldn’t make sense at all in the context of the game, and it wouldn’t have added any value to the story.

In HBO’s adaptation, however, his partial deafness ends up being a small detail that helps to add some texture to Joel’s character overall. Of course his body would deteriorate over the course of 20 years living in a hellish landscape, and of course that deterioration would manifest in ways other than just physical aging.

It could also be an important detail to keep in mind as we head into episode 5, where we finally get properly introduced to Henry and Sam. The episode 5 preview reveals that the TV version of Sam is deaf, which is a huge departure from his original depiction in the game. Joel’s partial deafness could serve as a lead-in to him knowing some sign language, allowing him to bond with Sam on a deeper level that we’ve never seen in the game.

Even if it doesn’t and I’m just overthinking this, though, I must say I’m enjoying this slightly more realistic portrayal of Joel in the show. Sure, having him be a total superhero in the game with all his supplements is great and everything, but a TV adaptation is an opportunity to show off a much more grounded version of Joel, and I’m here for it.

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