As was inevitable, The Last of Us’ TV show has been renewed for a second season. Though the show is only three episodes old (and just two at the time of renewal), an excellent cast, well directed, off the back of strong source material was always going to be a winner. Add in HBO’s typical loyalty to its investments and TLOU’s runaway popularity and you could have put your house on it. If you did, congratulations on winning a second, matching house, which is how I assume those bets work. But now the show has new characters to introduce, and our attention is focussed in the wrong places.
The most controversial figure in Part 2, on the surface at least, is Abby. Not only does Abby kill Joel in the opening exchanges, we spend the latter half of the game playing as her to experience Joel and Ellie as villains from her perspective. With the triple-A scene so keen to repeat formulas that have worked and play safe to the masses, switching to Abby’s view was a major risk in ways I still don’t think are fully appreciated. Playing as Abby was not just a cool twist or a clever story development, it was a complete inversion of gaming’s ’might is right’ mentality, and forced us to face the fact that we as players have been not just controlling, but rooting for, an irredeemable creature propelled by mindless revenge.
It asks us to confront our own feelings and motivations while playing, and a lot of us weren’t up to the task. We liked Joel, Abby killed Joel, and therefore Abby is bad. It led to Abby’s actor getting death threats so frequently and so severely that she and several influential figures from the cast and studio needed to publicly denounce them to try to get them to stop. Given Abby is played by Laura Bailey, one of the most beloved video game stars of the modern era, the theory goes that it will be even worse on TV when (despite unrealistic fan casts of Florence Pugh) it will likely be someone far less well known. But I’m not sure that’s true. And I think we should be looking elsewhere with our fears.
HBO’s season two will not lead to the original death threat chuds sending more. They’ve likely given up on The Last of Us anyway, and the twist of Abby killing Joel will not come as a surprise which forces them to process complex emotions. As for newcomers, take away the agency of playing as different characters, plus the fact those who are still in the dark about TLOU’s plot are probably less online or tuned into geek culture, making them less likely to be obsessive, and I don’t see many issues at all.
It won’t be clear sailing. Abby is still an unpopular character to many, and she is a buff woman, which often leads to hate in and of itself. But remember it was her stature which led to leaks conflating two separate plot points and decrying Abby as transgender. In a startling accurate microcosm for the bathroom debate, because Abby did not look typically beautiful, she was outcast for not being feminine enough and labelled a dirty tranny. But it’s the actual trans character, Lev, that I’m worried about.
For trans people like me, Lev was a revelation. A trans character in the biggest game on the planet whose story is respected and who is crucial to the plot. Not only that, he became one of the most popular characters in the series. Everyone loved his naive charm, his unpredictable steel, his bond with Abby, and how crucial he was in humanising her. It’s not perfect (he’s written by cis people and feels like an outsider’s portrayal at times, he’s deadnamed occasionally, and he never uses the word ‘transgender’), but it’s a character whose importance to gaming cannot be overstated.
Unfortunately, the rules for Abby are reversed here. Lev does nothing wrong in the story. He’s one of the few heroes who gets out clean. There’s no reason to hate him, as you might hate Abby for killing Joel. But he will be played by a transgender actor – you would assume, given he was in the game – and that puts him under a whole new kind of pressure. While those who hate Abby have given up their cause for its ridiculousness, there are still those who love Lev. And confusingly, there’s some crossover in the Venn diagram of people who love Lev yet hate trans people. Lev, to them, is ‘one of the good ones’.
I understand the concern for Abby, especially after someone as cherished as Laura Bailey was not spared. But Abby is unlikely to be put through the wringer a second time. Instead, it will be a teenage trans person of colour faced with the task of living up to the most popular character in the show, while representing the sort of ‘wokeness’ the drones who fight in the manufactured culture war have been taught to hate. If the show ever deviates from the game, which it surely will, TV’s Lev will be crucified as the ‘worst Lev’ and an example of how the show is being ruined. The desire to protect Abby is natural. But it’s Lev who will need us most.
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