Henry And Sam Were The Catalyst For Joel's Panic Attacks In The Last Of Us

This article contains spoilers for "The Last of Us."

Each week, the team behind "The Last of Us" finds new and increasingly devastating ways to completely traumatize its characters, and the audience watching at home. After a particularly gruesome end to episode 5, Joel and Ellie's story picks up three months later as they reunite with Joel's brother Tommy in episode 6. The reunion brings some much-needed levity, but just as quickly as heartwarming embraces appear, so do new manifestations of gut-wrenching trauma.

In case you forgot how last week's episode ended, Joel and Ellie bore witness to the devastating effects of the cordyceps infection taking over the young Sam, who attacks Ellie and forces his brother Henry to commit a mercy killing to save her life. Henry's entire life since the start of the apocalypse has been dedicated to keeping his brother alive, and the extreme guilt he feels overtakes him. He feels he has nothing left, and he dies by suicide before their eyes.

Joel and Ellie have experienced their fair share of horrific events, but something about watching Henry and Sam die has changed them irreparably. Joel is becoming more and more aware of not just his mortality, but his role as a protector for Ellie. And since he's not actually dealing with all of his emotional devastations, it's started to leak out in unignorable, physical ways.

Joel has hit his limit

During a recent episode of "The Last of Us Podcast," showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann sat down with host Troy Baker, who provided the voice for Joel in the original video game series, to talk about how the harrowing end of episode 5 inspired the progress of episode 6.

"A lot of our conversations about this episode were like, 'What is the impact on Joel from the experience of Henry and Sam?' And you get to see some of that as they exit the cabin, and he seizes his chest," Craig Mazin said. The chest pain is the result of Joel experiencing a panic attack, a terrifying ailment that he's unfamiliar with feeling. "Panic attacks feel very much like heart attacks. It's your body telling you, 'You're in terrible danger,' but you don't understand yet, why," Mazin said. Joel has endured unfathomable tragedies, like the loss of his daughter Sarah in the first episode, but after watching what happened with Henry and Sam, it appears that Joel has finally hit his limit.

"And so much of what this episode is about, is Joel coming to terms with how terrified he is, suddenly, that [Ellie is] going to die, and it's going to be his fault," said Mazin. "And if you've been paying attention along the way, what you will see is, for as many times as Joel has helped her, he's also failed her. And those are the things that he dwells on."

The walls are crumbling

"Like a lot of us, if you have core shame or core trauma the way Joel does, the things that you do well are discounted," said Mazin. "Your failures, anything that reminds you of the tragedy of your past, you will magnify in your mind and your heart until it threatens to subsume you." Joel's traumas have been compounding on top of one another the entire show, and the weight has finally become unbearable.

Sarah, Tess, Bill, Frank, Henry, Sam, and all of the countless others Joel has lost (or killed in his quest for survival) along the way have not left him, and processing the possibility of losing Ellie is too much. Despite the tough exterior Joel is constantly putting on, he's still the empathetic, loving, compassionate person he was before the cordyceps apocalypse.

Show and video game creator Neil Druckmann explained Joel's turmoil as "he's convincing himself that what's best for Ellie is to let her go. And it's really to protect himself." There's a time-honored expression that says even wounded animals bite the hand that helps, meaning that even if someone is in pain and desperately in need of assistance, they'll do whatever they can to push away anything and anyone. Joel knows that deep down he is struggling, but the last thing he wants to do is let Ellie know the truth — that he is not invincible.