Joel’s Broken Watch

Joel’s Broken Watch
“Here. You kept complaining about your broken watch, so I figured, you know. Do you like it?”

This line of dialogue is among the first moments of The Last of Us. Sarah, Joel’s daughter, buys him a watch after his broke some time ago and he hadn’t yet bought another himself. After she says this, Joel then proceeds to make believe that the watch is broken to jest with his daughter. It is a light-hearted moment that works to establish the relationship between these two characters. But more importantly, there is much more happening than first meets the eye. Naughty Dog is subtly setting up a core theme for the game: time.

The opening scenes of the game, a pseudo-prologue, beautifully set up this theme in regards to Joel and his character arc. Joel receives a watch from his daughter since his was broken. The watch, an artifact which Joel wears for the rest of the game, is not only explicitly tied to Sarah for giving it to him, but tied to Joel’s personhood. The moment she no longer breathes is when Joel’s world stops. He had joked about the watch being broken, not knowing that this foreshadowed his own fate.

Throughout The Last of Us, the entire crux of Joel’s character hinges on Sarah’s death. 20 years afterward and the start of the cordyceps pandemic, Joel has still not moved past it. He doesn’t talk about it, doesn’t think about it, and all around seems intent on pretending it never happened. Although a lot has changed since that day, Joel has not dealt with the death of his daughter. In that way, he is stuck in time. Joel has become hardened by that night (understandably so). He is cynical, aggravated, and detached from those around him. Joel’s broken watch is a symbol for his entire character, and throughout the entire game he never takes it off.

It is no surprise that the person who points out Joel’s broken watch is Ellie, the character who will become a surrogate Sarah and often pushes against Joel’s worldview. Ellie believes in dealing with problems while Joel would rather toss them under the rug where they grow, fester, and linger.

The relationship between Joel and Ellie is a core component in The Last of Us. When they first meet, Joel is adamant about avoiding new relationships. The very idea of coming to care about another human being terrifies him, because deep down he is scared that he will be hurt again. Although he clearly cares for Tess, he doesn’t show this care actively. It is scarce and removed. His visceral reaction to taking Ellie on is not just a guy who doesn’t want to be weighed down by an annoying kid, though the game could have easily gone in this direction. The fact that Ellie is young and close to Sarah’s age only scares Joel further. If he comes to care for another person, that may lead him to move past Sarah and Joel can’t do that. He does not want to deal with it.

After Tess dies, Joel wants to move forward. When Ellie mentions her, Joel angrily tells her that they will not talk about Tess, his tone suggesting that Ellie has crossed a line. “You don’t bring up Tess – ever,” he tells her. “Matter of fact, we can just keep our histories to ourselves.” Ellie wants to talk about it and turns to an adult to do so, but Joel won’t talk. He does not deal with things. He defends this worldview later in an optional dialogue prompt after Henry and Sam’s deaths:

Ellie: “I want to talk about it.”

Joel: “No.”

Ellie: “Why not?”

Joel: “How many times do we need to go over this? Things happen…and we move on.”

Ellie: “It’s just…”

Joel: “That’s enough.”

Ellie: “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Much of the journey in The Last of Us is Joel’s cold exterior thawing because of Ellie. For 20 years he had not allowed himself to be emotionally available to someone else, but Ellie slowly begins to bring out this side of him. But instead of emotionally healing to let go of Sarah, Joel unconsciously replaces Sarah with Ellie. In this way, he has still not truly let go of what happened 20 years ago and losing Ellie is essentially Joel reliving that night all over again. Ellie may have brought Joel out of his shell, but Joel is still stuck at that moment in time. He still wears his broken watch.

Tommy, on the other hand, has moved forward with life in the best way he can. He once followed Joel and then the Fireflies, but later moved to his own path by working to create a safe community with others. Tommy thrives on the relationships he creates with other people, while Joel runs from them. When Joel reunites with his brother, Tommy still has Sarah’s picture and tries to give it to him as a way to remember her. Joel apathetically refuses the gift, exemplifying the large difference between him and his brother.

More than anything, Tommy is an example that change is possible. A person can move on from the horrors of their past. That doesn’t mean the past goes away. Tommy directly references the start of the pandemic and says that what he and Joel did to survive was not worth living for. Clearly he is living with a lot of dark stuff, but he is moving forward while Joel still can’t.

Additionally, the game structures itself in a way that promotes change. Each section takes place in a season of the year – summer, fall, winter, and spring. The seasons are a reminder that change is constant. Moving past summer, the longest section of the game, into fall is a strange cathartic moment. Walking through the university while leaves crunch beneath your feet and crickets chirp in nearby bushes is a small detail that presents natural, positive change. Life moves forward and things change. Whether a person moves with it is another matter. I have a feeling this was not intended by the developers, being that seasons are a natural way to frame story progression, but the fact that seasons are examples of change in a story where the main character just can’t change is very revealing.

If this were another story, Joel may have ended the game by taking his watch off, symbolically letting go of Sarah and coming to terms with her death, despite how cruel the circumstances. He may have listened to Marlene and thought past his own pain that he holds inside, allowing Ellie to die for the good of humanity. Perhaps he would have returned to Tommy and grown to support his cause. But that is not Joel’s story.

As Ellie reflects about her guilt for being alive in the wake of all those who died before her who didn’t have a chance to survive like she did, Joel intervenes to say that he too struggled with surviving while others died around him (his rebuttal completely tone deaf in the wake of recent events). As he says this, he slowly grazes the broken watch with his hand and briefly glances down at it. In this way, the story has come full circle. While Joel has changed as a character since his time with Ellie, he is also still in the same place where he started, unable to move past Sarah’s death by replacing her with a different daughter figure. He inadvertently sees Ellie as Sarah, robbing Ellie of her autonomy in the process. The watch is still on his wrist, still broken.

Because Joel has not moved past Sarah, he killed dozens of Fireflies, a doctor, and Marlene so that he could hold on to the one person that made him feel like she was still there: Ellie. He still hasn’t moved on from Sarah and his actions show this. Losing Ellie would mean he would have to go through the pain again, the pain that he has been keeping locked away for so long. Joel doesn’t confront feelings because dealing with them and moving forward is more difficult than surviving. In this way, Joel ends where he started, unable to reconcile with his past, thus lying and killing, all the while convincing himself that these were the right things to do.

While the world and people change around Joel, he does not move. His broken watch is a symbol of his inability to move forward. His worldview is locked, still stuck at the hour Sarah was killed. Only when Joel forces himself to internalize what happened can he confront the choices he has made since. Doing this would make him face himself, something he can’t do.


  1. Naughty Dog. The Last of Us. Sony Interactive Entertainment. PS3/PS4. 2013.