Who Would You Be If the World Ended?

Who Would You Be If the World Ended?

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Much has been written by critics and gamers alike The last of us, the video game turned HBO series. The main story is about love and family, but there is a dark and haunting question in the scenario: If the world had no more rules, what kind of person would you be?

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

Who are you?

This story contains spoilers for the entire first season of The last of us.

Did you read that disclaimer? No, I mean—I’d be broke all in the first season. You have been warned.

In interviewsthe writers of The last of us said that they intended the series to be about love. And they’ve really created a gorgeous—and troubling—story about how we seek and value family. But I want to raise another question that lurks in Joel and Ellie’s adventure, a dark rumbling of a thought most of us would rather not face: If the world ends, and all the rules of society disappear , what kind of person will you be?

This question, I think, resonates with us more today than it did during the Cold War. Back then, and especially in the 1970s and ’80s, postapocalyptic fiction included the entire pulpy genre that scholar Paul Brians called “Radioactive Rambos,” where men—almost always men, there are a few notable exceptions—roams the wasteland, killing mutants and wayward Communists. (They also had a lot of sex.) Sometimes, these heroes became part paramilitary groupsbut mostly, they’re the classic lone wolf: super-skilled death machines whose goal is to get from Point A to Point B while shooting everything in between and save a girl, or a town, or even the world.

But we live in darker times. We are not fighting the Soviet Union. We don’t trust institutions, or each other, as we did 40 or 50 years ago. Maybe we don’t trust ourselves either. We live in an age where lawlessness, whether on the streets or in the White House, seems to go almost unpunished. For decades, we retreated from our fellow citizens and our social organizations in our own homes, and since the onset of COVID, we have learned to make our lives virtual, holding meetings on glowing screens and our food and other goods are dropped off at our doors by people we need not know.

We also faced any number of demagogues who seem almost eager to fail our institutions so that they can recast them in their own image and likeness.

Living in a world of trees and water and buildings and cars, we can post all day about how we will bring our personal virtues to the gates of Armageddon. But considering we can barely muster enough civic energy to get off our duffs and vote every few years, how sure are we of our own courage and righteousness?

Although Joel and Ellie are made with wonderful complexity by the show’s writers and actors Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, some of the greatest moments in The last of us are among the people the main characters encounter on their journey: Bill, the survivalist (played by Nick Offerman in what should be a slam-dunk Emmy nomination); Kathleen, the militia leader (Melanie Lynskey); and David, the religious preacher and secret cannibal, is played with terrifying intelligence by Scott Shepherd. (I warned you there were spoilers.)

Each of these characters is a challenge, and a rebuke, to any of us who imagine that we will be human beings, and maybe even heroes, after the collapse of civilization.

Bill is a paranoid survivalist who falls in love with a wanderer named Frank. They were together for many years and chose to commit suicide when Frank became seriously ill. It’s a wonderful and heartbreaking story, but Bill admits in his suicide note that he always hated humanity and was initially happy to see everyone die. He doesn’t feel that way anymore, he says, implying that Frank’s love saved him, but to the end, he remains hostile to almost everyone else in the world—just as he was before Outbreak Day.

Kathleen leads a rebellion in Kansas City against FEDRA, the repressive military government that took over America after the pandemic. His “resistance,” however, is a brutal, ragtag militia, and Kathleen is a brutal dictator no better (and perhaps worse) than the regime she helped overthrow. He promised mercy to a group of FEDRA collaborators, for example, and then ordered them all shot anyway. “When you’re done, burn the bodies,” he says casual “It’s faster.” He even imprisoned his own doctor, who pleads with him, “Kathleen, I brought you.” He himself executes him.

What is important to Kathleen, however, is that she admits it he really doesn’t exist changed. His brother was the original leader of the resistance: kind, forgiving, a true leader. She admits that she never had that kind of goodness in her, even as a child—which raises the troubling thought that we’re all living near a Kathleen tightly bound by the strictures of law and custom.

And then David was there.

History is full of times when people were desperate turned to cannibalism, and although we recoil in disgust, we know it can happen. David hated what he felt he had to do, and he admitted his shame. But it turns out that what makes David evil is not that he eats people but a trick: He doesn’t care about religion; he cares about being in charge, and he admits that all his life he has struggled with violent desires. He is another character that the apocalypse reveals more than it transforms. When he excitedly tries to seduce Ellie, he kills the former math teacher in self-defense.

Again, it raises the terrifying question of how many Davids walk among us, smiling and carrying algebra books, restraining their hellish impulses only by the daily balm of street lights and neighbors and manicured lawns. We should be thankful for each day that we don’t have to know the answer.


Today’s news

  1. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan promoted Finland’s NATO apology; he has not yet approved Sweden’s.
  2. The Justice Department reported investigating the surveillance of Americans by the Chinese company that owns TikTok.
  3. President Joe Biden encouraged Congress to expand the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s authority to impose tougher penalties on senior executives who mismanage bank loans.


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Evening Reading

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Photo by The Atlantic

GPT-4 Has the Memory of a Goldfish

At this point, the many flaws of AI-based language models have been analyzed to death—their inexorable fallibility, their capacity for bias and bigotry, their lack of common sense. GPT-4, the latest and the most advanced model yet, is that undergo in the same investigation, and apparently still is misfire in almost every way that previous models did. But large language models have another shortcoming that has so far been relatively overlooked: their poor recall. These multibillion-dollar programs, which require cost of several city blocks energy to run, can now code websites, plan vacations, and draft company-wide emails in the style of William Faulkner. But they have the memory of a goldfish.

Read the full article.

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Now, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and another Russian official for their possible involvement in the kidnapping of what could be thousands of Ukrainian children. The ICC was created in 1998 by Roman lawan international treaty, and began holding its first sessions in 2003, but it does not have much power: Russia, China, and the United States are not parties to the law, and neither is Ukraine (which however jurisdiction of the ICC is granted in its territory). A Kremlin spokesman, of course, immediately wave away the warrant as irrelevant.

Things could get interesting, I think, if Putin were to travel to a country like that is part of the ICC, which is almost every other country in the world. Will another state decide to execute an ICC warrant and arrest a foreign leader? That’s pretty unlikely, but it’s something Putin should think about if he ever decides to venture too far from his Kremlin bunker. Meanwhile, unfortunately, he and his commanders will continue their crimes in Ukraine, but the ICC warrant is at least a welcome symbolic statement.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.