Once upon a time, in a broken world all too similar to this one, except even more broken --- and yes, Virginia, lest you gesture in disbelief at the dumpster fire which is currently our little rock hurtling through the inky vastness of space, let me assure you such a thing is all too possible --- there lives a broken man. He’s one of many, surviving in a dystopian world he hasn’t made and doesn’t like, but that changes nothing, so he wearily makes his way through it day by day.
This broken man --- Joel, his name is --- has a partner Tess, and together they’re pretty passable smugglers, managing to get by in this broken, dystopian world… which is that way because there’s been a devastating fungal plague outbreak some 20 years prior, which killed off a goodly portion of the world’s population, turned another sizeable portion into shambling nightmarish things wandering the landscape, and reduced what was left of so-called civilization to a dysfunctional, hard-scrabble, subsistence-level shadow of its former self.
One day Joel and Tess are approached by a nice lady named Marlene, the leader of a resistance/terrorist group --- like so many things related to the human condition, it always depends on your perspective, you know --- called the Fireflies. Marlene has a job for them: to transport a young girl named Ellie across devastated Boston to meet up with another group of Fireflies who’ll take Ellie on to some undisclosed location out west. Marlene doesn’t specify why she wants this done, and Joel and Tess don’t ask, because they couldn’t care less. What does interest them is the payment. So they accept the job.
Along the way, just outside the protected Quarantine Zone, Joel, Tess, and Ellie run into some trouble: they’re confronted by the nice security forces, who check them for the fungal infection. What do you know? Ellie tests positive. As you might imagine, this dims the festive atmosphere somewhat, with Ellie attacking the nice security man, forcing Joel and Tess to do the same. When the dust --- and blood --- settles, the security people have gone to the great checkpoint in the sky, and Ellie explains that, by gosh, she’s a pretty valuable asset, because she’s *immune* to the plague.
Joel’s a teensy bit sceptical, but Tess is more trusting, so they continue to their destination. Unfortunately, on arrival, they find the receiving Fireflies dead. Bummer. And more nice security forces are outside, and they’re understandably a little ticked off. Joel is all for leaving and returning Ellie for a refund, but Tess says, no, that’s not possible. Somewhere along their little jaunt, she’s been bitten by an infected, and her long-term prospects aren’t. But… she plays the old relationship card, making Joel promise to take Ellie out west to find the Fireflies, so they can find a cure and heal all the hurts of this broken, dystopian world. Like so many hapless males before him, Joel rolls his eyes and agrees.
Problem is, Joel and Ellie don’t like each other very much. She thinks he’s, to quote Star Trek, “a swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood.” Or words to that effect. And he regards her as an unmitigated nuisance, insubordinate, wilful, and several other likeminded things. Doesn’t sound like the most promising foundation for any kind of relationship, does it, boys and girls?
However… in one of the more enduring literary tropes… Joel and Ellie bond with each other. No, no, not in any icky kind of way; get your mind out of the gutter. But by the game’s end --- and yes, this story comes from the deathless images of the video game (not the TV series, which is showing some differences, some minor, others more major) The Last of Us --- they’re pretty much father and daughter. Ta da! The ol’ enemies-to-friends trope. Someone asked me recently why this has been and continues to be a thing. But when it’s handled properly, it isn’t something to do that aforementioned eye-rolling over. Why? Several reasons:
First, it happens all the time IRL (in real life). I’ve said before that yeah, much of our collective lives seem governed by clichés. And they are. Because humans are not nearly as original and creative as they think. We’re walking clichés (oy). But that sometimes makes the job of writers easier, so there’s that. So the next time you’re tempted to roll your eyes at a writer’s machinations… stop and think first.
One of the biggest things to remember about the enemies-to-friends (or lovers) trope is our first impressions of other people aren’t always completely --- or even partially --- accurate. We tend to put a great deal of stock in physical appearance, for example, which isn’t necessarily misleading, but certainly can be. More fundamentally, many of us are just not great judges of human character. (Don’t agree with me? Just look back over our dismal human history. Oy again.) Some of us --- a small number --- are remarkably keen assessors of people. But an enormous percentage of the population is also appallingly bad at it. So it’s quite easy to start off with one superficial take on a person, only to realize later, as you get to know them on deeper levels, that you need to revise your initial assessment… which assumes one has the emotional maturity and humility to accept that unpleasant realization; most of us really don’t like to have to admit we’re wrong. But that’s what the enemies to friends/lovers trope is really all about: people who start off their relationship with one mindset, then change it as their relationship evolves and understanding and empathy replaces prejudice and trite assumptions.
Yep. Happens all the time, folks. “I hate you… no, on reflection, actually I like/love you.”
After all, everyone wants to be liked. As Will would say, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.