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HBO’s The Last of Us is by far the best video game adaptation ever made for the big or small screen.
That’s the blurb HBO wants for this post-apocalyptic tale of desperation, perseverance and zombies, and that’s the blurb HBO is sure to get — because it’s almost incontestably true. At the same time, it undersells just how very good The Last of Us is, simply as a TV show — albeit one existing fans will recognize as closely, at times shot-for-shot and line-for-line, linked to its Naughty Dog source material.
The Last of Us
Cast: Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, with Gabriel Luna, Anna Torv, Nico Parker, Murray Bartlett, Nick Offerman, Melanie Lynskey, Storm Reid, Jeffrey Pierce, Lamar Johnson, Keivonn Woodard and more.
Creators: Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann from the Naughty Dog video game
The best thing I can say about The Last of Us is that, as often as it made me think of The Walking Dead — and it’s unavoidable that it will make you think of The Walking Dead — it more frequently reminded me of the desperate, weary humanism of Station Eleven, and even of the deeply felt central relationship in Charlotte Wells’ film Aftersun, an otherwise very different story of a father and daughter learning to communicate in an alien world.
So there’s your alternative blurb, HBO, one that I expect to see on billboards nationwide: “The Last of Us: It’s like Aftersun with horrifying mushroom-men!”
Adapted by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) with game creator Neil Druckmann, The Last of Us begins with a 1960s TV panel show warning about the dangers of an evolved global fungal infection before jumping to 2003, where everything is normal for Texas contractor Joel (Pedro Pascal), his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) and her brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna). Then, in almost no time, news reports go from unrest in Jakarta to panic in the streets to airplanes falling from the sky.
Twenty years later, the Cordyceps infection has nearly wiped out humanity, leaving the survivors contained to a few urban quarantine zones, under the regulatory thumb of FEDRA. Joel has become something of an outlaw, smuggling with partner Tess (an initially unrecognizable Anna Torv), looking out mostly for himself.
That’s when the leader of a resistance movement (Merle Dandridge’s Marlene) introduces him to obstinate 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey). Ellie is an orphan who has grown up only in a post-plague world, and she’s special: She sustained a bite from one of the infected, who still roam the earth in myriad forms, but she didn’t turn. Ellie’s immunity could offer hope for humanity, but only if Joel and Tess can get her to a facility across the country — no easy feat since, as every post-apocalyptic drama ever made has attempted to emphasize, as bad as whatever wiped out most of humanity already was, people in extremis can be far worse.
The Last of Us pilot, also directed by Mazin, isn’t bad, but it’s too familiar for an 81-minute running time to sustain. Given how many of the shows came from pre-existing IP, it’s just an eerie coincidence that since the world went into waves of pandemic lockdown in spring 2020, audiences have been inundated by pandemic-set series — some as remarkable as Station Eleven, some as forgettable as the remake of The Stand and some as completely unnoticed as AMC+’s Anna, but most driven by very, very similar introductions to a dystopian new normal.
I don’t want to say that after you’ve seen one ivy-covered city in ruins, one cracking freeway littered with shells of cars, or one undertrained military peon threatening one starving group of stragglers with death if they take one step forward that you’ve seen them all. But the proficiently made pilot definitely points to diminishing returns, even when it comes to the shock value in offing a character viewers expected to be a protagonist. The episode indeed will offer newcomers very little hint of why this property has people so excited.
The second episode, with Druckmann taking the directing reins, shifts the series into gear with the introduction of the Ellie/Joel relationship that isn’t just the series’ heart; it’s the series. The gruff, reluctant protector and spunky last-hope-for-humanity child dynamic is every bit as familiar as anything in the pilot, but it’s rarely been captured as lovingly and lovably as it is by Pascal — able to show his face for this version of Mando and Baby Yoda — and especially Ramsey, who audiences will remember as Lyanna Mormont, saving grace of later Game of Thrones seasons. Pascal expertly embodies the exasperation and growing affection that Joel feels, but it’s Ramsey who overcomes a consistently inconsistent American accent and instantly makes Ellie wise-but-not-too-wise, fearless-but-not-too-fearless, funny-but-not-annoyingly-funny. Joel and players of the game make the commitment to die for her and viewers may be willing, from the stakes-free comfort of a couch, to do the same.
That second episode brings us our first meaningful exposure, so to speak, to the infected, the series’ version of zombies. Achieved by the VFX team led by Alex Wang and the makeup department headed by Connie Parker, the creatures come bedecked in a wide array of body-replacing florid blooms, and they’re properly gross and nightmarish. More than that, they’re fresh and exciting, a genre palate cleanser after Greg Nicotero’s iconic Walking Dead version of the lurching, insatiable deceased. They’re terrifying and, to the benefit of the show, they’re ultimately completely unnecessary.
The third episode is what elevates The Last of Us from a horror romp to something on the verge of truly special. The rare 75-minute TV episode that didn’t cause me to look at my watch once, it’s mostly the portrait of an unexpected and fully heartbreaking relationship between survivors played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett (so good and so inextricably linked that the TV Academy may need to set new precedent with a shared guest acting nomination). Directed by Peter Hoar, whose It’s a Sin bona fides only add to the poignancy, it’s a basically undead-free full detour from the breathless episode that came before, a standalone that does nothing to sap the series’ early momentum.
It sets a template for the rest of the season, which consists of one- or two-episode encounters with other communities and other survivors, bringing excellent guest actors like Melanie Lynskey, Graham Greene, Elaine Miles, Lamar Johnson, Ashley “Ellie from the game!” Johnson and Rutina Wesley into the fold for brief, but thoroughly effective appearances. The ensemble mobilized by casting director Victoria Thomas peaks with Storm Reid, who appears in the season’s highly emotional seventh episode. Sometimes episodes feature “zombies,” too! But not always.
The speed with which these cameos come and go points to an admirable and almost unfathomable restraint from HBO and the creators, since it’s easy to imagine how these nine episodes could have been stretched across two or three seasons. At the same time, there’s a structural sameness that saps the sense of anything-can-happen surprise. It’s one thing for anybody to be able to die at any time, but if it happens always? Not quite “shrug,” but close.
The rushed pacing also pushes the brutality into voyeuristic sadism in certain installments, particularly the eighth, when the escalated body count loses all meaning and becomes, for want of a better criticism, the stuff of a video game rather than prestige TV. Though I wouldn’t have wanted much more padding, a tiny bit of additional breathing room could have let The Last of Us achieve additional profundity in its commentary on The Way We’re Living Now, beyond what is a sincere if superficial take on darkness and light within human nature.
If those, however, are my biggest complaints about your blockbuster video game adaptation? Well, you’ve done pretty well indeed, The Last of Us.
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