The television adaptation of the video game The Last of Us concluded its first season on HBO Max. Ever since it premiered this past January, the TV show has received widespread acclaim from critics and fans for being both a faithful adaptation and for its quality.
The Last of Us stands apart from your typical post-apocalyptic fare in many ways. For starters, despite its premise being similar to other post-apocalyptic yarns, it does not involve undead flesh-eaters. It is more contemplative and offers richer character studies as the main characters face moral dilemmas every moment of their fragile existence.
The Last of Us takes place in an alternate world where a fungal infection that started in 2003 destroyed our society as the parasitic fungus, called Cordyceps, altered the brains of its victims and turned them into mindless savages. Their humanity gone, the infected victims ran rampant through society as they infected others though bites and savage attacks. During the outbreak, the world descended into anarchy and the United States basically became lawless as murderous gangs and warlords rule the land except for certain cities that are run by the tyrannical FEDRA (Federal Disaster Response Agency). FEDRA is barely able to maintain some meaure of order through an iron fist and are opposed by a rebel group called the Fireflies. The show picks up twenty years later and stars Pedro Pascal as Joel an embittered survivor who lives a hard existence in the crumbling remains of Boston, which is barely controlled by FEDRA.
Joel is hired by the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene (Merl Dandridge, who is the only actor to reprise the same role from the video game), to transport a young teenage girl called Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the country to a Firefly-operated medical facility. Joel soon learns that Ellie is immune to the Cordyceps and is humanity’s only hope to recover from the pandemic. At first distrustful and hostile towards each other, the two gradually form an intense bond as they travel through the hostile continent.
While it is true the basic premise strongly echoes that of Pedro Pascal’s other popular TV show, The Mandalorian, The Last of Us differs greatly because of its themes and dark nature.
At its core, The Last of Us is a character study of two hardened survivors and the emotional trauma they suffer and how they rely on each other to heal emotionally.
From the very first episode, we see the start of the pandemic and its immediate and devastating effect on our society as we follow Joel, who lost his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker). This event nearly destroys Joe,l who became hard, bitter and even cruel. We get hints that he did evil things in order to survive and his only goal is to reconnect with his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), who is located in Wyoming. Unlike Joel, Tommy is shown to be more idealistic and was a member of the Fireflies. Joel, who is desperate to connect with a family member agrees to take Ellie with him from Boston to her destination out west.
During their journey, Joel and Ellie encounter different types of people who have fascinating and even tragic stories. One episode (“Long, Long Time”) was nearly devoted entirely to a survivalist named Bill (Nick Offerman) who finds a renewed purpose in life, which is to protect and love Frank (Murray Bartlett), a survivor that made his way to Bill’s fortified territory. While that episode showcased the good in humanity, the penultimate episode “When We are in Need” showed us the worst as Ellie is captured by David (Scott Shepherd), a monster who poses as a pastor and is a would-be savior for a desperate town.
Unlike the video game, which was more devoted to accomplishing tasks (get certain items to enter a room, as an example) or battling the infected or FEDRA, the TV show focuses more on exploring the characters and themes, such as collectivism versus individualism. This theme is very central in the last episode “Look for the Light” as we see that while Joel and Ellie are able to heal from their mental wounds they still deal with ethical and moral issues, especially Joel. The actions taken by the characters are very morally dubious and leave you wondering about their moral centers.
While this more nuanced and layered exploration of characters and themes will be appreciated by many seeking something different from all the recent zombie shoot-em-ups, it may leave fans of the classic video game disappointed. It is very faithful to the video game, with it even lifting entire lines of dialogue, and it has tons of Easter eggs and references to the game. However, at times the TV show is light on action scenes as the infected barely appear in some episodes. They do not feel like a constant threat like in the game or your typical episode of The Walking Dead, nor is it as violent. Instead we see the impact of the Cordyceps infection in the ruined landscape of America and how the pandemic brought out the worst in people.
It goes without saying that Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are the highlights of The Last of Us as the two have a natural chemistry which made their characters so endearing. Bit by bit, we see Joel quietly dropping his emotional barriers and rekindle his humanity as he forms a parental relationship with Ellie. She too, undergoes an emotional transformation as she learns about survival from Joel and looks up to Joel as the father figure she never had and needed. Through their ordeals, the two find a renewed purpose in life. For Joel his goal is to protect this young girl as he transferred his feelings over Sarah to her and in a sense accomplished with Ellie what he could not with Sarah. For Ellie, she becomes a Moses-like figure who is resolved to be able to lead humanity out of darkness with her immunity to the Cordyceps. How well they accomplished their purpose made for a wrenching finale as its emphasized how fragile and flawed the two really are.
The Last of Us is as captivating and intense as the classic video game. It also demonstrates that it is possible to be able to faithfully adapt engrossing video games into live-action media, as by the last seconds of the final episode, we’re left wanting to see more of this world and its characters.