The Last of Us Review: HBO Promised a Zombie Thriller, But We Got Something Better
The Last of Us review: The word ‘zombie’ isn’t uttered even once in HBO’s sweeping yet intimate video game adaptation, starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey as survivors of an apocalyptic outbreak.
Suitably bleak, expansive in scope, and gorgeously textured, HBO’s The Last of Us is an early contender for show of the year. It’s difficult to imagine another television programme matching its ambition, even though there are nine full months left in 2023 to challenge this prediction. Released a decade after the similarly groundbreaking video game on which it is based, The Last of Us is barely an adaptation; it’s a reimagining that trains its crosshairs on the themes that made the source material so special, instead of wasting its time on servicing the source material’s fans.
For one, the show seems to be actively avoiding some of the game’s most memorable mechanics; nor does it seem to be interested in following the source material’s story beats. The Last of Us is the loosest of adaptations, a show that is more likely to invent entirely new storylines than to offer viewers a retread. There’s barely any action here, nor do the lead characters spend any time at all crafting weapons and collecting artefacts that’ll come in handy later — both activities that were a key part of the gameplay.
That being said, however, the series fully embraces the moral complexities that made the video game such a jaw-droppingly refreshing experience all those years ago. When it was released in 2013, people remarked at how cinematic The Last of Us game was; not only was it breathtaking to look at, but unlike most games of its kind, it involved players on an emotional level. Many claimed to have cried in the prologue itself, as they fought to save a teenage girl from imminent death as the world descended into chaos around them. Unlike most action games, which expect a certain level of emotional desensitisation on the players’ part, The Last of Us actually forced them to ponder the consequences of their violent actions.
A post-apocalyptic tale set in the aftermath of a global pandemic with overt nods to COVID, The Last of Us show closely adheres to the template established by classics such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, and Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub — all classics in which grizzled old men are tasked with taking care of young children, eventually revealing themselves to be total softies. In fact, the show is also closely related to The Mandalorian, with which it shares star Pedro Pascal.
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Everyone’s favourite Daddy plays a traumatised smuggler named Joel, who is handed the responsibility of transporting a young girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) on a cross-country journey out of a quarantine zone, and escorting her to ‘safety’. Ellie is apparently immune to the virus that turned most of the human population into undead creatures that look like they’ve got shiitake mushrooms growing out of their bodies. The word ‘zombie’, by the way, isn’t uttered even once across the show’s nine enthralling episodes. But Ellie’s perceived immunity, and imperceptible maturity, make her a valuable commodity in a desperate world.
Along the way, Joel and Ellie must defend themselves against villains more terrifying than any zombie could ever be: unchecked human beings with nothing left to lose. This is a common theme in the zombie genre, which exists primarily to remind people that they are the real monsters, and not the lumbering, flesh-eating hordes of undead. In The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie run into raiders, slavers, and in one action-packed episode towards the end, cannibals.
This is the only episode that closely follows the video game’s action and stealth-centric storytelling, barring the relatively short season finale. Otherwise, the show immediately establishes itself as its own thing. You first get a sense of how different things are going to be in episode two, which opens with the military murdering an infected child, and then cuts to Joel dispassionately disposing of the dead child’s body in a pit. His evolution from an emotionless warrior into a caring parent-figure is as moving as it was in the game. And a large part of this is due to Pascal’s vulnerable central performance. He plays Joel like a wounded animal — he’s aggressive, untrusting, someone who doesn’t let sentimentality get in the way of survival.
But the first time you recognise that you’re in the presence of greatness is in episode three, a largely self-contained story about a side character from the game, who is suddenly elevated to star status. Played by Nick Offerman, the character Bill is introduced as one of those Q-Anon survivalists, who after hunkering down in his fortified house immediately after the apocalypse, discovers that there’s more to life than just surviving, hunting, and building elaborate traps. In an extended flashback created entirely for the show, Bill meets another middle-aged man, Frank (played by Murray Bartlett), and thus begins one of the most tender love stories this side of Moonlight.
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Titled Long, Long Time, this is one of the greatest episodes of television since the finale of The Leftovers, and I’d imagine that both Offerman and Bartlett are a shoo-in for Emmys. But, as expected, the show is never able to sustain this level of quality, despite at least two more episodes following a similar, contained flashback format. Episode seven, for instance, is devoted to another doomed love story. But it can’t help but feel like an imitation. But by then, it’s clear that more than a thrilling survival epic set in a post-apocalyptic world, The Last of Us is a story about love, in all its wonderful forms — romantic, platonic, and parental. No wonder that some fans of the video game (and its sequel) are properly confused by this. But these people do not matter; they probably liked the games for all the wrong reasons as well.
What is the cost of survival, the show asks. Why do people go on? When does grief end? Nobody captures the essence of The Last of Us better than Bill, who gazes at the love of his life Frank in that heartbreaking third episode, and says with tears in his eyes, “I’m old. I’m satisfied. And you were my purpose.”
The Last of Us
Creators – Craig Mazin, Neil Druckmann
Cast – Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey
Rating – 4.5/5
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