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HBO's The Last of Us Changes the Rules of the Game

The series from Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin finds astonishing new layers in the apocalyptic tale.
  • Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)
    Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

    If you’ve played The Last Of Us, then in some ways, you know what to expect from HBO’s high-budget adaptation. It is the future, and the world is ruined. Dormant cities lie overgrown with weeds, and rodents dart through the charred husks of automobiles. People live in militarized enclaves, in far-off communes, or else as scavengers. They were driven there because in 2003 — in this timeline — a mutant fungus spread to humans, overpowering their brains and transforming them into bloodthirsty monsters. Vegetal profusions burst from their heads. One bite from one of these bad boys and you’re headed to Team Mushroom. In the midst of this desolation, a gruff warrior named Joel is entrusted with the care of a whip-smart teenage girl who is, somehow, immune to the fungus.

    And yet The Last Of Us, a nine-episode adaptation of the first game in the series, wanders from the original’s relentlessly ground-level focus on Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey). It begins, for example, with a flashback to the 1960s, creating a broad narrative context with a scene where academics debate the possibility of an outbreak. In the season’s showcase third episode, a central relationship, conveyed with tasteful suggestion in the original game, is given full, sweeping life, a decades-long romance portrayed with humor and grace. Throughout the show, these detours provide rich inner lives to characters that might otherwise scan as mere bit players.

    Showrunner Craig Mazin, who helmed HBO’s equally apocalyptic Chernobyl limited series, wields these expository narratives as weapons, setting up devastating moments in which years of backstory crash into Joel and Ellie’s bloody journey across the northern United States. In fact, Mazin and his team seem more comfortable conveying the setup to catastrophe and the quiet, interpersonal shockwaves of its aftermath than they do crafting the action setpieces that are probably mandatory for a videogame adaptation like this. Some early episodes nod, a bit too heavily, to the source material; characters are given missions and then pick through levels designed with surprising fealty, traversing old buildings and laying covering fire. They’re joyless, rote action scenes, made even less bearable when compared to the purposeful violence of the game that inspired them. Viewers might yearn to skip past these sequences and back into the meat of the show, where the story darts through time and space to provide a richer understanding of this strange apocalypse.

    In other words, fans of the game will find many faithful reflections here, but the show is at its best when it stakes out on its own. Pascal, no stranger to portraying a wordless badass, taps into the well of sadness in Joel’s heart, and plays all scenes — action and otherwise — with a muscular presence. In one moment, as Joel warms to Ellie, he teaches her to properly hold a gun, giving her an approving glimmer as she withstands his attempts to disarm her. Ramsey complements Pascal’s gruff tenderness by making Ellie wily, pissy, and kid-like, and her laugh lines get punchier as their relationship develops.

    The season, by its end, is built on this relationship, but many of the individual episodes are not, investing instead in various ancillary characters. The title itself helps explain this approach. Despite some superficial similarities, this is not Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an otherworldly and insular post-apocalyptic tale that focuses almost exclusively on a child and an adult trying to survive. The focus here is on people, as it is in the game, which, despite its ludicrous body count, strives to give all enemies names and distinct faces, to make all of the violence register. Mazin, working with the game’s creator Neil Druckmann, treats social collapse as an opportunity to explore human relationships in a primal way. Every character has played both sides, at some point. Joel kills a scavenger and later tells Ellie he had performed heists just like the man he killed. One of the season’s most gut-wrenching backstory episodes centers around a fascist collaborator and his little brother. It’s not really both-sidesism — although the passing references to communism and fascism can make it feel that way — so much as it’s an exploration of how having sides at all leads inevitably to violence. Cults, communes, and militias spring up, and each corrupt in their own way. The old hierarchies don’t go away: They just grow again, stronger and more deranged.

    Again: If you’ve played the game, then you know what to expect, down to the haunting final shot. Good guys are hard to find at the end of the world. Still, Mazin and his team seem energized by the endless capacity for short stories within this milieu, and they find moments of real beauty and humanity scattered through them, whether it’s an unexpected romance or a cityscape restored to pastoral beauty. There’s only one more game to adapt, suggesting a Game Of Thrones-like situation in which the adaptation outpaces the source material. But the successes of the first season suggest the TV show should pump the breaks, spend more time going backward and forward and further from Joel and Ellie. The result wouldn’t so much be an expansion of the video game but a complement to it — an essential growth of an essential work.

    The Last of Us premieres Sunday, January 15 on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor based in Shaker Heights, Ohio. You can see other things he writes on Twitter.

    TOPICS: The Last of Us, HBO, Bella Ramsey, Craig Mazin, Pedro Pascal, Video Game Adaptations