Directed by: Craig Mazin, Neil Druckmann, Peter Hoar, Jeremy Webb, Jasmila Žbanić, Liza Johnson, Ali Abbasi
Distributed by: HBO
Written by Anna Harrison
“The Last of Us” is a zombie show, but like all good post-apocalyptic media, it’s really about human nature—how we react in the face of cataclysmic happenings, what we become, who we really are underneath it all after everything else gets stripped away. Unfortunately, “The Last of Us” is jostling for space in a room shared with titans like “The Leftovers” and more recent releases like the excellent “Station Eleven,” and while it may have captured the public imagination more than those two shows (and many others that came before), it fails to give a compelling reason why you should stick around.
Based on the 2013 game of the same name, “The Last of Us” has a simple plot deceptively decked out in all the trappings of prestige television: get from Point A to Point B without dying. In this world, however, that has become rather difficult thanks to a pandemic of Cordyceps fungus, which has transformed a good chunk (if not most) of humanity into “infected” (and don’t call them zombies, because that’s not prestige), sprouting fungal growth every which way and on a mission to bite anyone who comes too close. Society as we know it has collapsed, and the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of a young girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey), who is immune to the fungus. Grizzled Joel (Pedro Pascal) is charged with bringing her across the country to a lab where doctors will be able to concoct a cure. Thus: Point A to Point B.
This is all well and good in a video game, where along the way you are tasked with guiding and shepherding these characters through hordes of infected, vagabonds, or worse, and any misstep will result in death—death straight from your own hands, with no one else to blame. You aren’t watching Joel walk through rows and rows of abandoned cars, you are Joel walking through rows and rows of abandoned cars; there is a kind of intimacy shared between you, the controller, and the characters on your screen that can’t be replicated. There is urgency, and there is tactility even in the most mundane of things, like moving a ladder, loading a gun, or picking up a brick.
Take this plot, stick it in a television show, slap the letters “HBO” on it, and things change. Showrunners Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin (the former the co-creator of the game, the latter the writer for “Chernobyl”) opt to omit most of those pesky infected, likely because they thought that adding too many zombies would make the show less erudite than it wants to be. “The Last of Us” must remind viewers that it’s first and foremost a drama, and any association with genres like “sci-fi” or “fantasy” dirty the brand and bring it down. Prestige, prestige, prestige. Prestige and genre must not ever go in the same sentence. “The Last of Us” cannot be a genre show, because it is first and foremost a prestige show. This is the same problem that plagued “Game of Thrones,” whose own showrunners sidelined the magic in order to appeal to the “common man” only for this impulse to come back and bite them when they realized that the show needed magic to move forward (one of many failings on their part).
When you remove the zombies, and thus the obstacles that Joel and Ellie face on their way to their destination, the momentum slows to a crawl and narrative holes become that much more obvious: the fascist cronies who govern throughout the country manage to get meager supplies despite the roads being choked with dead vehicles from twenty years ago, the rebels have no real ideology and can’t even think to do some basic blood testing before brain surgery, and practically no one—in twenty years, mind you—has thought to do any sort of cleaning or community betterment project anywhere. Druckmann and Mazin go to great lengths to try and pass off impossible scientific events as credible, and give names to things and organizations (FEDRA, Quarantine Zones, Fireflies, clickers) to trick you into thinking they are good at world building, but poke anything at all and you’ll find that it’s hollow. Why do we need a cure so desperately if these infected seem to be a minor inconvenience at best, albeit with a few exceptions? Tension exists in some individual scenes—the first time Ellie encounters the clickers, infected whose fungus has covered their eyes and who can only hear you, or when Joel and Ellie traverse abandoned tunnels in Kansas City—yet outside of sidequests for immediate survival, the urgency to find this cure falls by the wayside.
These issues are made all the more frustrating because “The Last of Us” has moments of brilliance, but they are almost always undercut by something else: its opening scene, showing the pandemic outbreak from the eyes of Joel’s daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), is a masterclass in building tension and features one of the better car chase scenes this side of “Children of Men.” The oft-lauded episode three sees Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett portray two lost souls, Bill and Frank, who end up finding joy and love in an apocalypse, is deftly done right down to the tender sex scene. It’s so good, in fact, that the scenes between Joel and Ellie, the two main characters, become dull by comparison. In episode five, Joel and Ellie encounter two brothers named Sam (Kevionn Woodard) and Henry (Lamar Johnson), whose compelling story only takes up half of the episode, which spends far too much time on Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), the ruthless charisma void that Kansas City has chosen as their leader and whose pointless story drains the episode of its charm every time it cuts to her. The climax to the whole series—filmed, scored, and staged masterfully—has hardly any emotional buildup within the episode.
It’s no coincidence that the best part of the show is something wholly original: in the game, Frank has already died by the time we meet Bill, who has none of the depth that Offerman brings to him. If the show veers too far from its zombie roots in some areas, it reveres its source material too much in others, often ripping scenes line-by-line from the game. That’s all well and good, and the scenes aren’t bad, but then you have to ask: why the hell did you even adapt this for television in the first place if you’re just going to keep things the same, right down to the camera angles and cuts? What do you need this new medium for if you aren’t going to change a single damn thing?
None of these faults lie at the feet of Pascal or Ramsey, who turn in strong performances despite being continually let down by the writing and pacing, which progressively worsens throughout the show. By the time we get to the last couple of episodes, it feels as if we’ve barely spent any time with Joel and Ellie; we remember Bill and Frank, or Sam and Henry (and we remember how much Kathleen was a drag), but though the show telegraphs that we should be ride-or-die for our central characters, it neglects to demonstrate why. In the game, they are an extension of your own self; in the show, they seem almost like an afterthought, so why should we care?
“The Last of Us” Trailer