‘The Last of Us’ Is One of the Best Video Game Adaptations Ever

On the post-apocalypse television spectrum, there is the comic book nightmare of The Walking Dead at one pole and the literary grace and hopefulness of Station Eleven at the other. Somewhere between the two, but far closer to the grim, lies The Last of Us (HBO, January 15), an unrelentingly dark but steadfastly humane series based on the critically acclaimed and massively popular video game.

That’s a note of distinction in itself: the series, shepherded into being by Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin and game creator Neil Druckmann, is surely among the most respectable video game adaptations in the canon. But the show hasn’t taken weak, juvenile source material and somehow polished it into prestige. The video game itself is a finely wrought entity (or, at least, the cut scenes that I’ve watched suggest as much). Little needed to be added to the ambition of the series to make it worthy of an HBO Sunday night. 

Mazin does find new ways to add dramatic flavor. He’s given the series a double structure, one similar to other limited series lurking on cable and streaming. There is the main narrative: a haunted man, Joel (Pedro Pascal), ferries a spunky (and haunted) teenager, Ellie (Bella Ramsey), across a ruined America, 18 years after a fast-spreading fungal infection turned the world into a zombie-ridden hellscape of tattered military dictatorships and marauding reavers. Threaded throughout that mission are myriad digressions, flashbacks to various points before and during the plague when the lives of certain side characters and the backstories of the two leads are spun out in somber, elegiac fashion. 

So, there is some timeline juggling to be done. But Mazin makes it pretty clear what is happening when. What The Last of Us struggles with is making these tragic, heroic stories—of quotidian things like love and loyalty surviving amid the rubble—feel fresh. We have already seen so many examples of this particular storytelling motif—on the various Walking Dead shows, on Station Eleven, in I Am Legend and The Hunger Games, and so many other properties. While many of the discrete narratives in The Last of Us are cannily staged, both poignant and dreadful, they eventually coalesce into something glumly familiar; we feel the same howling desolation, flecked with glimmers of ragged life, that we’ve felt before.

Still, it is worth pointing out the many merits of the series. There is a particularly affecting interlude in which a stoic survivalist played by Nick Offerman meets and falls in love with a fellow remnant, played by White Lotus breakout Murray Bartlett. These two doomed lovers dart through the series, only occupying one episode, but they resonate. Not only because it is rare to see a gay love story in a butch series like this one, but because it exists almost entirely outside of the show’s violence. It is instead a small tale of peaceful isolation, one in warped dialogue with many of our own experiences of the last few years. 

Later on, an episode introduces us to a preacher (Scott Shepherd) who initially appears refreshingly compassionate, and then very much does not. That hour is the show in full spine-tingling horror mode—for the most part, the series is a thriller-drama in which the scares are either lurking in the past or implicitly close by, out of frame. A steely character played, against type, by Melanie Lynskey effectively communicates a whole saga of past conflict while further delineating the show’s complex moral shading. Few people on the series are absolutely good or bad; they mostly dwell in the ambivalence of survival, their tribes’ righteousness hinging near entirely on perspective. 

The tension between means and ends culminates, of course, with Joel and Ellie. The series ends (for now?) on the same note of bleak disquiet—a terrible, and perhaps completely unjustified, sacrifice made—that closed out the video game. Perhaps because that ending is already so iconic, or perhaps because the series feels curiously hurried in its pacing, it doesn’t land with the same grand, despondent ambiguity as it did in 2013. Or, maybe, we just expect such textured pathos from filmed entertainment. It was more striking and novel, ten years ago, when encountered in a video game. 

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