Season 1 Episodes 1&2 Review
Benjamin Rose, Editor, P.F.I. Host
This is a mixed moment for adaptations. While late 2022 gave us a duo of great prequels in Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and House of the Dragon, we were likewise served such dubious fare as The Rings of Power and The Witcher: Bl*** O*****, a show so half-wrought and contemptible I refuse to write its full name here (Those who listened to the podcast may note that while our blog-wide score was a 5/10 for the series, my personal score was a 2/10). That was generous). These coincide with the flailing that has increasingly characterized the flagship show this blog was established to cover, which has seen everything from multiple unsubstantiated allegations of workplace toxicity and creative friction to the departure of its marquee star and a seemingly endless post-production schedule. That given, what did fans of The Last of Us have to expect from HBO’s latest big budget adaptation, the newest attempt to accomplish the notoriously perilous act of translating a video game to drama?
Quite a lot, actually. As most people with an HBO subscription have discovered by now (our coverage has been delayed a bit by some scheduling problems), The Last of Us is really really good. Without a doubt, its pilot is among the strongest openers in recent history. Written and directed by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckman (who wrote and directed the original PlayStation games), The Last of Us is a stunning mix of performance, production values, and fidelity to the intimate story which made its source material memorable, at once adhering closely to the game’s script (sometimes word-for-word) and expanding it with new lore, characterization, and scenes. After a staring turn by Nico Parker, who plays Joel’s doomed daughter Sarah in the first third of the long pilot episode, the series focuses on Joel (Pedro Pascal), an aging and embittered smuggler in the Boston Quarantine Zone who scrapes a living running contraband while navigating the duel dangers of the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA) and the terrorist Fireflies, who are waging a guerilla campaign to restore democracy. When Joel’s brother Tommy goes missing in Wyoming, Joel and his handler Tess’s (Anna Torv) attempts to recover a car battery from a local thug bring them into the orbit of the Fireflies and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a young girl who potentially holds the key to ending the global cordyceps pandemic that has turned swathes of humanity into fungal zombies and precipitated civilizational collapse.
Tasked by Marlene (Merle Dandridge) with transporting Ellie to a local Firefly cell in exchange for a car to search for Tommy with, Joel and Tess lead Ellie through the ruins of Boston, dodging, and at times killing, FEDRA agents and infected along the way. A memorable scene in the second episode recreates an early challenge from the video game minutely as the trio sneak through an abandoned museum hunted by Clickers, mutated humans with fungi for heads who have degenerated into blind but relentless killers. When Ellie is bitten for a second time, proving her immunity beyond all doubts, an infected Tess sacrifices herself to save her and Joel, firebombing the Boston State House to buy time as the infected swarm. As in the case of Sarah in episode 1, Tess’s sacrifice in episode 2 showcases the showrunner’s ability to create meaningful character arcs in limited time, ensuring that not a single frame is wasted in the entire 2 hours and fifteen-odd minutes comprising the first two episodes, which blend seamlessly with one another. Ramsey and Pascal are likewise brilliant in their roles, with the former embracing the puerile (or puellalile? Whatever.) charisma and wit of her character, at once naïve, precocious, insufferable and snarky, while Pascal, as in everything he does, radiates toughness and vulnerability, Joel’s exasperation with Ellie affording him moments to demonstrate the comedic sensibility which shown through in shows like Game of Thrones and Narcos well before the full-blow romp that was The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. All in all, this is a very strong opening for what looks set to be the next classic show.