By Luis Navarro
All photos except #2 credited to HBO. Photo 2: Naughty Dog.
HBO Max continues a running streak of thrilling TV shows that captivate audiences weekly with intriguing plotlines and characters. Shows like Euphoria, House of the Dragon, and The White Lotus dominate social media every Sunday and are the topic of conversation throughout the week. The Last of Us is the latest show to receive this widespread embrace from fans and casual viewers alike. But what differentiates The Last of Us from those shows is more than just the infected, a post-apocalyptic setting, or Pedro Pascal’s presence – what sets it apart is that it is a video game adaptation.
When HBO announced that The Last of Us would be adapted into a TV show, the reception was lukewarm at best. It came on the heels of a highly-controversial second entry in the game franchise – and that’s putting it mildly – which left people with a sour taste in their mouths. Much like Game of Thrones fans when HBO announced House of the Dragon, the attitude of many ‘Last of Us’ fans towards the show was cautiously optimistic.
Considering the lackluster record of recent video game adaptations such as Resident Evil, Halo, and The Witcher: Blood Origin, its understandable that fans were skeptical about this show. However, The Last of Us avoids the shortcomings of its predecessors and manages to accomplish something special – it adapts a video game story for mainstream audiences and does so exceptionally well.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead for season 1 of The Last of Us
Season 1 begins with the tragic death of Sarah, Joel’s daughter, as they attempt to flee the outbreak in Austin, Texas. The story then jumps 20 years forwards, with Joel now living in the Boston Quarantine Zone (QZ). Marlene, the leader of a resistance group called the Fireflies, hires Joel to smuggle a young girl named Ellie across the country as they believe she holds the key to a potential cure.
Along the way, the two encounter all sorts of danger, ranging from a cannibal cult to hostile groups of survivors. While initially reluctant to travel with Ellie, Joel becomes a surrogate father figure to Ellie over time, and the two form a strong bond. Upon reaching their destination, Marlene reveals that Ellie’s death is necessary to form a cure. Unable to bear the thought of losing Ellie as he did Sarah, Joel kills the Fireflies and their leader Marlene to rescue Ellie. The season ends with the duo traveling together once more in a world no different than when they first set out.
At its core, The Last of Us is a story centered around human interpersonal relationships. The series’ protagonists are not related by blood, yet they form a bond that resembles a family. The show explores how the relationship between Joel and Ellie is both a strength and a weakness in a bleak world where characters must make difficult choices to survive.
A Worthy Adaptation of Its Namesake
When discussing any adaptation, people must answer two questions: Is it faithful to the source material? If so, is it any good?
The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. HBO’s The Last of Us stays true to the game’s story and only occasionally strays from the established lore. When it does diverge, it generally follows the rationale that it needs to be better than the original story for it to be changed. This way of thinking laid the foundation for Episode 3, “Long, Long Time.” Joel and Ellie’s backstory takes a backseat as the show switches focus to Bill and Frank’s relationship. Unlike in the game, Episode 3 allows the audience to meet Frank and depicts a moving love story between two men in defiance of the grim reality of living in a post-apocalyptic world.
Of course, only some changes to the story worked as the showrunners (Craig Mazin of Chernobyl and Neil Druckmann, who wrote the original PlayStation game) intended. The fourth episode is considered by many to be the weakest one in the show. In hindsight, there is no reason why show creators couldn’t merge episodes 4 and 5 into one. Viewers also did not embrace new characters such as Kathleen, and frankly, that episode doesn’t add much value to the show.
However, when you consider all the changes in the show, the answer to the second question is yes once more. This show is outstanding and blows most other shows out of the water. The Last of Us makes a great impression from the start. It draws the attention of anyone watching and it holds your heart hostage as you watch Joel and Ellie fight against all odds in their journey west. Showrunners Neil Druckman and Craig Mazin evidently have faith in the source material and the confidence to write a compelling story for TV based on the game.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Every show has its drawbacks, elements that take the audience out of the show and lead them to question the creative direction of the entire thing. The Last of Us has a peculiar problem where it over-relies on its primary source of strength: stories centered around humans.
Why is that a problem? Because there is something else that made the game a successful project – the infected. The show underutilizes a significant asset in the infected, only opting to use them when a character needs to be written off. To put it in perspective, Joel and Ellie were able to traverse more than half of the country without encountering much of a challenge from the infected, which supposedly have taken over the whole world due to the Cordyceps fungus evolving to survive in and control humans.
The lack of infected lessens the weight of the finale because what need is there for a cure? There are seemingly no infected to be found in this world. Sure, Kansas City had plenty of them, but a cure wouldn’t save the hunters from being torn apart by them sooner or later. The audience is told the world of The Last of Us is ravaged by infected, but humanity seems to be doing just fine.
Much of the discussion around the ending revolves around whether Joel’s decision to save Ellie was correct. The problem with the conclusion of season 1 is that since there’s essentially no zombie threat preceding it, Joel’s choice between saving Ellie or potentially saving humankind carries far less weight than in the game because humanity isn’t all that much at risk of the infected in the show. If the world is so safe, the argument becomes more weighted on one side – why do we need a cure? For a story built on moral ambiguity, there must be strong arguments for either side, and the show strips much of the reasoning for one side of the discussion.
Despite the lack of threat from the infected, this show still manages to hit the same emotional high points of the game. The Last of Us is an exceptionally well-written story with fantastic actors and actresses who bring it to life. Compared to other video game stories adapted to TV, none come close to this show’s accomplishments. It deserves all the recognition and honors headed its way, and no doubt will The Last of Us mark the way for future shows on how to adapt a story faithfully and, most importantly, please fans and casual viewers alike.