“The Last of Us” is a new HBO show adapted from the 2013 video game of the same name developed by Naughty Dog. Here is a one-sentence elevator pitch: we follow Joel (a grizzled dad survivor type) and Ellie (a scrappy tomgirl type) on their cross-country journey through the United States — twenty years after a devastating pandemic of mutated Cordyceps fungus turned most of humanity into mushroom-zombies — as they learn and relearn the pleasure of company in a world utterly inhospitable to joy and kindness.
The danger-roadtrip-baby-child-big-friend formula is one that we have seen time and time again. But HBO’s “The Last of Us” works precisely because elements of the story are so easily recognizable that showrunners can spend time exploring themes that normally would have no place in an apocalypse. For instance, that the zombies of “The Last of Us” are fungal rather than viral seems like a minute detail, but it sets the tone for the franchise’s obsession with nature’s capriciousness, beauty, and brutality. Case in point: the infected in “The Last of Us” are not just pale, skinny corpses; they are fungal hosts teeming with life.
In the second episode, we encounter “clickers” — those infected that are so overgrown with Cordyceps that they can no longer see and rely on echolocation (a clicking noise) to navigate. Clickers are terrifying and will eat your face like a regular zombie, but great pains were taken (by the HBO costuming department) to make their fungal features colorful, flamboyant, and heterogeneous.
Shows like The Walking Dead also feature naturalistic themes, but in “The Last of Us,” nature is a co-star, not a supporting actor. The show indulges in long shots of green, ruined metropolises, framed by warm light and soulful acoustic guitar and dares us to imagine that the end of large-scale human civilization could be just as beautiful as tragic. The third episode (mild spoilers) departs from the main storyline almost entirely to deliver a poignant vignette about committed, middle-aged love starring Murray Bartlett and none other than … wait for it … Nick Offerman?
“The Last of Us,” so far, isn’t afraid to get weird with its pacing if it wants to show you something beautiful. But it does the conventional buddy cop road trip story with similar deftness, mostly due to Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s stellar performances, which breathe so much life into their respective characters. Pedro “the thing I would bring into a zombie apocalypse is my journal” Pascal as Joel radiates danger and competence, and yet his eyes betray pain and vulnerability, while Bella Ramsey, as Ellie, brings levity and lip, with a dash of learned sadism. Pascal and Ramsey bring out Joel and Ellie’s peculiar relationship — a tender and unbreakable bond forged over scavenging, starvation, shooting zombies/humans, and other kinds of post-apocalyptic activities.
So how does the show stack up to the game? Speaking as someone who rushed out to buy a PS4 off Facebook Marketplace in order to play “The Last of Us: Remastered” right after watching the pilot, I unfortunately have to give the cliché answer that the two are … different. “The Last of Us” is the most critically acclaimed game of all time, winning more than 200 game of the year awards in 2013 for its PS3 release. It was groundbreaking for its — as game director Niel Druckmann put it — “simple story [and] complex characters.”
The game also has its fair share of explosions and gory violence, but a bulk of it is dedicated to traversal, puzzle-solving, and sight-seeing. Each of the non-violent segments was an opportunity to reveal more of Joel and more of Ellie, and built their relationship until their found kinship became not only plausible but necessary. The violence in “The Last of Us” (game) is made meaningful by virtue of the nonviolent sections. Eventually, as the player, we are not just throwing molotovs at clickers for the heck of it — we are doing it to keep Ellie safe. We aren’t just head shotting looters to flex — we’re doing it because that’s what Joel would do. The game is one of those rare ones that makes the players feel like they themselves are actively giving a performance instead of merely being entertained, as we are challenged to do and feel what Ellie and Joel do and feel.
The features that made the “The Last of Us” game groundbreaking are not necessarily applicable to television. We, as HBO viewers, expect characters to be likable and their relationships to be believable. Furthermore, a TV show, even a very good TV show, cannot invite the player to physically do nearly as much as a video game can. But HBO’s “The Last of Us,” freed from its dual responsibility to first engage a player with regularly spaced action set pieces and second make its traversal and combat predictable, fair, and learnable, allows for the fullest exploration of the range of life in its unique vision of the post-apocalypse. I am looking forward to the rest of this season — more of Joel and Ellie’s back and forths, more scenic mushroom zombies, and more cozy middle-aged gay romances.