Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the show’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the show’s own trailer. However, be aware that potential spoilers may be inferred throughout the review.
For over a decade, video games have been considered a legitimate art form. With their cinematic visuals, memorable characters, and powerful themes, video game developers have done more than enough to prove themselves. Sadly, that same level of dedication hasn’t been matched by filmmakers who adapt video games to the screen. Films based on famous games often end up as the most cringeworthy and disappointing releases each year, so it’s hard for fans to become excited every time a new adaptation is announced. Regardless, when the team behind Chernobyl (2019) announced that their next project would be a TV adaptation of The Last of Us (2023), there was a slight glimmer of hope. The makers of the best HBO series in years would surely be able to bring one of the best video games of all time to life, wouldn’t they?
The story begins in 2003, in which a mass fungal infection of mutated cordyceps sparks a global pandemic. We are introduced to Joel (Pedro Pascal), who tragically loses his young daughter Sarah in the chaos. The world is now a shadow of what it once was, with the survivors living in locked down quarantine zones controlled by a fascist government body called FEDRA. Millions of infected people wander the free zones, feeding and infecting everyone in their path. Meanwhile, a resistance group known as the Fireflies are fighting to rid the world of FEDRA, as well as find a cure for the deadly infection. Hope may be upon us with Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a young orphan who has not become one of the infected even after having been in contact. While working with the Fireflies, Joel agrees to escort Ellie through FEDRA’s blockades and across the hazardous free zones, all with the goal of bringing her to doctors who may find the secret to her immunity. Over the course of the journey, Ellie and Joel form something of a father-daughter bond, despite their initial aggression towards each other.
Right off the bat, the decision to turn The Last of Us into a TV show instead of a film is a stroke of genius. A film only has two to three hours to flesh out its plot, themes, story and characters, whereas a show has upwards of 10 hours. In hindsight, it seems silly that TV wasn’t automatically the venue for video game adaptations, as their stories also take upwards of 10 hours to play out. Not to mention that TV has become a more desirable location for complex storytelling in the last 20 years. Therefore, The Last of Us revels in the time afforded to it, never once rushing the story beats. It’s common for post-apocalyptic stories to dive from set piece to set piece, but The Last of Us understands that the shocking or violent moments mean nothing if we haven’t had time to fall in love with the characters.
To achieve this, The Last of Us deviates from its core plot on many occasions, giving us a series of character driven stories. While some may become annoyed by the frequent deviations, they actually add more than they take away. Entire episodes stop the carnage simply to show us what things like love, grief, politics, right and wrong look like in a world where the world has ended. Not since The Sopranos (1999 – 2007) has a show been able to introduce new characters every episode, and give them complete and powerful stories so effectively. These episodes can stand alone as emotionally poetic tales, while also contributing greatly to the show’s overall thematic range. With a hard hitting, moral question at the show’s conclusion, it’s important to give the viewer every possible perspective so they can truly understand the depths of the story’s messaging.
Even with the heavy emphasis on theme and character, The Last of Us isn’t lacking in excitement or tension. Even if the viewer is aware of the video game and thus knows how things will ultimately play out, it’s likely they will still be on the edge of their seat as the bullets fly. Along with the best HBO has to offer, the set pieces in the show are as spectacular as any film, delivering truly nail-biting action sequences, which also adds in some effective scares for good measure. The horror element is particularly noteworthy, as the show understands that terror is about more than violence, blood and guts. These moments of fear are more concerned with being emotional and psychological, as opposed to physical.
As usual, something of this calibre needs a talented cast, and The Last of Us has one of the best teams of performers assembled. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey carry the show as Joel and Ellie respectively. Their dynamic and eventual friendship is the cornerstone of the entire story, so it’s a dream come true to see their chemistry light up the screen. These characters aren’t exactly the same as their video game counterparts, but in a way they are more human and more interesting with the layers added to them here. Happily, they are joined by a murderers row of phenomenal supporting talent, including Anna Torv, Gabriel Luna, Storm Reid, Melanie Lynskey and Scott Shephard. Special mention must be given to Nick Offerman and Murray Barlett, who deliver an incredible and tear-jerking love story as Bill and Frank.
There is of course one elephant in the room, and that’s the controversial direction the story will eventually take (as fans of the games already know). The Last of Us Season 2 is of course on the way, and it stands to reason that the game’s divisive sequel will be the basis. Thankfully, the show seems unconcerned by the cries of angry video game fans, clearly confident in the fact that TV audiences will fully embrace where it all goes. To ensure this, many of the story points in The Last of Us are layered with moments which effectively set up the incoming story turns, meaning audiences will be less offended by them when they come around. The Last of Us games were groundbreaking, and it’s nice to see that the show will be unafraid to tread those dangerous waters.
All in all, it’s fair to say that the video game curse is finally broken, as The Last of Us is a truly magnificent piece of work. With flawless performances, unbearably tense action, powerful themes and an emotionally resonate heart, this show has set an incredibly high bar for video game adaptations, as well as every new show in general.
Best way to watch it: With regular breaks. Too heavy to binge.