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The Empty Sentiment of The Last of Us

Photo: HBO

Watching The Last of Us, HBO’s mega-expensive adaptation of the acclaimed hit video game, you get a close-up view of one thing consuming and piloting the consciousness of another. In a literal sense, there’s the gore of the Cordyceps fungus turning humans into unthinking drones (“They’re not zombies,” I hear you sniff, but they’re basically zombies). But there’s also an aesthetic consumption going on. The show’s creators, Neil Druckmann (of the game) and Craig Mazin (of the cheery Chernobyl), are metabolizing a story built for one medium, gameplay, into another, prestige television. The result is tony, well-acted, carefully shot, and even well reviewed, but the experience of watching it is empty. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the show’s third episode, a standalone extrapolation from an implied arc in the game that tries so hard to imitate what we think of as prestige television that it forgets to say anything at all. Call it zombified TV.

The episode, “Long Long Time,” follows Nick Offerman’s Bill, a gruff but meticulous survivalist who’s managed to make it through the Cordyceps plague by booby-trapping his home in the wilds somewhere outside of Boston. One day, he accidentally captures Frank (Murray Bartlett), a sweet, hunky guy trying to make it on his own. Depending on your tolerance for sentiment, their resulting romance is either sweet or incredibly obvious: They have a lovely dinner, Frank draws Bill out of his shell by complimenting his choice of rabbit paired with Beaujolais, they flirt over a piano, they have sex and grow old together in a sort of cottagecore postapocalyptic bear fantasy. By the end of the episode, Bartlett and Offerman are in old-age makeup, and an ill Frank has decided to die, having lived the best possible life in a world now run by fungus. Bill prepares a meal for him with poison served in the wine (pairs well with Beaujolais!), and the scene closes with Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” a piece of music deployed to signal big emotional catharsis in everything from Arrival (where it cost the movie Oscar consideration) to Castle Rock and The Handmaid’s Tale. Later, after the main characters Joel and Ellie discover Bill’s goodbye note, there’s a needle drop of the song they bonded over at the piano, Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time,” that’s — surprise — cued for dramatic, emotional weight.

Like that use of Max Richter, nothing in “Long Long Time” is innovative. Television, especially if it’s genre, is fond of pairing off characters to grow old in some story line, often shunting them off to a cabin in the woods or a timeline separate from the main action. I’m fond of The Magicians’s “A Life in a Day,” where two male characters fall in love while stuck in a magical puzzle, and of Other Space (a Yahoo! Original that no one watched but I loved) sending up the “growing old on another planet” trope by having two characters bicker relentlessly as they age.

In the current TV environment, writing a standalone love story has also become a shortcut to seriousness, as in the case of Mythic Quest. “Dark Quiet Death” split from the workplace comedy’s typical structure to spend time with Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti’s previous generation of video-game designers falling in and out of love. With its divergence from the series’ lighter comedy stock and trade, “Dark Quiet Death” fell dangerously close to a naked plea for critical attention, but it was elevated by Johnson and Militoti’s easy chemistry and a roundabout way of getting at some of the show’s larger questions — notably, how to make authentic art in video games (hey, wait, that’s this show too!). The Last of Us feels more clearly influenced by the work of Damon Lindelof, like Juliet and Sawyer thrown back in time in season five of Lost and finding a life in the Dharma Initiative, or Kevin and Nora sitting together at the end of The Leftovers in similarly awkward old-age makeup and garb from the L.L. Bean postapocalypse collection. These are genre concepts frequently deployed to examine the oddities of human connection in the most extreme of circumstances; these examples also have a notably surreal wit and wonder to them, which helps the sadder aspects of the story land.

The Last of Us, in contrast, asks those same questions cheaply. “Long Long Time” positions Bill and Frank’s story as an alternate, happier vision of life among the mushrooms than the general misery of Joel and Ellie’s journey, but the plot is rote and the writing obvious. The show makes a lot of metaphorical hay of the notion that Frank is getting Bill to open up by way of growing strawberries; as soon as the episode depicted them bickering over the patch Frank has gotten by trading for seeds, I let out a groan anticipating the moment where said strawberries would be dramatically shared as a symbol of emotional and actual growth. (That’s Pixar-style manipulation, a dark hybrid of Up and Wall-E.) The episode has the opportunity to subvert expectations somewhere along its hour and fifteen minute runtime but seems uninterested in providing anything unexpected, and Bartlett and Offerman seem at sea as actors, repeatedly hitting the same character beats, whether gruff and paranoid or angsty and flighty. They’re stuck in wooden roles acting out maudlin dynamics.

The larger issue for The Last of Us, however, is that it’s bringing this kind of obvious and sentimental storytelling to a genre that’s been thoroughly worked over. We’ve seen plenty of postapocalyptic films and movies and games make the same points, from Children of Men (released in 2006, so The Last of Us characters, with their 2003 collapse, never have to acknowledge that they’re doing the same thing) through The Walking Dead, I Am Legend, The Road, et cetera. Station Eleven, just last year on HBOMax, took the premise of a pandemic and used it to unspool a series of existential meditations about how art survives and why. The Last of Us doesn’t feel as if it’s adding to the conversation as much as regurgitating what has already been chewed through.

“Long Long Time” is the season’s single primary deviation from the story line of the video game itself, as Druckmann and Mazin noted in an extensive New Yorker piece that frets about the challenge of making a game story line into prestige TV. Their solution to fears of alienating diehard gamers, it seems, was take one big episodic swing that mimics “serious prestige television” and stick to 1:1 re-creations of the events of the game everywhere else.

It’s missed opportunity on both counts. On the standalone side, why so saccharine? Why not have more fun with this kind of deviation from the plot? As far as re-creating the beats of the game, why not follow a more interesting path? One of the most engaging aspects in the storytelling of The Last of Us is that, because Joel dictates how you move forward in the game, you’re implicated in his increasingly gray decision-making. On TV, the viewer is primed to be sympathetic toward a main character, so there’s not the same level of friction as experienced by the gamer. Story lines that feel alive as an active participant in the game instead feel hackneyed on television. Watching The Last of Us, I wanted to pick it up and shake it free from its preconceptions about what it has to do in order to be faithful to its source material and what it wants to do in order to be taken seriously as television. As a series, it says nothing new in either case.

The Empty Sentiment of The Last of Us