tv review

The Last of Us Will Invade Your Psyche

Photo: HBO

When pop culture has given us so many stories about mass-extinction events in the past 15 years, is it still possible to tell one that’s surprising?

That’s the question surrounding HBO’s The Last of Us, an adaptation of the revered 2013 PlayStation game that follows a pair of Americans attempting to survive after a climate-change-fueled fungus turns much of the world’s population into infectious mutants. The nine-episode first season, which debuts on Sunday night, focuses on Joel (Pedro Pascal), a man who lost his daughter the night the pandemic began in 2003, and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a teenager whose immunity to the fungus could be instrumental in finding a cure in 2023. Joel is tasked with transporting Ellie across the country in search of a medical facility where she can be examined, a journey that features long treks through barren landscapes and moments of genuine horror whenever a “clicker” — someone so severely infected with mutated Cordyceps that mushroom blooms burst through their brains — jumps from the shadows to attack.

With a season-one budget reportedly exceeding each of the first five seasons of Game of Thrones, The Last of Us is punctuated by intense action sequences and elaborately rendered practical and visual effects. It’s a very well-made piece of television. It’s also full of recognizable twists and themes; though it is technically not a zombie-apocalypse show, its rhythms and survivalist details — the endless graveyards of abandoned vehicles, the joy found in an expired but still edible can of Chef Boyardee — bring back memories of The Walking Dead and other titles of its ilk. How to distinguish this series in the overcrowded postapocalyptic genre was just one of the challenges facing co-creators Neil Druckmann, who co-developed the game, and Craig Mazin, the showrunner behind HBO’s acclaimed Chernobyl. The other lies in translating the inherently interactive experience of a game into something that feels unique to television. Generally, they succeed. Even if The Last of Us treads familiar ground, it is still a gripping and ambitious work that seems fated to become the premium cable network’s next Twitter-trending hit.

The show makes room for levity — with Ellie’s bad puns and smart-ass comments providing comic relief — and the melancholy beauty of ravaged former cities. In a particularly poignant sequence in episode five, the travelers discover a deserted underground school; the presence of once-common objects such as children’s drawings and tiny chairs designed to accommodate first-graders registers as both eerie and oddly hopeful when Ellie and Sam (Keivonn Woodard), a young boy she and Joel meet on their journey, decide to do what kids have always done: play. These touches of humanity make the world of The Last of Us feel uneasily close to reality. So do the visual choices, which at times mirror the first-person perspective of so many video games. (Though the game version of The Last of Us is famously played from the third person.) An early sequence following Joel; his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker); and his younger brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), as they attempt to flee a contaminated Austin, Texas, is practically a shot-for-shot re-creation of the game’s opening minutes, the camera capturing imagery of burning houses and panicked civilians through the windshield of the family’s car. Fight scenes and gun battles are filmed as if the viewer is looking through the eyes of the character delivering the blows or pulling the trigger. This approach is deployed just often enough to add a sense of immediacy without feeling too much like a gimmick.

The Last of Us distinguishes itself most when it veers off the path laid by its source material. Like the dystopian prestige dramas The Leftovers and Station Eleven, The Last of Us is driven less by raw plot than by its study of relationships. Episode three, the best of the season, takes a complete detour to explore the pandemic-era evolution of the intimacy between a doomsday prepper named Bill (Nick Offerman), a minor character in the game, and Frank, an artist played by Murray Bartlett. The hour barely accelerates the main story, but it’s so moving and focused that it feels integral to the series. How much these two men grow to love each other is treated with the same import as whether or not they can continue to survive; that’s because The Last of Us is equally as interested in showing us the freaky details of this fungal environment — the spores that emanate from human mouths are both fascinating and terrifying — as it is the beauty of normalcy carved out of abnormal times.

Yet the show only hints at the richness of other peripheral characters. Perhaps limited by the need to hit all the game’s story points, The Last of Us skims the surfaces of figures like Tess (Anna Torv), Joel’s fellow smuggler and implied romantic partner; Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), a no-nonsense rebel in Kansas City who does not exist in the game; and Henry (Lamar Johnson), whose relationship with Sam, his deaf younger brother, gives the proceedings another sensitively rendered mentor-mentee connection.

Ultimately, though, it’s the dynamic between Joel and Ellie that commands the most attention and progresses with the greatest degree of patience. Pascal, with his light Texas twang and stoicism, and Ramsey, whose eyes drink up every detail in her environment, stutter-step around each other, afraid to reveal too much of themselves, until a warmth naturally settles between them. Because Ellie has lived in an isolated quarantine zone most of her life, she views remnants of pre-pandemic existence with a mix of awe and confusion. After reading a left-behind diary written by a girl her age, she asks, “Is this really all they had to worry about — boys, movies, deciding which shirt goes with which skirt? It’s bizarre.”

During its clicker-evading odyssey, The Last of Us makes a point of pausing to acknowledge how much humans take for granted and how easily it could all disappear. It’s certainly not the first work of fiction to take note of that. But the series reminds us why postapocalyptic stories continue to invade our psyches: They remind us of the value of being alive and how terrifying it would be to stand among the few who still are.

The Last of Us Will Invade Your Psyche