“When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.” This is a message that persists throughout The Last of Us series, in both a literal and metaphorical sense, signifying the search for hope in an otherwise lifeless wasteland. You know what else is known for being lifeless? Video game adaptations that are clearly made to cash in on the popularity of the original property, often ruining the original experience and drawing hatred from fans. HBO’s latest post-apocalyptic drama, however, is anything but that. On top of the immaculate piece Neil Druckmann sculpted — that is the original PS3 game, filmmaker Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) has laid a thick spit-shine, delivering a splendidly emotional tale that appeals to both fans and newcomers alike.
As cheesy as it sounds, The Last of Us is indeed that scarce beam of light seeping through the shady, dense branches of ill-fated adaptations. Now to be fair, the HBO series was somewhat primed for success, given the source material was fashioned like an interactive movie.
A lot of the groundwork was already laid, and this new rendition sticks close to it, often incorporating the same dialogues that fans might be able to predict before the actors even start moving their lips. These interactions separate Druckmann’s universe from other zombie media by focusing on the humane aspect. Sure, there’s the overarching dystopian theme peppered with violence and bandits, but at its core, it is a story about two key figures — Joel and Ellie.
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Pedro Pascal embodies the former, a grizzled survivor still coping with the loss of his daughter from 20 years ago. Time has been rough on him, causing him to develop a penchant for getting into risky situations, while he continues living in a totalitarian quarantine zone with Tess (Anna Torv).
SPOILERS AHEAD: On one of his odd jobs, he crosses paths with a teenage girl Ellie (Bella Ramsey), whom he is then tasked with escorting to a Fireflies’ (a rebel group) base. This unlikely relationship forms the crux of The Last of Us, albeit with a level of poignance that doesn’t make it overly sappy or sentimental. There’s a lot of back-and-forth between the two characters, stemming from their differing understanding of pain. In Joel’s case, he has too much knowledge about the world — the people, betrayal, and memories from before the Cordyceps fungal outbreak turned things around.
Ellie, however, was raised in a military compound, lacking someone to call family and trusting no one. The loss of loved ones is the only thing connecting these characters, and the narrative builds upon that to slowly bring them together in a father-daughter relationship of sorts, in a dramatic set piece that brought tears to my eyes, even after having experienced it before in the game. It’s incredible on-screen chemistry.
While the core concept remains the same, the show wasn’t devoid of what I prefer calling ‘narrative facelifts,’ as personally, I thought some of the changes were the strongest points. The first two episodes employ a cold open prologue — by way of another HBO series, Euphoria — that serve as world-building elements, jumping between timelines to present a backstory for the disaster to ensue. A ‘60s talk show between scientists might not be the best opener for a TV series about zombies (or the Infected, as the show refers to them), but it highlights the ignorance that led to the domino effect, without having characters in the present spell it out for us.
Episode 2’s cold open is a direct result of that, bringing us to Jakarta, Indonesia, two days before the worldwide outbreak, offering an origin story and a glimpse at patient zero, whose innards were ravaged by the fungi. While initially, it feels weird for the stylistic choice to end there – exposition-wise – the show had nothing more to offer. The immediate aftermath of the outbreak is unveiled through radio news reports, while the oppressive militia takeover is presented visually as survivors slave away and burn bodies. The show has enough faith in its audience to pick up on these details, as it laser-focuses on the growing relationship between two people who dislike each other.
In a sense, The Last of Us plays like a buddy road trip, where intriguing characters come and go, but leave a long-lasting impression. Unlike the game(s), you’re not in direct control of Joel or Ellie here, allowing the medium to liberate itself from those narrowed lenses and explore side stories in depth. Early on, we spend a lot more time with Joel’s daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), getting attuned with her routine and her affection for her old man. In doing so, her murder hits 10x as hard, only worsened by Parker’s incredible performance where she tragically whimpers through her final moments.
Similarly, the brothers Henry and Sam — played by Lamar Johnson and Keivonn Woodard, respectively — are rewritten with a larger focus on their plight, heading into an action-packed Kansas City arc, where they’re in hiding from Kathleen’s (Melanie Lynskey) revolutionary gang. The motivations for both parties are better fleshed out in The Last of Us series, turning it into a revenge story that also tests the siblings’ bond — a stark contrast to Joel’s relationship with estranged brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna). Making the younger sibling Sam deaf in the show was also a great choice, having him rely on Henry harder and raising his elder brother’s sense of responsibility.
Upping the effect is HBO’s trademark handheld filming technique, which puts you in the heat of the moment through subtle camera shakes that get more erratic as a scene’s intensity rises. Each frame feels organic and observational — akin to Succession — allowing flaws to exist, as the characters control the pacing, direction, and tone of the show. It is more about lighting a scene perfectly than getting a well-composed shot. There’s long pastures of greenery that converge at a sad plane crash site, dilapidated buildings overgrown by beautiful vines, and the iconic segment where Ellie catwalks across the ladder. They’re all shot with the same level of earnestness — or rather, normalcy as filming creepy walls with dead clickers, covered in putrid fungi, whose tendrils sprout out like moss. During monologues, rather than slowly pushing into the actor’s face in the most cliché way possible, the camera just sits back and captures it all, at times waddling left and right as you would in a real-life conversation.
The Last of Us series cuts down on a few key action sequences, including the large-scale set piece with the collapsed towers, and instead leans hard into the narrative aspect. The buildings still appear briefly in a scene though, serving as a nod to the game.
Episode 3 ‘Long, Long Time’ is tonally the most unique, and probably my favourite of the bunch, spinning Bill and Frank’s tale into a beautiful romance story that highlights the possibility for hope to exist in this world. In it, Nick Offerman plays Bill, a lonely doomsday prepper, of sorts, who spends most of his days locked inside his basement, only stepping out to collect supplies and further fortify the neighbourhood. That sad, solitary routine is shaken when a complete stranger Frank (Murray Bartlett) stumbles into his life — a polar opposite, who gets Bill to loosen up a bit and be more comfortable with his sexuality.
With time, the deserted neighbourhood starts brimming with life and colour — flowers, paintings, a boutique, a strawberry garden, and a house worthy of being called a ‘home.’ Director Mazin did an incredible job with the pacing here, smoothly transitioning through time, before eventually tucking in their emotional arc with a warm blanket. It ends in a tragedy, but in the purest, most wholesome form. A ‘Romeo and Julian’ kind of story, if I may.
This circles back to the core theme about finding light at the end of the tunnel, but in doing so, the characters also become vulnerable. Both Joel and Bill sense the fear of death for the first time in years – not for their own sake, but to protect the ones they care about. Joel, who at first would glance at Ellie with a mind full of suspicion, starts getting tender and tries comforting her when she’s forced into dangerous situations.
Pascal carries himself with such discipline in The Last of Us — be it him pursing his lips with sorrow when reminded of Sarah, displaying bottomless rage when opportunity calls for it, or even deepening his voice sometimes to establish a father-like authority over Ellie. He gets panic attacks simply thinking about Ellie, fixated on the idea that she doesn’t deserve to grow up in a world like this, eventually putting him in a helpless situation.
The same applies to Ramsey’s portrayal of Ellie, who while fearless at the start, slowly becomes attached to Joel, making decisions that would put her in harm’s way for his sake. Ramsey’s performance is incredibly fun to watch, seamlessly switching from a killer-like persona to a carefree, fun-loving 14-year-old with an attitude. The latter balances darker aspects of the show through funny moments such as Ellie browsing through a porno magazine, calling Troy Baker ‘buddy boy’, or claiming she learnt her knife tricks at a circus — when she’s probably never even been to one. If anything, I hope through this show, people on the internet realise how toxic fan-casting culture can get — especially the ones who clowned on Ramsey’s appearance not matching the character in-game.
Performances were solid throughout The Last of Us, built around the central theme of seeking the light — be it Tess sacrificing herself for seeing a potential cure come to fruition, or Bill getting himself shot and contemplating death in order to protect Frank. It would take ages for me to get through all of them and do justice, but key highlights for me were Torv’s short-lasting but hardened portrayal of Tess and Scott Shepherd as David, who transitions from a god-fearing preacher to a crazed cannibal. While the clickers are established as the scary bunch, the show’s progression reveals that the true monster lies within survivors, particularly the desperate ones.
The sound design, while great for the most part, falters in episode 7 ‘Left Behind,’ which serves as a backstory for Ellie, based on the DLC arc in the game. In it, Ellie is dragged over to an abandoned mall to spend a night with her best friend and crush Riley (Storm Reid), as they moonwalk on escalators, ride the carousel, and play Mortal Kombat at Raja’s Arcade. The latter section is characterised by loud coin chimes and video-gamey music, only amplified by echoes since the mall is deserted. However, once the pair step inside the arcade, some ambient music kicks in as a disguise, while the background noise is slowly turned down.
Indeed, it was done so the dialogues are heard clearly, but for a story that’s largely grounded in reality, the choice does not work on a logical level. It shouldn’t make sense for Ellie and Riley to stand six feet apart from each other and be able to converse in a normal register, while loud music blares in the background. Likewise, their voices should sound muffled and unperceivable to the audience unless they turn subtitles on. It’s safe to say that The Last of Us took the less risky approach and sacrificed some realism in favour of the general crowd.
So far, David Fincher seems to be the only Hollywood filmmaker to have a grasp on this subject. During the pivotal club scene in his 2010 feature film The Social Network, the background EDM music overpowers the conversations between the actors, causing them to yell at each other. And it still sounds muffled to our ears — as it should. Some might consider this nitpicking, but it’s a pretty common issue that gets ignored and is annoying, so I will keep pointing it out. There comes a point where Ellie and Riley start playing games and yelling at the top of their lungs, drowning out the noises, which is the only part where the sound design clicks perfectly.
While The Last of Us is the kind of quality television one would expect from HBO, the fact that it’s a video game adaptation deserves mighty praise. In just nine episodes, it manages to create a believable sense of dread and urgency through a gut-wrenching story, stellar performances, and artsy camera work, which to some might even surpass the original vision. The action set pieces are sporadic but superbly choreographed with the apt level of gore and explosions when necessary.
It’s unfortunate that all HBO content in India will soon be leaving Disney+ Hotstar, so now’s a good time to catch up on this excellent show. As a new format — or the way I see it, a companion piece — The Last of Us series succeeds in being a strong medium, bringing together gamers and novices. Just try not to be one of those losers who points at the screen and goes, “Well… actually, that’s not how it happened in the video game…” Just go with the flow, you’ll love it.
All nine episodes of The Last of Us are now available to stream on Disney+ Hotstar in India, and HBO Max wherever available.