It is only halfway through HBO’s highly anticipated series “The Last of Us” and already it’s had its audience crying, laughing and maybe even screaming at times. The series, based on the 2013 video game of the same name, is both gut-wrenchingly brutal and beautifully tentative, solidifying the show as a true masterclass in video game adaptation.
Set in a time parallel to our own in which climate change has enabled a parasitic fungus to infect humans — causing a fate far more gruesome than death — an unlikely pair of survivors journey across post-infection America. In this new ruthless world, danger not only comes in the form of humans zombified by fungus, but others who have also survived the decimation.
Former “Game of Thrones” actors Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are expertly cast as the protagonists Joel and Ellie. Joel, a violent smuggler, is perfectly captured by Pascal, whose hard-boiled nature is tempered by an underlying warmth that develops throughout the series.
Ramsey, who initially faced backlash over her resemblance to the video game’s original character, has proven a great fit for the role of Ellie, a 14-year-old orphan who begins the series as Joel’s cargo. Ramsey accentuates Ellie’s fiery spirit and unruly wit, adding a humor that momentarily cuts through the bleakness of post-apocalyptic life. Although subtle, Pascal and Ramsey’s recreation of Joel and Ellie’s ever-evolving relationship is nothing short of a joy to witness.
Producers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, who worked on the game franchise, have seamlessly blended the original material with new content, enriching what already exists with a visually stunning and well-paced show. They cleverly play with the game format by having many of the scenes mirror the game almost frame-for-frame, heightening the franchise’s already immersive nature. The additional content comes in the form of deep character development, taking those who appear only briefly in the game and giving them full backstories that reveal more about the harshness — and rare joys — of this new world.
Episode three best exemplifies this, taking an unexpected detour from the main narrative to tell the painfully beautiful love story that unfurls between survivors Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), something that is merely hinted at in the game. The episode recounts two decades of their relationship, with everything from the tenderness and vulnerability of their first meeting to the joy and struggle of their later relationship perfectly performed by Offerman and Bartlett. Their story offers a touching counterpoint to the survivalistic world the show is set in — love is the only real reason to survive in an otherwise hopeless world.
“The Last of Us” has given its audience one of the most unsettling and creative depictions of the living dead, with zombies that evolve into more hideous versions of themselves over the course of their infection. It is then a shame that zombies are used sparingly in the series. Later stage zombies known as ‘clickers’, whose looks, movement and sound make them an addictively terrifying aspect of the video game, have only appeared a few times so far. The result of this zombie drought is that much of the horror and suspense that appears in the game is lost in the series. However, this minor fault is masked by the exceptional audio, visuals and storytelling in “The Last of Us,” all of which makes for an emotionally resonant and agonizingly captivating series.
Considering that the off-screen world has just experienced its own minor apocalypse in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Last of Us” plays upon particularly present and growing fears tied to future pandemics and climate change. The series has already caught the attention of disease specialists who are concerned about the lack of research surrounding fungal pathogens. Of course, no one expects that climate change will cause humans to turn into cannibal mushroom zombies, but “The Last of Us,” thanks to its hyper-realistic atmosphere, raises questions that transcend the screen.