The Last of Us Makes the Apocalypse Feel New Again

The HBO adaptation is well versed in the bleak clichés of the zombie genre, but it also offers something unexpected: empathy.

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey share a glance in "The Last of Us."
HBO

In the landscape of video-game adaptations, a specific quandary comes up again and again as the medium grows in ambition: How do you translate a game that was itself clearly inspired by film and television? When The Last of Us was released on PlayStation in 2013, I marveled at its cinematic verisimilitude. It updated a familiar zombie-apocalypse aesthetic with some clever scientific twists; the game’s world is overrun by a fungal infection that turns its victims into mindless, violent monsters. But what made The Last of Us even more immersive was how it implicates players in the lead character’s own morally dubious actions. It was an unexpectedly emotional experience.

Ten years on, that game has spawned a sequel, a remake, a so-called remastered version, and now a prestige television show on HBO written by one of the original’s creators, Neil Druckmann, and Craig Mazin, who’s also behind the terrific 2019 miniseries Chernobyl. The basic narrative follows the journey of the haunted survivor Joel (played here by Pedro Pascal) and his plucky teen charge, Ellie (Bella Ramsey), whom he transports across the country in hopes that she holds the cure to a devastating global infection. The story is gripping, but it’s undeniably indebted to dystopian clichés that one might recognize from Night of the Living Dead or The Road. Without a controller in my hands and the unique participatory element that comes with it, I wasn’t sure this rendition would have enough meat on the bones.

I’m glad to be proved wrong. Plenty of plot details in The Last of Us might feel conventional, but the show still offers a rich genre stew, with the kind of high-budget flavor that sets tentpole HBO productions apart from their straight-to-streaming counterparts. (It will air weekly on HBO and be available on HBO Max.) The show has reverence for its forebear’s structure but isn’t hampered by that devotion. It makes tweaks where necessary, both to avoid any outdated themes and to shake loose from the linearity of a game, which functionally requires the player to be pushed in one direction, as if on invisible rails.

In The Last of Us, as in all video games, any particular level is preprogrammed; you can’t open every door or trot down every side street, as detailed as the design may feel. The show is likewise constrained by TV’s episodic framework, but Mazin and Druckmann make every effort to create an expansive fictional universe. Pascal’s and Ramsey’s performances are excellent, and the general success of The Last of Us relies on their deepening chemistry as their characters evolve from uneasy strangers to surrogate father and daughter. Yet some of the show’s best dramatic flourishes go beyond Joel and Ellie’s trek across a ruined nation.

This is especially true in the third episode, a mostly self-contained work that focuses on one of Joel’s survivalist allies, Bill (Nick Offerman), and his relationship with another survivalist named Frank (Murray Bartlett). The subplot is the most sterling example of the show’s willingness to cleave away from its source material, taking a side character from the game, completely reinventing his backstory, and then giving him narrative room to breathe—all while avoiding tired apocalypse beats. In the game, Bill’s paranoia is so extreme that he’s pushed everyone in his life away from him; in the show, those fears shift and relax as he forms a genuine, loving relationship with Frank.

With most pop-culture tales of zombie hordes, I’m inured to the idea that no character can ever find lasting happiness. Their world is always too bleak and oppressive, and the genre tends to lean on humanity revealing itself as the real monster in the face of such dark times. The Last of Us works hard to present a more sanguine view, including through Joel and Ellie’s deep bond—although franchise fans know that that connection will eventually grow complicated. (This season covers the events of the first game; future ones may take on the sprawling, challenging second one.)

Mazin’s skill in Chernobyl lay in how he tied together disparate story threads about the disaster without losing sight of the show’s core relationship. The Last of Us has a similarly elaborate scope. Some diversions worked less well for me than others—there’s a two-episode arc about a resistance cell in Kansas City that feels more like a generic Walking Dead plotline—but even those comparatively middling moments help underline how the overall approach mostly defies expectations. This is no ordinary grab bag of jump scares and grisly kills: The Last of Us respects its genre but works to defy its creakiest tropes.