“The Last of Us” Season One Review (Minor Spoilers)


Owen Mayer, Staff Writer

In 2013, Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment released “The Last of Us” for the Playstation three. The game garnered universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike, specifically for its approach to narrative story-telling. A second game, “The Last of Us Part II” was released in 2020 and would eventually become the most-awarded game of all time. In 2014, Sony announced that “The Last of Us” would be adapted into a movie, with the game’s creator, Neil Druckmann, set to write the script, and for Sam Raimi to produce it. The film entered development hell in 2016, and by 2019 the project had been canceled.

However, in March 2020, HBO announced that a television adaptation of “The Last of Us” was in the planning stages with producers Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin (HBO’s “Chernobyl”) set to write and executive produce the show. The show would cover the first game, as well as the game’s expansion “The Last of Us: Left Behind,” and would premiere on January 15, 2023.

“The Last of Us” is set in the year 2023, two decades into a pandemic caused by a mass fungal infection, which causes its hosts to transform into zombie-like creatures and collapses society. The show follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), a hardened middle-age smuggler, who is tormented by the trauma of his past. Joel is tasked with smuggling Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a 14-year-old girl who is immune to the fungal virus, out of a quarantine zone and across the United States.

Ellie, who could have easily been reduced to a plot-device, is the heartbeat of the show, constantly reminding Joel of what he’s lost, and filling him with a sense of purpose he hasn’t felt since the death of his daughter. Bella Ramsey is incredible as Ellie, able to switch between childish playfulness and determined anger at the drop of a hat.

Meanwhile, Pedro Pascal steps into the well-worn shoes of Joel Miller with ease, southern drawl and all. He’s often quiet and brooding, acting as a foil to Ellie’s overwhelming energy. He fits into the role perfectly; calm in the face of danger and able to place himself at either end of Joel’s emotional spectrum, from fatherly love to viciously violent.

A solid cast of supporting characters that the duo encounter on their journey, also help to make the world feel lived in. These include Gabriel Luna as Joel’s estranged brother Tommy, Anna Torv as Joel’s kind-of-kind-of-not love interest Tess, and Lamar Johnson as the heavy and compassionate Henry. I would like to call special attention to Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, who play star-crossed lovers Bill and Frank respectively.

Season one packs a lot into its nine episodes, which can leave it feeling slightly-rushed at times as it hurtles towards its ending. However, it is still a conclusion that packs the punch in the gut that it needs to, and one that ultimately feels earned. That being said, I am very well-versed in the world of “The Last of Us” having played the games numerous times, but I do wonder if the general audience who is unfamiliar with the games may struggle with the many new concepts and words (FEDRA, Fireflies, Clickers, etc.) thrown at them consistently in those early episodes when the story feels at its fastest.

The show shines the brightest when it allows itself to breathe. While I had a blast seeing those pivotal set-pieces from the game recreated in the show, I found myself much more invested in the moments that differ from the game, especially when talking about Bill and Frank. Nick Offerman’s Bill is given an incredible amount of depth, as one handwritten note from the game is expanded into the season’s best hour of television. A heartbreaking account of love being found in a world that all too often tears it apart, and is a really special story that is elegantly brought to life through two exceptional performances.

It explored themes mirrored through Ellie’s eyes in a later episode that proves that love can persevere, even when the world and the bodies channeling it have already begun to decay. It’s a credit to the show’s creators that two hallmark episodes push queer relationships to the forefront, when it would’ve been easier to sneak them in for some diversity points; they’re presented without judgment and with clear celebration.

Visually, “The Last of Us” is a sight to behold, even when the camera is often focused on ugly subjects. Details like sunlight shining through decaying buildings and fungal veins crawling across floors help to create that apocalyptic vibe. Vast landscapes paint pictures of classic-westerns, especially as the seasons change and the white blanket of snow begins to cover the ground. The camera barely stays still throughout the show, which thematically ties to the show’s narrative as Joel and Ellie bounce from point to point across the United States.

Being a show with zombie-like creatures, there is obviously going to be some action. However, there is no John Wickesque choreography here; it all feels very rustic and human, bordering on clumsy in its action scenes. Action is used sparingly – and often to shocking effect – as are the appearances of infected. Up close shots of the infected with their mushroomed scalps and fuzzy tendrils crawling out of their mouths, add to the layers of fear and make every encounter with them feel dangerous, regardless of how well equipped Joel and Ellier are. As the show isn’t relying on giving a player something to constantly do with their hands, they can instead choose to focus on the human stories, which it does to great effect, That said, it would’ve been great to see one or two more infected appearances over the nine episodes, as we can sometimes go without any terror for long periods of time.

Overall, HBO’s “The Last of Us” is a brilliant adaptation of one of gaming’s best narratives, and expertly presents Joel and Ellie’s journey to a new audience. Taking the world that already felt lived in, and fleshing it out even more makes this adaptation truly one of a kind. Anchored by two exceptional performances in Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s Joel and Ellie, it delivers a fulfilling show for both fans of Playstation’s smash hit, and a thrilling experience for new watchers.