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The Last of Us Creators Reveal How Long the Series Will Go

Producers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann talk the longevity of HBO's PlayStation adaptation.

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Joel and Ellie are finally here.
Joel and Ellie are finally here.
Image: HBO

Unlike other shows of similar scope and pedigree, HBO’s upcoming video game-inspired series The Last of Us will not overstay its welcome. Speaking at a recent press day, show creators, writers, and producers Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (Uncharted) revealed that the show, which debuts January 15, is highly unlikely to go longer than three seasons.

The first season is the events of the first game—and you can tell, if you have played the game, from watching the marketing materials that we’re also covering the events of the Left Behind [downloadable content],” Mazin said. “I think that the amount of story that remains that we have not covered would be more than a season of television. So assuming we can keep going forward, the idea would be to do more than just one more season. But this isn’t the kind of show that is going to be seven seasons.”

Mazin is referring to The Last of Us Part II, released in 2020, seven years after the original game. Both releases follow the lives of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey); in the first game, they traverse a zombie-infested United States for a chance to save the world. In the second game, the pair deal with the fallout from that trip. The implication here is Mazin wants to tell that over two seasons. So, season one is game one and seasons two and three are game two. The story is all out there for anyone to read about or play, a fact Mazin said they took full advantage of in crafting the show.

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The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal as Joel.
The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal as Joel.
Image: HBO

“We have the benefit of something that Neil didn’t have when he was making the game initially, which was knowing what the Left Behind DLC was and knowing where the second game goes and understanding a little bit more about the fuller context,” Mazin said. “So we certainly took advantage of understanding that fuller context when we plotted out this season.”

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Mazin is very clear, though. For him, The Last of Us is the two games and the DLC. That’s it. And though fans have certainly wondered if Druckmann was working on part three, or if he could provide major future story beats a la George R.R. Martin and Game of Thrones, it seems none of that is in the cards should the show reach the end of the second game.

“Unless some miraculous thing happened and the video game production was accelerated by 1000% and the third game magically came out,” Mazin said through a fit of laughter, “I am not interested in going beyond the existing source material. As a viewer, I have no problem watching shows that just keep going and going and going. No problem. But as a writer, I don’t want to be in the position of spinning plates to just spool out season after season of stuff. To me, it’s important that things are purposeful, and if they’re purposeful, that means they have endings. That means everything you do is carefully selected and chosen, not just there to keep going.”

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Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Tess (Anna Torv)
Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Tess (Anna Torv)
Image: HBO

That doesn’t mean, however, that the show will be a 1:1 adaptation. The first season adds many layers to the established video game story. Certain characters are expanded, some big mysteries are revealed, etc. All of which happens only when Mazin and Druckmann think it serves the show.

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“Every potential change that we discussed, we would discuss not only on its own merits for the moment and the episode it’s in, the reasons it’s being proposed, but Neil, in particular, would always be careful to say, ‘Okay, let’s talk about what this means going forward,’” Mazin said. “’What are the impacts of this choice that we make and how do we carry it forward and be true to that?’ And, Neil’s philosophy generally was if we were going to change something, it had to be better. There had to be a great reason for it.”

So what changes are Mazin talking about specifically? He didn’t say but did offer some hints. “I would ask a lot of pesky questions of Neil to try and become as much of an expert on that world as he was. Questions of things that weren’t in the game like, okay, what happened between the outbreak and the time we catch up with FEDRA [Federal Disaster Response Agency] in the QZ [Quarantine Zone]? How did FEDRA become FEDRA? Why FEDRA? How are they run now? Ellie is in FEDRA school? What is that like? What is the purpose? All of these questions.”

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Gabriel Luna is Tommy, Joel’s brother, a key figure in the franchise.
Gabriel Luna is Tommy, Joel’s brother, a key figure in the franchise.
Image: HBO

Some of those answers even came from game development that never made it into the game. “Every now and then I would mine this thing that had been kind of in the substrate of [game developer] Naughty Dog,” Mazin said. “This idea that had not been able to get into the game or maybe it wasn’t right for the game, and that would get me so excited. And I would say ‘It’s mine mine mine mine! Give it to me!’ And we run with some of those and there are some of my favorite moments.”

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With the first season encompassing the first game (and DLC) of the series, fans can already begin to imagine what their favorite moments might look like. But there’s no guarantee a second season happens. Or, if it does, a third which could complete the story of the second game. Thankfully, Druckmann says that uncertainty has been built into the franchise from the very beginning.

“When we build the games, every single time we did it, it was with the mindset like the story might end here. There might never be an opportunity to do a sequel,” Druckmann said. “So this has to be a strong enough ending, not a cliffhanger just waiting for more story to unfold. It’s like ‘This is the end.’ And when we did part two, approached it the same exact way, as if there might never be a part three. So this has to work as an ending. And I’ll leave it at that.”

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Joel with his daughter, Sara (Nico Parker)
Joel with his daughter, Sara (Nico Parker)
Image: HBO

So even if season one is the end, or season two or season three, Mazin feels that The Last of Us will have a definitive ending. One which, hopefully, will give it that much more impact.

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“I think every episode should deserve your eyeballs,” he said. “I don’t like filler, I don’t like stretching. I want everything to be as compelling as possible. Concision still matters, especially in a world where streamers tend to give creators so much flexibility that they sometimes indulge a little bit. And you get very long episodes and seasons that are too long and I hate that. So I just want to make sure that if someone sits down to watch an episode of The Last of Us, it’s awesome every single time.”

The nine-episode first season of The Last of Us begins January 15 on HBO.


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