HBO’s new horror drama series The Last of Us is the best video game adaptation of all time. That shouldn’t be a surprise: Rarely, if ever, has this level of production value or amount of screen time been given to an adaptation of a game that can take between 15-20 hours to complete. Usually, filmmakers are forced to stuff all that into two hours, but here, over the course of a nine-episode first season, showrunners Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (one of the original game creators) are able to let the story and characters breathe in a way seemingly no other video game adaptation ever could. And so, almost by default, you’ve never seen a video game adaptation like this. It’s a remarkable achievement.
The season, which premieres on HBO Sunday January 15, and which we saw in its entirety via screeners, is an extremely faithful adaptation of the 2013 Naughty Dog/PlayStation game of the same title. Both follow a man named Joel (The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal) who finds himself at the beginning of a mysterious and deadly zombie apocalypse. For several years, he suffers unimaginable losses and does his best to scrape by. Eventually, through another sad set of circumstances, he’s tasked with transporting a feisty teenager named Ellie (Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey) across the vast, decimated wastelands of America, because Ellie might be humanity’s one chance at making everything right again.
As we said, this is a very faithful adaptation of the game. You could basically go over to Wikipedia, read the game’s plot description, and have the entire season spoiled beat for beat. (Don’t do that. If anything, play the game, but you get the point). That means, over the course of the season, fans will be delighted to see many of their favorite, unforgettable scenes adapted with a scale worthy of comparison to similar HBO productions. They’ll also, especially in the first half of the season, be captivated by new wrinkles and expansions of the story and characters they love revealed for the first time (Episode 3, in particular, is one of the best, most unexpected episodes of TV we’ve seen in a while.) Similarly, non-fans are likely to be more than a little shocked at the intense, harrowing events that occur in the series, especially with the knowledge they’re from a video game. In the end, that might end up being one of the most enduring legacies of The Last of Us. It has the potential to cross generations and open the eyes of non-gamers to the level of depth, complexity, and emotion capable in the medium.
None of that would work, of course, if not for the spot-on casting and performances of the two leads, Joel and Ellie, played by Pascal and Ramsey. Pascal has been fantastic in pretty much everything he’s been in, but he’s rarely had a role as meaty as Joel, and he completely loses himself in it. Joel is a gruff, sad man. Capable, violent, and incredibly smart, but also broken from all that life has thrown at him. And you see that in every single facial expression, sigh, or step Pascal takes on screen. It becomes even more evident as Joel grows over the course of the season, creating a bridge from beginning to end that’s crucial to set up the endgame of the season.
And yet, while Pascal is great, Ramsey is the true revelation. Most of us know Ramsey (who uses they/them pronouns) from their brief, powerhouse performance as Lyanna Mormont on Game of Thrones. Well, take that level of confidence, charisma, and Westeros ferocity, and project it onto an angsty American teenager. Ramsey is brilliant as Ellie. The character is whip-smart, hilariously funny, and says whatever is on her mind. You may even, at times, hate Ellie because of how defiant and annoying she can be. But Ramsey’s handle on that is what grounds, and ultimately endears, the character. Their ability to turn this seemingly aloof, quirky girl into an old soul is remarkable and, much like Pascal as Joel, the performance only gets better as the series moves on.
While several characters come in and out of The Last Of Us - either by necessity or, most commonly, because they die - the show really leans on that Joel and Ellie dynamic to showcase its important themes. The one that’s easiest to see, even at the beginning, is how each represents a different generation in terms of the apocalypse. Joel was there from day one. He lived through it all. Saw how it went bad, got worse, and then got a little better as several smaller organizations began to reinstate some level of control, for good or bad. Then there’s Ellie, born after the world went to hell, with little to no idea of what regular life used to be like. She’s excited to learn any tiny thing about how life once was, and her curiosity about the seemingly most trivial thing turns a mirror back on the audience, begging us to appreciate the things we have, but rarely think about.
We see that, at the start, through Joel’s eyes. His past, his burden, his plan. He had a family, lost his daughter, and feels despondent because of everything. But as Ellie joins him on this grand quest and becomes more sure of herself, the show shifts over to her point of view. Her past, her burdens. Ellie never had a proper family. She never really experienced true love, and so what at first seemed like an unlikely pairing begins to fit together quite well. The problem Joel and Ellie keep running into, though, is if love or peace is even possible in a world as cruel as this one. And, if it is, what lengths would someone have to go to in order to get it or keep it?
You might be wondering why I haven’t really mentioned zombies yet. This is, after all, a zombie horror show, yes? Well, yes, but also no. The Last of Us really isn’t too concerned with the zombies. Much like the game it’s based on, the show is at its best when it’s focusing on the little things. Life’s small miracles, seen through the prism of this dynamic relationship. The ever-present threat of zombies adds a permanent tension throughout but that’s basically their biggest impact. In terms of actual zombies (or, as they’re often referred to here, “clickers”), there just aren’t that many.
To be clear, there’s action in every single episode, but it’s not all because of zombies and, with a handful of exceptions, it never lasts particularly long. More often than not the action arrives like a smack in the face rather than a slow burn. It’s short, intense, exciting, and every single time, very different and cool. One scene in particular, in episode five, is a major season highlight. But even then, it’s never, ever, the focus, which might be a problem for viewers hoping for non-stop violence or action. But make no mistake, that is not The Last of Us. At all.
Actually, the zombies might represent the biggest change between the series and the game. The show really dials back the action in favor of drama. In a game, you always need to have some sort of action. So if Joel and Ellie are walking down the street, you better have a few zombies to kill to keep things interesting. But on HBO, that’s not the case. Unless the zombies move the story forward in some way or force the characters to make impossible decisions in terrible situations, they’re not in the show. They’re somewhere off-screen, looming as a threat, but that’s it. Humans are oftentimes much more villainous on the show but, again, that’s not as consistent as one might expect. At every turn, The Last Of Us defies not only what a video game adaptation can be, but your expectations as a viewer of genre entertainment as a whole.
By sucking us in with this post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested setting, The Last of Us is able to use those expectations to shine a light on underappreciated aspects of life. Things like family, friends, love, and a nice hot meal. Lead by two award-worthy lead performances, the show features stunning production design and locations, powerful writing and filmmaking, all in service of putting two characters through a truly gut-wrenching, page-turner of a story. The season has a few peaks and valleys, but the valleys are never that low, and the peaks get incredibly high, resulting in a phenomenal season of television, destined to be one of the year’s best.
The Last of Us debuts on HBO January 15.
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