By Neil Heriot & Santiago Brion | April 3, 2023
Season one of “The Last of Us” aired on HBO Max based on the 2013 game of the same name. In it, our main protagonist Joel is tasked with taking a young teenager named Ellie across a United States that collapsed 20 years ago due to a pandemic that turns its victims into hostile creatures known as Infected (they are NOT zombies). The show is an amazing adaptation of a masterpiece of a video game, but as we discuss the specifics there might be spoilers.
It’s no secret that “The Last of Us” is one of the best video games ever made, with a compelling story, graphics that still hold up after 10 years, great voice acting, compelling characters, and exceptional themes. The HBO series perfectly adapts the qualities from the game to impressive effect while also adding new story elements and characters that expand upon its familiar world. The game’s story is a masterpiece, and the series’ directors did not change too much for the show. Even without the context of the game, Joel and Ellie instantly hook viewers as they travel across the U.S., meet friends and foes, and slowly bond with each other. Near the end, however, the story feels rushed and certain moments from the game that really shine were either missing or just didn’t have the same impact as they did in the game. Joel not calling Marlene “Queen Firefly” like he did in the game was a missed opportunity.
The show is not a copy paste of the game; there are new additions to the show that were either non-existent or very minor in the game, and these deviations worked beautifully. Joel’s motivation is more personal in the show. He wants to find his brother Tommy rather than searching for the weapons that he was owed in the game. Another personal favorite is Bill and Frank’s story in Episode 3. Still, “The Last of Us" could have benefitted from another episode or two. Two out of 9 episodes paid minimal (if any) attention to Joel and Ellie, and while the stories within those episodes were great, they were at the expense of Joel-Ellie bonding time and it showed in the final episode. While the episode was still great, the moment where Joel kills the Fireflies to retrieve Ellie felt a bit forced and unearned.
The acting from everyone was superb and whoever did the casting absolutely deserves a raise. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey stole every scene they were in and the chemistry between the two was amazing. They weren’t the only notable actors, as each and every guest actor did a fantastic job in their roles. Lamar Johnson as Henry, Nick Offerman as Bill, and Scott Shepard as David are standout performances, but everyone in the show did a great job and should be commended. They were able to masterfully convey when they were at their lowest, highest, and everything in between.
The casting of Joel and Ellie was rife with skepticism, mainly due to how the actors would be able to live up to Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, the original voice actors.Thankfully, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey played these roles beautifully down to the characters’ distinguishable qualities. Bella captured the spirit of Ellie almost like the role possessed the actor, and they captured what made Ellie a fan favorite by bringing out her sense of humor, young adolescent spirit, and vulnerability. Pedro is no stranger to playing dad-like roles notably as Din Djarin in the popular Star Wars tv show, The Mandalorian. Pedro played Joel as a disgruntled and beaten down character stricken with loss in a bleak world.
One of the most important things to have in movies and TV is to have production design that feels like a character in a story, and thankfully, the show’s production team did their homework and perfectly adapted the world of “The Last of Us” (minus the spores). While the world is bleak and unforgivable, it looks amazing. The environments were immersive and believable, and audiences had no trouble believing that this is a post-apocalyptic society that used to be the United States. The Infected looked, sounded, and acted just like the Infected from the game, and they were memorable each and every time they appeared. The cordyceps that spread throughout the soil is admirable while also giving off an ominous feel. The time period that Episode 1 takes place in is also a good change. In the game, the opening takes place in 2013, the same year the game came out and flashes forward to the 2030s, while in the show, it takes place in 2003, a specific time where America was in post 9/11 shock and the Invasion of Iraq was ongoing. The first episode then flashes forward to 2023, which makes it personal for viewers who have experienced COVID-19.
Gustavo Santaolalla reprises his role as composer from the games, and this was the only correct decision. Santaolalla’s music evokes sadness, joy, and whatever other emotion is needed without fail. Much as one might argue that Star Wars is nothing without the music of John Williams, “The Last of Us” is nothing without the music of Gustavo Santaolalla, and his music is both familiar to those who played the games yet different enough to bring a new experience to the viewer. The addition of other songs and singers were also a nice touch, and I did not feel that they ruined my immersion whenever a particular song played. Depeche Mode’s “Never Lets Me Down” and Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” have broken the internet.
The combination of Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, who wrote “The Last of Us” game and Chernobyl respectively, along with the hard work and effort made by everyone else involved, have created a masterpiece. As previously mentioned, the same story that made the 2013 game so beloved has been preserved for the most part, with deviations that work to give the viewer something new, expanding and building on what the game might not have been able to include, making the story more fitting for TV. The realism reflected in the world, characters and acting proved to elevate the show from a mere adaptation. The core concepts from the game, including but not limited to what is human nature and the power of love fully remain, and the moments that show these to the viewer are just as hard hitting and emotional as their equivalent in the game. Season 2 has already been announced due to the overwhelming positive reception of Season 1, and we have complete faith that once it arrives, it will be an even better experience than the already solid first season. “The Last of Us” series is more than just another post-apocalyptic TV show; it’s a story about the dark underbelly of humanity in a non-functioning society and the importance of human connection.