The following is a spoiler-free review of Season 1 of The Last of Us. The series premiere debuts on HBO on January 15th.
The best adaptations don’t just imitate their source material but aim to enrich for those familiar with it, while also acting as an entry point for those who aren’t. HBO’s The Last of Us does exactly that: a brilliant retelling of one of video games’ most beloved stories that rebottles the lightning of what made it so special to many in the first place, letting it strike again to stunning effect. Thanks to a pair of phenomenal lead performances and a beautifully executed vision of what it is to find hope and love in a world hellbent on denying it, The Last of Us thrills from the first episode to the last.
The shape of the story will be familiar to any who have played the original game, but that’s not to say you’ll know exactly what’s coming next since deviations are frequently taken. A post-pandemic world where pockets of humanity aim to keep afloat amongst a sea of infection, it’s a place brought to stark realisation by showrunner Craig Mazin, aided by the creator of The Last of Us video game, Neil Druckmann. The setup for the plot circles around Joel, a smuggler tasked with couriering a teenage girl west in an America ravaged by a deadly fungal pandemic for the past 20 years. Of course, things don’t go smoothly as danger lurks around every corner in both human and post-human forms, ready to break their ever-tightening bond.
Ellie, who could easily have been reduced to a plot device, is the charismatic heartbeat of the show, simultaneously reminding Joel of what he’s lost, and filling him with a sense of purpose not felt since his darkest day. Love lost is a throughline of the series, but more critical to The Last of Us is the pseudo-paternal love found between the two. Bella Ramsey is simply electrifying as Ellie, effortlessly shifting between delicate vulnerability, youthful excitement, and determined power. She’s a true revelation and deserves all the credit in the world for making her mark on a character whose previous interpretation has been so firmly ingrained in people’s minds. She’s dynamite from the offset, but Ramsey goes from strength to strength in step with Joel and Ellie’s relationship as the season progresses.
Pedro Pascal, meanwhile, brilliantly steps into the well-worn shoes of Joel Miller, southern fried drawl and all, carrying himself in a convincingly experienced and world-weary way. He’s often brooding and quiet – acting as a foil to Ellie’s infectious energy – and able to powerfully express deep emotion through a single look of his eyes. He fits the role perfectly; stoic in the face of adversity and able to position himself at each end of Joel’s emotional spectrum, from warmly caring to ruthlessly violent.
Solid performances flank the pair as characters weave in and out of Joel and Ellie’s journey. These include Anna Torv as the steely Tess, Gabriel Luna as Joel’s estranged brother Tommy, and Lamar Johnson as the layered and compassionate Henry. Special mention has to go out to Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett who are unforgettable as the melancholic Bill and Frank respectively. We spend fleeting time with some great performances that act to consistently remind us about the fragility of life. If The Last of Us draws up a venn diagram made up of good and evil circles then the overlapping middle ground would be heavily overpopulated.
Season 1 packs a lot into its nine episodes, which can leave it feeling slightly rushed on occasion as it hurtles towards its ending. It’s still a conclusion that packs the gut punch it needs to though, and one that’s ultimately earned. That said, I’m well versed in the world of The Last of Us from playing through each of the games multiple times, but I do wonder if the uninitiated may struggle with the number of new concepts and words (FEDRA, Fireflies, cordyceps, etc.) thrown at them consistently in early episodes when the pace is at its most express.
The show is at its best when allowing itself room to breathe, and it’s in these pockets that The Last of Us often shines brightest. Yes, seeing recreations of pivotal scenes from the game brought to life offers its own sort of thrill, but it’s most exciting when exploring less trod paths – a case best exemplified by the arrival of Nick Offerman’s Bill. He’s a character given incredible new 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, it’s a special story elegantly brought to life through tender performances.
It explores themes mirrored through Ellie’s eyes in another later standout episode and is a testament to how love between two people – no matter who they are or who they choose to share it with – perseveres even when the world and bodies physically channeling it fade. It’s a credit to the show’s creators that two hallmark episodes push queer relationships so firmly to the forefront when it would’ve been so easy to sneak them in as a footnote. They’re presented without judgement and with complete celebration. In a post-apocalyptic vacuum that denies any air of happiness to thrive, these rare sparks of life are all the more important and impactful – like fireflies illuminating an abandoned glass jar.
Visually, The Last of Us is often a sight to behold, even when the camera is pointed at firmly ugly subjects. Details like old paint scabbing over walls and fungal veins crawling across floors sweep convincingly through most buildings. Vast landscapes paint pictures of classic westerns, especially as the seasons change and snow carpets the ground. But while The Last of Us is a great-looking show, it’s in its audio that it particularly excels. Distant cries and nearby clicks often echo scarily through scenes in a world so quiet that any sound can be alarming. The original score is also superb, as familiar refrains from Gustavo Santaolalla’s iconic soundtrack sing in harmony with original pieces that pulse and drive their way through some of the more action-heavy moments.
Tonally, obvious comparisons can be made to The Road, but The Last of Us rarely reaches the levels of unrelenting bleakness that Cormac McCarthy’s novel nor its subsequent film adaptation did. For each helping of the macabre, there’s a small measure of levity or glimmer of light. The Last of Us may present itself as a hopeless world but over the course of a season it reveals plenty that’s worth fighting for, and in that regard is more reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men in both its themes and visual identity. Low-saturated greys, greens, and browns occasionally make way for bursts of flame or the flash of gunfire. Bombed-out cities still present flickers of life and echoes of a civilisation worth saving, with both stories ultimately coming down to the successful smuggling of a young woman and the powers of love and the human spirit when combating mother nature’s cruelest will.
There’s barely a still camera shot throughout, tying thematically into the always-on-the-move nature of the story as we dart from place to place across America. There’s no glamorous Hollywood choreography nor any feats of superheroics. It’s all very human and rustic, bordering on clumsy in its action scenes. You can smell the fear and sweat coming off of Joel during a scrap – rooting the action in each encounter’s desperately tangible stakes. While there are some standout moments of combat, in truth The Last of Us is more interested in showing the fallout of violence than the violence itself, letting the echo of each gunshot ring out long before the next is fired.
Action is used sparingly – but to often shocking effect – as are appearances of the infected. Close ups of the infected and their new, fibrous biology are quite frankly disgusting as fuzzy tendrils crawl out of their mouths like nested xenomorphs. Their mushroomed scalps add layers of fear to each one, each feeling like a genuinely deadly threat regardless of how well-armed Joel and Ellie are. In the game, the presence of the infected is mainly felt through gameplay and combat encounters. As the show isn’t relying on giving a player something to constantly do with their hands, it chooses to instead focus on the human stories existing in this world and does so to great effect. That being said, I couldn’t help but wish for just one or two more clicker appearances over the course of the nine episodes, as we sometimes go through stretches of multiple installments without a sighting of the terror they can bring.
On the whole, the plot doesn’t waver too far from its source material, but does occasionally stray from the path in order to shine a light on previously unexplored corners of the world. Certain shots or lines of dialogue will have players doing their best Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the TV impressions, but crucially, these never feel crowbarred in, instead fitting in perfectly with the aesthetic at play. A liberal use of flashbacks paint a bigger picture of the world at large, giving extra context on both a personal and global level and providing societal snapshots of life both before and after the outbreak.
You really get a sense that Druckmann is relishing revisiting his story and adding in sections, such as an early stopover in Indonesia, that just wouldn’t have made sense to have in the game. It also takes time to explore themes shared with Mazin’s previous work on Chernobyl – primarily the valiant fight of working-class people against hopelessness and failures of government. Never once, though, does it take its eye off of the very personal human impact that a world changed forever makes on its people in different ways. There’s a real sense of a creative partnership working at the peak of its power here as old and new ideas blend, and ultimately triumph.