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‘The Last of Us’ Takes Its Source Material to Another Level

As performers, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey breathe new life into known quantities. So, too, does their show.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In The Last of Us, zombies are the least terrifying part of the zombie apocalypse. Yes, the HBO drama’s alternate America is riddled with “Infected”: former humans now hijacked by a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus, a real-life pathogen that (currently) affects insects. But after the feature-length, action-packed premiere, entire hours of the nine-episode season go by without so much as a spore. The Walking Dead, the last TV show to tackle this genre at such a scale, took its name from the ravenous hordes that ended life as we knew it. The Last of Us, as the title implies, is more about who survives and how.

The Last of Us, you’re likely aware, is adapted from the eponymous video game—an influential hit that’s sold tens of millions of copies since its release in 2013. Most of the advance press has centered around the so-called curse of the game adaptation, an enterprise that’s largely yielded either poorly received flops (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) or popular tentpoles lacking critical cachet (the Resident Evil franchise). But, as cocreator Craig Mazin has been quick to note, The Last of Us is a natural fit for the prestige cable treatment—it won Outstanding Achievement in Story at the 2014 D.I.C.E. Awards, often referred to as the Oscars of video games, plus Outstanding Achievement in Video Game Writing at the Writers Guild of America Awards. (Other honorees that year included True Detective.) The Last of Us and its 2020 sequel earned much of their acclaim for an emphasis on character and moral ambiguity, both mainstays of modern television and key components missing from Rampage or Sonic the Hedgehog, to name two recent graduates of the console-to-multiplex pipeline.

To facilitate tighter control of its narrative, The Last of Us game cut down on popular mechanics like player choice, instead focusing on the streamlined story of a black market smuggler—Joel—taking on his most precious cargo yet: a teenage girl named Ellie who’s mysteriously immune to Cordyceps infection. The question, then, was less whether The Last of Us could work on-screen than whether the show could live up to its potential—and whether the story would hold up in a medium where its style is no longer the exception but the norm.

Like House of the Dragon before it, The Last of Us ensures at least some continuity by retaining the original author: Neil Druckmann, the game’s creative director and copresident of its studio, Naughty Dog. (Also like House of the Dragon, The Last of Us is an obvious—if less direct—attempt to rival Game of Thrones, which proved that genre IP could have blockbuster scope and highbrow appeal.) For the show, Druckmann shares writing, directing, producing, and show-running duties with Mazin, who may be better known for his role as Ted Cruz’s ex–college roommate. Outside of politics, Mazin’s other claim to fame is the limited series Chernobyl, another tale of how large-scale disaster interacts with human-scale emotion. Together, the two partners arrive at a shared sensibility: rigorous fidelity to the source, augmented by perspectives outside the game’s largely fixed point of view.

Because The Last of Us largely sticks to the blueprint laid out by the game, casting is one of the show’s main opportunities to make its own impression. Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal star as Ellie and Joel, both hewing close to their respective types. On The Mandalorian, Pascal essentially plays a more PG version of Joel: a hardened warrior forced by circumstance to care for a vulnerable young charge. Except on The Last of Us, Pascal can make use of his face instead of hiding it behind a mask, as well as act opposite a flesh-and-blood scene partner in lieu of a CGI puppet. Ramsey, for her part, kicked off her career playing ferocious, precocious young women like Lyanna Mormont and the title character of Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy. (Pascal and Ramsey never overlapped on Game of Thrones, but they’re one more link back to HBO’s biggest calling card.) Ellie’s traumas are deeper, yet she represses and expresses them in similar ways.

Both lead actors put their experience to use. Familiarity doesn’t detract from watching Joel fail to save his teenage daughter from the chaotic onset of societal collapse (a loss with obvious echoes in the mission he’s to undertake 20 years later), or from watching Ellie try to salvage a few scraps of childhood innocence from the awful hand her generation’s been dealt. Neither turn is necessarily a surprise, but Pascal and Ramsey are beyond believable as recognizably damaged people in an utterly alien circumstance. They’re crucial anchors in a heightened reality—exactly what The Last of Us needs to thrive as a live-action series.

As performers, Pascal and Ramsey breathe new life into known quantities. So, too, does their show. The Last of Us may resemble The Mandalorian, but both take after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or the classic manga Lone Wolf and Cub. An adult using their aptitude for violence to protect an innocent from a cruel, uncaring world is a timeless setup, one that touches on themes of absolution, connection, and the purpose of survival. The Last of Us excels not in generating new ideas, but in illustrating these inherited ones more finely than prior examples—including its own earlier iteration.

The structure of The Last of Us keeps Joel and Ellie the only constants. Their quest to find doctors who can study Ellie’s immunity takes them across a radically altered country, from a Boston “Quarantine Zone”—a heavily fortified area controlled by FEDRA (a government agency turned authoritarian regime)—to a rural Wyoming settlement. The result has an almost anthological feel, allowing actors to enter the scene for an episode or two before making their exit, some more gorily than others.

Such characters are another opportunity for this take on The Last of Us to leave its mark. Some, like an anti-FEDRA resistance leader played by Yellowjackets Melanie Lynskey, are new to the show. Others, like survivalist couple Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), are radically expanded from the game, elevated to stars of a near-standalone episode that spans over a decade. (Even flashbacks allow for some inspired casting, like Silicon Valley’s Josh Brener as a riff on Dick Cavett.) All are chances for The Last of Us to explore its true interests, many of which have little to do with flesh-eating monsters.

To be clear, The Last of Us has its share of effects-laden flexes. Swarms of Infected convey mass scale (and budget); decayed cityscapes and elaborate prosthetics evoke the eerie beauty of Alex Garland’s Annihilation or even the actual Chernobyl, now abandoned and overgrown. But the show uses its setting, however evocative, as a means to an end. Even collective conflicts among humans, like FEDRA’s struggle with an insurgency known as the Fireflies, are relegated to the background. The more intimately The Last of Us can render the aftermath of the world’s end, the better.

The defining feature of this alternate present isn’t the Infected. It’s the complete breakdown of social trust their ever-present threat has created, and what emerges in its wake. “There’s worse than Infected out there,” an acquaintance warns Joel in the premiere. “There are raiders. There are slavers.” The fungus is acting only as nature compels it. The Last of Us is more ambivalent about what humans will do with their own free will. Some will do whatever they can get away with. Some will strive for a better world. Some will do whatever they can to survive. Some won’t see the point. And some will be pitted against each other for reasons neither can fully control, in competition for resources or out of an instinct for self-preservation. By digging into the subjective experience of those Joel and Ellie meet on their travels, the series further emphasizes there’s no right way to respond, and that everyone’s path has its own well-founded reasons. To borrow a term from its original format, everybody is an NPC until we see their side of things.

Eventually, that ambivalence trickles down to Joel and Ellie. Their relationship, at least at first, follows a predictable path. To him, their journey is a job, then eventually much more; to her, Joel is a babysitter, then something like a mentor and friend. But in the end, The Last of Us arrives at a more complicated and interesting place than the redemptive power of love, a takeaway in keeping with the game but amplified by the show’s additions. This isn’t a story about humans versus zombies. It’s a story about humans versus humans, and even their own impulses.