On Sunday night, The Last of Us concluded its stellar first season in dramatic, painfully ambiguous fashion. Despite airing at the same time as the Academy Awards, which even Pedro Pascal was busy watching, the series reached a season high with 8.2 million viewers. In Europe and Latin America, it’s become the most-watched show in HBO Max’s history. And because The Last of Us was renewed in January for a second season, its audience—which has already grown at a record pace—may continue to spread like the Cordyceps that ravaged the show’s world.
As incredible a run as The Last of Us had in its first season, the success of the series wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Even if the adaptation of Naughty Dog’s award-winning 2013 game of the same name was uniquely suited to breaking Hollywood’s video game adaptation curse thanks to its cinematic aesthetics, captivating linear narrative, and adept development of characters, it was still a colossal challenge to bring such a beloved franchise to life. But backed by a tremendous cast led by Pascal and Bella Ramsey, showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann (the latter of whom also cocreated the video game) managed to strike the perfect balance in an adaptation that could engage veterans of the game and Last of Us newbies alike.
The first season remains faithful to a story that was conceived for the PlayStation, with many lines delivered exactly as Druckmann originally wrote them and every episode inspiring side-by-side comparisons when the game’s biggest moments were closely recreated in live-action form. It seems more than likely that the second season—and potentially beyond—will follow suit, closely following the path of 2020 sequel The Last of Us Part II. However, Part II is a bigger, more ambitious, and even more divisive game than its predecessor was. There’s plenty of room to build on and tweak the game’s already compelling narrative as it transitions to TV, but the sequel’s frequent shifts in time and perspective may force Mazin and Druckmann to make more changes than they did in Season 1.
The writers room for Season 2 wasn’t convened until February, so it’s safe to say that we’re a long way from the premiere, but thanks to the existence of The Last of Us Part II, those of us who have played the game have a solid sense of where Joel and Ellie’s story is going. Plus, Mazin and Druckmann have spoken at length about the future of the series in recent weeks, so there is already plenty of information to parse, along with more lingering questions to ask. Let the speculation begin.
Please note: The spoiler warning above applies to the events of both the first season of the TV series and, more important, The Last of Us Part II. This way-too-early preview of the second season is intended for those who have already played, watched, or read about the game. Some of its major plot points will be discussed in the sections below, so if you haven’t experienced Part II yet and you don’t want to know what happens ahead of the show’s second season, it’s time to click elsewhere. (While you’re here, there’s plenty of other great Ringer coverage of The Last of Us to check out. Or if you’re just looking to satisfy your TV craving for a character played by Pascal shooting people and protecting a child, you can always read about The Mandalorian.) If you’re already familiar with The Last of Us Part II or you’re not averse to spoilers, though, let’s get to it.
In the first season of The Last of Us, the cost of revenge—and the cycle of violence it breeds—is a theme that Mazin and Druckmann often return to. Through the downfalls of Kathleen’s revolutionaries in Kansas City and David’s community in Silver Lake, we’re shown how the pursuit of vengeance can be blinding, as it forces people to lose sight of what’s most important in life. This provides the perfect backdrop for where our story is heading in the second season, as The Last of Us Part II applies this concept to its main characters. We haven’t been introduced to her yet in the HBO series (save for a cameo by the game’s voice and motion-capture actor), but the season finale just showed us the harrowing events that come to define a forthcoming protagonist: Abby.
As players learn over the course of the game, Abby is a member of the Washington Liberation Front, a militaristic organization based in Seattle that is at war with a religious cult known as the Seraphites. But before she joined the WLF, she was a Firefly. And not just any Firefly, either: Abby is the daughter of the doctor who was trying to save humanity. That is, until Joel killed him in order to save Ellie.
The adaptation doesn’t spend much time in the finale focusing on the Firefly surgeon, which is consistent with the conclusion of the first game. But after Joel kills him, the camera lingers on his body for a few beats to emphasize the loss of the one person (or at least the only one the Fireflies know of) who could have performed this surgery and developed a cure for the Cordyceps infection. That shot also highlights the act that fuels Abby’s lust for vengeance and, ultimately, leads to Joel’s demise.
Joel’s death is primed to be a shocking moment for unsuspecting viewers, especially given how early it comes in Part II’s lengthy narrative. One of the boldest narrative choices that Druckmann and Naughty Dog made in the game is what follows Joel’s fatal beating, though, as players are forced to split time between the perspective of Ellie as she tries to avenge Joel and that of Abby herself as you become the character who brutally killed the protagonist of the first game.
The showrunners have a difficult task ahead of them as they try to find a way to make the audience empathize with Abby after she kills Joel, just as Druckmann and Co. endeavored to do when they made the sequel. (This proved to be a particular sticking point for some critics of the game, to put it mildly, despite all of Joel’s transgressions.) But it’s these conflicting, morally gray choices and characters that define The Last of Us, as we just witnessed in a season finale that featured our “hero” executing defenseless Fireflies and choosing one life over the future of the entire human race without hesitation.
For Mazin and Druckmann, the overarching concept of the series always comes back to love—and the danger that comes with it. “Love is behind the most extreme choices we make and the most extreme behaviors in which we engage,” Mazin recently told Vulture. “Parents say things like this to their children all the time: ‘I love you more than the world itself.’ Do you? For Joel, the answer is ‘Yes, I do.’ That is profound, and the ambiguity of the positivity of love is what we should be taking forward. What Joel has done in the name of love is a selfish act but an understandable one. It is setting a chain of events in motion that will not be undone.”
For so many characters in The Last of Us, revenge is a fatal consequence of love. And once Joel kills the person whom Abby loved most in the world, the cycle of vengeful violence that drives Part II has already begun.
The End of Joel and Ellie
With the lie that Joel tells Ellie in the closing moments of the season finale, we see the beginning of the end for our leading duo as we know it.
Even viewers who don’t already know what happens can likely tell from Ramsey’s performance that Ellie doesn’t believe Joel’s flimsy story about raiders invading the hospital and the existence of many other people who are immune to the Cordyceps infection. As we find out in Part II, Ellie eventually leaves Jackson to return to the hospital in Salt Lake City to seek the truth herself. Thanks to a note left behind by a surviving Firefly and the emotional conversation with Joel that unfolds after she finds it, Ellie finally gets the real story of what Joel did—and their relationship is forever fractured because of it. But she still does her best to forgive him before it’s too late, and after Abby kills him, Ellie’s love for Joel is what drives her own spiraling quest for vengeance.
Joel’s death happens so early in Part II that it will present an interesting narrative conundrum for Mazin and Druckmann as they adapt the game to TV. On the one hand, remaining faithful to the game with an early and sudden demise could make for a gripping episode that would immediately garner attention and set the stakes for the remainder of the season. On the other hand, it would mean losing the star power of the beloved Pascal as the show would quickly shift its focus to Ramsey’s Ellie and whomever gets cast to play Abby.
Regardless of when it happens, Joel’s demise is too crucial a component of Part II to avoid altogether. Beyond being the inciting incident that forces Ellie to leave behind her peaceful life in Jackson, it’s the foundation of our introduction to Abby and the consequence that ties Part I and Part II together. And even after Joel dies in the game, he still appears in a number of Ellie’s flashbacks, providing plenty of opportunities for the TV series to keep bringing Pascal back to the screen. Joel may be physically absent for the vast majority of the story, but his loss is ever present, and he returns for some of the game’s most emotional moments.
With Joel gone, Ellie finds a new traveling companion in Dina, who doubles as Ellie’s love interest. Dina may have even already appeared during the sixth episode of the TV series; in the dining hall in Jackson, Ellie catches a girl stealing a glance at her from afar, much to her displeasure. (While Paolina van Kleef’s character is credited only as “Staring Girl,” Druckmann and Mazin all but confirmed her identity on HBO’s The Last of Us podcast. However, it remains to be seen whether van Kleef will retain the role.) Dina and Ellie’s dynamic is, of course, very different from Joel and Ellie’s, but their emerging relationship—and the risks that Ellie takes in spite of it—is a huge part of the character that Ellie comes to be.
Much of the upcoming season’s success will hinge on whether HBO and the Last of Us team can find the right actress to play Abby—a task they seem well suited for after casting so well the first time around, which enabled the breakout performances from Lamar Johnson (as Henry) and Keivonn Woodard (as Sam) in the heartbreaking fifth episode. (Some fans have already become convinced that Shannon Berry from The Wilds will play Abby, based largely on social-media follows and physical resemblance.) But look no further than the succession of wide-ranging, emotional performances from Ramsey in the final three episodes of the first season, and you’ll see that the future of The Last of Us remains bright with Pascal’s costar leading the way.
More Infected, More Action
As faithful an adaptation as The Last of Us was during its first season, fans of the game surely noticed many memorable moments that were lost in translation from one medium to the other. From the upside-down shooting sequence in Bill’s town to the terrifying hotel basement in Pittsburgh, those omitted scenes and set pieces often involved action in which players were forced to confront (or stealthily avoid) the Infected, along with living enemies like raiders, hunters, and FEDRA. With the exception of flashbacks, there weren’t any Infected sightings in the series after the fifth episode.
During a virtual press conference last week, Mazin and Druckmann addressed any complaints that some viewers may have had about these omissions and explained their decision-making process. “There may be less action than some people wanted because we couldn’t necessarily find significance for quite a bit of it, or there was a concern that it would be repetitive,” Mazin said. “After all, you’re not playing it, you’re watching it. Although a lot of people do like to watch gameplay, it needs to be a little bit focused and purposeful when we’re putting it on TV.”
The choice to be more selective with Infected appearances in the first season—and with acts of violence in general—added greater significance to them when they did occur, as what would have been routine encounters for gamers became momentous events on TV. The first sighting of a Clicker in the second episode is one of the scariest sequences in the entire season, while the emergence of the lone Bloater in the fifth installment heightens the most action-packed conflict between humans and the Infected that we’ve seen so far.
Beyond the spectacle that these moments provide, the calculated approach achieves its intended goal of prioritizing relationships as characters are forced to respond to more isolated incidents of action. Given that Mazin and Druckmann had the luxury of knowing exactly where the story was heading past the conclusion of the first game, they were also able to plan the cadence of Infected encounters throughout the season with the bigger picture in mind. “There is more of The Last of Us to come, and the balance is not always just within an episode, or even episode to episode, but season to season,” Mazin explained in the same press conference. “It’s quite possible that there will be a lot more Infected later, and perhaps different kinds. But within the episodes that we were concentrating on, ultimately, we generally stressed the power of relationships and trying to find significance within moments of action.”
In adapting Part II, there will be plenty more opportunities for the show to feature Infected, and the scarcity of them to this point will make them all the more exciting (and terrifying) when they arrive. As for those “different kinds” of Infected that Mazin alluded to, there are still a number of Infected types that we have yet to see in the HBO series, including the Stalkers, who lurk in the shadows and are good for a jump scare every damn time; the acid-emitting Shamblers; and, most menacing of all, the so-called “Rat King,” a disturbing superorganism composed of various types of Infected that will create quite the challenge for the show’s makeup and prosthetics team.
All of this is to say that for anyone who was left craving more action sequences and more Infected, it sounds like it’s only a matter of time.
Future Seasons of The Last of Us
While The Last of Us managed to cover all of the first game in the series—plus expansion chapter The Last of Us: Left Behind—within a single season, it would be much more challenging to do the same in an adaptation of Part II. The sheer size of the sequel’s story would be too much to fit into one season without important parts being sacrificed, and any attempt to quicken its pace to cram everything in would leave little time for the show to depart from the source material to explore untapped narrative avenues, as it did so successfully in episodes like Bill and Frank’s “Long, Long Time,” or in Ashley Johnson’s cameo in the finale as Ellie’s mother, Anna. Considering the massive success of the show’s first season and the fact that there isn’t a Part III for the series to work off of, it feels like a no-brainer for The Last of Us team to split the second game into multiple seasons.
A third season of the series has yet to be officially announced by HBO or the showrunners, but back in January, Mazin alluded to the potential need for one given the scope of Part II’s narrative. “The story that remains, that continues forth in the work that Naughty Dog’s done on the second game, is a lot.” Mazin told Collider. “Probably the amount of remaining story would take us more than a season to tell. But definitely, I don’t see this as something that runs on and on and on. … Our ambition is to tell the story that exists, as best as we can, in a different medium.”
Since then, Mazin and Druckmann have taken firmer public stances on whether Part II would be adapted into multiple seasons. When asked during a recent interview with GQ whether the game could fit into the span of one season, Mazin replied, “No way,” while Druckmann added that “it’s more than one season.” Neither of them has confirmed or denied whether that meant that there would be two or even three more seasons, but it’s beginning to feel like the latter option is a strong possibility, and there’s more than enough source material to justify it.
Part II will be a more difficult story to adapt than the first installment, regardless of how many seasons the series has to cover it. Along with the aforementioned challenges that come with trying to get the audience to fall in love with a new character who kills a beloved protagonist, there are some massive set pieces that may prove harder to circumvent, like the full-scale battle between the WLF and the Seraphites that Abby and Lev, a former Seraphite who becomes Abby’s companion, fight their way through together. In terms of mapping out the narrative itself, the frequent shifts in perspective and timeline will likely translate well to TV—in contrast to video games, which have certain limitations—but the pacing may prove to be tricky, as so much of the story unfolds over the span of three days in Seattle from Ellie’s and Abby’s varying points of view.
The game’s split almost down the middle between Ellie’s and Abby’s perspectives was a big surprise for players when Part II first came out (or when its story leaked), especially after the first installment was played mostly through Joel’s eyes (with a couple of noteworthy exceptions in sequences starring his daughter, Sarah, and his surrogate daughter, Ellie). The show could limit the second season to Ellie’s section in Seattle and pick up Season 3 with Abby, or it could cut between them from the start and experiment more within the framework of TV. And given how much time passes between depictions of Ellie and Abby’s big fight in Seattle, and how many narrative gaps exist in the game thereafter, there’s ample opportunity for a potential Season 3 or 4 to expand on Ellie and Dina’s relationship, as well as Abby and Lev’s wayward journey to locate the last of the Fireflies.
As for what lies beyond the show’s adaptation of Part II, there is still a chance that Druckmann and Naughty Dog develop a third installment of the story in the meantime. While Druckmann, who also serves as the copresident of Naughty Dog, has promised fans updates on the forthcoming Last of Us multiplayer game later this year, any response he’s given to questions about a potential Part III has been more cryptic. When asked by The Hollywood Reporter about the fate of the rumored sequel in January, Druckmann merely replied: “I think there’s more story to tell.”
Fans of the Last of Us games probably shouldn’t hold their breath on a Part III coming anytime soon, given that Part II took several years to develop, but those who have recently discovered the franchise for the first time or have fallen in love with it all over again can rest assured that, after a wildly successful first season, The Last of Us is far from finished.