In 2013, The Last of Us prompted another round of discussions about video games as an art form in the time-honored fashion followed by new genres or media initially dismissed as empty calories: by being soul-crushingly depressing. In the game — a standout example of interactive and environmental storytelling — players take on the role of a survivor of a shockingly plausible zombie-style apocalypse who must protect a teenage girl who may hold the key to saving humanity. Traversing the wreckage of the American midwest, players are forced into terrible decisions, executing other scavengers who are also simply trying to keep their families alive.
Now, The Last of Us has been adapted into a big-budget HBO series, starring the reliably compelling Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian) and the impressive young Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones). The story of The Last of Us translates easily into its new medium, where it remains a hard-hitting adult drama designed to punish its audience for enjoying it, but the very traits that made the source material a standout PlayStation game are already familiar signifiers of HBO dramas.
The series is set 20 years after the invasive fungus Cordyceps infects most of the human population, turning them into zombie-like monsters. The uninfected have taken shelter in secluded communities or in fortified city centers run by FEDRA, the fascist remnants of the US government. Smugglers Joel (Pascal) and Tess (Anna Torv, Mindhunter) are hired by a group of revolutionaries to sneak young Ellie (Ramsey) out of FEDRA-controlled Boston, setting them on a cross-country journey of potentially global import. Over the course of the nine-episode season, the weary travelers encounter hordes of hideous infected, but also other desperate survivors trying to cope in an uncivilized world. Tonally, it’s not a far cry from early The Walking Dead, and everyday people becoming ruthless killers under pressure is a familiar element of zombie or post-apocalyptic fiction. The execution, however, is sober and affecting, in that gritty way that constantly assures this is a show for grown-ups.
The real X-factor here — as in the game — is the dynamic between Joel and Ellie, and Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey give The Last of Us a soul worth protecting. That Pascal excels at fostering empathy for his deeply wounded outlaw is no surprise, but Ramsey (age 19, but playing much younger) manages to convey a more complicated cocktail of innocence, weariness, heartbreak, and Bart Simpson brattiness. Where Joel remembers the world as it was before it fell, Ellie has never known a life that wasn’t wall-to-wall death and misery. For her, it’s normal, but that doesn’t make it easy; it only means she acts like it is. In the bond of surrogate family that grows between them, Joel and Ellie find a semblance of hope and happiness, one that is threatened on a regular basis.
Structurally, The Last of Us distinguishes itself from The Walking Dead by means of a more episodic structure. While advancing the season’s ongoing road-trip storyline, individual episodes alternate between two formats. The first is a classic Incredible Hulk or Kung Fu-style pit stop in a new town where Joel and Ellie confront a local problem, with the corollary that almost everywhere they visit is worse off when they depart. The other is more flashback-driven and guest star-focused, showing us the fall of civilization or the fight for survival from the perspective of different characters. Though the throughline of Joel and Ellie’s relationship is the heart of the show, it’s the latter format that yields the better episodes, with standout appearances by Nick Offerman, Melanie Lynskey, and Storm Reid. Sequences of Joel and Ellie gunning their way through enemies or passing ladders and planks of wood back and forth to navigate obstacles begin to feel a bit more like the parts of the game that drag — diverting enough to play, not terribly interesting to watch.
To the game’s credit, though, a great deal of the character moments that play so well in the series are pulled directly from the source material, sometimes beat-for-beat or line-for-line. The fidelity is not surprising, as this is a case of a storyteller adapting their own work for a new medium. Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin developed the series alongside the game’s creative director, Neil Druckman, and the two share screenwriting credit on key episodes. Viewers looking for faithfulness to the games they love (and for a subset of the audience, this will be the only thing that matters) will be pleased, but those unfamiliar with The Last of Us or modern video games in general might be surprised to learn how little needed to be changed or added to make it fit the mold of an HBO series.
Except it fits almost too well. For gamers, the series is essentially another remaster of the story they’ve already experienced, one with live-action actors vs. computer models and directed cinematography vs. a player-controlled camera. For regular viewers of HBO dramas, it’s another bleak show in which the most shocking thing (read: predictably cruel thing) always happens, because that’s how you know it’s for adults. From either angle, it’s a well-produced product. But it’s certainly nothing you haven’t seen before.