On paper, The last of us is zombie apocalypse TV without a twist, set in a familiar landscape of armed survivalists and grim desperation. Coupled with the ever-popular trope of a grey-haired anti-hero protecting a loveable/annoying child (logan; The Mandalorian), this show undeniably covers well-trodden territory. But there’s a big difference between simply rehashing tired clichés and using them as a basis for something smarter. With inspired casting and an emphasis on emotional sincerity, The last of us is far greater than the sum of its parts.
The last of us
January 15, 2023
Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann
Rooted in some well-known zombie apocalypse tropes, this big-budget video game adaptation thrives on excellent casting and thoughtful writing to deliver a compelling story of love and survival.
Adapted from the 2013 video game, This visually expensive HBO series has a promising showrunner duo: Chernobyl Writer/Producer Craig Mazin and the game’s original Creative Director Neil Druckmann, who provide a link between prestige TV and canonical authenticity.
Pedro Pascal stars as Joel, a hardened smuggler tasked with transporting teenage orphan Ellie (Bella Ramsey) between two quarantine zones in post-apocalyptic America. Both characters carry deep emotional scars – Joel as the grieving survivor of the first zombie outbreak and Ellie as a lonely child born after society collapsed. Forced together by necessity, their relationship slowly evolves into a charmingly unconventional father-daughter dynamic as they protect each other from their harsh surroundings.
Like many American visions of the apocalypse, the series’ worldbuilding reflects a more conservative, Wild West-inspired view of human nature. The narrative is obsessed with guns, police, terrorism, and warring political factions – an attitude that makes sense for an action thriller but suggests a warped interpretation of what “fight for survival” could plausibly mean. Violence, cruelty and paranoia take precedence over pragmatic issues such as food production. Most of the human population lives in walled cities, but who manages the acres of carbohydrates needed to keep these people alive? Don’t worry. In fairness, harvesting logistics isn’t as exciting as zombie attacks and political assassinations.
Twenty years after the 2003 zombie outbreak (a mind-altering mushroom that wiped out civilization in a single day), a fascist military organization controls America’s remaining urban centers. This violently enforced government is at war with a revolutionary group known as the Fireflies, and outside the city walls zombies and bandits roam the land. Life in these settlements inevitably looks bleak, reflecting Joel’s PTSD-tinged worldview.
Unlike last year’s brilliantly original post-pandemic drama Ward Eleven, The Last of Us has little interest in subverting dystopian tropes. But it’s not unnecessarily dark either, offering moments of hope, humor and warmth in a character-driven story about people saving one another from despair.
When we first meet Joel in modern times, he is expressionless tossing bodies into a public incinerator. Crushed by years of grief and violence, the only emotion he comfortably expresses is anger. But after meeting Ellie, things start to change. Her journey physically and mentally removes him from the horrors of his old life and finally gives Ellie an adult she can trust. And while “a tough guy finds a new life protecting a girl” can be a rather paternalistic expression at times, that’s not the case here. Ellie is a bona fide co-protagonist, with Bella Ramsey delivering a spiky, funny, and downright individual performance.
Raised in a military orphanage, Ellie suffers from an inevitable case of 14 years. She can be some kind of asshole. However, she’s also a goofy kid with a natural craving for stability, and that raw vulnerability is exactly what Joel has to open up in return. Joel himself, of course, comes from a standard cast of dark action protagonists. But that’s why you hire Pedro Pascal to flesh it out; an actor who is basically impossible not to like.
Hot on the heels of a similarly tough but sweet father role in The Mandalorian, Pascal brings nuance and depth to Joel. The show’s feature-length pilot episode is crucial here, encouraging us to delve into Joel’s personality before the apocalypse breaks his heart. In 2003, he was an average guy with a happy suburban life, and the subsequent loss runs deeper than the typical example of chilling a family member to boost someone’s origin story. The last of us avoids that sort of shorthand and allows for a real slow burn when Joel starts to come out of his shell.
Rooted in conventional zombie apocalypse tropes, The last of us soon establishes itself as a mature, moving drama with plenty of high-octane dangers to keep the ball rolling. Another major strength is the chapter-based structure, which introduces new locations and a revolving door of guest stars: A delightful bottle sequel starring Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, a welcome cameo from Graham Greene and Melanie Lynskey, playing what can best be described as “Supervillain PTA Mama.”
It’s a pleasure to sit down and see something so well executed across the board. After three or four episodes, it’s totally clear that the creators of the series have a specific, coherent vision in mind, using the dystopian setting to create something surprisingly uplifting and warm.
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*Initial publication: January 15, 2023 at 8:00 am CST
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in science fiction films and superheroes, she also appears as a film and television critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she is the co-host of the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor
https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/hbo-the-last-of-us-review/ “The Last of Us” is a surefire hit that touches on zombie clichés in a sensitive yet gripping manner