TV Reviews

The Last of Us (Season 1) – TV Review

The big question when HBO first announced development on a Last of Us TV show by those who had played Naughty Dog’s landmark 2013 PlayStation 3 title was: “why?”.  Much of Last of Us’ appeal was how it functioned as a playable prestige drama, like how the developer’s Uncharted series were playable action films.  It had the measured pacing, intimate character focus, expensive tactile production values, and top-tier writing of, well, an HBO show except that you could control the action on-screen.

Like many single-player AAA video games, most of which have been published by Sony and evidently took inspiration from Naughty Dog, its manner of storytelling was innately linked to the medium, establishing and progressing the bond of its main characters through both gameplay and the downtime between which can only be achieved in a 15-to-20-hour game.  Its story, the component parts, wasn’t very special; but it was the details, the outstanding performances, and the unique kind of empathy that interactivity can foster which made it soar.

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Sure, on paper to an executive or someone whose primary means of storytelling comes from outside gaming, adapting The Last of Us into a non-interactive medium is such a no-brainer.  All the assets and blueprints are right there, and it’s one of the most acclaimed game stories of all-time with a fervent fanbase!  (This was in the days before Part II released and blew everything to hell.)  But I’m somebody who played the game and its DLC a decade ago, mostly loved both, and am aware of what video game storytelling is uniquely capable of doing.  So, to someone like me, a Last of Us TV show seemed destined to one of two outcomes; setting aside a Halo-esque situation where the thing’s just outright dogshit and in-name-only.

1] It would be a solid TV show that nonetheless felt incredibly redundant and emotionally hollow because of its devotion to the source material whilst lacking the interactivity so vital to its effect.  The equivalent of a mega-budget no-commentary walkthrough with excellent cosplay.  2] It would be a great TV show which retained the power of the game’s story that, in the process, exposed the unspoken truth of Naughty Dog gameplay routinely being the worst part of Naughty Dog games.  Empirical evidence that their mode of storytelling makes the gameplay a timewasting intrusion rather than something smoothly integrated into the experience.  (See, for example, Uncharted 4.)

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO.

But let’s put the adaptation question to the side for one moment and examine HBO’s The Last of Us as a TV show in its own right, which is how a good percentage of viewers will have come to it.  In short: it’s great!  Of course it is.  It’s an HBO mega-production headed up by Craig Mazin (creator of Chernobyl) with a proven-excellent cast all working from strong source material that, as mentioned, is already an extended season of prestige TV.

Just like the game, The Last of Us is set in a world ravaged by a mutated strain of the cordyceps fungi that has managed to jump to humans and infected most of the population into mindless zombie-like threats.  Twenty years on from outbreak day, wearied smuggler Joel (Pedro Pascal) is tasked with shuttling 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the US to a resistance group known as the Fireflies because she’s immune to the virus and they think a cure can be synthesised.

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So far, so Children of Men meets Walking Dead.  Like the video game, the details are what make things special.  For one, the production design is often jaw-dropping.  As a story taking place two decades into a world-ending apocalypse, nature has started reclaiming man-made American cities, at once beautiful and ominous (since plant life often mean fungi which are indicative of infected presence).

It creates a distinct visual identity in a sea of all-too similar post-apocalypse media and is an aesthetic choice thankfully replicated here.  Dilapidated buildings, rusted-out cars, and poverty-stricken city streets brush up next to flourishing fauna, snow-covered mountain ranges, and museums covered in growing vines.  The colour-grading often reflects this, too; the lifeless greys of Boston’s quarantine-zone, giving way to the isolated golden hour paradise of Bill’s Town, before a more muted chill of the harsh Winter sets in late-on.

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I gotta say, it feels great to watch a prestige drama with a budget that knows how to use it again.  A lot of my more recent TV viewings have been of very expensive streaming shows that look like CW productions (hello Marvel), or British shows desperately trying to ape prestige American productions in a way that arguably makes them feel cheaper and emptier than even a basic three-camera sitcom.

The Last of Us is one of the most expensive shows in production right now but, thankfully, utilises that budget to the best possible ends.  These cities feel believably lived in and worn-out.  The cinematography is gorgeous but also finely considered and full of intimate meaning.  Infected and their deadlier variants, like clickers who are blind due to mushroom-like outgrowths on their heads, are sparsely used yet absolutely terrifying when they do turn up thanks to incredible design, sound and visual effects work.  If any show was worth bringing back the old channel slogan “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” for, The Last of Us is it.

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO.

Mazin and game co-director Neil Druckmann stick pretty faithfully to the beats of the original narrative, but focus more heavily on the character drama at the expense of action set-pieces.  As such, the interpersonal travelogue aspect of The Last of Us is heightened on the show.

Each episode features Joel & Ellie thrust into a new location or relationship – such as Joel’s long-time partner Tess (Anna Torv), Kansas City FEDRA informer Henry (Lamar Burrell) and his deaf brother Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard), and community preacher David (Scott Shepherd) – and the inevitably tragic events that unfold to shape their evolutions as people.  So often the case with post-apocalypse media, the real horror is man-made; our capacity for selfishness, power, and revenge even in the face of total societal collapse.

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But, again, the power is in the details.  It’s in the growing understanding of Joel and Ellie’s psychology, a man being pulled back from the waking death he’s experienced for twenty years by a teenage orphan getting her first exposure of the outside world and the beauty/bloodshed it’s capable of inflicting.  The individual guilts and trauma over those they couldn’t save weighing down on them, dramatised in brutally affecting scenes of poetic disaster.

And, most of all, the various ways that love motivates those in a world which otherwise would appear to actively fight against its proliferation.  Cruelly ripped-away loves that Joel and Ellie wish to atone for, a blinding vengeful love that undoes the Kansas City rebellion just as quickly as it succeeds, sweet and tender love that approximates some semblance of domestic strawberry-based bliss.  Even the much-debated choices made in the finale come as a result of somebody’s selfish blinkered idea of love.

The Last of Us is an often gruelling, heartbreaking, intense watch but it’s not a miserable one.  Whilst the finale provides a subversive interrogating flipside to that thesis, Mazin and Druckmann (the sole credited writers) pay just as much attention to humanity’s capacity for kindness and unselfish love to offset accusations of misery porn.  It’s an often-brilliant series of television with at least three episodes I find hard-pressed to see any other show top this year.

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO.

But now I have to touch on the unavoidable questions.  How does The Last of Us transfer to TV?  Was it worth the hundreds-of-millions of dollars to make this a live-action series compared to, say, editing together a long-play of the PS5 remaster?  Does it negate the need for the game by showing you can tell this story just as well without a near-dozen hours of not-all-that-enjoyable combat?  Surprisingly, in case the bulk of the review beforehand hadn’t already given it away, the answers are: very well, yes, and not as much as I’d initially pegged!

Mazin and Druckmann’s decision to condense the action down to the bare minimum allows for a greater focus on the character interactions rather than the mowing down of a small island nation’s worth of infected and raiders.  (This also makes the act of violence in the finale disturbing in a more immediate manner, since the viewer hasn’t been desensitised by clockwork indiscriminate murder beforehand.)

Dialogue can be a lot more foregrounded and open, as a result; the Joel of the games being a closed-off man who struggles harder with expressing feelings in words than his television equivalent.  Growth that would normally occur over an hour or two of traversal/combat-focused gameplay, in a drip-feed of incidental dialogue and actions, now come mostly from monologues and conversations.  If that means the exact kind of prickly fire-and-water dynamic of the game’s Joel and Ellie has been sacrificed somewhat, it does mean that the TV versions do get stand apart as complementary takes on the same general ideas.

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This too goes for the performances, and why I’ve held off on talking about Pascal and Ramsey until this point.  Whilst the show has certain entire scenes recreated precisely as they were in-game, right down to the camera angles chosen, arguments about whether Pascal and Ramsey make a better Joel and Ellie than Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are honestly moot.  Both pairings are Joel & Ellie in their own distinct ways.

Pascal is a warmer, more fatherly presence than Baker, befitting a Joel who has been softened a touch from the game, which makes it all the more shocking when Pascal turns on the dead-behind-the-eyes sadism that pushed Joel through the twenty-year time-jump.  Ramsey is more aggressive than Johnson, largely as a result of Mazin and Druckmann laying the seeds for Ellie’s character development when they adapt Part II, but that makes the times when Ellie gets to be a kid, amazed at the wonder of a working car or whimpering in shock at a suicide, all the more disarming.  Their bond is undeniable, though, and both nail every single scene thrown at them. Ramsey, in particular, is a goddamn revelation and they deserve to be a star.

By and large, The Last of Us is at its best when it chooses to work as a reinterpretation or companion piece to the game’s core themes.  Most radically, ‘Long Long Time’ jettisons the entirety of Bill’s Town from the game in favour of an episode depicting Bill and Frank’s decade-long romance originally told in scant collectable notes with a much happier ending.  It results in a phenomenal hour of television which both rebukes the reliance on cynical tragedy of the source and provides an important piece of thematic foreshadowing to be cruelly yet effectively mirrored in the finale.  The changes to Kansas City (itself originally Pittsburgh in the game) are a touch less successful, but they do set up the intentionally-ugly humanisation grey area morality that Part II fully dove into.

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO.

The direct recreations don’t end up as distracting as I feared they would be.  But, mostly as a result of the creative choice to cut most of the sequences where gameplay would fill time, some scenes do seem to be here out of an assumption that they need to be rather than because they fit this medium.

The argument between Joel and Ellie at Tommy’s is one of the defining scenes in-game and, whilst still resolved relatively quickly, has a lengthy combat encounter to kill time before that resolution.  But, in-show, with no such way to kill ten/fifteen minutes, there’s no way to disguise the abruptness of their reconciliation since it occurs in the very next scene.  A similar rush-sensation comes with the hospital finale which plays out exactly as jarringly as in the game, failing to account for the fact that much of its queasy power is a direct result of player interactivity which you just can’t replicate or mitigate in a non-interactive medium.  Naughty Dog narratives write around pre-set combat encounters, which is brought to bear when translated 1:1 elsewhere.

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I also have to mention that the inadvertently problematic approaches to race and queerness of the games, specifically in regards to which characters are ultimately disposable, plus Druckmann’s ‘very fine people on both sides’ approach to authoritarianism have all made it through intact.  Not a dealbreaker, and neither is the weirdly rape-y change to a character death in ‘Infected’, but important to mention nonetheless.

Ultimately, then, The Last of Us is a triumph.  As a TV show, it’s a gripping emotional take on the post-apocalypse with a star-making performance and a thorny interrogation on the nature of love.  As an adaptation, it eventually becomes a rewarding companion piece that exists in conversation with the original game rather the supplanting or withering under it.  Sometimes essential, always great, this turned out basically as good as anyone could hope for.

The Last of Us is available on Sky Atlantic.

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