The lead-up to HBO’s The Last Of Us was filled with immense expectations and discourse, whether it was fans worried it could live up to the game or its creators acting like no other video game was as worthy of praise. There was even a piece in The New Yorker that suggested there had never been a good adaptation of a video game before, which just isn’t true. It had a lot of baggage before it premiered. Could it live up to its own lofty expectations? Would the pretentiousness of its pre-release hype cycle be merited or would the show crumble under the weight of its own legacy?
I’m happy to report that not only is HBO’s The Last Of Us a triumph of an adaptation but it’s an excellent season of television on its own merits – a beautiful and heartbreaking look at finding love in a broken world. It’s bleak to a fault, but the beating heart at the center of it all is enough to make even the biggest grinch’s heart grow more than three sizes. Those with weaker stomachs will undoubtedly be put off by the oppressive grimness of it all, but this show is ultimately a story about love.
As a video game adaptation, The Last Of Us is practically 1:1. It follows the plot of the game almost exactly, and even features scenes and dialogue that are straight-up copied from the game, right down to the framing. That faithfulness is both a strength and a weakness.
Becoming a television show has meant some things had to change. After all, a television show can’t devote hours of time to putting the story on hold so characters can navigate a level or solve a puzzle before the next important story point. And the changes made to fit the new medium have improved what was already an excellent story.
Joel and Ellie’s post-apocalyptic road trip is fraught with hundreds of enemies in the original game. Between the infected and raiders, the video game version of Joel kills more than an 80s action hero. The show does away with most of that, making sure that each and every instance of violence is meaningful to the story and characters.
Pedro Pascal’s Joel is not the tank that he is in the game. He is a broken man capable of doing monstrous things if he must. This Joel is a man so shut off that the only form of emotional release he has is when he’s beating a man to death to protect those he cares about, and there aren’t many of them left. These fewer instances of violence are punctuated further by the sound. Much of the more gruesome violence here is off-screen but you can hear every squelch as people are beaten, stabbed, or otherwise.
Joel is softer here, and more human. Part of that is because Pedro Pascal is a human and not a prerendered character model limited by technology but it’s also the subtleties of his performance. The way he looks at Henry while he tells Joel about what he did to protect his little brother Sam, the way his voice becomes less gruff when Ellie starts winning him over, the way he can flip into a murderous rage at the drop of a hat. Troy Baker’s performance in the game was a lot to live up to and Pascal has done so with aplomb.
Bella Ramsey deserves just as much credit. The sarcastic, world-weary, foul-mouthed teen was a cliched character when the game came out and is even more so now. The material helps overcome that but much of it is down to the performer to create a character that is so much more than the archetype. Ellie is just as iconic of a video game character as Joel, and trying to match Ashley Johnson’s portrayal was no easy task. Bella Ramsay was up to the task and then some. Delivering a performance worthy of the character, giving us an Ellie who is likable, tragic, and still has a little hope for the world despite what it’s put her through.
Pascal and Ramsay’s chemistry is the make-or-break element of the show and from the first second they share the screen, it’s clear how extraordinary of a pair they are. It’s their growing relationship that keeps you watching even through every harrowing and traumatic event that the show throws at you, and it throws a lot at you.
Every single episode of The Last of Us features at least one deeply heartbreaking moment, many of them at the end of episodes. The world in The Last Of Us is no longer suitable for humans. It’s broken and destroyed and vegetation is growing over the remnants of what once was. Whether you’ve played the game or not, the set design visually depicts that this world is no longer our territory. While the throughline of all the misery is the message of love and what you would do for your loved ones, the misery becomes formulaic to a fault.
The show almost takes on a “Monster of the Week” formula except instead of a monster, it’s a new character who is introduced to teach Joel something, have the audience get attached to them, and then have something horrible happen to them by the end. It can become exhausting. It’s an area where sticking so closely to the game might not have been for the best since the game affords us a lot more time with characters before tragedy strikes.
It’s not that the pacing seems rushed, it’s that the necessity of cutting all the gameplay sections but remaining completely faithful to the story scenes of the game means that the time between character entrance and exits is condensed. The story never feels like it’s moving too fast but the speed at which characters are introduced and discarded can be numbing.
It becomes an expectation at a certain point in a way nothing else ever does. An episode will introduce a character, only for you to just end up wondering what terrible thing will happen to them, instead of letting the story take you there. It can feel emotionally manipulative at times as it beats you over the head with each fresh tragedy.
Joel and Ellie make it worth it, though. Seeing this surrogate father-daughter relationship develop isn’t always an easy watch but it’s a worthwhile one. Through all the misery and trauma and violence, The Last Of Us is a story about a broken man learning to love something again and a broken teen finding someone who won’t leave her. If you can handle the supreme grimness of this world, you will be rewarded with a wonderful story about loss, love, and what we are capable of when that which we love is threatened.
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Through post-apocalyptic tragedy, The Last of Us offers an intense meditation on the things we’ll do for those we love the most.
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