This isn’t a knock on video games, but on the very different, conflicting natures of gaming versus watching film or television. One is interactive, inviting you to bend the story to your own actions; the other asks you to immerse yourself into a specific story over which you have no control. It’s not easy to translate a concept from one medium to the other, particularly traveling the route from games to movies or shows, which is why so many of those adaptations are pretty dire.
The Last of Us game, though, has a reputation for being more “cinematic” than its peers, to the point where its cutscenes have as much appeal as the gameplay itself. Set 20 years after a zombie apocalypse destroyed life on Earth as we know it, it follows Joel, a taciturn and proficiently violent loner, as he leads 14-year-old Ellie on a dangerous cross-country journey. Though there’s action galore as the pair are besieged by various threats, both human and inhuman, the game is also filled with rich characterization, poignant drama and even some comedy. Ever since HBO announced plans to make a Last of Us series, gamers have pointed to it as the one that will finally remove the stigma associated with game adaptations, and along the way perhaps help legitimize the concept of video games as art to non-gamers.
The series was co-created by Neil Druckmann, one of the key minds behind the game, and Craig Mazin, whose Chernobyl miniseries was one of the best shows of 2019. The first episode, written by Druckmann and Mazin and directed by Mazin, feels like something of a tug of war between the two men, or perhaps just between the two media. There are stretches that are just focused on Joel (played by Pedro Pascal from The Mandalorian) and his teenage daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) in the calm hours before the zombie storm, and later ones showing what life has become for Joel and all the other survivors in 2023. Then there are action sequences that Mazin shoots in a POV style, as if we are suddenly on Twitch or YouTube watching someone else play the game. There’s a lengthy chase, for instance, where Joel, Sarah, and Joel’s brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) are driving out of town as carnage rages all around them, and it’s hard to resist the feeling that you should have a controller in your hand to choose which way they should turn next.
That first episode is competently made and has some harrowing moments. But as a non-gamer(*), I didn’t come out of it understanding why so many of my friends had been so excited to see this specific show materialize. Quickly, though, two things happen. The first is that Mazin and the show’s other directors stop trying to ape the visual language of a game, so that when violence happens, it feels like a filmed action sequence, and not like a level you’re not allowed to play yourself.
(*) Even in my younger years, I was at best a button-masher, and thus smiled at a scene in a later episode where we see a friend tell Ellie to just start pushing buttons when they get an old Mortal Kombat II arcade game to work.
The second and more important development is that Druckmann and Mazin soon begin to go deeper on these characters, and have assembled such a terrific group of actors to play them, that The Last of Us becomes at least as engrossing in its quiet moments as in its scary ones — and arguably more so when it’s just focusing on who these people are rather than the dangers they are running from.
In many ways, the show is a triumph of typecasting. Once again, Pedro Pascal is playing an action hero of few words who has to lead a cute young charge through hostile territory. He’s joined by fellow Game of Thrones alum Bella Ramsey, and if her Ellie is far warmer and funnier than underaged House Stark ally Lyanna Mormont, Ramsey is nonetheless again playing a girl who has had to grow up far too soon, and participate in far too much violence, due to the circumstances of the broken world around her. But even though the two of them are playing the kinds of roles they’ve handled before, they do it spectacularly well; both are compulsively watchable and almost instantly endearing. Ramsey carries a metric ton of emotional weight without any apparent effort, but also brings a lot of lightness to what could be an oppressively grim story. Though Ellie has lived her entire life in this terrible reality, she knows about life before the zombies and enjoys getting to occasionally experience things from the before times, and she has a winning, if corny, sense of humor. (Her most treasured possession is a book of puns.) And Pascal shows just how much his face can say whenever it’s freed from Mando’s helmet. His Texas accent drifts in and mostly out, but his expressiveness is so palpable that it doesn’t matter.
Almost everyone is cast in such familiar but effective fashion. The third episode, for instance, spotlights the relationship between misanthropic doomsday prepper Bill and gregarious lover of the finer things Frank. It’s hard to imagine two more obvious choices to play them than, respectively, Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett. But it’s also hard to imagine two actors who could possibly do it better — to make Bill and Frank feel fully lived-in and sympathetic and lovely in the space of only a single episode(*), which is the (admittedly very) early frontrunner for the best TV installment of 2023. Melanie Lynskey turns up for a while as the leader of a heavily-armed militia, a ruthless woman with the demeanor of a disappointed third grade teacher — aka, the kind of duality she’s displayed throughout her career, and especially on Yellowjackets. All of the casting — including Anna Torv as Joel’s partner Tess — functions as useful shorthand for each character, so we can get to the emotional heart of things.
(*) Said episode is 76 minutes long, which ordinarily signals something sluggish and self-indulgent. Instead, it earns every one of those minutes, working better precisely because of how much time we get to spend with Bill and Frank. And, perhaps to compensate, the next one is only 46 minutes. Regardless of individual length, none of the episodes feel like they are overstaying their welcome.
Which isn’t to say that The Last of Us is aiming to be high art. It is essentially a smarter and much better-executed The Walking Dead, with higher production values(*), and a smaller and stronger cast. (I never had a problem with Andrew Lincoln, but the upgrade from him to Pedro Pascal in such a story cannot be overstated.) In this world, the zombie plague involves a strain of mushrooms run amok due to climate change, which allows the makeup team to create a whole new, unsettling type of undead, where most of them (referred to as “infected”) have fungus growing over parts or all of their bodies. It’s very gross, and very scary.
(*) In the second episode, Joel, Tess, and Ellie arrive at an abandoned luxury hotel that’s partially flooded and overgrown with vegetation. Walking Dead would have had to linger in such a place for at least half a season to justify the cost of building the set; here, the characters spend about 10 minutes there before moving on.
But the character work soon becomes so potent that there are long stretches without any infected, and it doesn’t feel like the series is lacking in dramatic tension or memorable incident. There’s at least one action sequence where I was startled by the arrival of some zombies, because that episode had so thoroughly established the conflicts between the various human characters involved. In that sense, the post-apocalyptic tale it can sometimes resemble — especially in the more standalone episodes like Bill and Frank’s story, or a flashback to Ellie and her best friend Riley exploring a shopping mall — is HBO Max’s great Station Eleven.
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Though Ellie has learned a lot about the past from a school run by what’s left of the military, she still enjoys hearing Joel explain things to her. In one episode, he runs down the rules of football. “So basically,” she asks, “just moving in one direction.” He agrees, “Basically — but violent.” This is something of a metaphor for The Last of Us as a whole. It is extremely straightforward and simple in what it’s trying to do, but hard-hitting about it. I’ve never played the game, but Druckmann and Mazin have turned it into something that works incredibly well as a television show.
The Last of Us premieres January 15 on HBO, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the whole nine-episode first season.