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Review: ‘The Last of Us’ Is a Stunning Adaptation

Review: ‘The Last of Us’ Is a Stunning Adaptation

I could have watched the opening episode to HBO’s The Last of Us adaptation a million times over. 

And I know how cliché that sounds, so let me explain.

I mean that I could have sat and appreciated the stunning visual effects illustrating the end of days for hours on end. I could have pondered for days how seamlessly co-writers and executive producers Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us video game series) translate the source material to the screen. And the thing is, The Last of Us video game was well-written. If Mazin and Druckmann had decided, there likely would have been no problem from the most hardcore fans with doing a nearly shot-for-shot remake. Those of us (like myself) who never played the game series likely wouldn’t have known any better, and the less imaginative, more fundamentalist members of the fanbase would probably have appreciated Hollywood not changing things up for the sake of changing things up.

But they did change some things — added some characters, expanded upon the backstories of others, and even changed the arcs of a couple of them — and the series is only stronger for it. I can’t say if it is better than the original game series or not (conversations discussing the merit of adaptations seem to forget that diverse media have differing qualifications for what makes something “good” or “bad”) but I know this is damn good television.

The series revolves around Joel (Pedro Pascal), a hard-nosed survivor, and 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) as they make their way through the remains of an America that fell to an apocalyptic, zombifying pandemic that began twenty years before the series’ main plot. Ellie, a brash orphan and conscripted student at a Quarantine Zone military academy, discovers that she is immune to the Cordycep virus, a fungal infection that has left 60% of Earth’s population dead or mutated and the rest as victims or victimizers in an anarchic landscape. This discovery puts her in the sights of Marlene (Merle Dandridge, reprising her role from the video game), a revolutionary member of the Fireflies resistance movement that hopes a cure will end all the madness and free Quarantine Zone denizens from oppressive rule under the fascistic FEDRA military government and reinstate democracy. To accomplish this, Marlene puts Ellie under the care of Joel, a scavenger and trader who has a murky past and can’t let go of a personal tragedy.

Pascal and Ramsey shine in their roles as Joel and Ellie, respectively.

There’s not enough room in this article to explain how well they play off of one another, how effortless their chemistry is, how genuinely funny they can both be. Pascal fans and detractors alike will likely joke this is his second time playing a gruff, loner-type antihero charged with caring for a powerful and precocious last hope, but, hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Even when his Texan accent feels a little shaky, his ability to emote is always firmly on point. 

Joel is hesitant to be vulnerable with anyone, from Ellie to his partner in crime (and perhaps more) Tess (Anna Torv). He has seen bad things, and he has done bad things, and, twenty years after the beginning of the end of the world, he just wants to survive, though even he doesn’t seem sure why. Perhaps it’s just instinct. Joel’s focus is on subsistence, eking by with odd jobs, painkillers, and whiskey. Indeed, he’s written like a slightly younger, slightly less grizzled William Munny; he’s killed just about everything that walks or crawls at one time or another, but he’s trying to atone for his past. 

And then there’s Ellie. Sure, there are times when the precocity level threatens to reach critical mass in Ellie’s characterization, but Bella Ramsey is a talented, charismatic, and nuanced enough actor that we never feel overwhelmed with Ellie’s quips and banter. Indeed, even her most MCU-worthy jokes are balanced out by her moments of genuine vulnerability. She is a “tough kid” but not in any artificial sense; she’s a child born into a brutal world and she has to mirror this coarseness or else be torn apart. And I don’t just mean figuratively. Watch her act out her character’s first time in a car in the series’ third episode: “It’s like a spaceship,” she says (“more like a POS Chevy S10,” Joel responds). We believe that this child has never been inside a truck. Sure, FEDRA has military vehicles, so she’s aware of the technology, but she hasn’t had the pleasure of being inside one, especially in the front seat with control of the sideview mirrors and these fascinating things called “seatbelts.” It’s a wonder to watch, and I’ll be shocked if neither Pascal nor Ramsey receives an Emmy nomination.

Speaking of Emmy noms, the supporting cast should think of buying tuxes and dresses in preparation for awards season. There’s Nick Offerman (Parks and Rec) and Murray Bartlett (Welcome to Chippendales) as Bill and Frank, two isolated survivalists making trying to make the best of a bad situation in what might prove to be the most divisive (and likely best) episode of the season. Then there’s Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), leader of a retaliatory “people’s” government in Kansas City that is hunting down former FEDRA members and collaborators like Lamar Johnson’s Henry and his little brother Sam (Keivonn Woodard). Finally, there’s David (Scott Shepard), a preacher for whom God’s will is suspiciously coincident with his own. 

Like everyone in this new world (and, hey, the current one, too), these characters do bad things for seemingly good reasons, and each has their own series of rationalizations to quiet their conscience. In all, every character, from main to supporting role, seems to illustrate this point: morality exists on a sliding scale, and, in times of crisis, the cost of rectitude may be far too high. 

The Last of Us is great television that will likely catch flack for two things. One will be its occasionally formulaic plot. It’s a zombie show, so there will, of course, be people that get bitten but hide it, doomed sidekicks we love until they’re chomped up, and doomed villains we love to see chomped up. One doesn’t have to be familiar with this game in particular to predict the beats many episodes contain. 

The other, far more useless complaints will be from the same people-with-questionable-values that review bombed The Last of Us Part 2 before that game was even released, people that crow about “SJW this” and “woke that.” Yes, Joel is now played by a Chilean-American rather than a “traditional” white man. And this will rile up internet people that feel this fundamentally changes the character or, worse (*gasp*), makes him “diverse,” a word the far right now believes means anti-white. I don’t know what to tell those people other than, “How did you find this site?” and “Get over it.” 

Good television is good television, and this is certainly that. 

The Last of Us premieres Sunday, January 15, 2023, at 9pm ET/PT on HBO and HBO Max.

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