As an almost foolproof rule, film and TV adaptations of video games are, well, pretty awful. So, imagine my surprise when I learned that not only does The Last of Us manage to feel fresh despite being the umpteenth version of a zombie/pandemic thriller, it also is, by some margin, the most successful video game adaptation ever.
Of course, those of us who gritted our teeth through Doom, Resident Evil, and Mortal Kombat know that being the best video game adaptation is pretty faint praise. To be honest (not being a gamer of any kind) I wasn’t even aware that HBO’s new hit series was based on a game, and when I found out, I was stunned.
The show had a high enough hurdle to clear by being a zombie story variant, but as I read somewhere online, The Last of Us is like The Walking Dead for smart people. A description that could be found offensive to those who love The Walking Dead (hey, I think the first few seasons of that show are a blast), but I do see what the comment is getting at. This Last of Us may not exactly turn the genre on its head, but it certainly elevates it with its patient and artful pacing, and is extremely well served by its leading man, Pedro Pascal.
At first it seems a bit strange to see Pascal (who’s been on quite a nice ascent since Game of Thrones) playing a former Desert Storm vet living in rural Massachusetts when all zombie breaks loose, but he is immediately credible from the jump as a man raising his teenage daughter and doing handiwork to get by. It’s another reminder of why you should never underestimate actors. If the writing is good and the actor gifted, they will find a way.
Well, the writing is terrific, and so is Pascal. And as many times as it’s been done, the genre still has legs and life in it.
We first find Pascal in 2003 as a self-employed construction handyman type, raising his teenage daughter on his own. The show sets the stage in an almost bucolic fashion at first, but there’s a sense of the trouble that’s coming. The police seem unusually busy, as do the local paramedics.
When Pascal’s daughter goes to get his watch fixed for his birthday, the store owner’s wife suddenly pops out from the back saying they need to close four hours early and tells the young woman she should go home.
From there, all hell breaks loose. Infected people in the street are attempting to take a bite out of every neighbor they can get their teeth on. Jet fighters fly overhead, the roads are bottlenecked with those trying to flee, and the military is soon setting up checkpoints.
In a spectacular sequence, a plane falls from the sky, totaling the vehicle Pascal, his daughter, and his best friend are driving in. The loss of their vehicle leaves them injured and on foot and culminates in the tragic death of a character the viewer was likely anticipating being a major part of the series.
The Last of Us then jumps forward twenty years, revealing a dystopian future with a fascist America under what amounts to martial law. Eking out a desultory existence in a post-apocalyptic Boston that is overrun by foliage and wreckage, we find Pascal throwing dead bodies of the infected onto a pyre for work. At the end of the day, Pascal asks for more work and is told that tomorrow he can either sweep the streets or work in the sewers. He asks which job pays more and is told, “That’d be the one with the shit.”
You don’t get to enjoy that drily delivered laugh line for long, as the next thing we see are public hangings for those that have illegally left the quarantine area and come back.
When Pascal and his lover/partner (played in no-nonsense fashion by Anna Torv, who should really work more) discover a young girl (a terrific Bella Ramsey) being held by a resistance group called the Fireflies who has been infected, but is not symptomatic, hope for the future emerges. This begins a journey to get the girl to someone who might be able to create a vaccine.
While some of these plot points may seem like familiar tropes, The Last of Us proves that it’s not so much what you’re doing, but how you do it. And look, it’s early, I’m writing this piece based on just the first three episodes. There’s always the possibility this show could get stuck in the repetitive rut that eventually claimed The Walking Dead, but in these early stages, you can sense a more artful take on the genre. In some ways, the show has more in common with HBO’s terrific limited series Station Eleven. Well, Station Eleven minus the Shakespeare and plus scores of zombies.
Time will tell how well The Last of Us will hold up, but based on its strong start out of the gate, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic at this point.
Particularly notable is the inclusion of Nick Offerman as a survivalist and Murray Bartlett as his partner, both of whom show up in episode three. I wouldn’t go as far to say that Offerman’s playing a character wedged in for comic relief, but his unique mannerisms certainly add some much needed levity (however briefly) and eccentricity.
When Offerman is accused of thinking the government is run by Nazis by Bartlett, he replies, “The government is all run by Nazis!” Something his new partner concedes by saying, “Yeah, now, but not then.” It’s one of the few times I laughed out loud during the otherwise deeply grim series. That’s not to say that Offerman and Bartley’s storyline is full of jokes—far from it. In fact, episode three culminates in heartbreaking fashion. I would suspect when the show submits episodes for Emmy consideration, this third installment will lead the pack. It’s a truly devastating hour of television.
Just like with The Walking Dead, you might not want to get too attached to characters. Pascal presumably aside, everyone is a possibility to end up on the chopping block. A second seemingly major character meets their demise in episode two, and then another in episode three, which serves to further Pascal’s sense of isolation.
We’ll have to tune in from week to week to see if Pascal can keep his head while so many about him are having theirs turn into a blooming fungus. An effect that is every bit as horrifying as the show’s concept.
The Last of Us airs Sunday nights on HBOMAX