The Last of Us Season One (HBO)
Written by Craig Mazin & Neil Druckmann
Directed by Craig Mazin, Neil Druckmann, Peter Hoar, Jeremy Webb, Jasmila Žbanić, Liza Johnson, and Ali Abbasi
Media has conditioned us to think the “end of the world” will be explosively catastrophic. Think of the movies of Roland Emmerich or the Skynet awakening of James Cameron’s Terminator films. The reality is collapse is a rolling event; it begins in the corners of the developing world and inches its way toward the imperial core. This could take place over any amount of time, but it is guaranteed that all civilizations collapse at some point. The Biblical story of Noah’s flood, an event that also pops up in various other cultures, was probably just a localized flood that devastated the region. Over time it was exaggerated, and details were added. If the collapse hasn’t reached you yet, when it does, you might not even notice it. When you take in the weight of it all, you may wish for some big explosive moment instead of the dull, soul-crushing march that lies before you.
Joel (Pedro Pascal) lost everything when the pandemic came. Twenty years later, the United States is fractured, and Joel lives in the Boston Quarantine Zone (QZ). This and the other QZs around the country are controlled by FEDRA (Federal Disaster Response Agency). Joel and his partner Tess (Anna Torv) make their living as smugglers, bringing contraband goods into the QZ. However, a deal to buy an old car battery goes sour when the Fireflies buy it out from Joel & Tess. The Fireflies are a resistance network attempting to overthrow the fascistic FEDRA agents that terrorize citizens. Joel & Tess go to get the battery back but find the Fireflies involved in something that could change the world instead. It all concerns a teenage girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) who could save humanity from the fungal plague that has put it on life support.
I did not think I was going to enjoy The Last of Us. I was familiar with the story as I’d watched a YouTube playthrough when it first came out. The gameplay wasn’t my style, but the story was well done. It had the kind of bleak, heart-sinking ending I enjoy in a narrative. I didn’t start watching the HBO series until the entire season aired, so I saw much hype leading into my viewing. For the first three episodes, I was not very impressed. I couldn’t get a sense of what the show was doing other than recreating many beats from the game. It’s not a bad story to copy verbatim, but the show felt like a video game. The dialogue was rough, especially from Ellie early on. Some people talked about sobbing their eyes out watching the third episode, “Long, Long Time,” but I felt it was very heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative. I didn’t believe in the chemistry in the central relationship, and I also wondered why this was the only episode outside of the pilot that was feature-length.
The show began to improve for me in episode Four, “Please Hold to My Hand,” when Joel & Ellie reach Kansas City. The pair are ambushed by bandits, and Ellie saves Joel’s life by shooting an assailant. We’re introduced to Kathleen, played by the incredible Melanie Lynskey. This was when I started to like this show more because we began to spend time with someone on the opposite side of the conflict. At first, we understand that our protagonists have entered a community with all its own conflicts going on. I appreciated how the writers didn’t immediately jump to a flashback or use clunky exposition to catch the audience up. It was our job to pay attention and try and fill in the blanks as Kathleen interrogates an old doctor.
I also appreciate how Kathleen goes against the character you would expect in this leadership role in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Yet, we are seeing how people that look like her can be just as single-mindedly evil & cruel. Check out many school board meetings nationwide with reactionary groups with names like Mad Moms Who Hate Learning or Liberty Ladies That Have No Solidarity with Other Women. They are some nasty people who have no problem watching marginalized groups get straight-up killed. Episode Five started perfectly, giving us a brief flashback that filled in a few details. We see the city on the night the people overthrew the FEDRA agents. You might think this is a night of celebration, and it is. They spend the night torturing, murdering, and then parading the dead bodies of the agents around the city. Kathleen meanwhile rounds up FEDRA collaborators and offers them a deal to rat on who she is looking for in exchange for their lives. You don’t think she will hold that deal up, right?
In that episode, we get an excellent conversation between Kathleen and her right hand, where we learn about her late brother. He had been the leader of the Kansas City resistance and had pushed for a non-sadistic solution to the abuses of FEDRA. We get more details about what the last twenty years have been like in this place, rife with torture & rape at the hands of the military dictators in control. Is it any surprise that two decades of inhumane treatment resulted in a city full of rabid, rancorous people? Violent systems produce violent people. So, while the audience can understand why Kathleen is how she is, we also understand that the long-term effects of such savagery will mean society is incapable of caring for everyone. Kathleen’s understandable hate for people that collaborated with FEDRA is understandable. Yet, getting the other side from one collaborator shows how much more complicated the situation is. It also highlights how a dearth of solidarity leads to a hopeless situation.
The next pair of episodes I really liked were numbers 7 & 8. These episodes have Joel out of commission, and Ellie placed in the caretaker role. They hole up in an abandoned neighborhood in Utah. Episode 7, “Left Behind,” is primarily an Ellie flashback episode which helped me warm up much more to the character. Again, I don’t think Ramsey did a lousy job; I don’t believe the script was doing them any favors in the early part of the season. However, as the layers have been peeled back, we get a really nuanced performance out of Ramsey, going through a host of emotions while she experiences her first feelings of love.
If I had to choose, I would pick episode 8, “When We Are In Need,” as my favorite of these two. This is mainly due to guest star Scott Shepherd as David, the leader of a struggling community living in a lakeside resort. David was a schoolteacher who has now become a religious zealot. However, he is written & played as someone oozing with authentic charisma. He never comes across as schmaltzy & artificial, which, in turn, is what makes him such a scary antagonist. David doesn’t explode with unrelenting violence. We see him questioned, which results in a brutal backhand to the person but is immediately followed by him comforting the person. It has all the hallmarks of a cult leader gaslighting his confused followers. This episode also leads to one of Ellie’s best scenes in the series, when she has her final confrontation with David. Bella Ramsey nails the performance.
If you know the story from the video game, there are only a few surprises here. All the plot beats people liked from the first game are here. I do wonder where the show will go in a second season. I won’t spoil anything from the second game, but I suspect if they followed that route, it would result in some furious viewers. They may begin the journey toward that story but delay the part that will piss people off. I would be more interested in less of a recreation of story beats from the game and more original tales about these characters in this world. The Last Of Us is a procedural disguised as a prestige serial show. You have your traveler characters and the one to two-episode conflicts they encounter. It’s a template that provides a blank canvas to tell many stories without radically changing the main characters while still leaving the option open. I don’t think The Last of Us will be my favorite show of 2023, but it definitely made the list.