Endure and Survive: ‘The Last of Us’ Season One Review

The first season of HBO’s most beloved show since Game of Thrones recently wrapped up and The Last of Us has become the greatest video game adaptation of all time by managing to hit every emotional beat of the original game, expanding on its groundbreaking narrative and building anticipation and speculation for future seasons. With production of the second season expected to begin by the end of 2023, let’s look back and examine the first season and break down its emotional highlights and moments that were thoroughly shocking.

Fans of the game had sky high expectations when HBO announced their intentions to adapt the game into a series after many rumors of a feature film adaptation that ultimately went nowhere. Enter Craig Mazin, creator of the revolutionary HBO miniseries Chernobyl as well as the original game’s creator, Neil Druckmann worked together to craft a nine-episode first season that did not disappoint. For starters, the attention to detail is off the charts; from the outfits the characters are wearing, the landscapes and the expanded details including how the infection initially spread, the relationship between Bill and Frank and the nature of David’s group all come together to make this world feel more ground and realistic than the game could not achieve. It is staggering to see Joel and Ellie drive across the ruined landscape of the United States and pick up on little details like road sings, abandoned cars and sunken ships. The show manages to feel even more like the epic journey shown in the game as the two protagonists move from Boston, Kansas City, Jackson, Colorado and Utah. It is a sprawling epic that feels grand thanks to the scale of the production.

Part of the allure of the world in The Last of Us is how grounded and real it feels in each episode. With the world having experienced a pandemic in real time in 2020, audiences are able to draw on those experiences and fill in their own blanks regarding how this world devolved into the hellscape shown 20 years after the outbreak. This allure is only aided thanks to the performances of its stars, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. The Game of Thrones alums make for an interesting dynamic and have some of the best character arcs in all of storytelling. Joel’s journey from grieving father to hardened survivor then somehow back to a caring man is beautiful and feels powerful due to Pascal’s authenticity and honesty in each episode’s performance. Pascal purposely avoided playing the game so as to avoid being influenced by the performance of original actor, Troy Baker but Pascal still managed to make Joel his own. Lines of dialogue are not merely imitated but given their own nuance and feel natural to the flow of the episodes. Facial and hand movements are not choreographed, they have their own language. Joel is not a brutal man but is not afraid to use violence and in spite of his efforts to bury his feelings, he cannot help but feel vulnerable. His monologue in the sixth episode, “Kin” is a perfect portrayal of non-toxic masculinity and shows a man who simply cannot stand to fail once more in the face of 20 years of awful memories. In spite of the growth Joel has experienced in caring for Ellie, he embarks on a monstrous killing spree to save her and tells the most horrific lie he could imagine to cover up this terrible deed.

Countering Pascal’s brilliant is the equally brilliant performance of Bella Ramsey as Ellie. She has grown up in this world without any knowledge of the old world but has lived with only her FEDRA orphanage to care for her. She believes her life has been hard and that is not to say it has not but to echo one of the most poignant moments of the game and show, she has no idea what loss means in this world. Ellie is the innocence that only reminds Joel of his dead daughter but Ellie manages to hold her own. Much like Pascal, Ramsey takes an iconic character and provides her own portrayal meant to stand apart from the game. There is no imitation of dialogue and every moment she was onscreen week after week further convinced audiences that she was the absolute perfect choice to play the ferocious survivor. It is safe to assume that Ramsey will continue to play the character heading into the second season and any suggestion to the contrary should be met with the appropriate amount of derision. Creators Mazin and Druckmann have each made public declarations of their desire for Ramsey to return for future seasons.

As each episode was released, Pascal and Ramsey became a powerful duo but much like Game of Thrones, the supporting characters were just as memorable and their performances were on par with that of their main counterparts. Characters like Sarah, Tess, Bill, Marlene, David, Maria and Tommy not only made it from the game into the show but they were expanded upon in the show’s narrative. Bill and his partner Frank received their own touching episode in what I affectionately call “The Last of Up” (the episode is really called “Long, Long Time”) and set the stage for what Joel had to be prepared to do the protect the ones he loves. Tess’s relationship to Joel as business and romantic partners were confirmed and we see just how much Sarah means to Joel in the brief 20 – 25 minutes she was onscreen for the opening episode. By far though, the most compelling and disturbing character expansion is that of cult leader David who looks like a post-apocalyptic version of Toby from The Office. He is violent, sadistic, manipulative and conniving yet somehow manages to be more terrifying than any variety of infected that exists out in the world. Every episode seemed to be full of expansion but the stand out was the seventh episode titled “Left Behind” which featured Ellie’s best friend and crush, Riley and showed how Ellie discovered her immunity to the cordyceps infection.

This expansion was not limited to the human characters as the infected are more terrifying and dangerous than they were in the game. The basic infected, runners, are numerous and can be killed but the clickers, who have been infected for several years are incredibly dangerous. An encounter with one of them is usually not survivable but the bloater, the most dangerous and powerful of the infected is basically unkillable during the show. There are additional varieties seen in the second game that have yet to make an appearance. There are stalkers, fast infected who can hide and ambush their prey; shamblers, who can release an acid bomb directly from their skin but the deadliest and largest infected, the Rat King, could possibly not make an appearance in the second season for the reason that if the bloaters cannot be killed, then the Rat King will be impossible to stop save for a missile strike. It would certainly be an exciting portion of the second game to include in a future season but Mazin and Druckmann are taking a grounded approach to their show so an impossibly large monster may not be feasible for their vision of the show. In addition to the indestructible quality of some of the more dangerous infected, they are more connected than before as a hive mind and can alert other groups to find pretty or to reinforce a group that is under attack. These infected are clearly more dangerous than their portrayal in the games and with a third game potentially on the horizon, it is possible more variants could be shown and incorporated into future seasons.

For those familiar with the game, the beats were familiar but the diversions were welcome. The aforementioned third episode, “Long, Long Time” should not be considered a filler episode. The complexities of Bill and Frank’s relationship was a ripe territory to expand and explore during the course of the show and Bill’s desire to protect the one person he cannot live without in the face of a world that cannot allow love to flourish is heartwarming and does well to set up the struggles of not just Henry and his relationship with Sam but also Tommy and Maria as lead a community in Jackson and culminating in Joel’s terrible decision to slaughter dozens of Fireflies to save Ellie.

While the second season and likely a third season will not be happening for a while, the impact of Joel’s decision is going to be a major factor for those storylines. Those familiar with the game series know what happens as Ellie discovered the truth about the events in the hospital and has cut Joel out of her life in Jackson. While Joel ultimately pays the price for his choice, Ellie embarks on a revenge tour to end all revenge tours. The second game is a brutal exploration of the violence inflicted upon us and how it molds our decisions but also how forgiveness can only be found when we have nothing else left. Ellie knows what it is like to lose people but she does not know what it is like to lose hope. Having to shoot Riley after she became infected certainly gave her a glimpse of the type of person she will need to become in order to survive in this world but she will need to make her own way.

Now that its first season is wrapped up, The Last of Us represents a landmark moment for video game adaptations with its attention to detail, appreciation for the original story, willingness to explore new areas and ability to connect to a wide audience. It is a story that feels new for fans of the game and approachable for newcomers. Those disappointed in the lack of infected or action should be aware that story takes precedence; flashy action sequences or the scariest of monsters does not equal a great story. See the last several seasons of The Walking Dead if you still disagree with my point. Even in this dire world, The Last of Us remains a story about love, perseverance and the lengths people will go in order to protect that love. The Last of Us will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the best series of all time but we will have to endure and survive the wait for the next season.

VERDICT: 5 knives out of 5

Featured Image Credit courtesy of HBO