By Leah McDonald / January 19th, 2023
There’s few shows I’ve anticipated as much as I did HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us. I really loved both games – though clearly not to the same extent as some of the more hyperbolic takes on the series I’ve seen floating around – and I was excited to see how the story from the first would translate to television. Despite the narrative being straightforward in the cutscenes, I was curious to see how the writers would work around the gameplay elements and incorporate those moments of characterization and momentum into a less interactive format. I’m pleased to say that for the most part, they did an excellent job and the first episode has me hopeful they can keep up the quality.
The show opens on a 1960’s talk show where disease specialists are discussing a possible future superbug, and one of them brings up the possibility of a fungal infection that will decimate the human population should it ever occur. They run through a litany of culprits – including our good friend the cordyceps – before concluding that such an event would lead to humanity losing. I found the sequence a bit heavy handed and unneeded, but it laid the groundwork for the actual events of 2003 in a way someone unfamiliar with the canon could follow, so I understand its inclusion, even if I didn’t particularly care for it.
We then jump forward to Outbreak Day and get to spend time with Joel’s daughter, Sarah. In the game, we simply walk around as her as both a gameplay tutorial and an introduction to the disaster that’s about to unfold. In what I found to be a smart move, the show has us spend the entire day with her, from playfully bantering with her dad during breakfast, to her school day, and even her getting Joel’s watch fixed. She even spends time with her elderly neighbors. Throughout the day we begin to see more and more strange instances as things begin to go south, but Sarah doesn’t face the real horrors until the evening. The neighbor’s dog shows up at her house having escaped his, and when she goes to return him he runs away, terrified. Sarah goes inside to investigate and finds the grandmother chewing on her daughter, her son half-dead against a door. It’s our first encounter with an infected, and the grandma chases Sarah out of the house, only to have Joel there to save her. The rest of the sequence plays out like the game, including Sarah’s ultimate fate, and kudos to both Pedro Pascal (Joel) and Nico Parker (Sarah) for some superb performances.
I actually really liked the changes to this intro sequence. Gameplay had to be a factor in The Last of Us (game), but it doesn’t in The Last of Us (TV show), and so the writers could use that time to let us get to know Sarah a little more. We spent longer with her, saw more of hers and Joel’s normal life, and got to experience the growing sense of alarm and discomfort as the day went on. The moment that really got to me, personally, was when she was in school and one of her classmates started involuntarily twitching. It was a nice, subtle clue about what was coming, and let the TV show find something of its own voice.
At any rate, we cut ahead 20 years to the Boston Quarantine Zone and Joel is eking out a living doing odd jobs and smuggling pain pills on the side in order to buy a car battery to go find his brother Tommy (played by Gabriel Luna), who’s been incommunicado for a few days now. Tess (played by Anna Torv) gets roughed up by the men who stole their battery, and much like in the game, her and Joel head out to exact revenge. Unlike in the game, there’s no shootout in an old depot, because it turns out these goons tried to double cross the Fireflies and they annihilated each other in the shoot out. That’s the aftermath Joel and Tess stumble into, where they find Marlene (played by Merle Dandridge) shot and in need of help. She needs them to transport a young girl named Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey) to the outskirts of Boston and to the Fireflies waiting there. In return, the Fireflies will hook Joel up with everything he needs to go find Tommy. Without much of a choice, he agrees to the job, and our story is finally set into motion.
This episode hews remarkably close to the game in several ways, but takes the time to adapt the story for television in what I found were generally intelligent ways. Much like with the Sarah scenes, we get to see more of Ellie and Marlene’s interactions, as well as Joel’s relationship with the Boston security forces. The show takes its time to establish this world and the way citizens survive in the Quarantine Zone. We see public executions of those who broke the rules; we see that the security guards struggle with mental health after having to kill even infected children; Joel and others burn the bodies daily in open fire pits. It would be easy to rush to the meeting with Ellie, or throw Joel and Tess into a mess of infected as they go through the sewers to get their battery back, but it holds its cards close, and I think it’s better for it. The one instance of seeing an infected we do get is actually a pretty decent jump scare.
The show has also taken some liberties with the way the fungus infects humans. Rather than it be by spores, now it’s spindly tendrils that grow from an infected’s mouth. Not only is it visually more impactful, it gets around the issue the games had with why the spores on everyone’s clothing doesn’t immediately kill them the moment they take their gas masks off. We’ve yet to see any of the more iconic infected such as Clickers, Bloaters and Stalkers, but the previews for the season definitely tease their encounters, and I’m looking forward to the way the show handles them without needing to accommodate gameplay.
As far as adaptations go, this is definitely one of the better ones. The story stays true to the source material while adding enough to make it its own thing, and the casting is overall spot on. Ramsey and Pascal are the standouts here, but performances were strong across the board. I liked the way the show took its time to establish the characters and the setting, rather than running headlong into the fray with the infected. Here’s hoping the rest of the season keeps up this pace.
You can watch HBO’s The Last of Us here.
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