The Last of Us
Impactful characters, evocative storytelling, edge-of-your-seat action and clickers — these are the elements that fans of Naughty Dog’s 2013 hit-video game “The Last of Us” were hoping for when HBO Max announced a show adaptation in June 2020. Nearly three years later, showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have delivered one of the greatest video game adaptations in television history.
“The Last of Us” tells the story of a broken man, Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), and his trans-continental journey with a young girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey), twenty years after the Cordyceps fungus started to infect humans and nearly ended all of civilization. Ellie is immune to Cordyceps, and in an effort to potentially save humankind, Firefly leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge) tasks Joel with escorting Ellie to a safe house just outside of the quarantine zone. What starts as a simple drop-off mission for the two turns into a dangerous trek across the country where Joel and Ellie need to survive against raiders, cult leaders and, of course, the infected.
As with any adaptation, Mazin and Druckmann had the difficult task of trying to stay loyal to the original story while still incorporating new methods better suited for television. Druckmann, co-president of Naughty Dog and one of the original creators of the video game, masterfully treaded this thin line with Mazin. While not exactly a carbon copy of the game, the show does exactly what every video game adaptation should do: it captures the heart and essence of the story while expanding upon certain aspects inadequately developed in the source material. The writing does not sacrifice any of the original merits while still adding development and value to the characters.
A prime example of Mazin and Druckmann’s brilliant craftsmanship comes during episode three, “Long, Long Time,” directed by Peter Hoar. The episode tells the story of two lovers, Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), who meet by chance after Cordyceps has shut down the world. In the video game, players will meet Bill and follow him to get a truck, and that’s essentially the only experience players have with Bill. However, in the show, Mazin and Druckmann took this opportunity to explore the characters of Bill and Frank and delve deep into their relationship throughout the apocalypse. This episode is perhaps when “The Last of Us” is at its best, depicting the visceral beauty of love and relationships when the world has fallen apart. Bill and Frank’s story is further brought to life by two brilliant performances by Offerman and Bartlett, as they explore and encapsulate the relationship and dependency of two men with nothing left aside from one another.
Aside from Offerman and Bartlett, “The Last of Us” features several more talented performances. Other side characters like Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard), whose story is prominently told in episode five, “Endure and Survive,” directed by Jeremy Webb, deliver an incredible story of the bond between two brothers. Pascal is brilliant at capturing the spirit of Joel, who comes to take up the mantle of Ellie’s surrogate father. His arc and development from the very start of the outbreak to the end of his journey with Ellie are grounded and powerful.
However, the star of the show would have to be Ramsey’s portrayal of Ellie. From the very first episode, Ramsey brilliantly portrays the seemingly-abrasive Ellie with subtle nuances that draw the audience into a much deeper and more complex character. The eighth episode, “When We Are in Need,” directed by Ali Abbasi, is when Ramsey shines as the perfect casting for Ellie. After Joel is temporarily taken out, Ellie now needs to fend for herself while ensuring Joel’s safety, a task nearly impossible for a 14-year-old, let alone during the apocalypse while being hunted by a nefarious and vile cult leader. Ramsey delivers a truly groundbreaking performance as a young child forced to suddenly and drastically mature under extreme circumstances. The growth of Joel and Ellie’s relationship over the course of the season is a true marvel, delivered masterfully by Pascal and Ramsey.
At its core, “The Last of Us” is a very simple story about love and how it can trump any and all rationalities. Foreshadowed several times throughout the duration of the show — Bill and Frank’s relationship, as well as Henry and Sam’s — the story of Joel and Ellie depicts the extreme lengths that one can go to for the sake of love. With a second season already announced and in development, fans may need to wait a while to see the continuation of Joel and Ellie’s story. In the meantime, the first season of “The Last of Us” provides plenty of thrills and a heartfelt story for viewers to enjoy.