The Last of Us
Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, and Tess, played by Anna Torv, in The Last of Us. (Photo: HBO, Design: Archi Banal)

Pop CultureJanuary 17, 2023

The Last of Us is everything The Walking Dead wishes it could be

The Last of Us
Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, and Tess, played by Anna Torv, in The Last of Us. (Photo: HBO, Design: Archi Banal)

If you’re craving zombie carnage, look elsewhere – HBO’s excellent new apocalypse show isn’t really about the undead at all. 

This review was first published on The Spinoff’s weekly pop culture and entertainment newsletter Rec Room – sign up here.

In the abandoned foyer of a five-star hotel, nature has taken over. Ducks swim across a floor reclaimed by a waist-deep pond. Moss, algae and ferns cover shelves, tables, chairs and stairs. A short burst of piano soundtracks the scene. It comes from a small frog sitting on the discarded instrument’s keys, kicks from its damp legs accidentally concocting a cute little tune.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” shrieks Ellie, who’s just discovered the scene with her older mentors Joel and Tess in tow. At 14, she’s only ever known an apocalyptic world overrun by zombies. Hotels are a relic of the past she’s only ever read about in books, yet here’s one right in front of her, and her delight is obvious. As Ellie wades through the flooded foyer in jeans and a hoodie, she runs her hands through the disgusting water and smirks: “This is so gross.”

Her trip down memory lane is soon interrupted by reality. At the front desk, Ellie rings the bell and pretends to be a wealthy tourist. “I would like your finest room please,” she slurs in her best approximation of an adult. This disturbs the skeleton of the hotel’s bellhop and it splashes into the water beside her. Instantly, guns, then groans, are drawn from the grown-ups in charge. “You’re a weird kid,” quips Joel, Ellie’s reluctant father figure. “You’re a weird kid,” she spits back. 

Memories of the undead are everywhere in The Last of Us, the umpteenth apocalypse show to land on our TV screens. Flesh-eating zombies bite at necks and tear at flesh. Trapped “clickers” and “stalkers” inhabit abandoned homes and roam city streets. They shriek like demon banshees, hunting humans for a quick feast. “Bloaters” inflate to the size of small buildings and thud through city streets like nightmare versions of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. 

They’re there, but The Last of Us isn’t really about any of that. Instead, HBO’s big-budget adaptation of the 2013 Playstation video game, one many consider one of the best ever made, wisely focuses on Ellie, the tough-talking, wise-cracking, old-before-her-time survivor, played here to insubordinate perfection by Game of Thrones standout Bella Ramsey. She has plenty of gun and knife skills, and little time for idiots. She may also be carrying humanity’s last gasp inside her.

It’s also about Joel, a stubborn apocalypse veteran played by Pedro Pascal. Jaded and psychologically wounded, he’s hoping to collect a pay day by couriering Ellie through the apocalypse and into the hands of those who can help. For those who’ve played the game, or its ultra-violent 2020 sequel, you already know what happens next. It’s one of the best stories – and most shocking finales – across any pop culture medium of the past 10 years. There’s no need to spoil those surprises here. 

The Last of Us
Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, and Joel, played by Pedro Pascal, in The Last of Us. (Photo: HBO)

Wisely, The Last of Us spends most of its time with these two as they reluctantly trek across the American wasteland. The game’s beautifully tilted buildings, infected basements, abandoned hospitals and bombed cities are all present and correct. Because this is from Craig Mazin, the showrunner responsible for Chernobyl, another show about an apocalypse, The Last of Us looks incredible, a widescreen epic that should really be seen in movie theatres, not on phones or laptops. 

The action, when it happens, is intense, violent, and visceral. But it’s Joel and Ellie’s growing relationship that powers The Last of Us. It’s because of them, not zombies, that you’ll fall in love with it – possibly after episode two, definitely after episode three. That’s because the show also finds room for detours. Across that 71-minute episode, an apocalyptic love story plays out with barely a zombie in sight.

The TV wasteland is filled with the lifeless bodies of TV shows that can’t quite get this apocalypse thing right. Netflix’s Black Summer lasted two bloodthirsty seasons. Despite topping cable TV ratings for years, The Walking Dead got stuck on a farm in season two and never recovered. By the time Negan beat Glenn to death at the beginning of season seven, most hoped he was putting the final nail in the show’s bleak coffin. Others, including several Walking Dead spinoffs, have tried, and failed.

But that’s not the only obstacle The Last of Us overcomes. Precious few video game adaptations have lived up to their source material. “Can The Last of Us break the curse of bad video-game adaptations?” asked a recent New Yorker story. Yes, it can, and yes, it does. It is addictive apocalyptic viewing that feels eerily prescient, with early scenes of infections and hazmat suits reminiscent of early Covid times.

Right now, a mutating virus is an easily understandable concept to anyone who survived the last three years. Throw in a real, heartfelt relationship, gorgeous cinematography, and occasional zombie mayhem, and the results are compulsive, addictive viewing that are going to dominate the discourse over the next nine weeks.

The cast of The Walking Dead.

But by episode seven (all nine were provided to critics ahead of last night’s debut) The Last of Us proves it’s destined to be named among HBO’s greatest hits. Based on the video game’s 2014 add-on Left Behind, Ellie’s flashback episode spends most of its time exploring an abandoned mall. Yes, Mazin and co recreated an entire mall with working escalators, vacated stores, a video arcade and theme park rides.

Again, despite approaching zombie carnage, another love story emerges, one far more engaging than the shivs that end up slicing into limbs, torsos and faces. It makes what happens in episode nine all the more brutal. You will not emerge from this show unscathed.

That emotional resonance is the target most other zombie shows aim for, but failed to hit. This is far more Station Eleven than Resident Evil or The Walking Dead. No matter how much blood, guts and gore TV producers pour over their zombie apocalypses, it’s the beating heart underneath it all that really matters. The Last of Us zooms in on those moments time and again to remind us that, when things get bleak, there’s always something worth living for – even if it’s just a frog playing bad piano in a hotel swamp.

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