The Last of Us: A Tragically Human Zombie Show


Screengrab of Pedro Pascal in “The Last of Us” official trailer.

The Last of Us is one of the greatest video games of all time. Released in 2014 by Naughty Dog Studios, Neil Druckmann’s achingly poignant apocalypse story was immediately recognized as a towering achievement within the medium. A bleak action-adventure with hints of survival horror, The Last of Us took the tropes of a familiar genre and grounded them with incredibly nuanced writing. Few characters in games feel as human as those in The Last of Us, thanks in large part to realistic dialogue and soulful performances worthy of any great drama. 

Given the game’s mammoth success and undeniable impact on pop culture, a live-action adaptation was inevitable. The story was rife with potential, and The Last of Us has long been championed for its uniquely cinematic presentation and gameplay. However, it took nearly a decade for this brilliant narrative to hit the small screen, in no small part due to Hollywood’s spotty history with quality video game adaptations. Thankfully, shows like Castlevania, Cyberpunk Edgerunners, and Arcane have proven that games can translate into successful television shows, paving the way for HBO’s The Last of Us. 

Developed by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann himself, The Last of Us is both a faithful adaptation of a great story and a brilliant expansion upon the original narrative. The world has fallen to ruin amidst a dangerous pandemic, overrun with mutated zombies suffering from an incurable plague. Society has turned to fascism, with the government maintaining control through sheer brutality. In the face of tyranny, a lone rebel group desperately fights for a cure and civil liberty. Branded as terrorists, they call themselves “the fireflies.” 

Pedro Pascal stars as Joel Miller, a hardened smuggler struggling to survive amidst this brutal post-apocalypse. Jaded and cynical, he’s an immoral man coming to terms with a tragic loss, barely maintaining his humanity in the wake of unimaginable grief. His latest job leaves him looking after Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a snarky young girl with a fierce independent streak. Ellie is mysteriously immune to the plague infecting the nation, and Joel must take her to the fireflies in hopes of finding a cure. The two embark on an emotional journey across the country, facing inhuman horrors both alive and undead.  

This is a bleak depiction of life after the end, taking place in a brutally violent world where we’ve given into our worst impulses as a species. Death, savagery, and moral decay plague the human race, with little room for hope in a country one bad day away from complete anarchy. However, the beauty in this show lies in its underlying humanity, for Mazin and Druckmann avoid the temptation of misery porn in favor of intimate, character-centric drama. 

The Last of Us is most certainly not a show for the faint of heart, for Joel and Ellie’s trek across the country pits them against flesh-eating corpses and vicious human raiders. However,  Mazin and Druckmann aren’t interested in exploiting this setting for gory spectacle. Many episodes downplay the violence in favor of a more emotional pay off, favoring reaction shots over grisly carnage. 

 The directors aren’t interested in using savagery as a source of entertainment, instead showing how our characters are affected by the violence they bear witness too. In fact, some of the game’s most shocking scenes are reworked to imply barbarity rather than show it. It’s a subtle cinematic choice, but an incredibly effective one. Every death hits extremely hard on this show because we see exactly how such loss impacts our protagonists. 

Of course, such a humanist approach to violence would be frivolous without the support of three-dimensional characters. Thankfully, The Last of Us provides viewers with a cast rich in depth, courtesy of Mazin’s impeccable writing and brilliant performances all across the board. Pedro Pascal delivers a guarded, perfectly understanded performance, hiding volcanic anger and deep sadness behind a steadfast emotional barrier. Yet despite the intense nature of his performance, he refuses to sacrifice the role’s vulnerability. Equal parts delightful and gut-wrenching, Pascal’s chemistry with Bella Ramsey allows him to slowly peel back the layers of Joel’s humanity, and it’s absolutely riveting.

Bella Ramsey in “The Last of Us.” Screengrab from the official trailer.

Ramsey proves to be an even more impressive stand out as Ellie, doing the character justice while still providing their own unique take on the part. Their comedic timing is pitch perfect, but they still bring a lot of raw emotion to the show’s heaviest scenes. Ellie is ultimately a young soul doomed to lose her innocence to the world around her, and Ramsey illustrates that struggle beautifully. Yet through all of the pain and torment Ellie endures, Ramsey never lets go of the character’s inner warmth. It’s truly award worthy work and provides the show with a strong emotional center. 

While Ramsey and Pascal get the lion’s share of screentime, The Last of Us is packed with several tremendous guest stars throughout the season. The supporting cast includes an effortlessly likable Storm Reid, magnetically intense work from Anna Torv, and an especially chilling turn from Scott Shepherd.

 Lamar Johnson and Keivonn Montreal Woodard make a hell of an impression in a two-part story arc, providing a tear jerking parallel to Joel’s own dynamic with Ellie. And of course, it’s impossible not to mention Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett’s Emmy-worthy guest roles in the show’s best episode, “Long Long Time,” a spellbinding romance that makes the most of two poetically-sensitive performances.

The Last of Us is refreshing both in terms of video game adaptations and television in general. Its approach to violence is a much needed breath of fresh air, eschewing shallow ultra-violence in favor of nuanced characterization. While part of me wishes that some episodes took a few more risks in terms of expanding upon the source material, it’s hard to complain when the end result is this emotionally resonant. So if you are interested in experiencing this story (and you absolutely should be), both the show and game are absolutely incredible ways to do so.