I played the PS4 game The Last of Us just long enough to come to two conclusions: one, that its violent, unsettling action would be way too difficult and terrifying for me to get through, and two, that it was some of the best video game storytelling I’d ever seen. Because of the former, I didn’t experience much of the latter. Fortunately, the compelling narrative core of The Last of Us translates nicely to the small screen in HBO’s recent adaptation. Building off the winning chemistry of its central duo, it spins a compelling, sustained yarn of post-apocalyptic adventure, while also using its primary narrative as a springboard for memorable, anthology-style standlone episodes.
In 2003, when a devastating fungal infection escalates into a zombie apocalypse, rugged contractor Joel (Pedro Pascal) loses his daughter in the ensuing panic. Twenty years later, in Boston, Joel and his partner Tess (Anna Torv) are smugglers, staying under the radar of FEDRA, a controlling authority whose stabilizing influence comes with a side of oppressive crisis fascism. By chance, Joel and Tess get entangled with the Fireflies, an underground resistance group, just as they’re attempting to smuggle a young girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) out of the city. A deal is made, and Joel and Tess take Ellie into their care, quickly coming to learn that Ellie’s unprecedented immunity to the zombie plague may be the key to humanity’s future. But as their journey progresses, Joel’s mercenary guardianship of Ellie gradually transforms, the haunting losses of his past inspiring him to new levels of paternal devotion.
There are plenty of reasons The Last of Us has been one of the most buzzworthy shows of recent memory. Pascal may be one of the most genuinely likable actors working today, and he quickly develops a fine rapport with Ramsey, whose feisty humor serves as a great counterpoint to his awkward, reluctant heroism. The show doesn’t work without them, but it also gets exceptional mileage out of its strategy of diverging from their journey to tell one-off stories that flesh out of the dark realities of the scenario. Indeed, the third episode, “Long, Long Time,” is something of a masterpiece, chronicling the backstory of Joel and Tess’s friends Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), whose loving relationship is an early ray of light on this bleak other when. There’s also the effective “Left Behind,” which flashes back to Ellie’s crucial friendship with Riley (Storm Reid), a relationship that adds context and nuance to her character’s struggles in the present track. This restless willingness to branch off from the primary quest provides new levels of depth to the narrative—something that really pops against the plot-advancing, problem-solving sequences in the A story which cheekily nod at video-game logistics.
So yes, the show does more than enough to warrant being part of the conversation, but all that positive hype may also leave a sense of it being overrated. It isn’t exactly breaking new ground: as a survivalist drama, in its science fictional world-building, int its horror techniques. It executes all these elements adroitly, but isn’t reinventing modern television across multiple genres. But it’s still a worthwhile watch, gorgeously produced and mindfully messaged, anchored by the chemistry and connection of Pascal and Ramsey.