I’m not one to gravitate toward a television series based on a video game, but I’ve looked over Owen’s shoulder a few times while he played “The Last of Us,” got absorbed in that story world, and then became interested in checking out the HBO series by the same time. I’m glad I did.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world mostly destroyed by zombie-like humans who have been infected with a fungus called cordyceps, “The Last of Us” is a classic story combining two plot archetypes: ‘The Quest’ with ‘Road Trip.’
Through a nine-episode first season, Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler in Boston’s quarantine zone run by the feds, is recruited by a group called the Fireflies to transport 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to Salt Lake City, where researchers are seeking a potential cure to the monstrous fungus. Ellie is the only person known to be immune to cordyceps, and she may hold the key to saving humankind.
The journey, of course, is perilous. There are the zombies and survivalist raiders to fight, and the harsh natural environment to overcome. At first, Joel is resentful of having to escort Ellie, who is sassy and lively but reminds him too much of his own daughter who was killed at the beginning of the pandemic twenty years earlier, during the first episode.
As the series progresses and Joel and Ellie make their way west, Joel’s character undergoes significant change, and his goal of getting Ellie to the scientists transforms into the goal of staying with and protecting Ellie at all costs. For her part, Ellie wants to stay with Joel, but she also understands the importance of her role as the one immune person.
The series is packed with tension and at times the kind of kill-everyone-in-your-path tactics of shooter-based video games. The last episode in particular, with Joel mowing down everyone, including doctors and scientists, who stands in his way of rescuing Ellie, is particularly game-like. But he’s got a good reason for unleashing death on their supposed allies in the fungus fight: for Ellie to give up her immunity secrets, her dissected brain is needed, requiring her demise.
While Ellie understood and may have accepted her role in human history, not so Joel. He’d rather save her than save the world. And that’s what makes his dilemma so interesting and the story so powerful. The ending of the first season is that perfect up/down ending I love so much: Joel achieves his goal of saving Ellie, but at what cost, what cost?
Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey get an A+ for their acting chops and their chemistry with each other. The writers who translated the video game into a television series shine. And the production and directing are superior.
The story’s pace ebbs and flows mostly in an elegant rhythm, although there was one episode about a doomsday prepper and his love interest that brought the plot to a halt, despite the quality of its tale. And Ellie’s major backstory concerning her friend went on for too long and delved into simplistic YA territory. But overall, a fine entry into prestige television. It’s a good story well told. What more could any audience want?