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HBO's The Last of Us is living on borrowed time

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 2/3/2023 Graham Hillard
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If a bad version of The Last of Us comes out,” game developer Neil Druckmann told the New Yorker earlier this year, “it will crush me.” Relax, bro! Not only is HBO’s new zombie-apocalypse series the best video-game adaptation ever made, but it’s also a better-than-average show in its own right. Yes, it suffers from a number of the flaws that dogged AMC’s The Walking Dead, but HBO’s production is beautifully rendered and frequently captivating. At least for now, Druckmann can remain uncrushed.

Created by Druckmann and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), The Last of Us opens 20 years before its central action. Joel, a taciturn carpenter in his mid-30s, is living with his daughter outside Austin, Texas, when strange events begin to shatter the suburban peace. Unexplained sirens scream up and down the highway. A restaurant patron attacks his waitress without provocation. Soon, local officials are advising residents to stay indoors. The threads of civilization have already begun to unspool.

The culprit in Druckmann’s apocalyptic fantasy is not a bog-standard viral infection but an invasive fungal species known as Cordyceps. The parasitic shroom is a repulsive mind parasite that enslaves its hosts while preserving them in a state of deathless hostility. The infected here are not mere plodders to be outrun by the young and spry. Instead, in a nod to 28 Days Later (2002), contaminated men and women move at a sprint pace, the better to overtake new victims. Were it not for the hideous fungal blooms where their heads ought to be, one might remark upon their athleticism.

Starring as Joel is Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones), a screen performer of exceptional watchability and skill. Pascal brings a weary physicality to match his expressive face in the leading role, and he is bulked up and a decade older since his turn as the spear-wielding assassin Oberyn Martell. Early in its first episode, The Last of Us jumps ahead to the Boston of 2023. Joel, now alone, must battle both his abiding grief and a world in which testing positive is a capital offense. Watch his face fall as he realizes that one of his traveling companions has contracted the fungus. This is not a man who believes that old-fashioned heroism can save the day.

The series’s second lead, as well as the yang to Joel’s hangdog yin, is the 14-year-old Ellie, an ebullient firecracker of a girl played by Bella Ramsey (Becoming Elizabeth). Raised, like most of her generation, in a military-controlled “quarantine zone,” Ellie reacts with unabashed joy upon seeing a freestanding house for the first time or climbing into a Chevy S-10. (“It’s like a spaceship,” she says.) In a plot development that is more narrative necessity than twist, Ellie is immune to Cordyceps despite bearing the scars of a zombie’s bite. Joel’s task, accepted with extreme reluctance, is to transport her from Massachusetts to Wyoming, where scientists who can unlock the secret of her blood theoretically await.

The Last of Us finds its footing as a buddy drama with pretensions of visual grandeur on this journey. Ruined skyscrapers lean against one another to form monstrous isosceles triangles. Exurbs decay with artful precision. Amid the decomposition, Joel and Ellie go from mutual antipathy to tolerance to something approaching love. In early episodes, Joel’s young charge is mere “cargo,” an inconvenience whose desire to connect can be brushed aside. By the end of the season, she has become a surrogate daughter to replace the child Joel has lost.

The series is structured around an Odyssean voyage, or, as America calls it, a road trip. In NBC’s roving angelic melodrama Highway to Heaven, the now-mostly-forgotten 1980s series starring Michael Landon and Victor French, the protagonists moved from town to town, encountering new characters and novel modes of life. The Last of Us works much the same way, structurally. In Boston, where much of the show’s preliminary action is set, military units have begun battling resistance fighters, turning the quarantine zone into a hive of warring passions. A two-episode stopover in Kansas City reveals a locale in the grip of post-insurgency score-settling. It’s like the classic ’60s show Route 66 — only with, you know, less carefree Corvette driving and more fungal zombie horror. Regular new settings lend themselves to week-to-week guest stars who ply their trade for an hour before retreating to their day jobs. Isn’t that Melanie Lynskey, star of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, leading the Missouri insurrection? And Your Honor’s Lamar Johnson as an outed informant, running for his miserable life?

These storytelling digressions do much to veil the essential plotlessness of the zombie-apocalypse genre. The latest stopover is an obvious exercise in tension-manufacturing to make Joel and Ellie traipse through yet another abandoned building. What other options remain open when the traditional sources of human drama have all been extinguished, made irrelevant by the very monsters that brought down civilization in the first place?

The Last of Us is an absorbing and well-made series that will likely become monotonous the instant its world-building begins to plateau. Already, through the nine episodes screened for critics, I felt my attention lagging as the thrill of discovery gave way to the dreary repetitiveness of the main plot. There is, of course, the question of whether the TV landscape needed another zombie production so soon after the conclusion of The Walking Dead. My answer is a resolute “no,” even if I am forced to concede that the genre touches something deep in the heart of my fellow man. If you, reader, are one of those devotees, my advice is to enjoy The Last of Us while you can. A far more boring future awaits. What will Druckmann and Mazin do three seasons from now when the whole of post-collapse America is mapped and cataloged? Perhaps Joel and Ellie can ride zombie Amtrak or take a zombie cruise.

Graham Hillard is the author of Wolf Intervals (Poiema Poetry Series) and a Washington Examiner magazine contributing writer.


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Original Author: Graham Hillard

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