Very few things are as beautiful and yet as gruesome as The Last of Us is.
Making its debut on the PlayStation 3 in 2013, the original game was a critically acclaimed instant masterpiece that I went as far as saying wasn’t “just a game, it’s a piece of art.”
While I had polarizing feelings about the game’s ending, I did find myself playing the PlayStation 4 remaster shortly before the release of the also critically acclaimed sequel, The Last of Us Part II in 2020. Naughty Dog is no stranger to pushing video games to their limits, but they’re also one of the few developers that’s truly led innovation in the medium by challenging what narratives in gaming have been. This is why the fact that HBO has backed a full series adaptation is an expected surprise.
This is HBO. They don’t just air random television and hope it sticks. From “Sex and the City” to “The Sopranos” to “Game of Thrones,” there’s a certain prestige to being an HBO Original, and there’s even more knowing that the series was brought to life by the people behind “Chernobyl,” another HBO favorite.
With series co-creator Neil Druckmann also on the project, it’s pleasing to see the pilot of “The Last of Us” hit where it should, and seeing what happens next even though a lot of us know what’s going to happen should really be a treat.
Those that have played the game before will likely be engaged by the way the pilot starts. It addresses the seriousness of global pandemics (something we know a whole lot more about now) while also talking about how they start, as well as how they fester–we even learn about fungal infections which obviously foreshadow what this show is about.
At its core, “The Last of Us” looks like another variation of “The Walking Dead.” Like TWD, the “walkers” aren’t zombies, they’re “infected.” So if anybody calls “The Last of Us” another “zombie show”, feel free to correct them.
On a serious note, without giving it all away, fans of the games enter very familiar territory from here. The opening sequence features the all too familiar guitar strums of the theme song before going into a more detailed version of the game’s heartbreaking intro where we’re introduced to one of the protagonists in Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal [The Mandalorian, Wonder Woman 1986]). As someone that can nearly quote every line to the game’s intro, I was extremely satisfied with how it went, and I thought Pascal did a fine job with both with his mannerisms and tone of voice with Joel’s family–namely with his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) who did an exceptional job with her story leading up to the “hardcore drugs” and the start of the outbreak.
The episode jumps ahead from there as we see a seemingly hardened Joel pulling his weight in a Boston community by tossing infected corpses into a fire. We’re then quickly introduced to his early game confidant in Tess (Anna Torv), the Firefly Marlene (Merle Dandridge, who reprises the role from the game), and finally the co-star in Ellie (Bella Ramsey also of “Game of Thrones” fame). Quickly is a key point here–the pilot did an extraordinary job setting the uninitiated up for the fact that the show is going to have survival as a theme thanks to the outbreaks, and it did an even better job at the game’s beginning to show us what kind of a person Joel Miller is, but it also fell victim to the same storytelling issues the game had at this point. Why do Joel and Tess detest what’s happening in the quarantine zones? Who and what exactly are the Fireflies? These were things you eventually find out in the game because the game took you there as you play, but even as a fan–I found this breakneck speed a little dense for my liking, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see uninvested viewers feel the same way.
Now as a fan of the series, while it’ll take another watch to truly appreciate the fan service the episode offered, I do have to give the showrunners credit for making me feel as invested in the show as I was with the game. There aren’t much as far as suspenseful moments (yet), but there was one moment in which Joel and Ellie hide from a guard, and as that’s happening, the whispering sound effects from the game that occur when an enemy is near could be heard, and that’s easy to appreciate aside from just the acoustic guitar in the theme song.
At that, there were no moments in the episode that felt boring, and while some parts felt rushed, the attention to detail and care put into every scene thanks to the show’s ensemble have been as good as it can possibly get so far, and it makes me wonder how things happen next–even though I know what’s going to happen.
As someone that’s already a fan, the pilot of “The Last of Us” gets a thumbs up. I definitely feel like that this is easily the best TV show adaptation of a video game so far, and we’ve already had some recent good ones.