HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us has widely been hailed as a triumph by critics. But as fun as it was, the tweaks the adaptation made failed to address any of the game’s copious narrative shortcomings.
I have endured something of a love-hate relationship with The Last of Us for almost a decade now. The video games are visually stunning, while their gameplay strikes an unparalleled balance between action, stealth and horror. But despite being hailed as some kind of watershed moment for narrative video-gaming, their stories are fair to middling.
If you haven’t played them and want to, or are interested in seeing the series spoiler-free, this is the point I’d advise you to stop reading.
In each video game, a relatively solid premise is forged to hang the game around – before co-creator and writer Neil Druckmann seemingly gets bored with whatever he is chewing over, and tries biting off something else instead. Each game subsequently chokes, when it comes to delivering on its key moral ‘quandary’.
In the plot for the first game – which the first season of The Last of Us’ TV show pretty much copy-pastes – this sees lead character Joel journey with Ellie, a girl who is immune to the effects of a fungal plague that has turned the world into zombies. Initially embodying the beloved libertarian archetype of the cold-hearted smuggler, Joel finds his heart opening up, as Ellie eventually fills a hole left by the murder of his daughter, Sarah. Ellie, meanwhile, comes to trust Joel as a father figure, and the family she never had.
After an arduous trip, the pair finally arrive at a scientific facility, under control of rebel group the Fireflies. Ellie is prepped for examination, before Joel learns a terrible truth: she is about to undergo a fatal surgery in order to extract a ‘cure’ (which is actually a vaccine, but that’s the least of the problems the ‘science’ here is suffering from). Ellie has not been asked about this, and it seems the Fireflies and doctor have no interest in obtaining what they need consensually. At the same time, it never occurs to Joel to suggest Ellie would probably give the Fireflies what they are set on taking – she is determined for her life, and the sacrifices she and those around her made to get there, to mean something – and an action set-piece immediately follows in which the player must slaughter everyone at the facility.
There is supposed to be a moral conflict here… we’re supposed to see Joel’s selfish actions –motivated not by Ellie’s wishes, but his own desire for a surrogate daughter – in contrast to the cold-hearted determination of the Fireflies to save the world at any cost. But that conflict is entirely superficial, because in his haste to get to a meaty action sequence Druckmann either didn’t think, or couldn’t be bothered, to frame the ‘morality’ through Ellie’s agency. Looking at the conundrum without that, material reality takes precedent. Are we for or against murdering a child?
Having gunned through that sequence, Druckmann actually seems to become aware there’s not much drama to be had here, so inserts a hasty post-script. Ellie asks Joel what happened, and he lies through his teeth that the doctors he slaughtered discovered Ellie’s ‘cure’ was a dead-end, before they were massacred by raiders. In the absence of what could have been a greater moral dilemma about Ellie’s agency, Druckmann substitutes a rather paltry alternative (by comparison) of Joel telling porkies about what happened. But even in this case, it is a nonsensical scenario, because it is a totally unnecessary lie – considering how uncontroversial the truth (“they were going to murder you in your sleep, without even asking you what you wanted”) would have been.
Now, finally, the TV adaptation has reached that same point. Despite some ups and downs, the show was in a solid place going into its finale. Two episodes in particular – Long Long Time and Left Behind – had shown that showrunner Craig Mazin had the ability to hone some of Druckmann’s ideas, and expand where necessary to craft better-rounded characters and emotionally impactful plot beats. Long Long Time (penned by Mazin and Peter Hoar) in particular is a masterpiece, and at some point deserving of a standalone review, taking the brushed-over relationship of Bill and Frank and fleshing it out into a beautiful and provocative post-apocalyptic love story.
As the show’s story marched toward its conclusion, things seemed to point toward this kind of touch being applied to The Last of Us’ climactic sequence. After all, why bother adapting anything if you aren’t going to find ways to enhance it?
Well, Druckmann, Mazin and the episode’s co-writer Ali Abbasi certainly made changes. They just happened to be changes which utterly missed the point. While in the game, the player is fighting active combatants, the show’s version of Joel spends an excruciating montage executing surrendering Fireflies. So, while the idea of Ellie having any say in her fate remains firmly off the table, a moral dilemma around battlefield ethics is clumsily inserted in to try and give audiences some kind of conflicting feelings about what is going on. But again, this is a predicament which falls flat – Joel has no capacity to take prisoners, and again, everyone working at the facility is complicit in the attempted murder of a child. So the idea there was some kind of choice being made doesn’t come through at all.
Beyond this, the episode has all of the common pitfalls which set the series back in its weakest moments. First, there is a complete lack of tension as Joel blasts his way through the facility – with no suggestion that there is even a shred of risk to him. This can’t have been engaging for those who were not aware of the story – but it is excruciating for anyone who knows which character is supposed to end up where, and when. Considering the previous three episodes were dedicated to foregrounding his frailty, him suddenly becoming an unstoppable force of nature when it suits the run-time is a massive disappointment.
Then, there are the superfluous ‘villain’ characters, who on at least four occasions in the series have huge swathes of plot dedicated to presenting them as believable threats, only to be dispatched with ease. As a note, two of those side-characters also had a doubtful sidekick, who seems to be on the verge of splitting with them, only to also be tamely eliminated in a hastily cobbled-together set-piece – leaving it difficult to work out what the point was in any of it. Any one of them could have been removed, or merged with another side-story, to give it more time and space to develop and resonate.
Similarly, far less time could have been spent explaining the origin of the Cordyceps outbreak, or the exact mechanics of infection. The show invents new ways for the infection to spread, for the fungus to communicate between infected individuals, and for how the ‘cure’ to work, but at no point does any of it seem anything but someone at a house party rambling about a Wikipedia entry they misunderstood.
Cutting that back might have made more room for early character development – space for the excellent performances of Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey to break free of the awful Marvel-era banter they are bogged down in for the first half of the season – and to lend greater emotional clout to a reworked ‘moral choice’ at the end. It might also have made the show’s ‘science’ less prone to picking apart by pedants on the internet. From the idea the fungus can move independently of hosts – so what does it actually need them for? – to the absurd suggestion that medical experts in contact with the world’s only ‘immune’ individual would immediately decide to kill them, there is a lot to pick apart here, but many critics seem to have shied away from doing so.
Why that is, who can say? Perhaps the show’s inevitable framing within the sprawling culture wars means people have picked sides. The series’ excellent depiction of LGBT+ character in particular riled right-wing snowflakes the world over, so are people worried any other criticism of the show at all may see them associated with that backlash? Are critics simply desperate to fend off the creeping sensation that the golden age of ‘prestige TV’ is grinding to an end? With the most recent examples of top performing franchises including the soft-core incest of House of the Dragon and the long-winded tedium of The Rings of Power, perhaps The Last of Us really is a towering achievement by comparison.
Considering much of the press around The Last of Us prior to its release was determined to paint it as “more than just another zombie show”, however, simply being more enjoyable than the deranged works of George R. R. Martin seems a pointedly damp squib. Not only were those boasts a sign the writers had a lack of respect for a genre which has pushed cultural and political boundaries since its very beginning, they were boasts they failed to live up to – providing bog-standard social and political analysis compared to many other undead tales.
Not that any of these things matter in the grand scheme. The Last of Us is decidedly a hit, building a premiere audience of more than 8 million by its final episode. Its salivating producers are understandably now plotting a sprawling multi-series franchise, and will make at least two seasons out of the second game. It’s an exciting time if you’re in Hollywood, no doubt, because just as the Marvel bubble looks set to burst, someone finally seems to have cracked the code for making screen adaptations of popular video game IPs – months after the last horrendous attempt went down in flames. In terms of viewing the actual product of that process, I don’t find the prospect anywhere near as exciting…
Just like the games, The Last of Us’ second season will probably suffer from the same lack of narrative focus and misjudged moral conundrums of the first. And just like before, as an incurable lover of zombie films, I will probably end up watching it anyway. But I won’t be pretending it’s re-defined television, or the genre.