(For this review I watched only the first three episodes for reasons I will explain in the review. My goal is to be spoiler-free as much as possible and I believe I accomplish that. But, like everything on the series, proceed with caution.)
Just about everyone who follows pop culture, gaming, and entertainment knows of The Last of Us. The new HBO series premiering today tells the same story as the critically-acclaimed and fan-praised action/adventure video game which came out for the Playstation 3 gaming console in 2013. It is known as a prime example of storytelling that blurs the line between mediums. From day one fans had been hoping for a live action version of the game that seemed like the perfect fit for a television series or film. Let me start by saying, after seeing the results, they were right in wanting one.
The series tells a now familiar story of a post-apocalyptic world where humanity is on the brink of extinction. In this case, due to mutated fungus relentlessly infecting people across the globe. The lucky ones die quickly, the rest of the human race is divided into a massive horde of cannibalistic creatures or the survivors left to fend for their lives and the fate of humanity.
One of those survivors is Joel (Pedro Pascal – The Mandalorian, Game of Thrones), a hardened man who has been through a lot, pushing through day by day, trying to endure the wasteland the world has become. We first meet him during the initial hours of the outbreak. Anyone who has played the game dreads what comes next. We watch his life, society, and daily life break down quickly. It is a gut punch during the game and even more so here.
Fast forward twenty years to 2023 and Joel is escorting a teenage girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsey – Catherine Called Birdy, Game of Thrones) who is trying to make her way to a science lab. Ramsey, who impressed in Birdy, continues to do so here with enough spunk to hold her own with The Mandalorian himself, Pascal. Together, the duo have great chemistry right off the bat. It starts as an untrusting disconnect and quickly evolves into a strained “father/daughter” relationship. They appear to tolerate each other while not far under the surface, even if they don’t know it, they do appreciate each other and the hole they fill in each other’s. Ellie fills a long-standing void in Joel’s life as he serves as both a reluctant father figure and tour guide explaining to her a world she has never experienced.
For this review, my goal is not to compare the game and the series, for two reasons: firstly, I feel it is a disservice to both, secondly, I’m only about 20% into the game. I had long wanted to play The Last of Us and finally made it happen when learning of the series. (Thanks, Joe!) Going forward, my plan is to try to keep slightly ahead of the series and followup this review with occasional updates as I simultaneously work my way through both. So far, I am finding my concurrent approach is the perfect way to approach it.
For those who need to know I will say, the series is very loyal to the game, capturing its tone and look to a tee while also nailing many of the smaller details. Gaming fans will not be disappointed as they will find it all easily identifiable. Many of the settings are complete carbon copies of the design used in the game. As someone who only played through these scenes a few days before watching the series, it really made me like I was in their world. One minute I was moving Joel around the game version, searching every corner for weapons, health packs and enemies. A day or two later and I am in the same world I explored only this time in a real life version.
To this point all heart racing and heart wrenching moments are there and work just as well, if not better. The series builds off what the game has established, fleshing out an already well developed world with additional information and depth.
The post-apocalyptic nightmare landscape is similar to what we have come to know very well in other films and series; cities in ruins overgrown with plant life, collapsed skyscrapers, burned out automobiles – decomposed skeleton of the world we know. The production design here is so realistic that even though we have seen it all, it remains as haunting as ever.
Making the ominous even more menacing is the constant threat that comes from all sides. There are a slew of creepy crawlers who are ready to rip our survivors to shreds with just the slightest misstep. Runners are the recently infected, a zombie-like creature we are used to. This time with a mouthful of tentacle-like growths that will give you nightmares. There are also the Clickers – victims whose infection has progressed to the next level – they are blind and use a creepy clicking sound to echolocate their next victim. I find them both terrifying. And, knowing how videogames work, I am expecting to meet more monsters as the series continues. (Yay?)
In addition to the creatures that haunt your dreams, Joel and Ellie are also under the constant threat of all types of terror – mainly the human kind. The remnants of the country are essentially under a military state where a run-in with the authorities could leave you in a shallow grave. No one can be trusted. Every passerby on their journey could be a threat waiting to kill you for your supplies.
The series often feels like one unpleasant moment after the next. I will avoid spoiling the best scares, but there is no shortage of unsettling moments that I can promise will stick with you. Both the subtle and the graphic in your face terror often make watching an uneasy experience. One scene in episode two had me subconsciously sealing my lips and wanting to gag.
The most unnerving parts of the series come not from graphic visuals and killer creatures. Instead, they originate from the words spoken that reveal just how susceptible the human race can be to microscopic attackers. The series prologue starts with what looks to be an unassuming Dick Caveat inspired talk show which quickly transforms into a horrifyingly uneasy nightmare. Polite laughter and clapping turn to blank traumatized faces on the audience and host alike. By far, one of, if not the scariest scenes to date.
Throughout the first three episodes terrifying bits of real science have been worked into the dialogue connecting the horrors on screen to the reality of climate change and other man-influenced concerns. They give the series a much more cautionary tale feel than expected and it is effective. At one time these warnings of impending doom could have felt like fear mongering, but especially after what the human race has dealt with over the last few years they should scare the hell out of you.
Even through all the darkness there is plenty to affecting elements that elevate it beyond much of the end of the world tales. This is most evident in an incredibly tender and touching third episode that expands on what the series can be. We get a pause from all the horror (at least for the most part) and spend time with two lovers who met during the outbreak and lean on each other to get through it. The episode is full of beautiful quiet moments that remind us that even while surrounded by all the destruction and decay, there are things to keep fighting for.
The series has a ton going for it from the incredible production design, Gustavo Santaolalla’s tense score (he also composed the video game music) and addictive storytelling. All of that would mean nothing without the magnificent acting. As mentioned, Pascal and Ramsey are excellent together. In addition are a list of traveling companions, allies and potential threats they meet along the way: Anna Trov, Nick Offerman, Merle Dandridge, and Murray Bartlett are just some of them to this point. Each is up to the task to elevate what could have been your standard action/horror fare into a series that taps into true emotion. So much so, I have surprised myself by already being driven to the brink of tears several times.
Thanks to that emotional depth, creators/writers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have delivered the first great television series of year. Even though we are only two weeks in, I firmly believe it will be in contention for the best series of the year. It is addictive storytelling. The Last of Us delivers a human story which horrifies on many levels and I cannot wait to watch more.