For all of its esteem and awards, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us has always been at odds with itself. It’s a game about many things — love, survival, family — but above all else it’s an extraordinarily fun and violent game about the futility of revenge. For their HBO adaptation, game creator Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl‘s Craig Mazin alleviate that disconnect, delivering a nine-episode series that successfully makes the argument that vengeance will be our downfall. It’s just a shame that the joy of the original game is sacrificed in pursuit of this more straightforward arc.
For the uninitiated, The Last of Us follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler who has managed to survive in the midst of a world-ending Cordyceps (an aggressive type of fungus) pandemic. Survival is the key word for Joel, a broken man who is barely a husk of his former self. That all changes once he’s asked to escort a 14-year-old girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey), the one person who may be immune to this disease, across the country. Ellie may be mankind’s last hope. But before she can save anyone, they’ll have to fight off the zombie-like infected, murderous raiders, unhinged cults, rebelling cities, and the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA), one of the last remnants of government in the United States.
Despite all of the murder and torture, Neil Druckmann’s universe has always been hopeful. It’s a story that sincerely believes humankind’s only hope is through our belief in one another. That underlying message stands hand-in-hand with the game’s warnings about the toxic cycle of vengeance. And when it comes to making this argument, The Last of Us series is superior to its predecessor. Nearly every major character, from the lovable brother pair Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard) to the maddeningly complex Marlene (Merle Dandridge), is given an in-show expansion that makes them all the more complicated. It’s a narrative choice that further underlines the point that violence only begets more violence and that there are no good or evil people. There are simply hurt people trying their best.
That idea has always existed in the games, but — and there isn’t a delicate way to put this — killing people has always been too much fun to take it very seriously. The reason why The Last of Us keeps being remade in video game form isn’t just because it’s a narrative triumph. From a gameplay and level design standpoint, it’s also phenomenal. It’s always been a bit hard to honestly contemplate our collective morality and what we owe one another when you just shot an arrow through a dude’s head for the hell of it. The action scenes in The Last of Us TV series may often look like video game cutscenes, but they largely don’t glorify this story’s violence in the same way as the game.
Similarly, because the TV series is less violent than the game, it’s easier to take these philosophical ideas about the value of life more seriously. Without revealing too much, late in the series, Ellie is shocked when she witnesses Joel choking out and murdering a man in front of her. For the show, this is a fairly major moment, proof of how far Joel is willing to go to protect Ellie. But by the same point in the game, Joel has stabbed, shivved, and molotov-ed so many random people, Ellie doesn’t do more than curse.
But whereas The Last of Us TV series better communicates these moral gray areas, god, is it bleak. The game is often a downer; that comes with the apocalypse territory. Yet between searching for keys and pushing convenient rafts across bodies of water, there were moments of peace. As Joel worked, Ellie would ask him annoying questions or tell him terrible jokes. Both the questions and Ellie’s favorite book, No Pun Intended, are still present; but in the confines of a TV series they feel more desperate than two people organically growing to respect and love one another. There’s really no way around this problem. No HBO subscriber wants to watch Pedro Pascal grumpily move around a ladder for 40 minutes as Bella Ramsey tries to whistle, no matter how charming they both are. And yet it’s still sad to see the this gorgeous father-daughter relationship compressed.
The game has endured because it allows its characters to breathe. Some of the most iconic moments from the original aren’t boss fights or sneak attacks. They’re quiet strolls that end in you learning something new about Ellie, found notes that recontextualize key relationships, and peaceful moments between Joel and Ellie that only end when the player is ready. In the crevices of these quiet gems is where Joel and Ellie transform from smuggler and package to surrogate father and daughter. As hard as the series tries to replicate that magic, this central all-important relationship always feels a tad too forced.
This isn’t to criticize Pascal, Ramsey, or really any actor’s performance. The talent in both of these leads is simply staggering. Both Pascal and Ramsey are able to communicate years of pain, hope, and fear in a single look. Somehow the rest of the cast is able to live up to their high bar. Melanie Lynskey as original character Kathleen gives a performance so wicked, it’s further proof that she needs to be cast in everything. And Nick Offerman’s portrayal of Bill the survivalist very well may be the best of his career.
Yet for all that is so clearly wonderful about this show, it’s a series that can never escape its roots. The Last of Us is hands-down one of the greatest and most inspired video game adaptations brought to screen. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? No matter how sharp the writing, how inspired the visuals, how awards-worthy the performances, this will always be an interactive story forced into a passive medium. I’m willing to bet that The Last of Us will be one of the best shows of 2023. But I can’t say it fully surpasses the original masterpiece.
The first episode of The Last of Us premieres on HBO Sunday, January 15 at 9/8c p.m.