Let’s be honest, there will be a lot of people touting that The Last of Us is the definitive video game adaptation, that people shouldn’t be worried about them anymore, that this is ushering in a new era. Those people are either being hyperbolic or choosing to ignore the fact the The Last of Us game was essentially a narrative story with segments where you shoot zombies. The reality is, it was never going to be difficult to adapt this game. In truth, there was very little Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann needed to do to export this game into a television show. Indeed, the very format of the game segments the story into sections in a way that feels episodic.
So, let’s not talk about the video game adaptation angle. The Last of Us is not World of Warcraft or Assassin’s Creed or Super Mario. It was a very closed-world game that focused on the development of two characters and their emotional journey with themselves and with each other as they traveled across the country. Let’s talk about The Last of Us as a show on its own. And to say that this show has Mazin’s fingerprints all over it would not be an exaggeration. Mazin, who brought us the depressing and brilliant Chernobyl, lends his distinct signature to this series. There are small glimpses into body horror, heavy reliance on character development and vignettes, and a general oppressive atmosphere of dread. While Chernobyl focused on the tragedy in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, The Last of Us expands the scope to a post-apocalyptic world, one that is as unforgiving and vicious as the fungus that terrorizes it.
Leading the series is Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. Pascal plays the gruff, anti-hero Joel (don’t fight me on this, Joel is an anti-hero). He’s tasked with a job, to get Ramsey’s Ellie across the country to a rebel group called the Fireflies. Why? Ellie happens to be one of the few — maybe even the only — people who are immune to the Cordyceps fungus that turns people into the walking, clicking, bloated dead. While Pascal has had his run as a gruff father figure in The Mandalorian, Joel is a far cry from the distant-but-ultimately-honorable Din Djarin. I will be breaking a lot of fanboy hearts, but Joel is always painted as a rather morally grey character. He’s a selfish curmudgeon who has spent the last 20 years doing whatever it takes to survive, no matter who gets in the way or gets hurt.
It’s only through meeting the plucky and precocious Ellie that a part of Joel that died 20 years ago comes back to life. Ramsey, better known as the young Lady Mormont from Game of Thrones, slides perfectly into the role of Ellie. Certain naysayers had their strong opinions about Ramsey stepping into the role, even if it was impossible for Ashley Johnson to play the character. But Ramsey embodies all the vital aspects of Ellie’s character, her youthfulness, her humor, her fragility, her determination, and her bravery. And when paired with Pascal’s Joel, it’s a recipe for success and tear-jerker moments.
While the series plays it very close to the games, the few changes they have made enhance the story dramatically. Bill’s (Nick Offerman) story gets a much-needed facelift, turning from devastating to heartbreaking and becoming one of the most powerful episodes of the season. New characters like Melanie Lynskey‘s Kathleen offer dimension to the changing world after the infections, her arc showing the dark side of humanity and what it looks like when it’s pushed to the limit. The series also brings in voice actors like Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, who have cameos in the series as a nod to their work in the game.
As a piece of storytelling, The Last of Us is incredibly strong because it already had a strong base to go off of. The 2013 game was and continues to be one of the best games ever made, praised by players and critics alike for its ability to force you to make impossible decisions and become emotionally invested in these two flawed characters in a flawed world. It takes nothing away from Mazin who has done incredible work with Druckmann on this show, but The Last of Us is an homage to the games, and it shows just how a loyal and faithful adaptation can play out. There are scenes that are directly ripped from the game, dialogue, camera angle, and character interaction, you could play the two side by side and play spot the difference. Those looking for experimentation or deviation will not find it. But, honestly, considering the story, it’s hard to imagine anyone improving on the perfection of the original game.