A Review of HBO’s The Last of Us

As an adaptation and a show in and of itself, the series shines, a beacon of what post-pandemic media looks like.


"The Last of Us 2011 Dec 10 - VGAs 1" by naughty_dog is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

HBO’s adaptation of this hit zombie apocalypse game stands out as one of the best video game adaptations of all time.

Aris Pastor, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Mass graves. A highly contagious disease spreading on an immense scale. Millions of deaths worldwide. If this sounds too familiar, it should. Though largely in the rearview mirror—at least within United States borders—COVID-19 has undoubtedly shifted the axis of cultural perception in both an experiential and political sense. 

The Last of Us, an HBO show adapted from the original survival horror video game, portrays a different kind of post-pandemic—one in which the pandemic in question is a zombie virus created by the fungus cordyceps. Joel (Pedro Pascal), must get Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a young girl immune to the virus, across the country in the hopes of saving the world. Along the way, they must fight through governments, people, and zombies alike, building a father-daughter bond that forms the center of the show’s theme of what one is willing to do for their family. 

Though I had first watched streams of the game in middle school, and though the story itself had not fundamentally changed, I could not help but see the show as a commentary on the COVID-19 response. From the imbalance of power maintained by a faulty government to the widespread panic and fear following the spread of the illness to the rise of demagogue figures, the similarities between our year in quarantine and this show are very clear. 

However, despite my conceptualization of the show as both commentary on COVID and its own separate media entity, it is hard to avoid comparing it to the game. I myself was an avid fan of it, and I have distinct memories of watching YouTube streamers like Jackcepticeye and Markiplier playing and commenting upon the game. It was one of my favorite games of all time, with strong characters, fascinating gameplay, and beautiful animation. When I heard that The Last of Us would be adapted for television, I was understandably nervous. 

Within the first episode, I knew: As an adaptation, this show is beautiful.

Within the first episode, I knew: As an adaptation, this show is beautiful. The change in medium allowed for an expansion of character stories without feeling clunky, as the point of view shifts in the game often felt. Characters like episode three’s Bill and Frank or episode four and five’s Sam and Henry were able to be fleshed out, holding distinct stories and impact that feels more meaningful than the game’s portrayal of them. 

The show’s ability to change points of view without seeming jarring not also solves the “cutscene Joel” problem of the game, in which Joel gets taken by surprise in cutscenes, but when the player controls him, he is constantly competent and aware of his surroundings. The show allows the moments in which Joel is startled to seem more natural and less frustrating—you can’t take away control over a character that the audience, by medium, was never able to. 

In general, directors Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann are excellent at using and manipulating point of view in a horror setting. Mazin’s work on 2019’s Chernobyl shines through his use of limited perspectives through camerawork, allowing the audience to conjure scarier images of the zombies and gore just out of frame.  

I also appreciated many of the smaller adaptive changes as well, such as the romance between Bill and Frank or the recognition of what the logistics of menstruation looks like in a post-apocalypse setting. 

However, much of what I loved about the show was its loyalty to the original source. The game’s themes, settings, and characters are reflected on the screen with an utter devotion to their source, and the homages to the aspects of the game the show didn’t have time to fully flesh out felt meaningful, Easter eggs for former fans to find. I especially loved how the introduction theme, both the song and the visuals, reflect that of the game’s. Similarly, the scenes that come directly from the game or the ones that mirror the puzzle solving and crafting gameplay truly build the show to be a love letter to its source that is able to both stay loyal to it and expand upon the story. 

Originally a video game, The Last of Us expands the scope of its story on the big screen. (“The Last of Us Remastered – mockup” by bjornengqvist is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

The acting is also amazing. Pedro Pascal shines as Joel, with a distinct and beautiful acting style that allows the subtleties of his character to really flourish. While I still prefer Ashley Johnson’s portrayal of Ellie in the game, Bella Ramsey’s performance is also very well done. 

However, Johnson’s cameo in the last episode left me with mixed feelings. It was a nice gesture, one actress symbolically passing on the role to another, but it opens up plot holes that in the canon of the show, would make Joel’s final choice essentially meaningless. If both the characters in the show and the viewers know how Ellie became immune, it isn’t a stretch to assume that another person immune to the virus could be artificially created. Essentially, Joel being forced to choose between the world and his adoptive daughter becomes irrelevant, sapping the contentious moral and ethical choice he makes feel trite and easily solvable. 

The Last of Us has been confirmed to have another season based upon the second game, which was released in 2020. Though I found that game disappointing for a variety of reasons, all of which are full of spoilers, I hope that Mazin and Druckmann are able to similarly expand on the story and craft a second season that outperforms the game. 

This story is, at heart, an American one. It is a world in crisis, a world where families cling together because there is nothing else to truly hold onto, and it is a world reflective of one we live in today. I have always loved this story, and the show’s interpretation, even with its flaws, is absolutely worth watching.