Thursday, March 23, 2023

Review: The Last of Us (HBO)

 Good adaptation, great show.

Adaptation. A dirty word in the world of video game fandom. How many times have fans been promised a television show or movie that would faithfully depict their beloved intellectual property, only to miss the entire soul of the game they love and bring some shoddy representation to a different medium? Book fans know the feeling and have been dealing with the struggle for a while, knowing how infrequently justice is done in depicting the source material. For video games, that struggle is even worse. A few recent exceptions like Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and Arcane: League of Legends are wonderful additions to the small list of great video game adaptations, and the legendary Pokemon anime is still going strong. But what of successful live-action adaptations? Well, HBO’s The Last of Us may be the best one yet.

As someone who still highly reveres the original The Last of Us title for its engaging, laser-focused narrative and memorable characters, I was instantly interested in the show. I’ve played every iteration of the game multiple times; The Last of Us (PS3), The Last of Us Remastered (PS4), and The Last of Us Part I (PS5). Normally, I would immediately dismiss the relevance of any video game adaptation due to the history that precedes them, but the more information I gleaned, the more interested I became. The perfect storm of Craig Mazin, Neil Druckmann, Playstation, HBO, and a wonderful cast of well-known actors was enough to give a fan hope. Not because The Last of Us needed an adaptation, but because it would be nice to see this world and these characters be brought to a new audience. The Last of Us is a highly cinematic franchise with over five hundred Game of the Year awards (the most for any modern franchise), so it wasn't too difficult to see how this could transition to a passive form of entertainment.

The Last of Us season sne does a lot of things right. The first two episodes are quite similar to the game's opening sequences. The first scene of the first epsiode portrays multiple men on a talk show discussing a potential fungus that could end the world if, god forbid, there was an increase in global temperature. An eerie silence washes over these men as they contemplate the possibilities of such abject destruction of modern society. What seemed a mere talking point becomes a feasible idea, one that makes the viewer and talk show participants pause. A harrowing moment to open the show’s first season, and a fantastic deviation from the source material.

To pull the player into Sarah and Joel’s relationship, they expand Sarah’s role and flesh out her story a bit. This helps create the initial bond needed to pack the show’s first punch. And it is done incredibly well. Considering The Last of Us has one of the best openings in a video game, it was a breath of fresh air to see it carefully recreated for the show. There’s an underlying sense of tension that sticks with the viewer throughout the entire episode, even in the calm moments. An impressive feat, and a reminder to the viewer that no one is ever safe in the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us. Admittedly, there was a ridiculous moment when an infected popped up from the ground in a silly and uncharacteristic way. A momentary break in immersion. However, before the credits rolled on the first episode and Depeche Mode’s Never Let Me Down Again plays to the view of the coming storm, I felt satisfied. Not only was I pleased with the deviations that did right by the source material, but by the show’s faithfulness to it, and to the overall quality. Joel and Tess received their cargo in the form of a fourteen-year-old girl named Ellie, and I was excited to see the next episode.

This feeling of satisfaction continues into the second episode. Again, the introduction of the episode diverges from the show, where we are introduced to a mycology professor (played by the wonderful Christine Hakim) in Jakarta, where the beginning of the outbreak occurred. And just like episode one, this sequence left me with chills. This is also the first episode where the viewer encounters Clickers (the most memorable enemy from the game) for the first time. All I can say is bravo. The costume work, the behaviors, and the sound effects (which are used in the game) work brilliantly and inspire a sense of fear and panic. Not to forget, the underlying tension from the first episode remains here. There’s a heightened fear of being in control of the character who can instantly die from a Clicker. Though a passive media, the show did the confrontation in the museum justice.

As Joel, Tess, and Ellie make their way through the ruins of what was once Boston, the characters unfold before the viewer; their intentions, their mannerisms, and their desire to be doing anything else. The ending of the episode changes from the main characters being surrounded by FEDRA soldiers and instead having a horde of infected come in to finish the job. In doing this, they introduce tendrils; a way for the Cordyceps fungus-infected individuals to communicate over long distances. By killing an infected near a tendril, the protagonists alarm a massive host of infected enemies to their location. There is an odd, rather uncharacteristic, invasive, and bizarre moment with Tess and an infected near the end of the episode that confused me. The scene was certainly horrifying, but also lore-breaking. The overall episode was terrific despite minor missteps and kept me excited for episode three.

Titled “Long, Long Time”, episode three is an interesting case. While the game focuses on Joel, Ellie, and others they meet along the way, the show deviates by taking time away from them to look in on other characters. Episode three is the largest departure from the source material. Instead of having the character Bill reluctantly assist Joel and Ellie on their journey, Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann decided to take Bill’s story in another direction. In what is one of the finest hours of television I’ve seen, Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett put on a beautiful performance of a gay couple surviving in the apocalypse. It’s strong, poignant, and reminiscent of the opening of Pixar’s Up. A tale of love, struggle, and acceptance. My issue then is that has nothing to do with what was going on in the previous two episodes. Episode three puts the plot at a standstill for over an hour. And while they eventually tie everything together, those ties aren't strong enough to justify an entire episode away from our protagonists. As a standalone episode, Long, Long Time may bring you to the verge of tears and consider your mortality, but in the overarching view, it’s just a beautiful bump on the road back to our protagonists.

With Joel and Ellie back in the driver’s seat, the show’s plot moves forward with episode four. This episode sees the protagonists sneaking their way through a rebel-infested Kansas City. A few important moments happen in this episode between Joel and Ellie, like the beginning moments of trust budding between them. This episode uses some of its time to show a departure from in-game Joel to Pedro Pascal’s version; he’s growing old and showing vulnerability. He can't hear as well and needs Ellie’s help to escape a hairy situation. He accepts how useful she can be with a gun and shows her how to use one properly. A big moment in the game, though slightly underwhelming in the show. The primary issue with this episode, and episode five for that matter, is the focus on the character Kathleen (played by Melanie Lynskey). The rebel leader that had overthrown the Kansas City QZ has too much time in the limelight. Every time that part of the plot appeared, I simply wanted to get back the main characters. The character was not a convincing leader and I had difficulty sympathizing with her.

As I got to episode five, and more and more time was spent on this Kathleen character, I realized how much time the viewer missed with Henry and Sam (the two newcomers to the show). A lengthy part of the game is spent with these characters, getting to know them, observing their relationship with the brothers, and the friendship that grows between them and the main protagonists. Instead of simply having two brothers trying to survive the apocalypse, the show tries to force the viewer into a sense of sympathy by making the younger brother (Sam) deaf, and eventually revealing that he had Leukemia. It’s a weight that doesn't need to be there. Sam being deaf wasn't much of an issue, but it made it difficult—with the amount of time given—for the viewer to bond with his character. Instead of sympathizing with him as a character, we are merely sympathizing with him for his plight, which I think is much weaker than what is presented in the game. Had less time been spent on Kathleen’s story, I feel like it could have been fleshed out better. That said, Keivon Woodard and Lamar Johnson (Sam and Henry’s actors) put on a great performance. The penultimate scene of this episode puts on a bit more dramatic flair than is necessary and creates a bit of a deus ex machina that is only briefly mentioned in the previous episode. The final scene, however, is spot on.

After a traumatic ending to episode five, episode six sees Joel and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) reunited. This episode again, shows a more vulnerable Joel, speeding up much of his character development to ensure a connection with the viewer. I found this to be one of the weaker moments in the episode. The memorable scene between Joel and Ellie, however, is handled beautifully. It’s well-acted and takes lines from the game, word for word. The final scene leaves a bit to be desired compared the intense escape for survival portrayed in the game, but it leaves the episode on a cliffhanger…

Which isn't continued until episode eight. But before that, there’s episode seven. Which, like episode three, puts the main plot on freeze. Entitled “Left Behind”, episode three is a flashback to when Ellie got attacked by an infected. The episode itself is well done and explores the relationship between Ellie and her best friend Riley, but where the game hovers back and forth between its main narrative and the flashback, the show is wholly focused on the past. Leaving the viewer hungry for more, then dangling the present story in front of them while they tell another is an interesting tactic. Doing it two times in a season that has only nine episodes is rather foolish.

Once we get back to the present, we meet a new character David (Scott Shepherd). A leader of a local settlement who has more to him than is initially revealed. David reveals to Ellie that he is kind, yet violent. That he wants to lead, and he wants her beside him. A man in his fifties, and he's trying to court a fourteen-year-old girl. The entire sequence is unsettling, and Bella Ramsey (Ellie) counters Shepherd’s David perfectly for an entrancing episode. Without a doubt one of the season’s best. A return to form from the first two episodes.

The finale of The Last of Us is, unfortunately, the shortest one. It’s packed full of action and successfully wraps up the story between Joel and Ellie, even if it feels rushed at times. There’s a specific moment in the show where the show writers bludgeon the viewer with their messaging. In the game, Joel’s progress is easily noted in his actions and his shift of tone. He doesn't have to say, “You saved me,” because you feel each action takes the characters to where they are. The show also makes a point of showing that Joel’s decision is more justified in saving Ellie. The bloodbath that occurs close to the end of the episode leaves the viewer with a more solid perspective on Joel and his willingness to kill for what he wants. When the final lines of the show are uttered, they pack less of a punch than they do in the game, but they’re still powerful. Nine episodes spent (well, seven really) building trust between these two characters, all to end on a massive lie. One that needs to be swallowed by Ellie. And both Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey finish strong.

Some of the deviations enhance the story of The Last of Us, like the beginnings of episodes one and two, as well as the intro to episode nine, which sees Ashley Johnson (Ellie’s voice actress in the games) play Ellie’s mother. Some deviations, like episode three, bring an interesting perspective that enhances the lore but also damages the pacing. Then there are the bad deviations, like the Kathleen storyline in episodes four and five. Despite all the changes, the core of The Last of Us is here. As an adaptation, it does a great, though imperfect, job of representing the characters I’ve loved so much over the last ten years. As a tv show itself, it's fantastic. One of my favorites in recent years. Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann did a terrific job adapting this project to television. And though I would have liked to have seen more infected encounters throughout the season, the overall character arcs and performances were handled well. Whenever they announce a season two, I eagerly await not only the show itself but the fan response to it. If they do as well with season two as they did with one, viewers are in for quite the spectacle (and quite the debate as well). The Last of Us is never bad, and frequenelty great. It’s weaker than its video game counterpoint at times. In some cases, it outshines the game, and that’s something to be applauded.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 8/10

Bonus: +1 for some clever, lore-buffing deviations. +1 fantastic performances. +1 for creating an underlying sense of dread and tension. +1 for Clickers.

Penalties: -2 for trying to manufacture sympathy. -1 for two pace halting episodes. -1 for Kathleen storyline/character.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.