Nearly a decade after its release, The Last of Us stands tall among the best written video games of all time. Not only does the HBO adaptation preserve its Sony PlayStation source material’s excellence and bring it to a wider audience, it dives into its post-apocalyptic universe in ways that’ll delight and surprise even hardcore game fans.
The show, which premieres Sunday on HBO Max, takes place in a ravaged world, after a fungal brain infection reduced much of the populace to savage cannibals. Grumpy smuggler Joel must escort defiant teen Ellie across the US, for slightly spoilery reasons.
It’s a fascinating journey that’ll leave you awed and horrified in equal measure, with Game of Thrones alumni Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey infusing vulnerability and humanity into this charismatic duo at every turn.
This tale kicks off with Joel as society crumbles in the terrifying early days of the outbreak, deftly setting up his emotional stakes in an opening that mirrors the game closely. Pascal, in a nuanced performance, exudes pain in a crucial moment of loss, but also displays a compelling decisiveness and hints of whimsy.
A bleak world
Jumping forward 20 years, we’re introduced to a world where survivors live in authoritarian quarantine zones run by the harsh remnants of the US military. Their rule is threatened by an unpredictable rebel group known as the Fireflies, with marauders and infected roving around the country.
It’s fascinating to explore, though a tad overwhelming. The early episodes are punctuated with flashbacks revealing the outbreak’s origins, an element that wasn’t in the game. Co-writers Craig Mazin (creator of HBO’s Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (the games series’ creative director) added this to give newcomers a firm grounding, but it’ll undoubtedly engage players as well.
Pascal adds layers of world-weariness to his performance as we return to a hardened Joel, who’s done whatever it took to survive over the years. He begrudgingly takes on the mission with Ellie, with Pascal and Ramsey’s chemistry emerging gradually as the show patiently builds a bond between them.
Ramsey’s performance unfolds more gradually, displaying more dramatic color as we learn more about Ellie and her sense of wonder becomes apparent. It’s electric to watch as the impressionable teen learns from Joel and the other survivors they meet along their journey, especially as the focus shifts toward Ellie in the later episodes.
The infected are used sparingly but stick closely to their game appearances and ooze danger in each encounter. Some of the visual and sound effects weren’t finished in the episodes HBO sent to press ahead of release, but these scenes were magnificently shot and are likely to be extremely effective.
Joy in darkness
Vitally, the grim post-apocalypse odyssey is punctuated by moments of levity and hope — mostly provided by the curious and defiant Ellie. These are typically followed by reminders that they’re trapped in a hellish world, but you’ll definitely join in the first time they laugh together.
Most of the season’s nine episodes focus on this core dynamic, but it also takes a few surprising detours to tell more self-contained stories. These tales reveal how characters find room for tenderness and happiness amidst the horror.
One of these dives into the life of gruff survivor Bill, with Parks and Recreation actor Nick Offerman anchoring an installment that proves to be the season’s most uplifting and haunting. It massively expands a storyline that’s only hinted at in the game and is a perfect piece of episodic storytelling. You might need to lie down for a bit after watching this one.
The second of these will be familiar to game fans, revealing a formative moment in Ellie’s past. It’s immensely fun to watch Ramsey’s dynamic with a character played by Storm Reid (seen in HBO’s Euphoria), even if there’s an ominous cloud hanging over every moment.
Original game composer Gustavo Santaolalla‘s score adds a yearning sadness to the narrative, while a few pop and rock tracks hint at the world that came before.
Beyond the game
Fans will be glad to see that the adaptation largely remains true to the events of the first game, but there are a few clever additions to Ellie and Joel’s core quest. Yellowjackets‘ Melanie Lynskey gives new villain Kathleen a quiet menace, with her presence adding a new element to a familiar game subplot.
The show also takes the time to reveal previously unseen moments that’ll make game fans’ jaws drop, along with countless subtle visual Easter eggs and a sprinkling of clever cameos.
By contrast, Scott Shepherd (from Breaking Bad sequel movie El Camino) appears in the later episodes as a villain gamers will certainly remember. His charismatic performance anchors a story that sticks extremely closely to one of the game’s late chapters.
HBO’s The Last of Us is an absolute triumph, offering one of gaming’s most intense and engaging narratives to TV viewers and revealing exciting new aspects of the universe to those who’ve played the games. It’s beautifully written and the casting is flawless, with Pascal, Ramsey and their co-stars adding layers of emotional depth and unsettling moral grayness to every moment.
Video game adaptations have a new gold standard. Roll on Part 2.