Dr. Mike ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
Spoiler Warning: This article contains plot details for The Last of Us.
I’m having a lot of trouble with The Last of Us. The HBO Max series inspired by a popular video game franchise appears to be exciting for many viewers. It’s not doing much for me.
I really wanted to like this show. While I have not played the game, I am a fan of post-apocalyptic scenarios in general and zombie stories in particular. There is a puzzle to the walking dead and their close kin that I enjoy. Most monsters are a tough problem to solve. As a good friend of mine once pointed out, in a zombie scenario, we would probably all be lunch. Still, it’s fun to think about how one might survive.
Of course, the creatures in this series are not exactly zombies in the typical sense. The “infected” in this case are humans overrun with a particularly aggressive mutant strain of fungus. This infection drives its victims to attack humans, thus transmitting the contamination into a new host. Since the infected are fungal in nature, they exhibit blooms, creating interesting new visuals.
One of the major problems with this series is that the monsters are hardly in it. After a powerful, compelling, and certainly expensive pilot episode, the infected have been few and far between. For long stretches of episodes, they simply do not show up. This tamps down the zombie action in this zombie show. This is why I’ve started referring to the program as The Slowest of Us, The Last Few Minutes of Us, and most recently, 48 Minutes Later.
Now, zombie shows… sorry, I mean infected human shows… do not have to have non-stop zombie action. The Walking Dead found plenty of ways to occupy itself with human interaction at times too. There is a lot of interpersonal conflict inherent in survival scenarios. At times, the many characters on The Walking Dead seemed to be eating at each other more than zombies were trying to eat on them.
The Last of Us has pared its main cast down to two—Joel and Ellie. As taciturn Joel, Pedro Pascal seems determined to out stoic even the most stoic of western heroes, somehow making his masked visage on The Mandalorian seem more expressive. As Ellie, Bella Ramsey presents a snarky young if rather annoying teen who aches to be a snarky adult.
A duo works well in a zombie video game. In a zombie show, it limits the dramatic possibilities by pushing the fatalities onto the other characters. Since this show is wrapped around a travel narrative, other characters are guest stars rather than regular supporting cast. Thus, our characters move from place to place, encountering new people who then die because they deserve it or because they don’t deserve it.
Now, The Last of Us does have an admirable commitment to diversity. For example, we met a manipulative female leader who seemed more like a soccer mom than a stereotypical barking mad despot. She died. We met an African-American man and his deaf son working to survive. They died too. We’ve also been given a rare television love story between older males. They died. Oh, and we just met Ellie’s female love interest in a flashback. She was infected so, y’know, she’s dead too.
Fans of the video games are enjoying this show far more than me. They keep assuring me this will get better. I am happy for them. There is a lot of risk involved when something you enjoy is tossed up into a broader public awareness. A bad adaptation is no fun because it embarrasses the fans of the original. I’m not trying to ruin this for the gamers. I’m just saying that for the remainder of us, the show may not be making it as a series in its own right.