*This review contains some spoilers for episodes one and two.
HBO’s limited series The Last of Us showcases the best and worst of humanity after a pandemic crushes civilization and leaves the detritus of society behind. The series takes place in an alternate 2023 and is based on a video game with the same title (2013). It stars Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller and Bella Ramsey as Ellie Williams, a teenage girl who is somehow immune to the cordyceps fungus that is killing people and turning some of them into rotten cauliflower-headed zombies.
HOW THE CRISIS STARTS
A fungus-like infection spreads rapidly in 2003, quickly overtaking the world. Neighbors in Austin, Texas, are turning into killing machines, so Joel and his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) try to escape town along with Joel’s brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna). Unfortunately, the Armed Forces are already shutting down the area and have been obviously told to take extreme measures to stop the infected.
After crashing their truck, Tommy separates from Joel and Sarah, who are immediately confronted by a soldier. Sarah ends up getting shot and dying, but Tommy arrives in time to save Joel. We briefly get to know Sarah, and Parker does such a wonderful job of establishing her character. It is heartbreaking to lose her so quickly, but this sets up Joel’s future as Ellie’s protector.
TWENTY YEAR TIME JUMP
We find a grizzled Joel living in an encampment in Boston in 2023. At this point the cordyceps fungus has spread worldwide and killed billions of people or turned them in to vegetable zombies. FEDRA (Federal Disaster Response Agency) is in charge and is running the quarantine zone, using abusive tactics and shooting anyone who tries to leave. A band of rebels – the Fireflies – operates outside the FEDRA controlled zone and is trying to overthrow them and restore some semblance of democracy.
Inside the zone Joel and pal Tess (Anna Torv) have resorted to smuggling to get by, and Joel hopes to buy a truck battery in order to flee the zone and go meet Tommy, who is now living in far away Wyoming. A complication arises when Firefly leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge), who knows how adept Joel and Tess are at getting in and out of the zone, asks them to get Ellie out with them. They will get supplies, that truck battery, and a mission.
Marlene has a particular reason for Joel and Tess to get Ellie out of the zone. Ellie was bitten by one of the zombies, but her arm healed and she never became infected. Marlene wants Joel and Tess to get Ellie to a hospital outside of the zone, where there are doctors who hope that Ellie’s blood can be used to create some kind of vaccine as a cure for the fungus. The catch is that Marlene doesn’t tell Joel and Tess this, so they only think that Marlene wants Ellie to go stay with the Fireflies.
In shows like The Walking Dead or the great George Romero’s zombie films, cures are never really mentioned and the source of the virus is rarely discussed or explained. In this case it is refreshing that we not only know exactly how the virus started, but we are given hope of a possible cure.
Getting out of any major city after an apocalyptic event figures to be difficult. The group hides in a museum from zombies they call clickers – they make a clicking noise – and when Ellie tries to touch Joel he backs away. He is not only unsure about Ellie’s situation but he is also obviously not over Sarah’s death.
When push comes to literal shove, Joel saves her from a clicker and proves that he will be Ellie’s protector. Unfortunately, during the skirmish with the clickers Tess gets bitten. This is a game changer for Joel, and Tess tells him that he now has to get to Bill (Nick Offerman), a survivalist who will help him with supplies and hopefully a car. Ellie saw Tess as a mother figure that she never had, but now she will look to Joel as a reluctant (for now) paternal protector.
The rest of the way is spoiler territory, but I can say that the journey involves Joel and Ellie becoming closer as they navigate through the cities and wastelands of a devastated country. They encounter the best and worst of humanity along the way. As it would be expected, some people will take advantage of this situation, while others become outright monsters with no cares about others but themselves. Still, there are good people out there too who are trying their best to cope despite the horrific impact of the outbreak.
Pascal once again takes on the role of caring father – which we are used to from his work in The Mandalorian as he cares for little Grogu (Baby Yoda to me) – who grows attached to Ellie so much so that he will fight to the death for her. Bella Ramsey is a revelation as Ellie. She is vulnerable, sassy, brash, and frightened – sometimes all at the same time. The two make a perfect pair on this journey to find a cure and take a step toward normalcy, but that won’t be easy because there are many obstacles in their way.
While I don’t know anything about the video game, The Last of Us can stand on its own as a powerful addition to the zombie drama fold. Series creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have taken great care to craft the series to please all viewers and not just gamers. Some people who have played the game told me it is a great adaption, while a few others quibble about changes here and there. I heard the same kind of thing about TWD being different from the comic version. That never stopped me from enjoying every episode on its own terms.
The Last of Us is a worthwhile investment of your time. It is compelling, upsetting, and ultimately rewarding. It has been picked up for a second season, and I am looking forward to it. After watching season one, you will be too.