Can a TV show that is considered one of the best of the year also be a sign of television’s downfall? The Last of Us may seem to embody everything that is going wrong with TV as it transitions from its golden age to a time of generic, mass-produced content. It is based on a video game, a genre that is often criticized for being unoriginal. It also revolves around the overused horror trope of zombies. And to top it off, it is produced by HBO, a network that was once known for high-quality dramas but now seems more focused on creating spin-offs like House of the Dragon and the upcoming Harry Potter revival. This could be cause for concern.
Never judge a TV show solely based on its logline. The Last of Us could have been categorized as any of the mentioned genres, but it proved to be a stunning series that could compete with the top shows of the golden era of television. It successfully balanced grandeur with intimate, relatable moments and can be seen as a family drama in disguise. It was a thought-provoking and emotional blockbuster.
At the beginning, everything unfolded in a typical post-apocalyptic fashion. The first scenes were all too familiar: chaotic crowds, crashed airplanes, and armed soldiers patrolling the streets. The extent of the epidemic became apparent as we discovered it was caused by a parasitic fungus that transformed anyone who came into contact with it into a monstrous mushroom creature. The aftermath was also predictable: destroyed buildings covered in vines, bodies burned to prevent further spread of the infection, and groups of aggressive monsters (not zombies, it should be noted: the “infected” in this series are still alive) wreaking havoc on anything in their path.
Even though these clichés were familiar, what set The Last of Us apart from other post-apocalyptic stories was its realistic portrayal. The more unrealistic elements of the show, such as the enormous mushroom creatures, were used sparingly and sometimes even went entire episodes without appearing. Additionally, the characters’ reactions to the chaos and fear felt genuine.
The show was fortunate to have such a well-developed and detailed source material in Neil Druckmann’s two-game series. This allowed for the series to further explore complex plotlines and fully-fleshed out characters. Craig Mazin, known for making the unimaginable horrors of Chernobyl come to life, joined Druckmann in creating a believable and immersive world for the series. Even in the darkest moments, the world never felt illogical or artificial.
The situation became very dire. In terms of violence, the living were much more brutal than the undead. Military dictatorships, merciless wandering militias, and a group of cannibals led by a cult leader with pedophilic tendencies continuously increased the level of horror. However, despite their reprehensible actions, most of the characters in the show had underlying reasons for their behavior. Most of the time, they were just as broken and scared as anyone else. Just when The Last of Us appeared to be heading towards extreme sadism, the show’s emphasis on humanity prevailed.
The majority of the success can be attributed to the two main actors: Pedro Pascal playing the completely damaged smuggler Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie, the adolescent he must protect as they travel through the devastated United States because of her immunity to the virus. While they faced challenges such as thieves, hunger, and infection, their bond began to feel remarkably genuine, often expressed without words through small but meaningful actions and looks.
If The Last of Us was just nine episodes of Joel and Ellie silently trudging through crumbling cityscapes (and yes, that did make up a lot of the show), it would have made for pretty great TV. But the show had bigger ideas. Its third and best episode, the one that cemented its place in the end-of-year Top 10s, abandoned the larger plot altogether for a standalone story about the blossoming romance between a gruff survivalist (Nick Offerman) and a man who fell into one of his traps (what a meet-cute!)
If you were a skeptical executive, you may have deleted this episode. However, its inclusion added depth and complexity to The Last of Us, surpassing expectations and proving that it may not be the end for television after all.