Nathan‘s Review of The Last of Us – Season 1.
HBO is really on a roll, right?
It seems that at least since House of the Dragon premiered back in August that HBO has just been dropping one banger after another (and with Succession returning in a couple of weeks, that trend is set to continue). The Last of Us, which just aired its first season finale last week, is another feather in HBO’s cap, showing that HBO can always rise when other networks are falling. Adaptations are hard, and after mid to negative reviews for The Wheel of Time, Rings of Power, and more, The Last of Us is not only a solid adaptation, but a genuinely good viewing experience.
So, while the rest of this review will be riddled with spoilers, for those of you who have not checked out The Last of Us yet – do it. It is a poignant, thoughtful, and moving exploration of a post-apocalyptic world perfect for fans of The Leftovers, Station Eleven, and the few good parts of The Walking Dead. This is a science fiction series that is character-forward, with clear and stellar character arcs accompanied by heart-racing (and heart-wrenching) action sequences. If you have been wary about starting this show, give it a watch. My biggest recommendation would be to try and give it three episodes; once you are through those first three you will get a sense of the “kinds” of episodes that The Last of Us will throw at you. If you are not on board by then, then feel good moving along.
But on with the spoiler-filled Season 1 review! I haven’t actually played the games the show is based on, so don’t worry – I will only be talking about what actually happened in the first season.
While not perfect by any means, from the first episode to the last The Last of Us remained a compelling drama that was one of the few “appointment viewing” shows that I have had so far in 2023. Pretty much everything about this production, from the writing, to the practical effects, to the acting were top notch. With so many adaptations feeling rushed and phoned in (despite massive budgets), The Last of Us was a breath of fresh air amidst a sea of rotting corpses.
Post-apocalyptic shows are hard because the entire point of their existence is that “the world sucks”. The biggest example of how not to this would be The Walking Dead franchise, with Seasons 1 and 4 (ish) of the mothership show excepted. While The Walking Dead wallowed the misery of its characters, The Last of Us celebrated the life of its characters. Even the tragic ending of the third episode didn’t undermine that the show found beauty in two men who found love and companionship in what Rhianna would call “a hopeless place”. Episode 7 loudly proclaimed the joys of having your first teen crush, and how those crushes are both exactly the same and profoundly different in a post-apocalyptic world. It helps that in The Last of Us, at least until the finale, there is hope for a cure (Ellie’s blood) while The Walking Dead was always conceived (going back to its original graphic novel) as a post-apocalyptic story without an ending. The underlying feeling of the first season is hope, even when a brother has to shoot his infected brother before turning the gun on himself.
The Last of Us works because it respects its characters, from its two leads, to the supporting cast, and even to the villains/antagonists. The show is a triumph in empathy, even in humanity’s darkest days, as it explores the vast array of human connections that can be made in a post-apocalyptic world. As I’ll get back to in a minute, the finale may have completely changed this ethos, but this first season was a joy to watch even in its drabbest moments.
This show was perfectly cast, as everyone from Nick Offerman to Melanie Lynskey gave surprising and moving performances, often giving their characters layers to work from even with limited screentime.
But we must talk about both Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal. For a show that is really only about two people and their quest to go westward, this show was always going to live or die on these two performances, and luckily they were great.
Bella Ramsey is an absolute star in this show. What could have been an annoying or one note performance is instead heartbreakingly nuanced and complex. Ramsay first gained popularity for their performance on Game of Thrones, a performance that was championed more as a meme than any kind of acting talent, but Ramsay shows what they can really do here. Ramsay conveys both the joyful exuberance of just being a teenager with the world weary and hardened persona of being born into a post-apocalyptic world. Similarly, Pascal was just great up and down this season. In the first part of the season, I was pretty agnostic about Pascal’s performance (honestly, what I have felt in pretty much anything else that Pascal has starred in up until this point). While Ramsay was bombastic, Pascal was muted – and frankly a bit boring. But everything started to click for me during the mid-season, particularly in the episode where Joel reunites with his brother. Here, all of the emotions Joel has been suppressing come bursting to the surface, and Pascal nails this with aplomb. It made me completely rethink Pascal’s performance from the first half of the season, as his muted peformance became a beautiful exploration of mental compartmentalization in a shitty world.
I hope that both Ramsay and Pascal are in the conversation for acting awards in the next year, although the drama category will be stacked this year with performers just from HBO shows alone – House of the Dragon, The White Lotus, and Succession could all eat up those nomination spaces. I would hope that at least Ramsay is able to push through.
More than anything else, what I appreciated about The Last of Us is that it understood that it was a television series and not a nine hour movie. This structure was determined by the structure of the video game itself. In many ways, video games are about progress, and this HBO adaptation skewed very closely to that ethos. Every week we saw Joel and Ellie as they moved westward to locate the fireflies. Every week we got another self-contained snippet of their journey. Every episode felt simultaneously contained while building to the larger, over-arching narrative.
This is something that television shows, particularly those in the speculative fiction genre, seem to have lost. Outside of a special episode, there is nothing to distinguish one episode of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon, or Rings of Power from the next one (I will say that the first season of The Witcher though was very strong in this regard). Most of these shows are built as one continuous narrative that are arbitrarily cut off once their 50-60 minutes of runtime are up. The Last of Us didn’t do this; it appreciated that TV shows are episodic for a reason, and that TV represents a different kind of storytelling than film. TV episodes are more akin to volumes in a long book series – they are self-contained bits contributing to a larger whole. TV is most satisfying when we experience an entire arc in less than an hour. With streaming and rise of “binge culture” this has been abandoned; TV shows are now more focused on getting you to click “Next Episode”.
The Last of Us wanted us to have a satisfying experience in every episode, and then to sit, think, and ruminate on it. Some of the season’s best episodes, including Episode 3’s poignant romance, Episode 5’s tragic ending, and Episode 7’s coming of age story (just to name three) only worked because they didn’t come in the middle of a 10 episode binge session. We got to spend an hour with these characters, and for many of them only that hour. But each character, story, and episode was so carefully considered and planned that I didn’t really care that it was more than likely that characters would die at the end of each episode. In fact, it was the episodes that felt less contained (like Episodes 2 and 4) that were my least favorite of the season.
Now, I will admit that the show didn’t always execute this perfectly. There were several characters, like Kathleen (played by Melanie Lynskey) and Marlene (played by Merle Dandridge) that got a bit of the shaft. I really liked both of these characters, and while we got to explore them a little bit, they were offed before we really got to know them. In some ways this show had a problem that The Walking Dead sometimes had; they would introduce a really cool antagonist and then clear them out before we got to dig into them. However, I would rather take The Last of Us‘ punctuated storytelling than the sloggy mess that The Walking Dead eventually became.
If there is any small little quibble I have with the show is that I wish there was a bit more attention paid to the details of this post-apocalyptic world (and no, I’m not talking about that one camera guy who accidentally showed up in one of the scenes).
Instead, I’m talking about the timeline of it all. According to the show’s mythos the “fungus among us” emerged in about 2003, and yet the stuff that Joel and Ellie see and engage themselves with seem older than – it almost looks like the world ended in the mid-1990s. This was after CDs were at their highest point in terms of productions/sales, so why was Ellie listening to a cassette? And even the song choice seemed old, when she should have been bopping to Briney Spears or whatever. Similarly, the arcade at the mall seemed like it would have been long past its own heyday by 2003.
There was also some inconsistencies about what Ellie did/did not know since she was born after the start of the apocalypse. Like, she didn’t know what an escalator was? That never came up in any of the books or other things she has read? I find it hard to believe that she didn’t at least know about the concept, considering that she was raised in FEDRA and not along in the woods her whole life. This girl understands the nuances of anarchism but not escalators.
Again, this is just a small point and didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the series (to be honest I didn’t really notice them while watching as I was so immersed; most of these came to the surface as I was reflecting on the episodes later), but I would like them to take more care moving forward. I get that they made these choices for “thematic” reasons, but it does undermine all of the other careful writing in the show.
Before I wrap up here, we do need to discuss the finale and its implications for the future of the show. As I mentioned earlier, I have not played the games (I have only heard my roommate talk about them in the general sense), and so I have no knowledge of what will happen.
The finale took an interesting and brave direction – it pushed Joel to his moral limits and had him leap across them.
Let’s start with how this played in the context of the first season as a whole. This show has always had a clearly defined moral compass, and one of its storytelling and character strengths throughout is that the show never used violence carelessly nor gratuitously. The show was always careful to show the toll that violence took on its characters, whether it was Ellie dealing with the fallout of having to kill her bitten (girl)friend, or the blame she placed on herself for the death of Sam. For Joel, the finale was a rubicon moment. Joel here did not just kill one person to save Ellie, he killed many. And several of those people did not necessarily need to die for Joel and Ellie to escape. This was a natural development in Joel’s character – both his increased frustration at how the world works, his guilt of not being able to protect his daughter, and his growing affection for Ellie. Everything that Joel bottled up over this season – and everything that Pedro Pascal beautifully expressed in his restrained, layered, and compelling performance over nine episodes – came bursting out of him in that moment. The scene in the hospital was a horrifying moment that felt real and earned, and was then juxtaposed against the Joel and Ellie’s hike at the end of the episode where Joel was happy, talkative, and fatherly.
As much as I loved this finale, it does make me just a tad concerned about where the story goes from here. While I don’t know anything that happens in The Last of Us Part 2, I do know that gamers have had….thoughts about its narrative direction. I always appreciate when tv show take risks in their finales, when they are willing to blow everything up and change the status quo (and Joel’s actions in this finale, including his lie to Ellie in the final moments changed the status quo), but often shows come back and they struggle to do anything with that. This might be a real niche callout here, but the most recent season of Mythic Quest on Apple had this problem. The second season finale threw everything to the wind, and then the third season had a hard time finding its groove again. I don’t think The Last of Us will have that same problem (since the narrative is much more focused here), but it does forbode a much darker show moving forward – and this was a show that often reveled in hard choices and events.
While it seems like we have reached the peak of the 2000s golden age of television – with fewer and fewer shows that take risks, have a clear narrative vision, and are just worth watching – and so I always perk up when there is a show as solid as The Last of Us. It is still too early in the year to determine whether this will fall into my 2023 Top 10 Shows list, but it is definitely a contender.