Few works will hit the screen this year with as much acclaim as the new HBO series The Last of Us (★★★★★). Since releasing on the Playstation 3 almost a decade ago, a lot has been said of the video game’s groundbreaking narrative. While most games are known for being fun to play, The Last of Us changed the medium for its story, one that has long been ripe for a television adaptation.
Starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey as Joel and Ellie, The Last of Us is an all-encompassing beast, spanning over 60 years in its first episode alone while narrowing in on what made the original special.
Craig Mazin, the creator of the similarly harrowing Chernobyl, and Neil Druckmann, the game’s original creator, are at the helm of TLOU, which probably has more expectations on its shoulders than any other television show this year.
We first meet Joel in Austin, 2003, where the hints at the apocalyptic horrors to come are shoved away by his daughter Sarah, who is more concerned about getting her dad a good birthday present.
As Sarah’s day goes on, unsettling whispers and panic mingle with constant sirens rushing by, until it all comes crashing down with the official onset of a fungal zombie apocalypse. The opening sequence is the first true merging of the original game and the show, padding out some of the story with new details while staying true to what made the game so amazing in the first place.
When we pick up with Joel again 20 years later, he’s gone from a blue-collar worker to a drug smuggler in a highly militarized Boston, rife with food shortages, and hangings for those who don’t fall in line. Joel and his partner Tess are struggling to find a car battery to get out of Boston and try to locate his brother, who has gone radio silent.
The post-apocalyptic world presented in TLOU shows how far HBO is willing to go with this beloved franchise. The setting looks fantastically ruined, with the streets of a decayed society coming to life almost perfectly. Each shot of a crumbling building reveals more than the last, showing a world that somehow managed to survive falling apart.
Tess (Fringe‘s Anna Torv), introduces us to the politics of a Bostonian dictatorship after being jumped by the people who double-crossed her for the car battery, but is saved by a random act of violence from a local rebel group.
Meanwhile, the Fireflies, a rebel group fighting against the military hierarchy, prepare for a major operation in the nighttime, with Ellie (Bella Ramsey, who you may remember as Lady Mormont in Game of Thrones) chained in a room.
A lot of details have been changed from the original video game, but it’s clear that the show has nothing but respect for the fans who have kept the franchise alive for over ten years.
The leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, is played by Merle Dandridge, who reprises her role from the original game, giving the show enough connective tissue to expand upon its foundation. Composer Gustavo Santaollala also returns to score the series, which will instantly send chills down your spine. Even the newcomers wonderfully fill their roles with enough familiarity for anyone to become invested.
Joel and Tess locate their missing car battery, which turns out to be a dud. Instead, they are presented with an intriguing opportunity from the Fireflies. Marlene promises Joel and Tess more than a car battery if they can bring Ellie, the chained girl, outside of the city walls to the nearby statehouse, where a fueled car will be waiting. Unsure, but with few options, they accept, beginning one of the most memorable journeys in recent times.
The Last of Us will no doubt come up on your radar for being one of the best video game adaptations ever, but it’s always been an outlier. The story is frequently harsh and cruel, which makes the light that shines through even better, even as the world it presents continues to be brutal and unforgiving. Pascal and Ramsey’s performances are only just gearing up, but it’s clear that they have a mighty punch to pack.
Fans of the original games will find loads to love, but won’t hate what the television show adds, clearly in reverence to what came before, yet newcomers will also find that same beauty without being left out of the loop.
While The Last of Us is brutal, it’s one of those rare stories that can transcend any medium it’s told in to craft a beautiful story about love, family, and survival against all odds. A decade after it came to the Playstation, the weight of the original is transformed into a glorious punch to the gut, and then a breath of fresh air.
New episodes of The Last of Us premiere on HBO and on HBOMax every Sunday at 9 p.m. Visit www.hbo.com.
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