What’s striking about the world of The Last of Us is how old everything is. Buildings are dilapidated, streets are overgrown with moss and weeds, stray artefacts of the early 2000s – an Al Gore/Joseph Lieberman campaign shirt here, a tattered paperback there – mark the moment when everything changed. But it’s not just remnants and leftovers, though: even the new is already old. Guidelines and infographics explaining the stages of infection (“beware slurred speech”) and detailing emergency response procedures are dirtied and torn, peeling at the edges, long since fading into the background.
The apocalypse begins in 2003, with a fungal outbreak in Indonesia. Climate change and global warming caused a mutation in the Cordyceps fungus – a type of parasitic fungus that attacks the brain, usually finding a host in small insects, but infecting humans after that new variant strain becomes dominant. The infection spreads quickly – it’s speculated later the fungus found its way into a basic food source, some staple grain or carbohydrate, but by the time they’re drawing up theories like that it scarcely matters anyway – and the world changes almost overnight.
When the series picks up in 2023, it’s a changed world. Harsher, bleaker, crueller: a military court has established martial law in Boston and holds public executions, a disorganised rebellion struggles to break through in earnest, and sometimes other survivors can be as dangerous as the infected, if not moreso. Joel (Pedro Pascal) is a man shaped by that world – he’s a smuggler, drifting through life, visibly burdened by grief and loss dating back to the earliest days of the end of the world. Cynical and disillusioned, quick to violence but well aware of the blood on his hands, Joel has coarsened over the decades, becoming harsh and cruel himself in the struggle to survive.
In exchange for necessary supplies, he grudgingly agrees to smuggle something for the rebellion: a teenager. Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is, somehow, immune to Cordyceps infection – meaning she might hold the key to a vaccine or even a cure. The Last of Us charts Joel and Ellie’s journey from a quarantine zone in Boston to a university hospital in Wyoming, a trek of over two thousand miles that takes them past settlements in chaos, religious cults, and infected hotspots; it’s effectively a post-apocalyptic travelogue in the same vein as The Road, a neatly episodic tour of what’s left of society and what’s sprung up in its absence.
On one level, The Last of Us is a taut, atmospheric horror – it’s awash with dread, slowly mounting even in moments of relative calm, the faintest noise enough to shatter any illusion of safety. The series looks it’s dark and moody, and the victims of the Cordyceps infection go a long way towards lending the series a distinct visual and aesthetic identity: their movements are fast and uncoordinated, the parasite unfamiliar with piloting the host, and a fuzzy mycelial skein traces across their body like threads. Some of them have been consumed entirely, anything recognisably human obscured by grotesque tendrils and branches. It’s a triumph of design, effectively used for unsettling body horror.
Beyond that, though, the spine of the series – its main concern, really; it’s more of a character drama than a creature feature, with the infected playing less and less of a role as the series continues – is the relationship between Joel and Ellie. They warm to each other, unsurprisingly, gradually becoming more and more willing to go to greater and greater lengths to protect the other, eventually out of genuine care and affection rather than basic survival instincts. The episodic nature of The Last of Us allows showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann to compare and contrast their leads with others they encounter along the way: a doomsday prepper and his partner, two young brothers, so on. As a result, the character drama feels tightly focused, even comprehensive – The Last of Us is always returning to that same idea, always interrogating it from different angles, always hammering home those central themes, asking what it means to carry on in a world like this.
On the page, it’s strong material. Brought to life by the cast, it sings. Pascal is impressive – comparisons to The Mandalorian are obvious, though The Last of Us demonstrates how much more Pascal can do if you can see his face – but Ramsey is a revelation. It’s such a confident, full performance – providing a necessary levity but never falling into a role as simple as comic relief, a complicated and dynamic dramatic anchor in their own right – that Ramsay surely and rightly deserves to be on any and all Best Performances of 2023 lists, even at this early point in the year. It’s a star turn, in the truest sense.
The prevailing headline for The Last of Us announces it as the best video game adaptation ever. Probably it is, though that reads like faint praise however earnestly it’s meant – what’s its competition? In any case, this HBO series will no doubt hope to reach a new audience, picking up viewers who aren’t familiar with the source material (self included) and aren’t video game literate (self very much included). What matters more, then, is how The Last of Us functions as a piece of television in its own right – and on those terms, it’s a clear and emphatic triumph.