‘The Last of Us’ Gives Tragedy to the Undead

“The Last of Us” isn’t last when it comes to video game adaptations.

“The Last of Us” is a surrogate father-daughter story told on a roadtrip through the apocalypse.

Based on the video game by Naughty Dog and developer Neil Druckmann, “The Last of Us” uses the real life cordyceps mushrooms — capable of zombifying insects — as its engine for the apocalypse. 

Set 20 years after cordyceps ravaged the world, humanity survives through small, walled-off communities. In these quarantine zones (QZ’s), the remains of the government rule commandingly while the outside world falls to raiders, cults and hordes of the infected — those zombified beyond recognition.  

Infection only occurs by consuming cordyceps directly or indirectly through bite. Once afflicted, the fungus spreads horrifically around the body, taking over the host’s mind and converting it to an animalistic state.

“The Last of Us” follows smuggler Joel Miller protecting the only immune individual to the fungus — 14-year-old Ellie Williams. 

Played by Pedro Pascal, Joel is haunted by the choices he’s made to survive — stealing, killing and abandoning innocents all for his own sake. Pascal (“The Mandalorian,” “Narcos,”) depicts a broken man not seeking forgiveness but retribution. After losing his daughter at the start of the outbreak, Joel protects Ellie to make amends with himself and those he’s already failed.

Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, is a tenacious teenager with her own baggage to match. Ramsey (“Game of Thrones,” “His Dark Materials”) embodies Ellie, as the loner hides behind a sarcastic demeanor to cover up a deep fear of loneliness. After losing her closest friend and family, Ellie looks to Joel as a guardian to keep her safe from the tragic world they live in.

Starting their journey in Boston and ending in Salt Lake City, the duo come across a plethora of other stories equally as impactful and engaging.

Episode three “Long, Long Time” depicts the beautifully bittersweet story of hermit Bill and his partner Frank. With standout performances from both Nick Offerman and Murry Bartlett, respectively, the episode hones in on the theme of found family. 

The episode is an easy exception to the series, deviating greatly from the main story to tell a tale between two characters not of the main cast. The charming chemistry between Offerman (Parks and Recreation,” “Pam & Tommy”) and Bartlett (“The White Lotus,” “Welcome to Chippendales”) produces a powerful ending to the episode, which encompasses love worth fighting — and dying — for.

Episode five, “Endure and Survive,” takes a different direction, showing the more tragic side of love. Sam and Henry (Lamar Johnson and Keivonn Woodard) follow a mirrored path to that of Joel and Ellie, as Henry tries and fails to protect his younger brother Sam from the brutality of this new nature.

Each tragedy that befalls Joel and Ellie revolves around the tremendous highs and horrific lows of love and the lengths someone will go to secure it. It’s an ample setup for a shocking finale that aligns with each character’s actions.

Translating a video game as acclaimed as “The Last of Us” into live action doesn’t seem like an easy task. Since its release, the game has sold 20 million copies worldwide, according to Rolling Stone. In spite of the weighty expectations, showrunner Craig Mazin managed to nail the tone and spirit of the game, while coupling it with incredible presentation.

The cinematography and set design for each episode are bar-none. The camerawork is able to convey quiet emotions of sadness and joy as often as exciting setpieces and tense moments of horror. 

Further proving their dedication to the material, Mazin (“Chernobyl,” “The Hangover Part II”) and Druckmann cast many of the original voices from the game in the show. Of the most notable, Troy Baker — original voice of Joel —  plays James, the right hand man to cannibal-preacher David. Voice of Ellie, Ashley Johnson, fittingly plays Ellie’s mother in the opening moments to the season finale. Merle Dandridge is the sole actor to reprise their in-game counterpart as Marleene, the leader of the Firefly militia.

Every easter egg referencing the game to each grotesque tendril of the infected, shows the meticulous passion the creatives had for “The Last of Us” — a boast that can’t be said of Paramount’s “Halo” or Netflix’s “The Witcher.” The success and attention to detail in “The Last of Us” may shepherd the way for more adaptations to get the dramatic treatment they so desperately deserve.

If “The Last of Us,” can nail adapting Part 2, anything can happen.

“The Last of Us” is streaming now on HBO Max.

Featured image courtesy of HBO Max

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