The Last of Us, HBO’s adaptation of Neil Druckmann’s lauded video game, is finally here after a long battle to bring the post-apocalyptic survival game to life. The show, which follows a gruff smuggler, Joel (Pedro Pascal), as he attempts to escort Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a brazen, foul-mouthed 14-year-old girl seemingly immune to the fungus that has zombified the world, across the United States. The last time zombies notably enraptured television audiences was with AMC’s game-changing titan The Walking Dead, which premiered in 2010 and ended its 11-season run last November, after years of gaining, losing, then attempting to recapture America’s trust. The Last of Us takes up the mantle The Walking Dead set down long before it left the air, picking up where that show left off instead of attempting to trod its well-worn path.
The main draw to The Walking Dead, the line that people would use when convincing you to watch the show, was that though the show took place during a zombie apocalypse, it was the people that were the monsters. This was true, and yet the show managed to still, at its heart, be about community, society, and what it means to recreate those from nothing. Sure, we mainly followed Sheriff Rick Grimes and his son Carl as they moved through various farms, prisons, communes, and rebellions, but Rick’s core tenet was always family. The show began with Rick trekking through a freshly destroyed Atlanta, Georgia, to find his wife and son. Though Rick and Carl made many stops along their journey, at every one they gained followers, parting their temporary home with additional members in tow. These additional members became the heartbeat of the show: Darryl, the surly right-hand man; Michonne, the katana-wielding badass and love interest; Carol, the battered-then-emboldened friend; Glenn, the former pizza delivery guy turned heart of the show, and on.
Rick’s main dilemma, especially as the show progressed, was finding a permanent place to stay, one where he and all of his accumulated supporters, whom he had come to see as his own family, could live peacefully despite their run-ins with other sadistic dictatorships that tested their faith in humanity. Rick’s crew was constantly trying to create their own functioning society, with the ultimate goal of finding solace in other humans, believing that there is always good, and that good is always worth saving. When they couldn’t sustain it themselves, or when they were ambushed by other, less high-minded groups, they tried to weasel into other established societies, arriving and attempting to change the rules to ones that they could agree with. Beginning almost immediately after an apocalypse, the show grappled with a world in which the dust is still settling on its most tragic period.
The Last of Us spends its first half-hour taking us through the initial outbreak, here an infection of a mutated form of the fungus Cordyceps that infiltrates human brains and turns them into murderous (if sometimes quite pretty) monsters. We then jump to 20 years after those calamitous events. FEDRA, a federal disaster-relief agency that has effectively become a new totalitarian government, already manages quarantine zones (QZs) in major cities across the country. Their corrupt methods of “maintaining the peace” have been around long enough to inspire the development of a resistance group, the Fireflies, which is also far from perfect. In The Last of Us, society’s systems and institutions have existed long enough that it’s no longer a question of how to rebuild them, but rather, what to do when the new institutions are more broken than the old ones.
In The Last of Us’ version of the post-apocalypse, people are still the problem—an early scene shows Joel schooling Ellie on why he refuses to start a fire while they’re camping in the woods, because there’s no telling whose attention it might draw. Joel has truly no interest in community or society. He seems to prefer being on its fringes, refusing to buy into either FEDRA or the Fireflies completely. His partner, Tess (Anna Torv), seems to be the only reason he stays in the Boston QZ. His brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), has joined the Fireflies and is somewhere across the country in Wyoming. Family, he tells Ellie, is the main, if not only, reason one keeps going. But he makes it clear that he’s incredibly selective about who fits in that category—even Tess, Joel says, is only “like family.” When he’s developing feelings for others, the closest he’s willing to get is: not quite.
Community and/or society hasn’t served anyone in The Last of Us well. Despite claiming to be the last bastion of civilization, FEDRA strong-arms people into doing horrible things for medicine, food, or other supplies. The leaders of the resistance factions—whether they be the Fireflies or other independent ones—are so zealous in their determination to overthrow FEDRA that they’ve condoned innocent killings, or worse, carried them out themselves. The unaffiliated rest live in police states, either forced to go along to get along or join a resistance that is, frankly, failing. As for Joel and Ellie, they can’t seem to evade devastation and the loneliness it brings—even when they find other people they can tolerate, it (mild spoiler alert) doesn’t go all that well. Later episodes of the series show Joel being hesitant to believe in even the idea of a solid community, being presented with a picture-perfect place that, by Ellie’s estimation “actually fucking works,” but consistently feeling that something is amiss.
The biggest flaw of The Walking Dead was that it failed to understand that the real gems of the show were the characters ancillary to Rick. The show provided an ensemble cast, made the audience care about the members of the ensemble and the idea of family, and then started to kill off its most beloved characters. Its biggest offense was the gruesome death of Glenn in Season 7, which was made worse by the fact that another member of Rick’s crew had been brutally murdered moments before Glenn’s death. The Walking Dead’s viewership took a major hit after and never fully recovered (this is also when I stopped watching)—which is understandable: the show failed to keep its promise.
The Last of Us operates entirely differently, keeping the action centered on Joel and Ellie throughout the main story, and providing side characters with flashback spin-offs. We get to appreciate these side characters, and even become greatly endeared to them, but within the confines of their own story. By the time their character arcs come back and merge with that of present-day Joel and Ellie, things are clearly becoming quite dire (as they always are), and those extra characters fail to stay with our protagonists for long. The Last of Us centers humanity, showing people of all different walks of life and affiliations, but makes it clear that “society” is a wish upon a star, and everyone who believes in it is just fighting for the lesser of myriad evils.