The Last of Us: Season One Review

Here’s a spoiler-free review of The Last of Us season 1. The series premieres on HBO on January 15th.

The best mods not only imitate their original material, but aim to enrich those who are familiar with it, while also serving as an entry point for those who are not. HBO’s The Last of Us does just that: a brilliant retelling of one of the most beloved stories in video games that re-lights what made it so special to so many in the first place, striking again to stunning effect. With a pair of brilliant leading performances and a beautifully executed vision of what it means to find hope and love in a world bent on denying it, The Last of Us thrills from episode one to last.

The story format will be familiar to anyone who played the original game, but that doesn’t mean you’ll know exactly what happens next as deviations are taken frequently. A post-pandemic world where pockets of humanity aim to stay afloat amid a sea of ​​infection, it’s a place starkly realized by showrunner Craig Mazin, with the help of The Last of Us video game designer Neil Druckmann. The plot revolves around Joel, a smuggler tasked with sending a teenage girl out west in an America that has been ravaged by a deadly fungal pandemic for the past 20 years. Of course, things don’t go smoothly as danger lurks around every corner in both human and posthuman forms, ready to break their ever-tightening bond.

Ellie, who could easily have been made into a plot device, is the show’s engaging heartbeat, simultaneously reminding Joel of what he’s been missing, and filling him with a sense of purpose he hasn’t felt since his darkest days. Lost love is part of the series, but more significant in The Last of Us is the fatherly pseudo-love that exists between the two. Bella Ramsey is simply sexy as Elle, switching effortlessly between delicate vulnerability, youthful excitement, and definite strength. It’s a real revelation and deserves all the credit in the world for making its mark on a character whose previous interpretation was so firmly ingrained in people’s minds. It’s dynamite from the start, but Ramsay goes from strength to strength according to Joel and Ellie’s relationship as the season progresses.

Pedro Pascal, meanwhile, deftly steps into the worn-out shoes of Joel Miller, Southern fried droll and all, and carries himself in a convincing, expert, and exhausting fashion. He is often impassioned and calm—serving as a foil to Ellie’s infectious energy—and is able to powerfully express deep emotions with a single look of his eyes. Fits the role perfectly; Reticent in the face of adversity and able to position himself at every end of Joel’s emotional spectrum, from warm concern to ruthless violence.

Bella Ramsey is simply sexy as Elle.

The pair round out strong performances as the characters weave in and out of Joel and Ellie’s journey. They include Anna Torv as steely Tess, Gabriel Luna as Joel’s estranged brother Tommy, and Lamar Johnson as the layered and compassionate Henry. Special mention must go to the unforgettable Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett as grieving Bill and Frank, respectively. We spend fleeting time with some great shows that constantly serve to remind us of the fragility of life. If The Last of Us drew a Venn diagram made up of circles of good and evil, the overlapping middle ground would be massively overcrowded.

Season 1 packs a lot into its nine episodes, which can make it feel a little rushed at times as it hurtles towards its conclusion. This conclusion still packs the gut he needs, and it’s one that was ultimately earned. However, I’m pretty familiar with the world of The Last of Us from having played each game a few times, but I’m wondering if the uninitiated might struggle with a number of new concepts and words (FEDRA, Fireflies, Cordyceps, etc) constantly in the early episodes when The pace is maximum.

A show is at its best when it allows itself room to breathe, and The Last of Us often shines in those pockets. Yes, seeing re-creations of pivotal scenes from the game brought to life offers its own kind of thrill, but it’s even more exciting when exploring path-less paths – a condition best illustrated by the arrival of Bill Nick Offerman. He’s a character with incredible new depth as a handwritten note from the game is expanded into TV’s finest hour of the season. A heartbreaking account of love being found in a world torn apart by so much, it’s a special story elegantly brought to life through tender performances.

It explores themes reflected through Ellie’s eyes in another notable later episode, and is a testament to how the love between two people–no matter who they are or who they choose to share it with–perseveres even as the world and the bodies that physically guide it fade away. To the show’s creators’ credit, two distinct episodes pushed same-sex relationships firmly to the fore when it could have been so easy to sneak them in as a footnote. It is served without judgment and with full ceremony. In a post-apocalyptic void that deprives any air of happiness from flourishing, the rare sparks of life are most important and poignant–like fireflies lighting an abandoned glass jar.

To the show’s creators’ credit, two distinct episodes forcefully push quirky relationships to the fore.

Visually, The Last of Us is often a sight to see, even when the camera is pointed at fiercely ugly subjects. Details like old paint flakes on the walls and fungal veins creeping across the floors convincingly sweep through most of the building. The vast landscape paints pictures of the classic Western, especially with the changing seasons and snow on the ground. But while The Last of Us is a great-looking show, it particularly excels in its sound. Faraway cries and close clicks often echo terrifyingly through scenes in a world so quiet any sound could be disturbing. The original score is great too, with familiar songs from Gustavo Santaolalla’s acclaimed soundtrack singing in unison with the original pieces pulsating and making their way through some of its most exciting moments.

Tonally, obvious comparisons can be drawn to The Road, but The Last of Us rarely reaches the unrelenting levels of bleakness that Cormac McCarthy’s novel did, nor does its subsequent film adaptation. For every helping of the apocalyptic, there is a tiny bit of shimmer or glimmer of light. The Last of Us may present itself as a hopeless world but over the course of the season, it reveals a lot more worth fighting for, and in that respect is more reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men in both its themes and visual identity. Low saturation grays, greens and browns sometimes give way to bursts of flame or flashes of gunfire. Bombed-out cities still show flashes of life and echoes of a civilization worth saving, as both tales ultimately come down to the successful smuggling of a young woman and the forces of love and the human spirit when battling Mother Nature’s ruthless will.

There’s barely a still camera shot throughout, thematically connected to the ever-moving nature of the story as we move from place to place across America. There is no Hollywood glamour, nor any superhero feats. It’s all very human and rustic, and clumsy encounters in the action scenes. You can smell the fear and sweat coming off Joel during the cut – rooting the action in the tangible stakes in every encounter. While there are some notable moments in the combat, The Last of Us is really more interested in showing the aftermath of the violence than the violence itself, letting each gunshot echo long before the next is fired.

The procedure is used sparingly – but often to shocking effect – such as the appearances of sufferers. Close-ups of the infected and their new fibrous biology are downright disgusting as fuzzy tendrils crawl out of their mouths like nesting xenomorphs. Their scalp implants add layers of fear to each one, and each feels like a truly mortal threat no matter how well-armed Joel and Ellie are. In the game, the presence of the infected is mainly felt through gameplay and combat encounters. Since the show isn’t based on constantly giving the player something to do with their hands, it instead chooses to focus on the human stories out there in this world and does so in a big way. That said, I can only hope for one or two more flick appearances over the course of the nine episodes, as we sometimes go through extended stretches of multiple installments without seeing the horror they can bring.

The Last of Us is more concerned with showing the aftermath of violence than with the violence itself.

On the whole, the plot doesn’t stray too far from its source material, but sometimes strays off course in order to shed light on previously unexplored corners of the world. Certain shots or lines of dialogue will have players doing their best Leonardo DiCaprio referencing TV impressions, but crucially, those never feel shocking, instead fitting perfectly with the play’s aesthetic. The liberal use of flashbacks paints a larger picture of the world at large, giving additional context both personally and globally and providing societal snapshots of life before and after the outbreak.

You really feel like Druckmann enjoys revisiting his story and adding sections, like an early stop in Indonesia, that it didn’t make sense to have in the game. It also takes time to explore themes common to Mazin’s previous work on Chernobyl—primarily the courageous struggle of working-class people against despair and government failure. Despite this, he never shies away from the highly personal human impact that the forever changing world has on its people in various ways. There is a real sense of a creative partnership working at the height of its power here as ideas old and new blend, and ultimately triumph.

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