The Last of Us, Craig Maizin

Post-Apocalyptic ‘The Last of Us’ Begs the Question – Do We Ever Learn? 

The characters in Craig Mazin’s hit series, The Last of Us, are just like the rest of us – violent, tyrannical, and on the verge of being irredeemable. Yet we hope for them, still.

The Last of Us
Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann
15 January 2023 -

There are two main points nearly every critic has made about HBO’s latest prestige cum tentpole show, The Last of Us, which debuted on 15 January: it is the best video game adaptation ever made, and it is the best zombie television series in recent memory, possibly ever. Both the advanced and a posteriori reviews were quick to shove disclaimers in their subheadings and headlines even, that the viewers should not be “worried” the show would “suck” like the majority of video game-inspired narratives; also that it “surpasses” the tropes of the zombie apocalypse genre, its enjoyability being augmented by “great acting” and “big budget sets”.   

To be blunt, neither of the claims bears much relevance. At 37 million copies sold, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us game series, written by Neil Druckmann, who, with Craig Mazin, created the television series, is one of the most successful games of the 21st century. It is especially lauded for its superb writing, outstanding dialogue, careful pacing, and engrossing world-building – all reasons behind its universal recognition.

The first game, released in 2013, swept the awards circuit where applicable, winning the Outstanding Achievement in Video Game Writing at the Writers Guild of America awards, as well as Outstanding Achievement in Story at the 2014 D.I.C.E. Awards, the biggest awards show in the video gaming industry. Indeed, The Last of Us video game is so grand that it pulled in people of all ages and from all walks of life; it has always been evident it would command a sizeable gaming audience no matter the television show’s quality. That The Last of Us happens to be a good television series relative to other video game adaptations, most of which are adrenaline-charged fan services by design, doesn’t say much. We’ve known for a decade that Druckmann could produce brilliant stories – it would have only been a shock were the show any less good than the game.

Moreover, we’re not the only ones aware of the expectations here. HBO, raconteurs extraordinaire of television networks, hired Mazin of 2019’s Chernobyl miniseries fame to work side by side with Druckmann to build upon the franchise’s narrative and deliver a series worthy of the network’s cachet. Mazin, himself a fan who played the game 12 times, commanded a budget of more than $10 million per episode. With such a deep pocket and pedigree, chances were slim that The Last of Us would be a blunder. HBO seldom misfires anyhow. 

Lastly, the zombie-apocalypse genre is thematically broad enough not to be casually simplified. Its tropes deal with many of the timeless civilizational concerns, most notably the breakdown of society in the wake of a catastrophe of disease and violence. Stating that The Last of Us “honored” or “subverted” the genre without added insight is another empty claim. 

To wrap this brief tirade up: given the source material and the names behind it, we knew The Last of Us would be “good”. Meticulously crafted, folksily metaphysical, and hugely watchable, it is an expected triumph for its horde of swanky creators and a template HBO success. Pedro Pascal is an ideal fit for the cynical, joyless Joel, the 19-year-old Bella Ramsey impresses as mouthy teenager Ellie; the supporting cast is spot on too, with Ana Torv, Diego Luna, and Melanie Lynskey stealing the scenes they are in. Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett give career-best performances as Bill and Frank, whose stories were greatly expanded from the game to form a near-standalone episode of staggering emotional resonance.

Still, what’s truly fascinating about The Last of Us is its examination of the horrifying, simmering allegories that have made it the hit it is. The show’s, as well as the game’s relentless dissection of the phenomenon of “human nature” and the cyclical nature of violence, are the real attention-grabbers here. So much so that the show has already been renewed for a second season after breaking viewership records.

Set in 2023 (as opposed to the game’s 2033), The Last of Us follows a 56-year-old smuggler and self-proclaimed outcast Joel, who accepts the task of smuggling Ellie, a spunky 14-year-old, across most of today’s US – what is left of it anyway. Twenty years prior, a cataclysmic outbreak of the brain-controlling fungus Cordyceps – a real thing for insects – turned the vast majority of the world’s population into the zombified “Infected”. Having endured post-apocalypse survival for a full two decades, Joel, like the other remnants of society, is hardened and intensely pragmatic. Living alongside his partner Tess in the sheltered Bostonian “Quarantine Zone” (QZ), ruled by the autocratic Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA), Joel accepts the mission reluctantly and only at the behest of Marlene, the local leader of a rebel alliance called the Fireflies.

Over the course of nine episodes – just like in Part One of the game – we follow Joel and Elle on their dangerous quest to find out why Ellie is so special to the Fireflies and if, indeed, she holds the key to humankind’s survival. As the journey progresses, these two standoffish characters form a poignant bond, repeatedly tested by the countless obstacles they encounter, most of which are other uninfected humans.

Knowing it would be foolish to replicate the already cinematic game on the big screen, Mazin and Druckmann agreed on a sly approach of narrative building on side stories and details while delivering some inevitable fan service with frame-by-frame perfect copies of many of the game’s desolate landscapes. What remains of the cities is cold, dark, and hostile. Vines, moss, rust, and rubble reign where humanity once thrived. Endless rows of scorched cars along former transportation arteries remind us of countless victims, some of whom we briefly see in flashbacks. Just two decades after civilization fell apart, the physical world as we knew it no longer exists. The creators ensure we are uncomfortably aware of this in virtually every scene. This otherness of once familiar spaces is not just a “natural” consequence of the calamity – it also serves to alienate and insulate the characters and viewers from the atrocities committed at every turn. But we will get to that. 

Unlike the game, which commences mere hours before the Cordyceps outbreak, the show’s introductory scene takes us back to 1968 (a wonderfully sneaky shoutout to The Night of the Living Dead, the first zombie apocalypse film which kicked off the canon that year), and a talk show dedicated to a pandemic. In this deliberately prolonged and ominous opener, one epidemiologist mentions the horrific potential threat of “influenza”, a “virus”. He is, however, immediately cooly cut off by another academic (an utterly superb Jon Hannah), who maintains a deadpan look, cigarette in hand, while explaining that the more likely downfall of civilization would occur as a result of an evolving fungus. Such a scene never appeared in the game, but in 2023 it is a knockout for the viewers of the show, for whom the actuality of the COVID-19 pandemic still feels a little too close to home.

Or does it? Despite nearly 700 million infections (that we know about), seven million deaths, and unique socioeconomic devastation felt by every person who has lived through it, it is hardly a secret that merely months after the pandemic peaked, most people scarcely mention COVID-19, let alone observe any health and safety precautions. The pandemic wreaked havoc on every aspect of our lives, yet most of us act as if nothing happened. The singular disaster didn’t make us kinder, more cautious, or communitarian; one could argue that exactly the opposite happened.

This casualness with which warnings and crises are ignored in a global society that thrives on forgetting more than it does on remembrance is immanent in the civilization as The Last of Us franchise sees it. Our civilization that is. Mazin and Druckmann are in on this cruel joke and pull no punches when criticizing our history with intense naturalistic pessimism. For this reason, the story starts “before the beginning”. Every catastrophe that has befallen humankind came with a warning, one we chose to ignore and, afterward, not to learn from. When the host asks Hannah’s Dr. Neuman how such a potential catastrophe ends, he laconically sneers: “We lose.”

Some 35 years on, we encounter Joel Miller, a salt-of-the-earth Texan working long hours in construction while raising his 14-year-old daughter Sarah solo. While Joel and Sarah have no family to rely on except for Joel’s younger brother, Tommy, they are full of love and support for one another. Pedro Pascal and Diego Luna are perfectly cast as two very different but caring brothers, while the young Storm Reid shines as Sarah. It is the day of Joel’s birthday and, as luck would have it, the day the pandemic starts. Sarah moves around her neighborhood, waiting for Joel to come home from work (he’s late again) when she realizes something is terribly off. Her neighborhood is morbidly quiet, and the people seem to have disappeared.

The sense of dread builds until we witness the first Infected indiscriminately attacking other humans to feed on and infect them. Chaos ensues as the media shuts down and millions attempt to flee the cities, among them the Millers. Merely hours into their horrifying flight, they are intercepted by a military officer whose orders are clear and simple: shoot. That is the night Joel suffers a loss one never recovers from, but not (just) because of the Infected. One scene after another, we are reminded that it’s other humans, just like us, that do the most damage. 

Mazin and Druckmann filmed the intro alone as Episode 1, but HBO executives felt the viewers would need more reason (more hope?) to return, so they fused the first two episodes, making the inaugural chapter “When You’re Lost in the Darkness”, near-feature length. This piece of trivia is also the answer to why there is an odd number of episodes. Fast forward to 2023, and we find Joel in the Boston QZ, an ostensibly safe military zone that is a totalitarian ruin of a society. He is a changed man, smuggling contraband and doing odd jobs while FEDRA rules with an iron fist. The punishment for nearly every transgression is instant court-martial and death. Minutes in, we see some people who sneaked out of the zone being hanged while a crowd watches. 

After a peek into the dismal reality Joel and Tess share to make their days bearable, we’re introduced to the rebellious and also violent Fireflies, who implore Joel to go on a smuggling mission. “Queen Firefly” Marlene, played proudly by Merle Dandridge, who voiced the character in the games, is desperate but hopeful as she leads Joel to meet his “cargo” – a feisty 14-year-old orphan Ellie Williams. The mission is to smuggle Ellie out of the QZ and to the nearest Fireflies’ safe space for reasons unknown. The pair are, unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, skeptical of each other, but Pascal’s and Ramsey’s wonderful chemistry shines even early on, making for plenty of amusing introductory dialogue.

No sooner did our deuteragonists leave the QZ than all hell breaks loose. While this essay intends to refrain from major spoilers, it’s safe to presume even the uninitiated understand that Joel and Ellie will not end their trip at their first stop. Otherwise, we’d have no game or show. Throughout Season 1 of The Last of Us, they will be moving through the derelict US, doing whatever they can to survive, this all too often resulting in the most horrifying of acts. Over the course of the first half of the season alone, the body count of those murdered/executed will comfortably surpass that of the victims of the Infected. Some people are hanged, and some are electrocuted. Some are shot out of sheer anger or vanity.

On their journey to locate the Fireflies and track down Tommy, who’s missing, the odd couple will witness brutality in nearly every contact they make with other humans. What’s more, they will respond in kind. While Joel and Ellie learn to relax around and care for each other, they will make all the same mistakes other people in The Last of Us make. They will get tangled up in a horrendous cycle of destructiveness that won’t be broken. By the time we come into contact with Kathleen’s (Melanie Lynskey) ruthless gang running Kansas City in Episode 4, we’ll have all but forgotten about the Infected. 

While the depiction of violence, even casual violence, is nothing new in Hollywood or in the realm of the postapocalyptic, the ease with which extreme brutality is delivered upon virtually anyone standing in anyone else’s way is nearly peerless in contemporary art. Some of this violence rests in the morally grey shadow typical for the survival genre, but a good amount of it is outright callous and unnecessary, acts committed with no regard for others’ well-being. As in the game, there is so much violence in The Last of Us that the viewers are quickly desensitized. We observe all of this happening in seemingly alien spaces from a distance, resulting in the shootouts at times seeming a bit cartoonish even.

However, the same perspective is reserved for whichever character takes center stage: all the survivors are constantly ill at ease in their surroundings no matter where they are. Neither the ones born after the pandemic had begun nor the older ones seem to recognize or accept the spaces they find themselves in, be it the QZs, lost highways, decrepit edifices, or sometimes their own homes. The ontological distance between the people and their surroundings makes it easier for them not just to commit heinous acts but to forget they are doing so.

The Last of Us is often compared with Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road and another famous zombie series, The Walking Dead (2010-22), but the similarities are mostly aesthetic. McCarthy’s novels are similarly brutal, but his fiction features strong religious, at times even gnostic overtones, something that is deliberately omitted in The Last of Us. There is a worshipping cult in Part Two of the game, which will almost certainly debut in Season 2 of the show, but none of the major characters or their organizations seem remotely connected to providence or the promise of rapture. The Last of Us is also considerably more nihilistic and absurdist than The Walking Dead – while the latter has its fair share of callous murderers believing in nothing but their agenda, hope and possibility are also thematically present, unlike in The Last of Us. Some reviewers espouse hope and optimism in The Last of Us, but this fallacy stems from the idea of “salvation” humanity may yet encounter because of Ellie, a proverbial “innocent”. 

Indeed, the “hope” in question is shared by a very small number of people, but the bigger issue is how “hope” is allowed to persist, if at all. The ones fighting, be it individually or in groups, do so with such ruthlessness that they cannot, morally speaking, be seen as participants in any “hopeful” society. There is no unified, or even discernible, teleological motivation in any of the factions’ actions, except maybe with the Fireflies. Most of the POV characters in The Last of Us have no expectations of their lives, let alone a sense of purpose; Joel’s patronage of Ellie’s mission doesn’t make him more optimistic. If anything, it makes him more likely to do abhorrent things, thus maintaining the cycle of horror. The Last of Us takes every opportunity to give Joel and everyone else a chance to stop, to break the spiral of bloodshed, but nobody ever does.

Quite to the contrary, the characters become more skilled in rationalizing and excuses – just like they become more skilled in shooting or cutting their victims. In one of the later scenes, an imprisoned character implores his torturer, “please, this has to stop.” “Oh, you mean it has to stop now?” sneers the brute. You can imagine the outcome of such thinking. No sense of faith can be inferred as there is no desire to learn and change, there’s merely carnage and fully self-serving agendas. Even Ellie escalates to shooting people and wishing them harm, losing her innocence with each passing encounter. In that respect, the last of us are just like the rest of us – violent, tyrannical, and on the verge of being irredeemable. 

This vision laid out by Druckmann in the game, which Mazin fully adopts and enhances in the show, is a curiously Nietzschean one; hence, a rare beast in television programs. The society our deuteragonists inhabit is founded on continuous oppression and bloodshed, which repeats in varied forms, while the people in it are not much afflicted by feelings of shame or moral responsibility. If this sounds too bleak, we need only remember the plot twist: The Last of Us is not just a dystopian vision. It is a method of telling the history of civilization. Whatever optimism such a civilization may foster can be intimated only in the private sphere, away from the eyes of the public. 

That being said, The Last of Us is littered with precious moments of empathy and human connection, on however small a scale. As Joel and Ellie’s relationship develops, we learn to see the world through the lens of a girl who has never seen it before. Ramsey impresses as the ingenue struggling to make sense of the world and a connection with others. Born after the pandemic wiped out most of the population, Ellie had never left the confines of the Boston QZ until Joel took her under his wing. Her astonishment with popular music and childish ruminations on the banalest of trinkets are as endearing as they are heartbreaking.

Day in and out, she asks Joel about life before the cataclysm. There is a wonderfully funny moment when she sits in a car for the first time in Episode 3 and exclaims: “It’s like a spaceship!” Even Joel can’t suppress a smile at that, or whenever Ellie cracks a silly joke (there’ll be plenty of those as she finds a book with puns along the way). Both the dialogue and the quiet moments they share are golden. Pascal’s and Ramsey’s seamless embodiment of these iconic characters is at the root of the show’s success. One must also credit the discreet yet evocative string score by Gustavo Santaolalla. 

Speaking of precious moments, Episode 3, “Long Long Time”, is a near-standalone work some 75 minutes in length, where we learn the story of Bill and Frank (Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett). Bill, a survivalist and a minor character in the game, is greatly broadened here, while Frank, who’s barely mentioned otherwise, gets a whole new life in the television version. Spanning nearly two decades of in turns hilarious and distressing moments, this episode is trademark HBO/Mazin excellence, impeccably conveying the show’s essence in an intimate miniature and then some. Their story will likely be remembered as one of the best television episodes this year. Offerman screaming exasperatedly, “They are all Nazis!” or monotonously sniggering, “I was happy when everyone died,” will certainly enter the annals of comedy. indeed, the “Long Long Time” episode is so hyped that it landed a rating of 9/10 on IMDB before it aired.

While Bill spectacularly managed to shelter himself from the horrors of reality up to a point, we are quickly reminded that the chief duo of the story (just like everyone else) doesn’t share his luck. In Episode 4, Please Hold My Hand”, Joel and Ellie reach Kansas, where an original character, Kathleen (a chilling, exquisite Melanie Lynskey), mercilessly rules her faction of the resistance. Guns blaze, and we are back in the saddle for another round of atrociousness nobody emerges victorious or wiser from – assuming they emerge at all. The rest of the season will provide viewers with insights into Tommy’s fate, Ellie’s backstory in Episode 7, adapted from The Last of Us game expansion, Left Behind, and a wrap-up of the narrative from the first game.

The Last of Us might be a show about zombies in a postapocalyptic setting, but its many parallels with the mundanity of real life are stupefying. Dystopian fiction is, by definition, supposed to be speculative, offering scenarios that only partly stem from the historicities of the real world, partly opening possibilities for a new reality. What’s more, it’s fiction as such. It ought to bring catharsis through emotional, moral, and political dialectics between the characters, their worldviews, and their world. That’s what most fiction tries to accomplish anyhow.

Nevertheless, The Last of Us show, as well as the game, doesn’t allow for that. It is so firmly grounded in the material history of civilization that it saves no room for idealism, so much so that, at times, it borders on the absurdist. Zombie apocalypse dystopias, while drawing on universal human themes, should not in practice be too similar to the reality humankind has already experienced, but Druckmann and Mazin wanted to imbue images of the “human condition” with a modernistic approach. In The Last of Us, characters don’t “dream” of a bright future or work toward realizing their “purpose”. Though one of the protagonists is a 14-year-old, there isn’t a hint of a Bildungsroman here. Some postmodernism would be expected, but there is little self-reflexivity or irony. People die in the most savage ways, but there is no deus ex machina to neatly tie up a resolution. No, in The Last of Us, the characters are left on their own to wander a hostile, post-God Earth. As I mentioned, the only (if at all) reprieve happens inside secluded, private spaces, away from the political system, which is uniformly dangerous, no matter its creed. 

In this respect, The Last of Us is like Mazin’s other greatly lauded brainchild, Chernobyl, both in fiction and historical reality – but the parallels don’t end there. Kindness and humanistic reason exist mostly on an individual level, while our political systems remain rooted in oppression, opaqueness, and reliance on forgetting (the widely-accepted notion of “moving on”). In the politics of The Last of Us, as well as our own, transcendence is suppressed by self-serving rationalizations of those in power, while the catharsis on offer is minuscule and incomplete. It leaves us in a perpetual state of endurance, toil, and alienation from the physical world around us, with which we – just like the characters of the show and the game – are never reconciled. (The show, in particular,  leans in on this notion by showing us, repeatedly, that the only surmounting of the agony of existence is death).

Numerous carefully planted flashbacks to the “real world” show us again that violence, for most of those in power, is deemed a “necessary” condition to ensure their survival and prosperity. Joel and Ellie, between whom the age difference is 42 years, were born in very different worlds but still occupy the same civilizational continuum characterized by frightening indifference to other people’s plight and suffering. As the radio operator in the Boston QZ tells Joel in Episode One: “There are worse things than Infected out there. There are raiders. There are slavers.” And there we were, naïvely thinking we’ve learned something from the past, fictional or otherwise. 

In the US, where The Last of Us is set – and currently, the richest country in the world – 12.8% live in poverty, while 6 out of 10 Americans don’t have $500 in savings to cover unplanned expenses. More than 40,000 people die of gun violence every year. Things are considerably worse in most other parts of the globe (though, admittedly, not where firearms are concerned). Is this the best we can do?

Those who have played The Last of Us games are familiar with their bleak and cynical ending(s), but with the series, Mazin and Druckmann now get the opportunity to move beyond the games and possibly into a more optimistic resolution. There’s always some hope, but a truly hopeless world isn’t (just) the one where nobody dreams of a better future. It is the one where the future envisaged is no better than the horror of the present (a horror in which, ironically, the Infected are the lesser of the problems). The journey Ellie and Joel must take to achieve change is a torturous one, littered with peril and sacrifice, but we already know that the only way out of the darkness is through. If they learn anything in the process, that is.