This review contains mild spoliers
Upon hearing the news that The Last of Us — a game I had loved since 2016 — was going to receive its own television adaptation with HBO, a million questions crossed my mind: Who will they cast? Will the series do the original game justice? How will a video game translate into a TV series? - After the release of Uncharted (2022) adapting another major Naughty Dog franchise, I think you can understand why I was getting nervous.
Now, several bad puns and buckets of tears later, this show has succeeded in every respect. And I think a big part of that was its medium - embracing an episodic experience rather than a singular two hour film. Having more success as a series has also been seen recently with Marvel’s new projects, and it makes much more sense for a game to be split by its levels. The comparison with Uncharted stops here though, because The Last of Us has exceeded almost all of my expectations, likely due to the fact that Neil Druckmann — the co-President of Naughty Dog — was heavily involved behind the scenes, teaming up with Craig Mazin who is known for Chernobyl (2019), and Greg Spence, who is known for Game of Thrones (2011-2019). Druckmann’s involvement with the series ensured that the core elements of the game were preserved, demonstrated by the fantastic casting of Pedro Pascal as Joel, and Bella Ramsay as Ellie.
As unbelievable as it may sound, some fans of the game rejected Ramsay’s casting as Ellie — something to do with them not looking identical to a group of moving pixels. But Ramsay’s performance is astonishingly good in the series: every quip, every pun, every anger-fuelled scream is delivered perfectly, so heavy with emotion that they are impossible to dislike. Bella Ramsay is Ellie Williams, and this isn’t up for debate.
Other exciting roles included cameos from Troy Baker, who originally voiced Joel, as James. That’s David’s (Scott Shepherd) right-hand man, in case that doesn’t ring a bell. Ashley Johnson originally voiced Ellie, and her role as Ellie’s mother was extremely fitting, even if I was briefly thrown off by her voice that was so familiar. Finally, Merle Dandridge reprised her role as Marlene, delivering an equally passionate performance that I’m certain plenty of other fans were excited to see.
The best episodes of the series were three, five, and eight. There was a different kind of heartbreak in these episodes, and even though I was so glad that Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank’s (Murray Bartlett) story had the space to evolve so that we could watch Bill’s character develop (even if that meant Ellie never got to meet him), the anguish I felt by the end left the biggest void in my heart since the first ten minutes of Up: I’m not sure if I can forgive Druckmann after that. What begins as a beautiful love story ends tragically, and while their fate is unfathomably devastating, we find ourselves accepting Bill’s decision, because wouldn’t you do the same? Similarly, Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam’s (Keivonn Montreal) episode cut into my heart deeply and further showed the brilliance of the creative team’s minds. Ellie believing her blood would fix Sam before the inevitable must have hit many others as hard as it did me when she discovered she failed, and the heaviness of Henry’s last moments were performed so well: an older brother who cannot see the point in surviving through a post-apocalyptic world without his younger brother. It’s far more harrowing to watch outside the game, however the series eliciting these emotions serves to demonstrate the core sentiments of this universe, its emphasis on humanity and which of our actions change when the constraints of our ordered society are stripped away.
For fans that predate the series, the creators also left many easter eggs, including those to set the scene for season two. The Naughty Dog logo can be seen during the Left Behind episode — I won’t spoil where — and they also include the aforementioned cameos. True Faith by Lotte Kestner was also featured as a song in episode four’s credits, which will lead fans to recall the trailer for Part II. For season two, the design of Jackson being reminiscent of Part II prevented any continuity errors, and a brief glimpse of Dina suggests there’s more to come. This also means that the Firefly surgeon is shot by Joel at the hospital. Long term fans have also welcomed back Gustavo Santaolalla’s musical talents, which are the foundation of the tense and emotional moments in the series, with a title sequence so beautiful that I never skipped. I was visually stunned to find that the Infected weren’t CGI, and seeing behind the scenes pictures of their prosthetic suits was completely unbelievable. The talent and skill of the crew behind the scenes needs to be mentioned because the horde of Infected in episode five was genuinely terrifying, and I hope that this sets a precedent for film crews in the future.
While I adored the series, it couldn’t escape some downfalls. Least importantly, I was surprised that True Faith scored a credits feature but not Future Days by Pearl Jam. I would have guessed it was perfect for the final episode, but perhaps Druckmann is saving it for season two. In a perfectly biased opinion, I also missed the scenes where Ellie’s inability to swim is tested and Joel’s instinct is to ensure her safety, such as when they jump from the bridge or right before they reach St Mary’s. I just thought they were great touches in the game, and would have made Ellie’s single statement about not being able to swim more impactful. Finally, the biggest issue for me was the shift in Ellie’s ideology from the game to the series. I can’t figure out why Druckmann would change Ellie’s perception of the Fireflies and FEDRA. In the game, Ellie doesn’t have much against the Fireflies, even suggesting that she could join the group herself to be with Riley. She clearly has some sort of bond with Marlene. It was interesting to me then, that in the series Ellie calls them “terrorists” and “anarchists”, while Riley attempts to illuminate FEDRA’s fascism. Ellie defends FEDRA in a way that she never does in the game, claiming that “they hold everything together”. It struck me as an unnecessary political detail that implies Ellie rejects what the Fireflies stand for: the fight against fascism. I would go as far as to say that it is at odds with the character that we’ve grown to love, especially as Ellie is such a rebellious teenager; it doesn’t make sense that she would defend oppressive rules. Additionally, Marlene is the only reason that Ellie is in the FEDRA school, and her affiliation with Ellie’s mother evokes a sentimental attachment, as it is implied that she has grown up knowing her personally, given her loyal character traits.
Despite this, however, The Last of Us is a triumph for Druckmann and Mazin, and has set a high bar for subsequent video game adaptations to reach, such as the recent Super Mario Bros film. As a fan of the game, it was fascinating to see which elements of the game were seen as essential to the story, and which they felt they could cut. The lack of the basement level spared me from the main terror of the game, and left more room for me to emotionally immerse myself into this universe.