‘The Last of Us,’ a study on humanity in crisis

By Skylar Fondren


HBO Max’s The Last of Us premiered on Jan. 15 of this year, quickly becoming a worldwide sensation. With Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie, this video game adaptation has been brought to life in a whole different way, for fans old and new. The first season only has nine episodes in total, but it has made quick work of telling a story that should take a long time to tell. This is not a drag on the show, in fact, the show has taken the story and made it attainable to fans of the game and new viewers. This show has thus far been an excellent example of a game adaptation, knowing when to stick to the original and when to take creative liberties. The characters are properly represented and the visuals are unlike any apocalypse show I’ve ever seen. 

The story begins with Joel Miller, a contractor, and his daughter Sarah. It’s Joel’s birthday and Sarah gives him a beautiful watch. Unfortunately, this is when time stops for the Miller family. Unbeknownst to Joel and Sarah, the outbreak of the Cordyceps infection has already begun and it is too late to stop the downfall of humanity. Cordyceps is a real fungus that is known for its terrifying abilities to overtake insects, using their bodies as vessels for spreading their disease. In Joels world, this fungus has mutated, now able to control humans as well. These infected people are set on one thing: spreading. Joel’s brother Tommy arrives to take Sarah and Joel to safety, but this ends in bloodshed. The viewer then witnesses what will shape Joel for the rest of his life, as a soldier shoots at him and Sarah, killing Sarah. 

Twenty years later, Joel is a hardened shell of the loving father he once was. He is a changed man, willing to do whatever he needs to survive. We meet Tess, his business partner, when they are tasked with carrying cargo outside of their quarantine zone, the area that the military government has protected from infected. However, this military government, called FEDRA, is not taking care of the people under its watch. The world is cruel, but there is a group set on taking down the fascist government called the Fireflies. Joel does not care for either, preferring to stay uninvolved. However, the Fireflies have something he needs: a car battery, his ticket out of town. He finds out quickly that the cargo he needs to transport is a fourteen year old girl with an attitude, Ellie Williams. 

We follow Joel, Ellie and Tess on their journey to get Ellie to another group of fireflies, but they encounter problems along the way. Each episode is better than the last, with phenomenal acting from Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. Though many were questioning Ramsey’s ability to portray Ellie, anyone watching should have quickly changed their minds. Ramsey is a force to be reckoned with, showing such incredible acting, illustrating subtle and extreme horror, shock, terror, anger in ways that hit the viewer at the core. Episode 8, which came out Mar. 5, was Ramsey’s best episode yet, as the episode was focused only on Ellie.  Without spoiling it, Ramsey deserves an Emmy for the performance she gave. Pascal is incredible as well, with the internet going crazy over the addition of another father figure to add to his list of similar characters he’s played. Pascal and Ramsey are the perfect Joel and Ellie, and with the finale premiering at the end of this week, I have no doubt that they will blow me away. 

As evidence of the dedication put into adapting this show, HBO hired Neil Druckmann, creator of The Last of Us video game, to be the story writer. With someone from the original having influence on the show, this has allowed for the show to be almost a frame for frame copy of the game in many places, while also making changes that add to the story, rather than take away. Seeing the scenes from the game and show side by side were incredible, making it hard to say who did it best because they were so similar, yet each portrayal was unique in its own way because of what the actors and voice actors brought to the characters. 

This show is a think piece on humanity during an apocalypse. Oftentimes, we see violence in these kinds of shows, on fellow men and on the zombies, but why is this? What makes The Last of Us different from all the rest? It comes down to Joel and Ellie. These characters are as human as it gets, and they make choices that reflect that. Joel is selfish, closed off, but he comes to care deeply for Ellie, so much so that it causes him to get panic attacks. Within this story is a chance of hope, of saving the world from the virus, but ultimately Joel does not make the choice to save the world, he makes the choice to save his world, which is now Ellie. He is human in that he is selfish, making decisions that will benefit him and the people he cares for, rather than strangers. In the second part of the game, we see the same selfishness in Ellie and in her “enemies.” Every perspective in this game is meant to be a human choice, not a matter of right and wrong, but a matter of humanity. It’s hard for the viewer because we want our protagonist to be the good guys, but that is not the case in The Last of Us. Joel kills innocent people, as does Ellie, as a human act to take care of their own. From the perspective of the murdered person’s family, we might feel differently about Joel’s actions, but because it has kept our main characters alive, we feel that they had to make that choice. It was Joel and Ellie or them. There is no right choice, but there is a choice that carries the game/show along.