Post-apocalyptic drama The Last of Us is a cracking start to 2023

By Bianca Coleman18 January 2023

Post-apocalyptic drama The Last of Us is a cracking start to 2023

More than ever, it’s critical that a series comes strong out the starting gates. With its first episode, HBO’s The Last of Us does exactly that. Experienced series viewers will feel it without having to refer to reviews or ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb or Google. If those stats make you feel better, they are 99%, 9.5/10 and 97% respectively. One episode, and all it does is set everything up for the following eight. Still, a lot happens.

The critics are raving too, with headlines like “one of the finest TV shows you will see this year” (The Guardian), “TV series of hit game praised by critics” (BBC News), “Expands on the games – and often betters them” (Games Radar), and “stays true to the game, and hits just as hard” (Washington Post).

Its legacy as a Playstation game since 2013 does mean The Last of Us is not entirely new for millions – 20 million units sold as of 2019 – but exactly because of this, the live action adaption comes with some performance pressure. Books to movies, same thing. So far, so good.

Watch The Last of Us trailer

You don’t have to be familiar with the game to enjoy the series, and if you have been or are a player, you will know the outcome. Happily for you, writer and executive producer Craig Mazin promises: “It’s about the journey. I have played The Last of Us about 12 times – I know how it ends. I love the journey. And we promise, there will be surprises along the way. If you’ve played the game, there are things that you don’t know that are coming, that will blow your mind.”

Nutshell: In the game, players control Joel, a smuggler tasked with escorting a teenage girl, Ellie, across a post-apocalyptic United States. The Last of Us is played from a third-person perspective. 

The series stars Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones) as Joel and Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones, His Dark Materials) as Ellie, with a supporting cast of Gabriel Luna as Joel’s brother Tommy; Anna Torv as Tess, Joel’s partner; and Merle Dandridge as Marlene, leader of rebel militia Fireflies, who also voices the character in the game. Den of Geek has the cast list, including new characters, as well as details about other actors who have also crossed over from the game to the series.

The first episode opens in 1968 with a science talk show that informs us of what is to come, and the science is solid. Says the epidemiologist, “One [fungi] gene could mutate, any one of them could be capable of burrowing in our brains and taking control not of millions of us but billions of us; puppets with poisoned minds, permanently fixed on one unifying goal, to spread the infection to every last human alive by any means necessary. And there are no treatments for this, no preventatives, no cures, they don’t exist and it’s not even possible to make them. We lose.”

Esquire spoke to renowned entomologist and biologist Professor David Hughes who consulted for the game (wearing a T-shirt that says “Every disaster movie starts with somebody ignoring a scientist”) and he knows his scary stuff. He says: “The fungal group that caused this, cordyceps, do go into plants and grain. There’s one called rye ergot. And when humans eat infected rye, they have psychotic episodes.” It’s a fascinating interview.

Fun facts: cordyceps are used extensively in health supplements. Penicillin is also a fungus. And ergot is a component of LSD.

From the intro, things move along swiftly. Three years later and all hell breaks loose with not much warning at all. Then it’s fast forward 20 years to 2023, where things are pretty nasty. Joel is shovelling dead bodies in a dystopian quarantine zone managed by the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA), where the penalty for unauthorised exit is public hanging.

Joel and Tess are planning to go look for Tommy who has been incommunicado for too long, but they find themselves responsible for transporting 14-year-old Ellie to Massachusetts State House on behalf of Fireflies, in exchange for supplies. Why Ellie is so important will still be revealed (although we get an idea at the end of the first episode, but no spoilers), and it’s safe to say this is not going to be a simple mission. Otherwise, where’s the story, right?

The Last of Us is on Showmax

The Last of Us is instantly and effortlessly engaging, even for someone who hasn’t played a game since Doom came out. Critics are swooning over performances, writing, production design, and score, and rightly so. There is a certain beauty in a ravaged world. Bonus points for that score being composed by Gustavo Santaolalla, who composed for the game, and David Fleming; and the whole thing being written by Neil Druckmann, who wrote the game. Having these major players on board ensures harmony. 

What critics are saying about The Last of Us

“HBO’s The Last of Us places a lot of faith in its source material’s writing. The TV adaptation doesn’t veer far from the script set by the video game. That confidence is not misplaced,” says The Washington Post. “Because The Last of Us was already structured and written like a TV show, HBO’s rendition is primed to work — and it does. It treats most of the key scenes well, with doting respect. In some ways, the story is better for it, thanks to more granular insight into the lives of certain characters.” 

Gamesradar – and we should be listening to those who have played and love the game – says: “The Last of Us has a thankless task ahead of it. HBO’s adaptation of Naughty Dog’s PlayStation classic not only has to appeal to a legion of fans who will nitpick every minor change from the games, but it also has to stand out among a crowded marketplace of post-apocalyptic dramas teeming with zombie-like threats. Fortunately, the premiere does the almost miraculous: it expands on the games – and often betters them.” As you might expect, the website has extensive coverage of the series and comparisons with the game.

Writer John Nugent, for Empire Magazine, gave it five stars, claiming “it never feels like you’re watching a video game”, although he commented “it is a sometimes surreal experience to see its most iconic moments (the collapsed skyscraper, the giraffes) handsomely rendered in live action.”

It’s normally easy enough to find confirmation bias in online reviews but The Last of Us seems to be unanimously positive. “This desperately moving drama set in a zombie-ravaged US is a phenomenal blend of horror and heart, with a cast that could not be more perfect,” says The Guardian.

Watch The Last of Us episodes

New episodes of The Last of Us land every Monday, fresh from the US. Binge them all on Showmax from 13 March 2023.

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