Few TV series have been as eagerly anticipated as The Last of Us, an adaptation of one of the best videogames ever made. Does it live up to those expectations? Well, there’s no point in being coy. Yes. The Last of Us TV series is a near-perfect retelling of the original game that remains faithful to the beloved source material while still being its own entirely entertaining entity.
Now in case you’ve never played the game, we should probably recap the overall story. Don’t worry; we’re not going to spoil anything specific in this review, and what follows is just a general overview of the horror series. The Last of Us is set in 2023 in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a virulent fungus known as Cordyceps.
This malevolent mould has somehow gained the ability to infect human brains allowing it to take control of those exposed to it. Essentially, it’s a zombie apocalypse by way of toadstools, and it’s every bit as terrifying as it sounds.
With no way to fight or cure the infection, the government was forced to set up walled settlements known as Quarantine Zones (QZs), and humanity has spent the last two decades hiding from the vast swathes of infected. In that time, humanity has dwindled away to just a few thousand survivors, a fascist government known as FEDRA has seized control of the country, and society has broken down.
By the time the story begins, humanity has lost. The mould has won. Yet there’s still some hope. A group of freedom fighters (or terrorists, depending on your persuasion) known as The Fireflies believe that a young girl known as Ellie (Bella Ramsey) may hold the secret to curing the Cordyceps plague.
There’s just one problem. They need to get her to their lab out west beyond the safety of QZ if they want to make a vaccine, and things outside the protection of the walls aren’t pretty. There’s the infected, of course, but worse is the people – the raiders, the cannibals, and those who did what they had to do to survive. Any attempt to get Ellie west is basically a death sentence.
Enter Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler who’s no stranger to the wasteland over the walls and is heading out west to look for his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna). The Fireflies pay Joel to take Ellie out west, and so their adventure begins. Along the way, they’ll see incredible and dreadful things, and we can’t say anymore without spoiling the whole thriller series for you.
What we can say is that The Last of Us TV series is an absolutely riveting retelling of the videogame’s story that deviates just enough from the established narrative that it’ll keep those who played the game to death back in 2013 hooked as well. There are seeds lain that tease where the Cordyceps came from (something the game never did), and we get expanded backstories for some fan-favourite characters, like Bill and Frank.
To be honest, these alterations from the game’s canon gave us some of the show’s best episodes – notably episode 3, which is a real highlight. In fact, I’d go so far as to say sometimes I wished that writers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann had been a little more ambitious in their deviations from the game’s established canon.
That said, I realise even as I write this that that was never going to happen, and if it had, there’d be outrage. The Last of Us’s story is considered the high water mark by which we judge other videogames, and to tamper with too many threads while spinning this new yarn would risk the whole thing unravelling.
If you have played the game before watching, though, the sci-fi series still has a few surprises for you. This is done mainly by fleshing out the world pre-pandemic and the time before Joel and Ellie met. It’s a fun extended canon that might contradict some of the stuff said in the games, but the inconsistencies are so minor as to be non-existent.
One thing that the show does do very well, thanks to the excellent direction and immaculate production design, is capture the terrifying anxiety of walking through any level of The Last of Us. While watching, we challenge you not to be hyper-aware of figures in the background or listen out for groans and clicks. The infected, by the way, are beautiful in how horrifying they are. The designs are obviously drawn from the game, but seeing them in ‘real life’ is genuinely terrifying, especially the Clickers.
Even when the infected aren’t in an area, there’s no respite for Joel and Ellie as they seem to have the misfortune of running into every selfish bastard in America as they travel west. It’s difficult to write about without ruining the show for you, but those who’ve played the game won’t be disappointed when Joel and Ellie make it to Colorado, and that’s all we’re saying.
For the most part, however, the villains Ellie and Joel meet aren’t truly evil. They all have legitimate reasons for clashing with our heroes, and they never cross the line into cartoon villainy. In fact, many of the villains represent the road not taken for our heroes (especially Joel). They’re just people trying to survive in a world gone mad however they can.
It’s a constant theme in the series, the idea that people ‘do what they must do to survive’ in the wasteland of America, even our heroes. As such, we see Ellie and Joel do terrible things in the name of a supposed greater good, not that it’s much comfort to those they kill.
Indeed the show makes little attempt to justify Joel and Ellie’s behaviour, and even in the last moments of the series, you’re left to make your own mind up about whether Joel and Ellie are justified in what they decide to do. It’s a classic utilitarian versus deontological argument. Put simply, the show wants you to work out if the ends justify the means or if one’s morals and principles are more important than the outcomes.
This debate is central to the whole show, and we get no easy answers or comforting moments where our hero’s decisions are proven right. Instead, we’re left with nothing but doubt. You really have to admire the bravery of this. We live in such a binary world. Having the confidence to say life is complicated and sometimes people do bad things for good reasons and vice versa feels like a mature theme for a videogame adaptation.
However, none of this would work if it weren’t for the characters at the centre of this story, and Ellie and Joel are perfectly cast. Pascal has form when it comes to playing deadly accidental dads before (this is basically all the Star Wars series The Mandalorian is). At the same time, Game of Thrones fans will know Ramsay has no problem channelling an indomitable youthful spirit.
The magic, however, comes when the two are together. Even when the characters are supposed to be at odds, there’s an underlying spark of connection, and I promise you even the coldest of viewers will melt when you see Pascal and Ramsay together in the last few episodes.
Ellie and Joel may lead the show, but they’re far from the only The Last of Us characters we met as we journey across America. Along the way, the pair meet plenty of fascinating allies, enemies, and random lunatics (quite literally). We loved each and every member of The Last of Us cast, and we loved Anna Torv as Tess and Scott Shepherd as David; however, whoever in the series casting department got Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett to play Bill, and Frank deserves a raise.
We’d be remiss not to shout out the production designers and directors for keeping The Last of Us so colourful. So many fictional apocalypses are brown for some reason? Not in the world of the Cordyceps plague.
No, the world of The Last of us is verdant and green in the summer, white and snow-covered in Winter, and as we’re often exploring cities, we get the colourful detritus of a decades-dead society. The colours and changing seasons keep things fresh and attractive to the eye.
The year is less than a fortnight old, so calling The Last of Us the best TV series of the year feels like the faintest of praise, but with its impeccable cast, terrific script, and confident direction, we’re positive people will still be talking about this by the time December rolls around again.
If you love The Last of Us, you should check out our list of the best zombie movies. We’ve also got a guide on how you can watch the Last of Us as well as an article all about how many episodes of The Last of Us they’ll be.
The Last of us
Thrilling and entertaining in equal measure The Last of Us is as winning now as it was in 2013.