Pedro Pascal Shines In A Heartbreaking Tale Of Post-Apocalyptic Survival & Protecting Those You Love
Jan 10, 2023
“If you don’t think there’s hope for the world, why bother going on?” Bella Ramsey asks in a critical moment in HBO’s wounding and poignantly brutal “The Last Of Us.” It’s a question the show and its central characters grapple with throughout. How to maintain faith in humanity, the courage to endure, and a belief in the meaning of existence itself, when simply existing is a nightmare and daily struggle.
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If you’re not a gamer, on the surface, “The Last Of Us,” HBO’s adaptation of Naughty Dog’s famously acclaimed video game, sounds a lot like “The Walking Dead.” Insofar as that, found families cobbled together by survivors try to sustain life and subsist in a brutal and unforgiving zombie apocalypse that has decimated most of civilization. But while there are superficial similarities, thankfully, the superficial ‘Walking Dead’ melodramas that have mired that show making it the McDonald’s of zombiepocalypse narratives, are really nowhere to be found. Even the zombie-fungus apocalypse at the show’s center is more of a Trojan Horse to explore the heartbreaking lengths people will go to keep their children safe and all the moral lines they will cross to do so, no matter the pro on the soul.
Co-created by, co-written, showrun, and sometimes directed by Craig Mazin—the creator of HBO’s acclaimed “Chernobyl,” drama series— for the most part, “The Last Of Us” is a similarly-minded, sobering HBO prestige drama. It’s a tough sit at times; a sad, emotionally bruising, and haunting series about loss, the inhuman price of survival, and even learning to love in a hopeless place after tragedy and suffering is all you’ve seemingly ever known.
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A faithful adaptation of the beloved game, “The Last Of Us,” takes place roughly 20 years after the effects of the aforementioned zombie-fungus apocalypse have chiefly destroyed modern civilization. The early episodes explaining how Cordyceps fungi infected humans and caused a global pandemic are chillingly plausible and frightening. But it’s not just the fungi zombies that destroyed everything. Most governments bombed and nuked major cities in attempts to stop the spread, but just created further catastrophe and death.
Perhaps much more terrifying than all of the zombies—and something the show spends at least half its time on—is the complex system of rebels, hoarders, ravagers, and desperate insurgent factions throughout the U.S. fighting what’s left of the government and just as merciless, cruel, and dangerous.
Pedro Pascal stars as the hardened survivor Joel, a military veteran who knows his way around firearms and death and has suffered much personal loss, tragedy, and pain. After an unbelievably stressful and nerve-wracking first episode where he and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) are seen experiencing the world coming to an end in one horrific and terrifying night—replete with gruesome and scary moments of the military shooting at civilians in cold blood and airplanes crashing down on small Texas towns in balls of fire—the series flash-forwards to two decades later.
People lead merciless, miserable, hardscrabble lives, and people like Joel, his brother, and his new romantic partner Tess (Anna Torv) have done unspeakably immoral things to persevere, outlive, and outlast those who tried to take what they were also desperate to keep in this disturbing dog-eat-dog world. But Joel and Tess’ lives soon change when they are hired to smuggle Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a 14-year-old girl, out of an oppressive quarantine zone. What begins as another heartless job, with Ellie as nothing more than disposable “cargo,” eventually, after much hardship, greater misfortune, and personal calamity, transforms into an emotionally resonant and heart-shattering odyssey about survival, love, and keeping loved ones safe.
It’s a constantly morally complex show, too, continuously asking the question of whether killing roving, starving, depraved cannibalistic marauders in the name of love is worth it with no easy answers. Everyone has a new justification and morality in this new normal, and none of it is very pretty. Society’s collapse is totalistic and immediate in a way that’s just as unsettling as any infected monster.
And through the riveting craft of it all, the taut writing, excellent direction—filmmakers like Jeremy Webb, Jasmila Žbanić, Liza Johnson, and Ali Abbasi—exemplary cinematography and moody and melancholy music, Mazin and his co-creator and co-writer Neil Druckmann—the creator of the original video game—craft something that becomes visceral and primal; like a mother who will stop at nothing to protect her newborn child. Like the game before it, it’s an artistic piece of work, not to mention features two simple but outstanding performances by Pascal and the young Ramsey.
One of the brilliant aspects of the show that blossoms later with emotional gut punches is the mosaic and tapestry of it all. Characters we’re unfamiliar with at first—like Frank (Murray Bartlett) and Bill (Nick Offerman, doing some of his best dramatic work ever), Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), or Riley (Storm Reid) are shown in their own contexts. Yet, their connections to Joel and Ellie are eventually unveiled like clever puzzle pieces that have fit together all along (the cast also features Nico Parker, Merle Dandridge, Jeffrey Pierce, Lamar Johnson, Keivonn Woodard, Graham Greene, Elaine Miles, Ashley Johnson, and Troy Baker, many of whom meet some awful, distressing endings).
One of the critical standouts is composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s moving and wistful work. He won Oscars for his work on “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel,” and having already scored the original video games; he provides a similar soulful but mournful musical backbone. “The Last Of Us” is grim, full of despair and the anxiety that violence—seemingly a necessary and justifiable one, given the perspectives of the various people suffering—can seemingly erupt out of nowhere at any second.
So much has changed in the world of VFX too. Something similarly devastating, like “I Am Legend,” looks like child’s play in comparison. This is a world overcome not only by grass, vegetation, and the ominous strands of growing fungi but also by the scars of destruction and a country that essentially self-immolated to try and contain the virus. And whether you’re conscious of it or not, the visual desolation only adds to the bleak sense of hopelessness.
Much of this distressed violence comes from Joel, too, the protagonist. Having to face one of the greatest horrors a parent can face, he’s been deadened and hard-bitten inside—all the horrible acts of his past made easier by the fact that he’s experienced such unspeakable anguish. It’s a damaged world full of damaged people. Still, one of the most emotionally grueling elements of the show is watching Pascal’s Joel heart re-awaken with the parental worry, concern, and terror of raising a child—obviously not his biologically—and keeping them safe. While still having that primeval and instinctive terror at the thought of harm coming to them. And in an ashen, broken world like the one in “The Last Of Us,” there is harm everywhere and little to hope to be found.
“The Last Of Us” has a few minor missteps, a filler flashback episode, reaching back to Ellie’s life before Joel that feels unnecessary, and a silly-looking Gigantor Fungi zombie leader that feels like it’s out of “The Walking Dead.” Still, these are minor moments in a worthy show, that is, when it’s at its best, emotionally exhausting in the best way possible. Kill or be killed, survive at any cost, and protect those you love against an armada of heartless, vicious obstacles and challenges, primarily man-made.
With so much inhumanity around, “The Last Of Us” perhaps speaks about our recent collective moments of near catastrophe and the precious few remaining. Will they cling to what’s left of their humanity and create a new future for new generations? Will they tear themselves apart in the selfish desperate grasp for survival? Or will the hostile severities of everyday life consume them like the callous and unbearably disfigured fungi zombies? The existential questions and the way they’re quietly posed are longsuffering and desolate, to be sure. But the love found in the tiny edges of the frame, the fragile moments of tenderness and humanity that arise, will give you the spiritual respite you need to continue. “I’ve never experienced anything that viscerally made me question the value of love,” Mazin once said about “The Last Of Us” game. And in this riveting show, the uneasy, uncomfortable emotional complexity of that nearly-unfathomable statement will bore right into your heart like so many mycelium fungi threads. [A-]
“The Last of Us” debuts on HBO on January 15.
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