The journey is a powerful storytelling motif. From the most basic of getting a character from point A to B, to the metaphoric spiritual growth, they serve to move the story. So too it is with Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in The Last of Us, the all-around awesome adaptation of Naughty Dog’s eponymous 2013 video game.
The Last of Us (English)
Creators: Craig Mazin, Neil Druckmann
Cast: Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey, Gabriel Luna, Anna Torv, Merle Dandridge
Runtime: 43–81 minutes
Storyline: Joel and Ellie journey across a post-apocalyptic America meeting friends and foes along the way
The almost-movie-length first episode details the events that sent the world down the garbage chute after a killer fungus, cordyceps, turns the population into mindless hungry hoards and ends 20 years later with Joel given the responsibility of ferrying 14-year-old Ellie, across a ravaged United States.
Through the next eight episodes, we learn more about Ellie and Joel, as well as the state of the world and the way people behave in extreme circumstances. The passage of time has created a world divided by the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA)-run Quarantine Zones (QZ), isolated settlements, survivalists, raiders, and the old faithful, the cannibals.
The FEDRAs are a law unto themselves and use brute force to ensure strict adherence to the rules. Fireflies, a rebel group led by Marlene (Merle Dandridge), are trying to overthrow FEDRA. Following the game beat for beat, with the introduction of some new characters and the fleshing out of back stories, each episode of The Last of Us draws us deeper into Joel’s and Ellie’s lives and minds.
After Joel’s smuggling partner and former lover Tess’s (Anna Torv) sacrifice in the second episode, we go back to 2007 and Frank ( The White Lotus’s Armond, Murray Bartlett) stumbling into the gracious home of paranoid survivalist Bill (Nick Offerman). Their relationship over time is heartbreakingly tender. Incidentally, in the game, Frank is a corpse with no dialogue and is a brilliant reveal of how Neil Druckmann, the writer-director of the game and show, has expanded the characters from the action-adventure video game.
In Kansas City, Joel and Ellie are caught in the manic gaze of the rebel leader, Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), who is willing to burn the city down in search of a traitor, Henry (Lamar Johnson), who sold out her Christ-like brother. The section where Ellie bonds with Henry’s deaf, artistic eight-year-old brother, Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard), is sweet, funny and hopelessly tragic.
When the weary travellers reach the settlement in Wyoming and catch up with Joel’s MIA brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), we hope they can rest and recharge, but the two push on into yet another disaster in Colorado with Joel close to death thanks to a stab wound from a raider.
As Joel is rapidly sinking, Ellie remembers her time in school and her night at an abandoned mall with her best friend Riley (Storm Reid) in another heart-wrenching episode. A hunting expedition finds Ellie a deer and a charismatic preacher, David (Scott Shepherd), who was a math teacher before finding god in the apocalypse. He reveals that he is willing to do anything to keep his flock safe and fed, as Ellie discovers to her atavistic horror.
We come to the finale like Joel and Ellie, weary and wary. We learn of Ellie’s birth and the promise her mother, Anna (Ashley Johnson, who played Ellie in the game), took from Marlene, her best friend. It sets up the probable cause for Ellie’s specialness as well as the steep price Marlene is willing to pay for the greater good.
In the game, one plays Joel, and there are actions that he must do to go to the next level. The skill of the writers in setting up for that finale and Joel’s choices is a masterclass in adaptation. There is a reason The Last of Us is being hailed as the best videogame adaptation.
The sets are splendid, creating humbling vistas of ruined skeletons of what were once proud, tall buildings as well as the vivid splendor of nature reclaiming spaces lost to human activity.
However good the music (Gustavo Santaolalla, who also scored the game), sets, and cinematography are — and they are exceptional — the cast and writing are even better. Pascal and Ramsey embody the world-weariness, the violence, and the goofy humour of the two, with ample support from the rest of the cast, to create a show that can as easily stand on its own as the perfect companion piece to an excellent game.
The Last of Us currently streams on Disney+ Hotstar
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