‘The Last of Us’ Season 1: So Close Yet So Far

Photo courtesy of HBO Max

Photo courtesy of HBO Max

For any gamer, “The Last of Us” is a game that needs no introduction. It set the gaming world on fire a decade ago because of its immersive gameplay, interesting world, and most importantly, its masterful writing. Even as a 10-year-old kid, I had heard tales about the hauntingly beautiful story of this seminal game.

I’m a massive fan of both games in the series so when I found out a show was being made, I was giddy with excitement. After finding out that Pedro Pascal (“Mandalorian,” “Game of Thrones”) and Bella Ramsey (“Game of Thrones”) were going to be the leads as Joel Miller and Ellie Williams, I was jumping off the walls with excitement. If that wasn’t good enough, it was also made by not only the creator of the fantastic “Chernobyl” miniseries, Craig Mazin, but also the writer and director of the games, Niel Druckman.

So did the show live up to the lofty legacy of the game? Uh……… kinda? 

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t anywhere near bad or even mediocre but with the context of the game, I can’t help but feel that the game was just done so much better. “The Last of Us” video game was lightning in a bottle and while I still think the show is very good and very faithful to that original game, I think there was something lost in translating this harrowing story into film.

I’ll give credit where credit is due, the performances here are great. You can tell that every actor is pouring their all into this show. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are really good as Joel and Ellie and they still have strong chemistry. Other performances such as Anna Torv as Tess and Gabriel Luna as Joel’s brother, Tommy, are also solid and greatly represent the original characters.

I will say though, Nick Offerman as Bill just steals the entire show. He was only in one episode but he managed to make me feel so much more connected to his character than even the main cast. He is only in episode three but in that episode, he takes center stage and pushes Joel and Ellie to the sideline. Despite being completely separated from the main plot, episode three is by far the best episode of the show and dare I say one of the best episodes of television I have ever seen. This is the one portion that I will say not only meets the original game’s quality but also far exceeds it. This episode is a big departure from the game but its departure tells a beautiful and heartwarming love story despite the post-apocalyptic world around them. Nick Offerman as Bill is by far his best performance of all time (sorry Ron Swanson) and is the shining achievement of this show. 

This episode also reveals one of the show’s biggest problems: a lack of focus. The show has a limited runtime and it has to adapt a 17-hour video game into not even nine hours of television. The game focused solely on the relationship between Joel and Ellie to the point where there is no single scene without at least one of them. In the show, however, they very much show and develop the other characters that might have been overlooked in the game. These additions are almost always better than the game but they also take away from the central relationship between Joel and Ellie.

The show’s limited runtime means that it didn’t really have the time to focus so much on these characters and they as a result had to somewhat expedite the development of Joel and Ellie’s relationship. The focus on Bill and Frank, Henry and Sam, or Tommy and Maria gives a better picture of many of these characters but a lot of the depth and subtlety had to be removed from the central relationship as a result. So by the time the last two episodes roll around it just doesn’t feel as earned as the game because we haven’t spent as much time with them.

It’s conflicting because the new additions are really good and provide a lot more depth to characters that you only saw through the eyes of Joel and Ellie but it also takes focus away from the central narrative that lies at the heart of the show. They honestly would have been better off making an anthology show to highlight these other characters and stories within this universe and having the main show only focus on Joel and Ellie. 

The worst offender of the expedited development was in episode seven. This episode adapts the “Left Behind” expansion from the game but it is only about half the length. Because of this, they had to remove the present-day sections that show how far Ellie will go to save the ones she loves. In the show, they have a scene at the start of the episode and the end of the episode in the present but they don’t feel as earned because Ellie didn’t really have to work for what she gets in the episode.

There are numerous cases of this rushed development such as in episode four where they completely avoid the climactic rifle scene with Ellie where she helps Joel fight through a horde of raiders. This scene finally showed the camaraderie and trust the two were building for each other while also being a cool set piece but in the show, Joel just hands his pistol to Ellie and teaches her how to use it and the scene just doesn’t feel as earnest and important.

Speaking of missing set pieces, the show just completely fumbled all the action and set pieces from the game outside of the opening section. I know I’m gonna sound like one of those pea-brained dude-bros who will go “where’s my action” but the game uses its violence to build relationships between its characters and the show just doesn’t have a lot of it. In the times that it actually does though they just feel less impactful than they were in the game. In episode six Joel gets into a fight with just one dude right when he and Ellie are about to escape an area and let’s just say an important event happens that shapes the next two episodes. In the game, however, this was a whole set piece where the two have to fight their way out of this university lab eventually ending with the same important event but here it feels a lot more shocking and earned because there was more buildup. 

There are also just way too few zombies in the show. Yes, the show and games aren’t just about zombies but they are almost nonexistent in the show. Of the nine episodes, there are only 3 where the zombies have a significant presence, all of which are in the first half of the season. In another show, it wouldn’t have been an issue but the plot of this show revolves around finding a cure for the cordyceps infection and when they are nearly nonexistent in the second half of the season it makes the central plot feel much less urgent and feel like it has fewer stakes to it. 

In the game, the zombies, AKA the infected, are always a threat that can come at the worst time and because of this they always feel like a threat that needs to be addressed. In the show, however, it seems like you could just avoid the big cities and you won’t see a single infected in your life. It just makes finding a cure feel less important in the latter part of the show because the infected are nowhere to be seen which undercuts the final part of the story.

Spoilers ahead so skip the next three paragraphs if you have not watched the show or played the game.

The last episode of the show, while good, did not capture the end of the game very well. At the end of both Joel is presented with the ultimatum of saving Ellie and dooming humanity or letting her die so the cure can be made and as most gamers know he chooses the former and goes on a rampage through a hospital to save her. The show makes this event feel a lot less climactic and important than the game because it essentially just becomes a quick montage that kind of glosses through that scene instead of letting it marinate.

This was a 20-30 minute section in the game where Joel comes off as a ruthless murder machine or a horror movie villain. The show just suddenly turns him into the terminator but the weight of his decision isn’t conveyed as well in my opinion because we didn’t spend as much time with him throughout the entire show and this section specifically. The finale felt like it was trying to sprint to the finish line because of time constraints and it just doesn’t work as well as the game because of that. 

I will say though, that the last scene where Ellie confronts Joel still hits home and they recreated it perfectly here. I just wish that the rest of their relationship got the same love. 

I know it seems like I’m ragging on the show a lot but as a massive fan of the games I can’t help it. I care a lot about these games because they are not only important to me but they are important to gaming as a whole. Pretty much everything good I can say about the show is already something I can say about the game. While watching the show, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something lost in the process of converting this story into a show. Despite what people say about the linearity of the game and how cinematic it is, the show made me realize just how important the gameplay was to delivering this story. You built bonds and friendships with the other characters by working alongside them and helping each other in gameplay but that element is lost in the show. While technically good, I feel like the show failed to fully capture that lightning in a bottle that made the game so special. I’ll say this though, they absolutely understood the heart of this universe and what makes “The Last of Us” unique; it’s just that the show needed that little extra nudge and restructuring in order to truly become a masterpiece like the game.

Score: 7.5/10