In a sense, The Last of Us was always meant to be on HBO. The 2013 video game was designed to mimic television and film, with frequent noninteractive cut-scenes, extensive use of motion-captured acting, startlingly intricate graphics,1 and ideas and visual motifs clearly inspired by films like 28 Days Later, Day of the Dead, and The Road. Video games have always drawn from movies, but The Last of Us was a new extreme, pushing at the limits of technology and human effort—the journalist Jason Schreier later noted that the studio’s next game, Uncharted 4, was essentially “the story of a man who spends way too much time at work”—to create characters that looked and moved like people, inhabiting a world that seemed as real and messy as our own, or at least as a very good movie set.2
The result was often astonishing, and not just visually. Twenty years into a zombie apocalypse caused by the spread of a mutated fungus, Joel, a weary, embittered smuggler who lost his teenage daughter at the beginning of the outbreak, is persuaded to escort a fourteen-year-old girl named Ellie across the country. Ellie is immune from the plague, and the Fireflies, a group fighting against the totalitarian remnants of the US government, are trying to get her to a hospital they control in the hope of using her unique immunity to create a vaccine. The zombie apocalypse setting was standard for an action-adventure game—zombies can be shot by the dozen without a twinge of guilt—but the emotions at its center were not. Within the genre plotting, the real story was that of Joel and Ellie, two wary, battered strangers, slowly becoming a family, and protecting each other at great cost. It was delivered with a delicacy and restraint, and an attention to physical and emotional detail, that were unprecedented in the medium. The game was moving, it was scary, it was sad and shocking and even, now and then, beautiful.
It was also frequently incoherent. The competing needs of a nuanced, entirely linear story and mainstream video-game action meant that The Last of Us had to shift frequently between several modes: sometimes you were watching an animated drama; sometimes you were steering Joel through chaotic shootouts or playing hide-and-seek with blind zombies or belligerent, easily distracted humans; sometimes you were using exploration and basic physics to solve gentle puzzles; sometimes you were simply moving through an environment, walking or on horseback, while Joel and Ellie chatted. The transitions were frequent, but never explicitly declared—you’d gear up for a fight only to be told to sit back and watch a conversation. You’d open doors unsure what sort of game you’d find yourself playing on the other side. The characters themselves would often have to offer a hint: “Keep quiet,” Joel might tell Ellie, signaling the start of a stealth section; “That was too damn close,” he might mutter to himself, signaling the end of combat. It was held together by mood and skill and conviction, but only barely.
There is something perverse about torturing a game into the shape of a film like this. Even at their very best, video-game graphics struggle with details like the drape of clothing, the motion of hair in the wind, or the way whiskey falls from a bottle into a glass. So the more a game relies on visual realism and scripted, intimate moments—a man glumly pouring himself a drink, two people hugging—the more glaring these limitations become. The Last of Us was one of the best-looking games ever made, yet it constantly reminded you of the things it couldn’t do.
The television adaptation—by Craig Mazin, the creator of the Chernobyl miniseries, and Neil Druckmann, the writer of the game—comes, then, as a kind of relief. The camera gets for free what graphics struggled for in vain. Here at last the story of Joel and Ellie and their ruined world can serve a single god rather than scrambling back and forth between the altars of gameplay and cinema. There are stray crumbs of video-game logic—a mid-season sequence in which Joel uses a sniper rifle to protect Ellie and several other characters from afar is a vestigial shooting gallery more than a dramatic scene—but the show is a unified work in a way the game never quite was. Played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, Joel and Ellie come into focus as specific people rather than nicely composed characters. Pascal’s face is more predatory than the generically grizzled masculinity of the game’s Joel, his coldness and impassivity more painful and more clearly pained. Ramsey’s Ellie is surly, even off-putting, instead of just spunky.
The original’s gray-green palette and lushly overgrown ruins remain (Druckmann has cited Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us as an inspiration). With less need for cannon fodder, the game’s fungal zombies—its signature visual—show up a little less often, but are still deeply unsettling when they do, drawing not just on the fear of death but on the way much of the natural world can seem to exist in some inscrutable, alien middle ground between dead and alive. They teem in a way normal zombies don’t, growing and changing; filaments sometimes snake out of their mouths, wispy and horrid, as they attempt to infect people. (The show also maintains the game’s pointless squeamishness about calling its zombies zombies, as if this dead grandma gnawing on her family is some more sober creation.) The malevolent fungus spreads beyond the zombies themselves, through abandoned stairwells, broken-down cars, empty buildings, subverting not just our bodies but our works.
The show has a much lower body count than the game. What was originally a shootout against a dozen enemies might now be a brief encounter with a single man, or skipped entirely. Mazin has said that they tried to avoid the “numbing” effect that violence can have in games, the way representations of killing and dying are often made weightless, subsumed into “a fun gameplay puzzle to solve…We talked a lot about how to make violence significant.” The violence of the show is meant to feel more personal, to be more about what it means for the characters who see and do it. Some deaths are more prolonged and disturbing than they are in the game—a scene in which Ellie kills a man for the first time, to protect Joel, now involves him pleading for his life and needing to be finished off.
Mazin is not wrong about most video-game violence, but he is, I think, underestimating his source material, and as a result the show smooths out one of the game’s most interesting rough edges. The original Last of Us was not just violent. Its killing was brutal, personal and chaotic, never clean. You bludgeoned people and zombies to death with bricks and baseball bats, you shot people who shrieked or gurgled as they died, and their friends cursed you. The animations—intricate and painstaking, like everything in the game—emphasized the effort involved, the physical intimacy: the way Ellie winds up and flings herself forward to knife someone in the back; the way a man’s hands scrabble uselessly at Joel’s shoulders as he is choked to death.
As Andrea Long Chu has pointed out in a recent essay, to play the game was to watch Joel and Ellie die over and over, every time you screwed up. Their deaths are, she writes, “something that, speaking strictly from the narrative point of view, never happens” but are nevertheless extraordinarily difficult to watch, “animated with a gruesome realism” that most games avoid. I remember having to take a long break at one point while playing, after dying a few times to an especially large and unpleasant zombie—not because I was frustrated or because that section was too difficult, but because I simply did not want to see that happen to Joel again that day. Chu writes that these nonnarrative deaths in the game are part of the unique relationship players have to the characters they control, how we are asked to care not just “about” them but “for” them—a duty underlined by how viscerally awful their deaths were made to be. But these cruel game-overs also further saturated the game in suffering, in violence that was not numbing but upsetting, uncomfortable, even overwhelming.
The studio behind The Last of Us, Naughty Dog, was at the time better known for the Uncharted games, which were Hollywood-inspired in a very different way: spectacular, ingratiating thrill rides, with magnificent scenery and a wisecracking Indiana Jones-ish main character (and were themselves recently adapted into a truly terrible movie). They were also one of the most glaring examples of weightless video-game violence, breezing past the “dissonance,” as Schreier puts it, of “an amiable, fun-loving hero” who “can murder thousands of enemy soldiers without missing a beat.” The Last of Us adopted much of Uncharted’s mix of action, exploration, and cut-scene dramatics, but was also a rejoinder to the studio’s own work, an attempt to make a game that dealt more honestly with its material. The violence is still part of the “fun gameplay puzzle” yet also excessive to it, at odds with its purpose. The whole game is like that: uneasy with itself, never quite settled.3
What is done by Joel and Ellie in the game, and done to them, is meant to weigh not just on the characters but on the player. It is meant, perversely, to make the game a little less fun. Deaths in the show are presented as sad, or horrifying, or senseless or justified, and their effects are carefully observed. The violence is always incorporated into the drama: it changes the characters, it deepens our understanding of them, but it never troubles our watching, never changes our view of how we are spending our time—it is never aimed at us.
Apocalypses and zombie outbreaks are fantasies as much as they are nightmares. The zombie fantasy is that killing doesn’t count: these humanoid threats are already dead, so blowing their heads off is a restoration of order, not a violation of it. (As the critic A. S. Hamrah has written, the “primal fantasy” is often, more specifically, that “when the shit hits the fan, we will be able to kill our own children or parents.”) The apocalypse, similarly, is a fantasy in which the strictures of civilization have been removed and killing is once again necessary. An American apocalypse is often a route back to the frontier and the simpler morality of the Western: Joel and Ellie travel, sometimes on horseback, between isolated settlements that are under constant threat from without, a strong white man protecting a special white girl.4
The most extreme example of this “protection,” famously, came at the end. It was here that the game made its most radical maneuver, turning against its own myths. Joel and Ellie finally arrive at the Firefly medical facility, Ellie is led away by doctors, and only then is Joel told that the procedure to use her immunity to create a vaccine will, unavoidably, kill her. In response, he kills everyone in the hospital, including unarmed doctors and nurses, and escapes with Ellie—who has already been sedated and remains unaware of these events. When she awakes, he lies to her and tells her that her immunity wasn’t useful after all.
The taciturn, masculine, violent hero is revealed to have been something darker all along: not the man who saves the world but the one who damns it to save the person he loves. This antiheroic twist was part of a trend in gaming at the time, a series of attempts to complicate players’ reflexive identification with their characters. Before The Last of Us there was Bioshock (2007), in which a midgame twist revealed you to have been playing as a brainwashed dupe; and, most comprehensively, Spec Ops: The Line (2012), which presented itself as a standard militaristic shooter but whose protagonist committed war crimes and descended into madness and self-destruction, as the game all but berated the player for playing it.
Many gamers have been amused to see a TV audience encounter a narrative choice that was debated and discussed ad nauseam a decade ago. For my own part I was surprised, watching the show’s final episode, by how conventional it now seemed. James Poniewozik, writing for The New York Times, placed Joel in the long line of prestige TV’s “imperfect protagonists,” men like Tony Soprano whom audiences found “repellent” yet irresistible. And he is right—that’s exactly what it felt like: another complicated man making a complicated, destructive choice, and making us “complicit,” in some vague sense, for coming “along for the ride.”
That’s not at all what it felt like in the game. There, you didn’t just watch Joel slaughter the Fireflies, you had to do it. An entire level took place after Joel’s decision, in which you hunted the people who had, until that moment, been your allies, sneaking through the halls of the makeshift hospital, strangling them, picking them off from behind desks and beds. (You could, if you were very careful, avoid most of the killing, but not all of it.) It was a betrayal not just of Ellie—who may well, if given the choice, have sacrificed herself—and of that grand abstraction, the Fate of Humanity, but also of the player.
Video-game players have long been conditioned to expect to play as heroes or, in the more sophisticated games, to get to choose whether to be good or bad. Joel’s was precisely the sort of clearly defined, binary moral conundrum that would, in most games, be put to the player—it was even near the end, where those forking paths were often placed so as to require as little extra design as possible. Refusing players that decision and then making them play out the consequences anyway was genuinely alienating, a sustained, deliberately uncomfortable disruption of your experience of the game. Joel was, emphatically, no longer “you”—was revealed, in fact, to have never been you, however much it might have felt like he was. The violence was now not just brutal but wrong. You had not chosen these killings, but if you wanted to finish the game you had to participate in them.
Most of the game is locked into the perspective of Joel, since he’s the character we control, but the show is freed to loop back and forth in time, and wander off after other characters. The third episode, “Long, Long Time,” takes Bill, a survivalist who appears in one section of the game—part helper, part comic relief, part tragic aside—and spins him off into an hourlong, decade-spanning love story. Bill already had a fortified compound ready to go when the apocalypse hit, complete with generators and an arsenal in a hidden bunker; he reacts to the zombie threat with the glee of a man proven right. One day, years into the collapse of civilization, and years before the main events of the show, a man named Frank wanders into one of his traps. Bill is eventually prevailed upon to let him out and give him lunch, and he stays for the rest of their lives.
The years pass in a montage of contented companionship, a desert-island dream. Frank paints, Bill cooks gourmet meals, they fight and fix up the neighborhood, they kill the occasional zombie. Bill, played by Nick Offerman as clenched and gruff, at times practically immobilized by awareness of his own vulnerability, has never been with a man before—it has taken the end of the world to free him to be himself. Murray Bartlett’s Frank is a charmer just this side of wish-fulfillment: warm and responsive even when covered in dirt and a ragged beard, the kind of person who pushes you to be better, gently but with just enough force to make it happen. The episode is tender, funny, genuinely romantic; by the end, as Bill and Frank die together—in a show filled with death, the only people we ever see die without violence—it is a tear-jerker to match the opening of Up.
There’s nothing like it in the game, and very little else like it in the show: a glimpse beyond the brute compulsion to “endure and survive” (a mantra from both game and show) toward what might make life worth living, even in a broken world. And yet some of it goes down a little uneasily. Bill is, at least in part, a survivalist of a recognizable sort, the paranoid prepper who prefers to see the world through security cameras and rifle scopes and believes that “9/11 was an inside job and the government are all Nazis.” The show tactfully passes over what the rest of his politics might be, or have been—we are perhaps to assume that all politics in the normal sense disappeared when the zombies came. But it becomes hard to ignore an unpleasant congruence between Bill’s assumptions and those of the show itself: a deeply conservative fantasy in which happiness is predicated on an electrified fence and a basement full of guns, in which killing can be an act of love.
Midway through the episode Bill and Frank’s compound is attacked by a group of human “raiders.” (For some reason they always emerge more or less spontaneously in this kind of apocalypse, like mushrooms after a rain.) Bill has been expecting them, and they are slaughtered—electrocuted, set alight by traps, picked off by his high-powered rifle. Bill is wounded, and Frank helps him back to the house as the fires rage behind them. The raiders are not zombies, though they are just as anonymous; they are, ostensibly, human beings, and their deaths—burning alive, screaming—are used as part of a romantic tableau, or even a bit of comic business in the background.
In 1979, reviewing George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead—still probably the greatest zombie film of them all—Dave Kehr described how the film “seduces us” with its “harmless fantasy of violence,” then slowly “takes the antisocial assumptions of the action film…and twists them around, eventually throwing them back in our faces.” At its best, The Last of Us was an inheritor of this tradition. It was troubled by itself, and wanted us to be, too. Why do we love to watch strong men do bad things? Why does character development so often come with a body count? The show is a more nuanced examination of its characters, a fuller, more convincing depiction of its world, but it never bothers us with these questions. It’s a better-told story, and an easier one.