You can be forgiven for suffering, at this point, from pandemic fatigue. I’m referring here to not Covid-19 but to the numerous plagues which have kicked off TV apocalypses in recent times. From “Station Eleven” to “12 Monkeys,” “The Walking Dead” to “The Stand,” “Y: The Last Man” to “The Last Man on Earth,” that is the way in which the world ends, and ends, and ends.
HBO’s high-gloss zombie thriller “The Last of Us,” starting on Sunday, offers a biological twist on its cataclysm. An ophiocordyceps fungus, akin to the real-life one which ghoulishly takes over the bodies of ants, mutates to infest humans, turning civilization into a world mushroom farm.
Within the taxonomy of horror, its undead are “fast zombies,” versus the shambling hordes in old-time creature features. So the mayhem comes quickly on this series. The emotional connection moves more slow-and-steady, nevertheless it eventually gets there.
The series kicks off in Standard Apocalypse-Onset Mode. Joel (Pedro Pascal), a construction contractor in Texas, starts his birthday in 2003 eating breakfast together with his family and ends it amid the chaos of civilization’s collapse. The extreme but bloated 81-minute pilot runs up a high body count, making clear that there may be minimal plot armor to go around here.
Twenty years later, in 2023, we discover Joel within the military-occupied ruins of Boston, a grim, grizzled survivor. Battling fungi doesn’t make one a fun guy. Along with his black-marketeering partner, Tess (Anna Torv), he lands a job escorting Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a 14-year-old who’s resistant to zombie bites, on a dangerous journey that could lead on to a cure.
Contained in the Dystopian World of The Last of Us
The post-apocalyptic video game that inspired the TV series “The Last of Us” won over players with its photorealistic animation and a morally complex story.
Ellie may or might not be the savior of humanity, but she actually rescues “The Last of Us” from apocalyptic mope. In “Game of Thrones” (wherein Pascal also did time), Ramsey was memorable as Lady Lyanna Mormont, the fearsome child leader of a northern fief. Here she’s all foulmouthed verve, her adolescent insolence turbocharged by the liberation of living after the tip of the world. Her fighting spirit is, well, infectious.
“The Last of Us” relies on the Naughty Dog video game of the identical name, from which it takes its nine-episode first-season arc and lots of of its strongest scenes and best lines. (Neil Druckmann, a creator of the sport, co-writes the series with Craig Mazin of “Chernobyl.”)
It really finds its voice, though, when it expands on the source material. The third episode, featuring Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, builds out a relationship alluded to only briefly in the sport. The episode advances the plot only marginally, nevertheless it throws the show’s range wide open. That is an apocalypse story wherein you shall be allowed to feel and even laugh, a game adaptation in a position to grant dimensionality to its nonplayer characters.
However the story must live or (un)die on the connection between Joel and Ellie. Chances are you’ll know Pascal from “The Mandalorian,” wherein his helmeted bounty hunter shepherds a cuddly alien through the Star Wars galaxy’s sleazier precincts. “The Last of Us” posits: What if Baby Yoda could swear? A prickly buddy comedy unfolds between Joel and his unruly charge, and Pascal’s laconic gunslinger appeal translates well to this bleaker universe.
What matters most about zombie stories is what they are saying in regards to the living. In TV’s hottest example, “The Walking Dead,” it was nothing much good. Over its long term, the show fell right into a pessimism bordering on misanthropy, committed to the ideas that beasts and sadists would thrive ultimately times, that trust is a sucker’s bet and that only your individual small clan will be counted on — if even them.
“The Last of Us” is dark, don’t get me unsuitable. Nevertheless it has if not optimism, exactly, then a generosity toward its survivors. Its hardscrabble apocalypse has antagonists, but they aren’t generally monsters. (Aside from the actual monsters.) They’re terrified kid soldiers, ravenous individuals who have suffered grievous losses, desperate leaders cracking under unasked-for responsibility.
The series suffers most from threadbare world constructing. The surface details are positive: HBO’s budget bought some magnificent ruins, accented with the baroque tendril patterns of spent cordyceps and a nightmare menagerie of zombies, from twitching, hissing “clickers” to “bloaters,” fungal giants who resemble the offspring of the Hulk and a horned toad.
But the larger forces behind Joel and Ellie’s quest are disappointingly generic: The Fireflies, a standard-issue ragtag resistance group, square off against the faceless military regime of the fictional government agency called the Federal Disaster Response Agency, or FEDRA. (Perhaps the best leap in “The Last of Us” is imagining that a George W. Bush-era emergency-management bureaucracy was capable of making a functional police state.)
The story is strongest when it zooms in on its central duo, who evolve into allies and something like family. Joel’s paternal fondness for Ellie, it becomes clear, scares him greater than any undead beastie.
That fear is the core of “The Last of Us.” It’s an prolonged horror story of single parenting. Joel’s struggle is a heightened version of the on a regular basis experience of how being answerable for a vulnerable life makes you vulnerable yourself, how it might make you do unforgivable things for them — or to them — within the name of protection.
Through Joel, we feel the heartbreak of this world. Through Ellie, we see its wonder. After they come across the wreckage of a jetliner, she asks if he ever flew in a single, and he recalls what an uncomfortable ordeal air travel was. “Dude,” she says, “you bought to go up within the sky.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that a drama based on a video game can have heart. A terrific, smart game will depend on personal connection. In actual fact, so can an amazing, dumb one, as Ellie finds when she delightedly comes across a Mortal Kombat arcade machine, a relic of an age when battling to the death was casual entertainment.
The sport comes up greater than once in “The Last of Us,” a reminder of the undying, “FINISH HIM!” appeal of stylized violence, which this series is well aware of. If it’s zombie spatter you wish, “The Last of Us” has it by the bucketful.
If, then again, you’re hoping that it’ll upend the plague-apocalypse genre as “The Sopranos” did the mob drama or “The Wire” did the cop show — well, not quite. But with its smidgen of hope and its rejection of nihilism, “The Last of Us” has just a few key mutations that make it a variant of interest.