There’s plainly something seductive about depicting the end of the world — especially if it comes from beyond human hands.
The people living through “The Last of Us” are, in a sense, blameless: They’re enduring a zombie apocalypse brought about when the cordyceps fungus leaped into humans, turning many people into brain-dead vectors for sharing and spreading their disease. There’s a reassuring quality to this version of an end: There seems, perhaps, nothing that could have been done differently, no preparation that might have been made. And some 20 years after society fell, those who remain appear shell-shocked in moments, unable to believe what they lived through. Though there’s plenty of violence in the squabble for limited remaining resources on HBO’s new dystopian drama, the characters we meet often present as if they’re victims of circumstance, cursed to remember what they once had.
Which makes lead character Ellie a particularly potent figure. As played by Bella Ramsey (a memorable child royal on “Game of Thrones”), Ellie is a teen who’s never known anything but the post-fall world. Through her eyes, we see the landscape as, effectively, a funny kind of normal: Raised from infancy to be part of the defense against the ever-encroaching undead threat, Ellie is scared of the fungus people, but not shocked by them.
It’s this dynamic, and her relationship with her protector Joel (Pedro Pascal) that buoys “The Last of Us” through its run. Adapted from the popular video game of the same title by “Chernobyl’s” Craig Mazin and the game’s designer, Neil Druckmann, “The Last of Us” can lean too hard on action sequences, which emphasizes the uncanny surreality of the infected. (The show has a vivid visual imagination, but doesn’t quite get there in conveying the grotesque monsters. They prompt our disbelief more than our fear.) But what lies beneath the chaos is the nascent bond between Joel, a rootless man who’s promised to guard Ellie — who may bear within her body immunity to the fungus, but who appears to be infected — on her journey out of the quarantine zone and to safety. Through Pascal’s and Ramsey’s performances and some strong writing, this dynamic glimmers with emotion and life.
Ellie and Joel are experiencing different sorts of grief. Ellie, who has a vague curiosity about a time she didn’t experience, can hardly be surprised about those she loved being taken from her in a world she’s always known as brutish. Joel, meanwhile, experienced the first day of the mass infection taking hold, and lives in a sort of contained pain over the loss of his daughter. That daughter is played by Nico Parker in the series’ first episode, an hour-plus demonstration of the gift Mazin especially has for demonstrating the breakdown of processes. Here, as in “Chernobyl,” we watch as characters slowly, then all at once, come into awareness that the world around them is falling apart.
And we see glimpses of that world after the fall too. While Ellie and Joel’s relationship is nicely contoured — Mazin and Druckmann’s series is too intelligently written for it to simply and solely be a surrogate-daughter arrangement — “The Last of Us” also derives energy from the people with whom they come into fleeting contact. Standouts among a broad ensemble cast of big players include Murray Bartlett as a gay man who finds himself in a surprisingly emotional entanglement with a survivalist (Nick Offerman) who shelters him; Melanie Lynskey as a driven and violent leader of the desperate; and the schoolmate (Storm Reid) who, in flashback, helps Ellie discover the fighter, and the young woman, she can be.
The vignettes of those whom Ellie and Joel touch — little pods in an America whose mass culture has been obliterated — are nourishing, interesting and beautifully drawn. (The Bartlett episode in particular makes a strong case for itself as a successor of sorts to “Black Mirror” at its best. Like that anthology series’ “San Junipero” episode, it merges a cool appraisal of an unhappy future with open emotionality about the capacity for love to transcend circumstance.) And yet I found myself craving a bit more of the “Chernobyl” touch we saw at the show’s very start, as society crumbled: We get textured and thoughtful looks at people at the end of the world, but what world is ending? We learn a decent amount about a rebel group, but against what government are they rebeling?
The sensibility and the relationships of “The Last of Us” are on point. But, at times, one feels a skimpiness when it comes to the stuff around those relationships — as if, as in a video game, a player were to trundle straight through the setting in order to reach the next objective. It isn’t simply that “Children of Men,” a project with which this series bears obvious similarities, set viewer expectations that we might learn more about the stakes and the environment; it’s also that spending time learning more about, say, the school Ellie attends (treated briefly, in a prologue to an admittedly wonderful extended sequence between Ramsey and Reid) or the ways Joel has supported himself for two decades would enrich our understanding of the characters still further. That we come to understand them as well as we do without this layer of detail — indeed, with the show seeming eventually to be rushing away from its protagonists — is an achievement.
That isn’t intended as faint praise — but what works about “The Last of Us” works well enough that one sees the near future in which the show winds up among television’s best. The raw material, including a poignant and thoughtful curiosity about what it might be like to live through catastrophe, is there. But for all that the fall was not the fault of humanity in this telling of our demise, I hope, in seasons to come, to see still more of the world beyond our heroes’ relationship. “The Last of Us,” at its core, argues that the world is worth fighting for; showing us more of it will only strengthen that case.
“The Last of Us” debuts Sunday, January 15 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.