Last of Us Review: Deserved to Be the First Major Hit for Hbo in 2023

So there’s your alternative description, HBO, one I expect to see on billboards across the country: “The Last of Us is similar to Aftersun, but with terrifying mushroom-men!”

The Last of Us, adapted by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and game designer Neil Druckmann, begins with a 1960s TV panel warning about the dangers of an evolved global fungal infection before jumping to 2003, where everything is normal for Texas contractor Joel (Pedro Pascal), his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), and her brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) (Gabriel Luna).

Then, in virtually no time, the news coverage shifts from a disturbance in Jakarta to panic in the streets to airplanes crashing from the skies.

Twenty years later, the Cordyceps outbreak has practically wiped out civilization, leaving a handful of metropolitan quarantine zones governed by FEDRA to contain the survivors. Joel has become something of a fugitive, smuggling contraband with accomplice Tess (an initially unrecognizable Anna Torv) and only looking out for himself.


Merle Dandridge’s Marlene, the leader of a resistance movement, then introduces him to recalcitrant 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey). Ellie is a special orphan who has grown up only in a post-plague world: She was bitten by one of the infected, who still roam the planet in numerous forms, but she did not become infected.

Ellie’s immunity could provide a glimmer of hope for humanity, but only if Joel and Tess can transport her to a facility across the nation. This will be no easy task, as every post-apocalyptic film ever made has attempted to show that individuals in extreme situations can be considerably more dangerous.

last of us review
last of us review

The pilot episode of The Last of Us, again directed by Mazin, is not terrible, but its 81-minute running duration is insufficient to sustain it. Since the world went into pandemic lockdown in the spring of 2020, audiences have been inundated with pandemic-set series — some as remarkable as Station Eleven, some as forgettable as the remake of The Stand, and some as completely unnoticed as AMC+’s Anna, but all driven by very similar introductions to a dystopian new normal.

After seeing one ivy-covered city in ruins, one cracked motorway littered with vehicle shells, or one undertrained military peon threatening one starved group of stragglers with death if they move one step forward, I do not wish to imply that you have seen them all.

However, the expertly produced pilot suggests diminishing benefits, even when it comes to the shock factor of killing off a character who viewers assumed to be the protagonist. Indeed, the show will provide very little insight into why this property is so popular.

The second episode, directed by Druckmann, propels the series forward by introducing the Ellie/Joel relationship, which is more than the series’ heart; it is the series itself.

The gruff, reluctant protector and spunky last-hope-for-humanity child dynamic is as familiar as anything else in the pilot, but it’s rarely captured as lovingly and adorably as it is by Pascal — able to show his face for this version of Mando and Baby Yoda — and Ramsey, who audiences will remember as Lyanna Mormont, the saving grace of later Game of Thrones seasons.

Pascal masterfully captures Joel’s annoyance and growing devotion, but it is Ramsey who overcomes a continuously uneven American accent and makes Ellie instantly wise-but-not-too-wise, fearless-but-not-too-fearless, and amusing-but-not-annoyingly-amusing. From the safety of their couches, spectators may be willing to make the same sacrifice as Joel and the other players in the game.

This second episode serves as our first real introduction to the infected, the series’ version of zombies. Achieved by the VFX team led by Alex Wang and the makeup department directed by Connie Parker, the creatures are adorned with a broad variety of body-replacing flora and are appropriately grotesque and horrifying.

Moreover, they are new and thrilling, a genre palate cleanser after Greg Nicotero’s classic Walking Dead portrayal of the lurching, shambling dead. They are intimidating and ultimately entirely unneeded to the show’s success.

The third episode is what turns The Last of Us from a horror frolic to a near-masterpiece. The rare 75-minute television show that didn’t force me to glance at the clock, it focuses on Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett’s portrayal of an unexpected and completely devastating connection between two survivors (so good and so inextricably linked that the TV Academy may need to set new precedent with a shared guest acting nomination).

Directed by Peter Hoar, whose It’s a Sin pedigree only adds to the poignancy, it’s a basically undead-free full detour from the frenetic episode that came before, a standalone that doesn’t derail the early momentum of the series.

It establishes a pattern for the remainder of the season, which consists of one- or two-episode encounters with other communities and survivors, bringing in excellent guest actors such as Melanie Lynskey, Graham Greene, Elaine Miles, Lamar Johnson, Ashley “Ellie from the game!” Johnson, and Rutina Wesley for brief, but highly effective appearances.

The group assembled by casting director Victoria Thomas reaches its apex in the seventh episode of the season, which features Storm Reid. Sometimes episodes feature “zombies,” too! however not always.

It is easy to envisage how these nine episodes could have been spread out over two or three seasons, so it is admirable and somewhat incomprehensible that HBO and the show’s writers exercised such restraint. Simultaneously, there is the structural sameness that diminishes the impression of possibility. It’s one thing for somebody to be able to die at any time; it’s quite another when it occurs constantly. Not quite “shrug,” but close.


In various chapters, particularly the eighth, the accelerated corpse count loses all significance and becomes, for want of a better critique, the stuff of video games rather than prestige television due to the rushed pacing.

Though I wouldn’t have desired much more padding, a tad more breathing room would have allowed The Last of Us to gain greater profundity in its commentary on The Way We’re Living Now, going beyond its honest but shallow examination of darkness and light inside human nature.

If these are the only issues I have with your rendition of a hit video game, I’m satisfied. Well, you’ve done rather well indeed, The Final of Us

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