‘The Last of Us’ review from someone who never played the game 

By Faith Allendorf, Managing Editor for Reporting

When one thinks of “post-apocalyptic” media, images of bloody, stumbling zombies who bite chunks of flesh out of survivors tend to pop up. After all, one of the most famous pieces of post-apocalyptic media is AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which is a show where bloody, stumbling zombies bite chunks of flesh out of survivors.

However, in 2013, game developers at Naughty Dog produced a game that offers action-adventure and sci-fi lovers a unique perspective on the “post-apocalyptic” archetype: “The Last of Us.”

10 years later, HBO is producing a live-action adaptation of Naughty Dog’s creation. And in just two episodes, “The Last of Us” has shown its potential to be one of the most well-written, excellently-casted and beautifully-designed TV shows of all time. 

On top of that, I personally have no experience with the series story. I didn’t have a PlayStation, nor did I ever watch a YouTube playthrough. Watching HBO’s adaptation is my first exposure to the world of “The Last of Us,” and from what I’ve seen so far, the story might become one of my favorite plots I have ever seen.

The first episode of the series opens in 1968 with two scientists on a talk show talking about the (very real) possibility of a catastrophic fungal infection that could happen if “the world were to get slightly warmer.” The show then switches to 2003, where the audience sees the initial outbreak through the eyes of Joel Miller, played by Pedro Pascal, his daughter Sarah, played by Nico Parker, and his brother Tommy, played by Gaberial Luna. 

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    The opening 30 minutes are spent following Sarah as the outbreak occurs. Her and Joel’s relationship is idyllic, personal and heartfelt. The audience is lured into a sense of safety, assuming that since we spend so much time with Sarah, she and Joel will be our main characters. 

    Yeah, no. Sarah is shot and killed by a soldier — a violent and unexpected end to someone the audience thought was going to be in the whole show. What an incredibly captivating, plot-twisted introduction to a show.

    As we watch the outbreak unfold, the opening sequence is fast-paced, anxiety-inducing and extremely well-acted. Although she was only on screen for 30 minutes, Parker’s performance as Sarah was exceptional, and her presence could be felt even after she was off-screen. 

    The rest of the episode takes place 20 years later in 2023 — a detail that only makes the idea of a fungal pandemic more daunting. We find Joel, grey-haired and severely numb to any emotion. He is now working and living in the “QZ,” which is run by an authoritarian government called FEDRA. 

    After realizing his brother, Tommy has been MIA for more than a few days, Joel and his partner Tess, played by Anna Torv set out to find him. Along the way, they encounter Ellie, who is played by Bella Ramsey, a 14-year-old, sarcastic badass who survived being bitten by an infected. Ellie ends up in Joel and Tess’s care, told that if they brought the girl to a certain spot, they would get the supplies they needed to find Tommy. 

    The audience is introduced to Joel and Ellie’s characters in separate ways — Joel was introduced first and Ellie second. But, the individual stories eventually converge to tell the rest of the plot. This story-telling choice is one of my personal favorites — when individual stories become one. 

    Joel, Tess and Ellie try to sneak out of the QZ but are caught by a guard who Joel takes care of after seeing a flashback of the night his daughter died. Joel and Tess find out that Ellie is infected, and they don’t believe she is immune. During the series’s second episode, Tess gradually starts believing that Ellie is “real,” while Joel remains cautious and cold toward the girl. 

    The second episode takes place outside of the QZ, and it shows viewers what the world looks like 20 years after the fall of civilization. The set design is breathtaking and very believable, showcasing fallen and decaying buildings wrapped in greenery, broken roads, gutted-out cars and so much more. You cannot tell if the show’s set designers used a greenscreen or not. 

    While trekking across Boston, the trio ends up inside a museum, but the three are not the only creatures inside. They encounter a terrifying type of infected called clickers. 

    Clickers are infected whose eyes are blinded by literal mushrooms growing out of their head. They have incredible hearing and use clicking noises (echolocation) to navigate their environments. They move as if spasms are constantly coursing through their bodies.

    The prosthetics and special effects used to make the clickers look as gruesome and horrifying as they do are remarkable and honestly super impressive. The clickers are unlike any other “infected” I have seen in any piece of apocalyptic media. 

    After a thrilling and intense fight with two clickers, the trio leaves. But when they get to where the supplies are supposed to be, every person who was supposed to be there is dead. Tess spirals, revealing to Joel and Ellie that she was bitten in the museum. 

    However, a hoard of infected are making their way to where the trio is, and Tess decides to sacrifice herself in order to save Joel and Ellie, for Ellie’s immunity gave her hope that there could be a possible cure. Joel and Ellie run out, and Tess manages to light a bunch of gasoline on fire – an explosive ending. 

    There are many aspects that make the first two episodes of “The Last of Us” as great as it is. 

    As I already mentioned, the design of the clickers is remarkable, but the way the infection itself is portrayed only adds to the series sense of hopelessness. The addition of the pre-outbreak scenes at the start of both episodes only increases the audience’s dread.  I really like the idea that the infection spreads through tendrils, and the way that they’re designed makes me never want to eat spaghetti again. 

    The world of “The Last of Us” feels so real. The costume design, the makeup choices and the set design are interlinked and crafted to reveal an environment aged by death and decay. 

    The acting performances in the show are stellar — Pascal, Ramsey and Trov stand out to me the most. Pascal especially blew me away. He perfectly embodies the grumpy father figure, but his facial expressions and purposeful movements show that Joel deeply cares about his loved ones.

    Finally, the soundtrack is phenomenal. I love the intro (it’s the original one from the game), and the ominous background music creates a tense atmosphere. The music also accentuates moments of emotion to make whatever is happening hit hard, as in Sarah’s death. 

    Overall, HBO’s “The Last of Us” has a lot of potential to become one of my favorite TV shows of all time. The acting, set/costume/makeup design and soundtrack are phenomenal. The storyline, though, is the best thing about the show, and it is so well written that I, a fiction writer, am extremely inspired by. 

    I’m sorry fans of “The Walking Dead,” but “The Last of Us” is going to be one of the best post-apocalyptic shows of all time.

    Episodes premiere 9 p.m. EST every Sunday on HBO Max.

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