HBO’s The Last of Us questions what it means to love, endure, and survive.
**SPOILER WARNING:** This article contains spoilers for the first season of HBO’s The Last of Us. If you have not seen the show, just know it’s an 11/10.
Every Sunday at 8 p.m., for a little more than two months, I pressed pause on as much of my life as possible to watch “The Last of Us” with my friend Marli.
We are both massive TV fans, but post-apocalyptic zombie shows are not exactly in our wheelhouse. I am more of a mainstream “Star Wars,” “Game of Thrones,” sci-fi/fantasy fan. Marli, on the other hand, characterized herself as, “a slut for ‘Love Island.’” But after being blown away by “The Last of Us,” our willingness to watch any TV genre has substantially increased.
I have never played “The Last of Us” part 1 or 2, the video games that the TV show is based upon, but all I needed to know to catch my attention was that Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal were its two co-stars.
Ramsey and Pascal embody the show’s protagonists Ellie and Joel. Ramsey’s acting is particularly amazing. She authentically conveys the weight of complex emotions with even the most subtle of facial movements; each time she is on screen, it is electric. The immersive, engaging, nature of the show can partially be credited to its writers and creators, Neil Druckman and Craig Mazin.
Unsurprisingly for a video game-based show, Druckman and Mazin make the viewer feel part of a post-apocalyptic world where nature has reclaimed whole cities of now-collapsed buildings. Cars lie abandoned on highways where their drivers left them after the cordyceps fungus infection spread in 2003. Although the majority of the show takes place in 2023, it is a realm that shares little resemblance with the world we walk around in today.
The show also exists within the larger zombie genre where the infected are the typical undead antagonists. But, Druckman and Mazin defy generic conventions and exclude the infected from certain episodes. This creates a sensation of constant engagement because even when they are not visibly present, the idea of the infected still looms large in the viewer’s mind.
Marli and I have watched multiple TV shows together, and none of them have captivated our attention like “The Last of Us.” Every time we started watching, Marli and I had to stop talking so we could hear every line of dialogue and be fully present for all moments in the episode. At first, this was unnerving for me because Marli is an extremely distractible and talkative person, but looking back, I appreciate the lack of conversation since it allowed us to both take in a fantastic TV show.
When we first meet Joel and Ellie, they are a “Lone Wolf and Cub.” Over the course of their cross-country journey, we see Joel, a stoic, do-it-all Desert Storm Veteran who knows what it takes to survive, constrating with Ellie, a plucky teenage girl who laughs at puns and approaches most scenarios with a childlike sense of innocence. In addition to their interpersonal relationship, there lies the knowledge that Ellie’s blood may hold the secret to curing the cordyceps infection and saving the world.
To most organically develop Joel and Ellie’s arc, Druckman and Mazin introduce them to pairs of side characters throughout the first season. These supplementary duos help us learn more about our two protagonists, provide context for the main plotline, and expand upon what it means to love, endure, and survive in a post-apocalyptic world.
Bill and Frank are the first pair of side characters introduced to the viewer. Together they conquer every obstacle the cordyceps infection places in their way, using their love for each other as a quality that will help them survive and carve out a meaningful life for themselves.
Later in the show Joel and Ellie are taken captive by Henry and Sam, brothers trying to escape Kansas City. They ultimately do not survive because of a morally complex decision Henry makes out of love for his brother.
At the midpoint of the season, I was focused on the differing ideologies of the characters. I created my own opinions of each character and determined whether they were good or bad. It seemed like Druckman and Mazin were aware of this because at the end of the fifth episode, they placed the show’s most dramatic action sequence which cements who is the true villain in this world, the infected.
In the next episode, Joel reunites with his brother Tommy and meets his new wife Maria in Jackson, Wyo. The town is a symbol of paradise: a self-sustaining community without violence, or currency, but no one is allowed to communicate with the outside world. They are partially sacrificing love to maintain their safety, endure, survive, and thrive in the post-apocalyptic world.
Their community contrasts with that of David and James, leaders of a starving congregation who prioritize survival above all else. For them, there are no moral limits when it comes to surviving, routinely eating the bodies of lost loved ones to stave off starvation and death. The show suggests that this belief system is pure evil when David expresses sympathy and fascination towards the cordyceps because he views it as an organism only using violence as a means to ensure its future.
These three ideas of what it means to endure, survive, and love, coalesce perfectly in the final episode. While Ellie is being prepared for the surgery, Joel learns that she has unknowingly agreed to participate in an operation that could save humanity, but would claim her life.
Joel realizes that he has a choice to either let Ellie die so a cure can be developed or stop the surgery to save the pseudo-daughter he has grown to love. Within this real-life version of the trolly problem, he lets the vehicle roll by, a decision he knows could lead to the complete downfall of humankind.
The melancholy music paired with Joel’s rampage and subsequent lie to her highlights how these two actions could be the character’s undoing. Yet, when the final credits roll both Joel and Ellie are alive, and the viewer is left to parse through the meaning of an ambiguous ending.
The finale is an example of how love can pervert our sense of judgment and convince us to do things that are objectively wrong. Joel is a parent who unconditionally loves Ellie — that feeling, combined with the inability to save his daughter in the first episode is what justifies his killing spree. For Joel, the people he has briefly encountered and the journey endured mean nothing without the companion he shared the experience with.
There is one final duo that influenced my experience watching “The Last of Us.” It is the one I was a part of every Sunday night, serving as the prism through which I think about this show.
Marli and I are very close friends, always going to each other for advice about classes, relationships, and friends. We wrestle with ideas and disagree about how to handle different situations, but we always end up cracking jokes and laughing with one another. She is a friend I am not going to see all summer but know that when reunited in the fall, our relationship will return back tothe same comfortable, familiar rhythm.
We have had meaningful conversations about heavy, complex ideas in the past, and thus, we are willing to ask each other anything, a trait perfect for the “Last of Us.” This TV show does not merely get the viewer to consider the events of its main plot, but also highlights concepts, at the core of the human experience, that we will all wrestle with.
I found myself looking inward for answers to more general, deeper, questions that challenged my perceptions of love and survival: What would it mean to lose my purpose for surviving? Are there moral boundaries to what I would do to survive? Would I be able to maintain any semblance of hope in the world of “The Last of Us”? How can love be a force for both good and bad? And lastly, what does it mean to both endure and survive?
The crux of what makes the “Last of Us” one of the best first seasons of television is that even after watching all nine episodes, YouTube clips, interviews with the cast/crew, and cut scenes from the video game, you could watch this entire season again with a different group of people and likely have a distinct experience. The show makes viewers grapple with ethical qualms and ideas relevant to every single human being.
I can assure you that after watching this show, you will develop a bond with your fellow viewers that could rival the connection between Joel and Ellie. My best advice is to buy into “The Last of Us” and watch it with at least one other person. Experience this tour de force TV show the same way its characters live their lives. Together.
Marli and Avi’s Definitive Episode rankings of the Last of Us Season 1:
|Ep 1, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness.”||5||9|
|Ep 2: “Infected”||8||8|
|Ep 3: “Long, Long Time”||2||1|
|Ep 4: “Please Hold to My Hand”||9||6|
|Ep 5: “Endure and Survive”||1||2|
|Ep 6: “Kin”||6||4|
|Ep 7: “Left Behind”||7||5|
|Ep 8: “When We Are in Need”||3||3|
|Ep 9: “Look for the Light”||4||7|