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The Last of Us Review: HBO's Faithful Adaptation Is at Its Best When It Goes Beyond the Game

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey star in the striking post-apocalyptic drama

Keith Phipps
Bella Ramsey and Anna Torv, The Last of Us

Bella Ramsey and Anna Torv, The Last of Us

Liane Hentscher/HBO

Any video game adaptation arrives trailed by baggage, including a long list of video game adaptations that just don't work, but The Last of Us carries more than most. Its source material, the 2013 game of the same name written by Neil Druckmann and published by Naughty Dog, isn't just well-liked; it's revered, the game that always comes up in any discussion of the medium's greatest accomplishments. Even Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), who serves as this new HBO adaption's co-creator alongside Druckmann, speaks of it in intimidating terms, describing the original game as "the Lawrence of Arabia of video game narratives."

A post-apocalyptic drama set in an America overrun by violent humans controlled by Cordyceps fungi (essentially zombies by another name), the game's story doesn't really do anything that hasn't been done before, echoing everything from George Romero zombie movies to Cormac McCarthy's The Road to Children of Men. But it does it extremely well thanks to thoughtful writing, an unnerving setting, and, especially, the dramatic intensity of the central relationship between Ellie, a teenage girl with a mysterious immunity to the fungi, and Joel, a hardened survivor haunted by the death of his daughter and his own actions in the post-apocalyptic world. Brought to life by, respectively, voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, Joel and Ellie's slow-developing bond and struggle to survive would make the game worth playing even if the gameplay weren't good.

All that casts a long shadow over HBO's The Last of Us, a shadow the series doesn't so much try to escape as to fill. The nine episodes of this first season largely focus on faithfully adapting the first game. Happily, they do this extremely well, though it's the moments that stretch beyond the game's established narrative and expand its world that elevate it.


The Last of Us


  • Pascal and Ramsey play their characters' bond beautifully
  • Striking visuals and tense directing leave an impression
  • Going beyond the scope of the game elevates the series


  • The story occasionally feels rushed
  • The show could have expanded its perspective beyond the source material even more

Opening in an alternate 2003, the first episode focuses on Sarah (Nico Parker), an upbeat and resourceful teen living in Austin, Texas, who's learned to parent herself when her loving but overworked contractor father Joel (Pedro Pascal) is away at work — or bailing his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) out of trouble. She's largely left to her own devices during a fateful day when a vague but mounting crisis sweeps across the world, one eventually revealed to be the Cordyceps plague. The episode's opening scenes quickly establish what to expect of the show, dropping richly realized characters into impossible situations that often lead to brutal outcomes.

It's a pattern that continues after The Last of Us flashes forward 20 years to find Joel now living on the fringes of the Boston Quarantine Zone, a city-state that's kept the plague at bay via authoritarianism. It's a way of living that's stirred discontentment, leading Joel and his partner Tess (Anna Torv) to work as smugglers and to occasionally team up with the Fireflies, a revolutionary group led by Marlene (Merle Dandridge). It's from the Fireflies that they receive their most dangerous mission yet: escorting Ellie (Bella Ramsey) away from the quarantine zone and putting her on her way to a group of Firefly scientists out West who might be able to use her to develop a cure against the infection. When things don't go as planned, Joel and Ellie find themselves on their own, making the journey themselves.

Their journey gives The Last of Us its episodic structure, with each new stop introducing a new set of characters and, of course, problems. Each new destination also develops a theme central to the series, reflecting a different approach to post-apocalyptic crisis — from religious fanaticism to communal living — and what each reveals about humanity. 

The series' best episode, its third, even forgets about Ellie and Joel for much of its running time, focusing instead on Bill (Nick Offerman), a government-fearing survivalist who treats the apocalypse as a chance to live as he's always wanted to live: alone. But he finds that belief challenged by the arrival of Frank (Murray Bartlett), who shows up at Bill's doorstep hungry and desperate after losing his traveling companions. Unfolding over the course of years, it's a complete, satisfying, and heartbreaking story within the larger narrative.

Still, The Last of Us ultimately belongs to Joel and Ellie, and Pascal and Ramsey play their deepening bond beautifully. It works in part because neither of these characters thinks they need each other, at least at first. Having never forgiven himself for what he's become to survive — and, the series suggests through allusions to his past, understandably so — Joel finds himself surprised by his ability to feel paternal love again. Pascal captures both the affectionate man he was and the thorniness that's developed in his years since leaving Austin. Ramsey, best known as child noblewoman Lyanna Mormont on Game of Thrones, plays Ellie without a hint of cuteness. Ellie is sarcastic and disobedient, a teenager through and through. The characters' difficulty only makes their relationship that much richer.

Pedro Pascal, The Last of Us

Pedro Pascal, The Last of Us

Liane Hentscher/HBO

Squeezing the whole of the first game (and a bit more) into this season, The Last of Us can at times feel a little rushed. Some of its best moments come in the course of Joel and Ellie's downtime, and it's hard not to wish for a bit more of them. But at a time when so many series seem determined to stretch not enough story across too many episodes, the pace is also a bit refreshing. The story might hew a bit too close to the source material to surprise those familiar with it, but it won't disappoint them either, and what worked in that medium works here as well.

Still, even if nothing gets lost in translation, what's gained offers frustrating glimpses of what could have been. To be clear, The Last of Us is very good. Beyond Pascal and Ramsey's excellent work, it's visually striking — both in the post-apocalyptic world it creates and the scary creatures that inhabit it — tensely directed, and populated with intriguing characters (including a terrifying tyrant-in-the-making played by Melanie Lynskey). But the Bill and Frank episode suggests an even better show might be possible if it allowed itself to open up a bit more. Maybe the seasons beyond this one will find more time to see what's going on after the end of the world beyond the scope of the beloved game it adapts faithfully and well.

Premieres: Sunday, Jan. 15 at 9/8c on HBO, with new episodes rolling out weekly
Who's in it: Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey, Anna Torv, Gabriel Luna
Who's behind it: Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin
For fans of: the game (of course), post-apocalyptic stories, stories about paternal bonds
How many episodes we watched: 9 of 9