The Last of Us: season 1, episode 1 – When You’re Lost in the Darkness

“Viruses can make us ill, but fungi can alter our very minds.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

I’ve got a confession to make. I may seem like the nerd’s nerd, with my extensive knowledge of science fiction, fantasy and horror, in books, comics, movies and TV shows. But I’ve never been a gamer. Even before video games got huge, I never even played Dungeons and Dragons (I’ve tried since and hated it). To me, Zelda is stilled the wizened villainess of Gerry Anderson’s Terrahawks, and I remain baffled by how any Fantasy can be Final when there’s been fifteen of them.

Nonetheless, with the company I keep, I couldn’t help being aware of games that were popular. In recent years, one of the biggest was The Last of Us, seemingly yet another first person shooter with zombies in the crowded field pioneered by the long-running Resident Evil series (itself a homage to/ripoff of George Romero’s classic films). But what I kept hearing about The Last of Us was how deep and engrossing its story was, and how well-realised and complex its characters were.

So I tried to play it. After a few hours of getting a little way, being killed, and returning to the start, I got bored and gave up. Gaming, it seems, is not for me. I’d rather sit back and passively watch the story unfold in far less time than keep repeating my actions. It’s ironic, given the opinions often expressed by non-gamers, that actually gamers seem to have a far better attention span when it comes to stories, willing to keep playing for days on end to see how the story unfolds.

And now there’s a shiny new TV adaptation of The Last of Us, which has been highly acclaimed. Of course it’s far from the first adaptation of a game – I suspect that would be 1993’s less-than-well-regarded Super Mario Bros, which saw classy actor Bob Hoskins taking the money and running. Since then, there’s been a positive slew of movies, few of which have been particularly memorable as movies no matter how well-loved the games were. Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Warcraft and of course the seemingly interminable Resident Evil series are generally fun movies without being particularly good ones.

But if the movies don’t really work, how about TV, recognised these days as the natural home of complex, detailed long-form storytelling? TV seems to have been a better fit for game adaptations, with popular and sometimes quite good series based on Halo, The Witcher, and even, yet again, Resident Evil.

That, however, means that the field of prestige game adaptations on TV is already fairly crowded. As is, since the 2010 advent of The Walking Dead, the field of TV zombie shows, which The Last of Us at least superficially is. TWD itself recently wound to a less than thrilling anticlimax with its eleventh and final season, seemingly indicating that even the most successful zombie show was no longer capable of thrilling its audience with a mix of action, horror and character arcs.

So The Last of Us has a struggle ahead? Well, it seems not, mainly due to the incredibly high regard in which the original game was held. What’s notable about all the gushing reviews I’ve read is that all of the reviewers seem to have played the game to the end, and loved it. Praise is duly lavished on the TV version’s faithfulness to the game’s story, characters and mood. I, on the other hand, never got beyond the first two or three opportunities to get killed. Repeatedly. So unlike all those other reviewers, I’m going into the show blind, with little knowledge of the game beyond its basic premise.

And if an adaptation is genuinely good, it should be accessible to people like me, not just fans of the source material. I was very down on the recent adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, because it left out large, vital parts of the story, seemingly taking for granted that viewers already knew it and would fill in the gaps for themselves. That’s just lazy. For an adaptation to work, it has to stand on its own.

Does it? Well, there’s an impressive set of creative talent behind it, so that’s a good start. The show is run by original game writer Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, and stars the excellent Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, both much-loved veterans of Game of Thrones. Pascal is a talented and versatile actor – witness the range between GoT’s Oberyn Martell and comic character Luis Gutierrez in recent movie The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Ramsey, meanwhile, knocked the ball out of the park with her small but incredibly memorable turn as fierce Lady Lyanna Mormont in GoT. Both pull off impressively convincing American accents given their nationalities – Chilean and English, respectively.

The first, virtually feature-length episode is a game of two halves, showing us the beginning of the Apocalypse then skipping to its aftermath twenty years later. There’s a nice bit of setup/exposition with a talk show in 1968 featuring respected actors John Hannah and Christophe Heyerdahl explaining for us poor numskulls how such an apocalypse might happen, with much dwelling on the (real) Cordyceps fungus, which takes control of the brains of ants to propagate itself. The exposition is less laboured than it could have been, thanks in large part to a charismatic performance from Hannah – that’s a classy bit of casting for a character who’s presumably never seen again.

As I said, I’m not all that familiar with the game, but I do know this isn’t the first time we’ve seen monsters influenced by Cordyceps. 1993 X-Files episode Firewalker posits a similar brain-controlling fungus, and the ‘zombies’ in the movie version of World War Z behave in a manner inspired by that all-consuming desire to propagate the infective agent, rather than just eating people like they usually do. Which, I assume, is what the ‘Infected’ (thanks to 28 Days Later for coining that term) are doing here.

Unfortunately I have to say that’s less than clear, at least to the casual viewer. We see plenty of the Infected when the show skips to the apocalypse proper (which for reasons I cannot fathom takes place in 2003, making this an alternate history piece too). There’s the requisite panic on the streets at night, with hordes of screaming people running around the streets, being pulled down to the ground by the Infected and… what? It’s not clear what they’re actually doing to spread the fungus. Biting, as in the WWZ movie, seems the most obvious approach, but the murky lighting and frenetic camerawork doesn’t really show us, at least not yet.

Into this chaos comes Pascal’s Joel, his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), and beloved daughter Sarah (Nico Parker). To its credit, the show actually takes its time to build these characters before hints of The End begin to appear; Joel’s a combat veteran and single parent struggling with money, while Sarah is witty, precocious and seems at first glance to be a major character. The script, and Nico Parker’s performance, give her so much depth that it’s actually something of a surprise when she’s shot dead by a panicked soldier in a hazmat suit.

That’s definitely a plus point. The depth and attention given to Sarah’s character make her death a very convincing motivator for the embittered, nihilistic Joel we see twenty years later. It’s fair to say that Pedro Pascal seems to have aged very little in twenty years, a few grey hairs aside, though that’s a minor niggle. But the dystopian Boston Quarantine Zone of this second half is well-realised (if, again, reminiscent of both Fear the Walking Dead and the Resident Evil TV show).

The streets are patrolled by black-clad, fascistic agents of ‘FEDRA’ (helpfully spelled out for our information on a sign as the ‘Federal Disaster Response Agency’). Does that mean that, somewhere, a US Federal Government still exists? No clue at this point, but it’s an interesting potential plot point for the future.

Ranged against them are an underground rebellion called the Fireflies, who’ve kidnapped a little girl called Ellie for some reason (to be fair, that reason is later spelled out). And in the middle are those just trying to survive by fair means or foul, like Joel and his friend Tess, and unscrupulous drug dealer Robert, played by familiar character actor Brendan Fletcher. Again, each character is given so much depth that it’s a surprise when (as frequently) they don’t make it to the end of the first episode. Fletcher’s already gone, and I don’t hold out much hope for Tess in the near future – which is a shame, we don’t see enough of former Fringe star Anna Torv these days.

The ‘monsters’ are barely seen in this second half – the implication being, as ever, that the real monsters are the ‘normal’ people who survived. With regular gun battles and explosions peppering the streets of the Quarantine Zone, it barely seems much safer than the world outside. After the initial apocalyptic panic, the only sighting we have of the Infected  in the alternate world of 2023 is a fungus-exploded corpse in one of the grungy, barely-lit rooms even I remember from the game. It’s a different, and welcome, approach to the early Walking Dead episodes – spend time building your premise and characters rather than just deluging us with the monsters from the start.

It makes sense that, after various gun battle shenanigans, Joel and Tess find themselves in custody of young Ellie, on an Epic Quest through the ruins of the world outside. A chance encounter with a drug-addled FEDRA soldier reveals to us the real reason for Ellie’s importance – she’s actually Infected herself, but the fungus doesn’t affect her somehow. She could therefore be the saviour of humanity, or what’s left of it at least. More pertinently to the well-drawn characters, she’s obviously going to be someone who can emotionally reach the closed-off Joel, as someone who takes the place of his beloved daughter.

It’s a promising start, and definitely well-realised in both script and visual terms. But I find I can’t quite lavish the same praise on it as other reviewers. Sure, it’s extremely well-done, with prestige production values and good acting. But there’s absolutely nothing here I haven’t seen before, both before and after the initial game I know so little about. And its determination, like The Walking Dead, to be ‘dark’ -literally – means that half the time, you can’t see what’s going on.

I expect some of my niggles about unclear plot points will be addressed in future episodes – though I’m still baffled as to why the world ended in 2003 rather than, y’know, now. I’ll keep watching, and perhaps even keep blogging as the show progresses. I definitely enjoyed it and want to see more. It’s certainly working as a story for me with little knowledge of the game. But I have to say that, so far at least, there’s nothing particularly original about it.

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