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At the end of humanity, 'The Last of Us' locates what makes us human

"I like the rug. It brings the room together." Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Tess (Anna Torv) in HBO's <em>The Last of Us.</em>
Liane Hentscher
/
HBO
"I like the rug. It brings the room together." Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Tess (Anna Torv) in HBO's The Last of Us.

The Walking Dead. Fear the Walking Dead. Y: The Last Man. The Passage. The Strain. The Stand. Sweet Tooth. Invasion. Station Zero. Resident Evil.

Given the glut of post-apocalyptic fare that television has been serving up over just the past few years, you'd be forgiven for approaching HBO's The Last of Us with a skeptical mind. Some not-insignificant percentage of potential viewers, upon learning that the series is based on a video game, will adopt a kind of mental defensive crouch. (To be clear, these people have never played the excellent, heart-wrenching video game(s) in question.)

What is there new to say? is a valid question. Or, for that matter, to show? There is a limit, after all, to the number of times one can watch grizzled, greasy-haired bands of armed survivors who look as if they smell like a particularly runny cheese tiptoeing through crumbling cityscapes overrun with lush vegetation before one concludes, "No, yeah, I got it, thanks."

The Last of Us contains several such sequences, and others that prove similarly familiar: Militarized outposts imposing martial law. Idyllic pockets of civilization that Hide a Dark SecretTM. Mistrust. Violence. The horror of realizing that a loved one has been infected, followed by the grim acknowledgement of what must be done about it.

But these are all genre trappings, the parameters that any post-apocalypse show and its viewers agree to establish, and work within. You don't go into a science fiction series and roll your eyes at every spaceship, do you? Or sneer every time a forensic investigator busts out the luminol?

No, what matters is what takes place within its genre conventions - the precise narrative fuel mixture that drives the show in question: Are the zombies/vampires/mutants/cannibals/militias the real stars of the series, or does it belong to the survivors?

The Last of Us belongs entirely, gratifyingly, to the survivors — two in particular. There's laconic, hard-bitten (but not yet actually bitten) Joel, played by Pedro Pascal, and young Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey — she may carry the future of humanity in her blood. They join up to trek across the country with tangentially related agendas — he to find his brother, she to find a lab where scientists may figure out a way to replicate her mysterious immunity.

Along the way, they encounter quasi-fascist government operatives ("FEDRA"), antigovernmental freedom-fighter/terrorists ("Fireflies"), raiders, revolutionaries and some friendly faces as well. The series is confident enough to give two such allies — a doomsday prepper played by Nick Offerman and a sly charmer played by Murray Bartlett — the screen time necessary for us to grow emotionally invested in their fates. That confidence proves well-earned, as Offerman and Bartlett turn in the season's highlight episode.

Of course, there's plenty of scenes where our hardy heroes fight or evade the various fungi-festooned monsters dutifully reproduced from the video games — runners, stalkers, shamblers and, most memorably, clickers (whose heads have turned into toadstools, and who echolocate their prey via some seriously unnerving sound design).

But The Last of Us of is about those assorted mushroom-baddies in exactly the same way that The Sopranos was about RICO charges. Which is to say — they're a threat, yes, and they loom ever-present, but the show's really about what the characters do despite them.

And what they do, on The Last of Us at least, is grow deeper and more complex in meaningful ways. Pascal plays Joel in the early episodes as if he's encased his heart in his beskar steel armor from The Mandalorian, but as his connection to Ellie grows, he starts talking more — risking more, emotionally, in every scene — and it lands on us with a satisfying heft.

Ramsey's young Lady Mormont was a heartening surprise back on Game of Thrones, but that character was written to do one thing — be a badass — and Ramsey did it well. Last year, in Lena Dunham's Catherine Called Birdy, she got to show us a good deal more. Even so, she's an absolute revelation here, investing Ellie with a toughness that manages to carve out plenty of room for vulnerability, teenage silliness, the pangs of first love, grief, rage and steely resolution.

Some may balk at the series' choice to spend so much time showing us two people learning to rely on each other, instead of throwing ceaseless hordes of CGI-enhanced fungal foes at them. But by allowing the monsters to serve chiefly as catalysts to the complex emotional reactions of its characters, The Last of Us accomplishes what Station Eleven did last year.

It's a hopeful show about the end of humanity — one that manages to find, and nurture, moments of grace amid the ruins.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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