The Last of Us – or Why I Hate Mushrooms

While today was the worldwide premier of The Last of Us on HBO, it’s probably a good idea to give everyone a bit of a clue about what all the hype is about. After all, if you don’t know anything about it, at first glance it might seem like just another zombie horror TV show trying to build on the success of the Walking Dead.

The Last of Us is actually based on a critically acclaimed action-adventure game developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by infected humans, and follows the story of Joel, a hardened survivor, and Ellie, a young girl with mysterious immunity to the infection.

In this world, while the infection spreads through bites like in any other zombie story, the true cause of the infection seems to be related to a fungus. In an effort to avoid any *spoilers* from the TV show, I’ll try to keep my game synopsis contained.

In the Game

The first couple of chapters of the game introduces the player to the characters and the world of the game. The game begins with a prologue that shows Joel as a family man, living an everyday life before the outbreak. The prologue sets the stage for the events to come, and gives the player a sense of what life was like before the outbreak.

After the prologue, the game jumps to the present day, where Joel is living in a quarantine zone in Boston. The player is introduced to the game’s mechanics and gameplay as Joel navigates the dangerous and crumbling city. The player also gets a sense of the brutal nature of the infected and the various other dangers that threaten Joel’s survival.

As the game progresses, the player is introduced to Ellie and the two embark on a journey together. The player learns about the characters through their interactions and dialogue, and begins to understand their motivations and goals. The player also gets a sense of the game’s theme: the lengths people will go to survive in a world overrun by danger and death.

Overall, the first couple of chapters of The Last of Us do an excellent job of setting the stage for the rest of the game. They introduce the player to the characters, world, and gameplay while establishing the game’s themes and tone. The game’s story is compelling and the characters are well-developed, making for an engaging and emotional experience.

In the Show

For those that have seen episode 1, you’ll see that they’ve kept amazingly close to the storyline of the game. In the show, we see Joel’s daughter who is killed in the earliest stages of the infection when soldiers stop Joel leaving the quarantined area. However, the true alarming feature wasn’t her death, but rather our first introduction to the infected in their neighbour’s house.

Rather than the middle-aged man of the game, we first witness someone infected with fungal Cordyceps through an elderly woman in our neighbourhood named Nana. Before becoming sickened by this condition, she was already immobile and required full-time care. This highlights just how devastatingly transformative a Cordyceps infection can be for those who are not able to fend off its effects as effectively as others.

Witnessing the infection take control of a helpless, vulnerable individual in such a short span of time is an indication of how powerful this fungus can be. It has the capacity to manipulate its host and overcome any pre-existing conditions that would impede them from taking care of themselves, transforming them into an active yet alarming being. Through this subtle transformation created by showrunners, it made for one of the most unnerving pieces on television I have watched in recent years.

For those that know me, they’ll know that I’m not a super fan of horror in general, and our first exposure to the infected was definitely that. At a glance you could see that the threat here was significantly higher than the Walkers’ we’re used to and something much more akin to the fast zombies of Resident Evil or World War Z.

The show definitely pays homage to its source material, but at the same time, gives us a bit more data than we’d perhaps expect. With the Walking Dead, the entirety of the 1st season was dedicated to traveling to the CDC in search for a cure. The Last of Us takes care of that in the first five minutes with a talk show from the 60s. Here, two epidemiologists are taking part in an almost all-too-relatable discussion on viral and biological pandemics & one of them (played by John Hannah who you’ll recognize from The Mummy) states rather unequivocally that there is no cure. If and when this plague starts, the human race is done.

Which sets the scene, rather morbidly, but appropriately on the title doesn’t it?

2023 – We’ve Survived COVID … The Last of Us

Although Sarah and Joel’s time together is fleeting, her passing away in his arms is an emotionally powerful moment that ultimately shapes the arc of Joel’s story. Her role, even if brief, is essential to the narrative. Jumping ahead 20 years to 2023, we meet a man whose past trauma has left him hardened and unfazed. This is evidenced by the fact that he can swiftly pick up and discard the body of an infected child who had been euthanized with no hesitation.

This striking juxtaposition between his earlier scene with his daughter and now, where he stands emotionless in the face of executions and sells illicit items for meager goods in Boston’s Quarantine Zone, clearly demonstrates how much Joel has emotionally distanced himself from reality. Now separated from those around him by an intangible yet impenetrable boundary.

We are introduced to Tess, Anna Torv’s character in the QZ. Much like Joels’, her spirit is hardened by all that life has thrown at her, and she knows how to do whatever it takes to stay alive. She can battle with skill, withstand a powerful blow without flinching and can negotiate or manipulate when necessary.

By watching the show, we gain a much deeper insight into characters like Tess that isn’t accessible in the game. We’re not bound to a single character and can instead observe stories off-screen of those around us—stories such as when Robert’s men attacked Tess before she returned to Joel. Through TV, we are fully immersed in each character’s ordeals, simultaneously allowing for meaningful dialogue about these important topics.

At long last, we meet the beloved Ellie and her cohorts of Fireflies. Even though it wasn’t explicitly stated in the show, we were still aware of the dispute occurring in QZ with some considering Fireflies ‘terrorists’. Fortunately for us – Bella Ramsey’s portrayal as Ellie was spot-on from start to finish. From her combination of naivety mixed with a resilient attitude that all fans recognize so well; by this point any questions about Ramsey has been answered once and for all! But wait until you see how great she meshes along side Pedro Pascal playing Joel – sheer magic!

When they first meet, Joel and Ellie’s relationship is as tense as one could anticipate. Despite being an adolescent, Joel still points a gun at her; in retaliation, she brandishes the knife that she keeps for Marlene’s safety – similar to what occurs in the game. Yet here there is some variation: instead of engaging with them fiercely like he does in the title, Joel chooses to take away Ellie’s weapon and maintain his hostile attitude towards both characters.

While Joel and Tommy are in the car with Sarah, their movements through the outskirts of Boston exude a sense that was pulled right out from the video game. The way they had to sneak around, diving into pipes so as not to be spotted by FEDRA’s searchlights is both familiar and stealthy. To finish off this show-stopper episode, one momentous scene from the game occurs – when a FEDRA soldier unexpectedly discovers Ellie, Joel and Tess outside of the QZ.

As the soldier performs a scan to detect any infection within the three, they are entirely alone. Seizing this opportunity, Ellie strikes with her knife and stabs the soldier in their leg. When he retaliates by pointing a gun at Ellie, Joel is forced to strike back.

Joel is overtaken by a crushing sadness as his PTSD triggers memories of the traumatic event where he was held at gunpoint with his daughter before she was shot. His sorrow quickly morphs into an uncontrollable fury, and he unleashes it on the FEDRA soldier in a violent frenzy until there’s nothing left. In contrast to this intense physical retaliation, in-game executions appear much more ‘sterile’ – gunshots are fired straight between their eyes.

Yet before we can get a grasp on what Ellie is thinking, Tess notices her test results and quickly puts the defences up. As she begs for the understanding of being infected but immune from FEDRA’s attack, they must flee into the night to evade capture. Allowing no time for explanation, their journey continues in pursuit of safety and truth.

As Ellie, Tess and Joel escape from FEDRA and the QZ, an impeccable needle drop of Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” plays through the closing moments of this incredible episode. It is quite possibly one of my favorite soundtracks in a show to date!

Final Thoughts

This is a really great start to the show and presages what we have to look forward to as the season progresses. Through its consistent references to the game sprinkled throughout, this series cherishes and lays a sturdy foundation for die-hard fans. I was delighted when I noticed that bricks were being used to bolster Joel’s bed — an ode to the original source material. The actors have also truly embraced their roles and are capable of delivering powerful performances – making me both emotionally attached and invested in each character! While there is sure to be heartbreak ahead, it won’t be enough dissuade me from wanting more episodes soon.

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