The first episode of HBO’s The Last of Us aired Jan. 15, 2023 and stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey as Joel Miller and Ellie Williams, respectively. Pascal is largely recognizable for his roles in Narcos and The Mandalorian (although his brief stint as the Red Viper in Game of Thrones can’t be overlooked), while Ramsey’s breakout role was as the lionhearted Lyanna Mormont, also from Game of Thrones.
The Last of Us is adapted from a Naughty Dog video game of the same name. The premise is scarily realistic: A (real) genus of fungi called Cordyceps, previously exclusive to insects, adapts to warming temperatures to infect humans. Cordyceps infiltrates its host and uses its body as a vessel for its own reproduction. The infected, known as “Clickers” and “Bloaters,” are programmed to propagate by infecting others.
Joel’s hardened interior makes him a fitting guide for this treacherous space — he is a veteran of war and loss. Like uninfected people, love and joy are hard to come by in the world of The Last of Us. Joel suffers from this dearth: He first loses his daughter (Nico Parker) and then his apocalypse ride-or-die best friend Tess (Annie Wersching).
Ellie presents a possible escape from this chasm and a return to life as it was. An orphan who somehow survives a Clicker bite, Ellie is a miracle in the form of a potty-mouthed teenager who adds levity to tense situations and prods at Joel’s sensitivities. Like Joel, Ellie is tough and used to being on her own. Unlike Joel, Ellie knows how to poke fun at the situation at hand. She can live without fear and see life outside of Cordyceps. She can reminisce and romanticize about life before the Cordyceps infestation and even recognize its persisting pieces. She can marvel at a dusty arcade game in a ramshackle building and a breezy drive in a beat-up Chevy S-10. Ellie sees life for what remains, while Joel can see only what’s been lost.
The series changes pace on the third episode, appropriately titled “Long, Long Time.” A relationship hinted at in the video game is drawn out in the 72 minute program: A love affair begins between Bill (Nick Offerman), a seasoned survivalist, and Frank (Murray Bartlett), an inquisitive stranger. Their relationship prevails within the confines of an electric fence. The affection between the pair seems almost heightened by catastrophe. Time loiters for the two on their dilapidated plot of land. Their love shields them from Cordyceps and Clickers, and their isolation allows for fine-tuned attentiveness to each other. “Long, Long Time” proves that love doesn’t die in times of chaos and turmoil — such sentiments may instead be intensified in times of crisis, when there is a higher risk of losing the things one loves. This episode reminded me of how COVID has shifted society’s priorities and attention inward, forcing people to take stock of each other and not just themselves.
The Last of Us’s freedom with pacing is what largely differentiates it from other programs of the apocalyptic genre. Emotion isn’t paved over to make way for adrenaline — the show is almost equal parts adrenaline and emotion. This allows for deep character development and, in turn, enables viewers to become attached to specific characters. Moreover, the fixation on various storylines in the TV show allows for a firmer grasp of the landscape of The Last of Us — Bill and Frank cover emotional ground in “Long, Long Time,” while Joel and Ellie chart geographical distance and slowly unravel their feelings.
Joel tries, unsuccessfully, not to care extensively for Ellie. Each joke and snide remark levied at him pries into the Joel from before — the Joel who had a daughter and a life worth losing. Profound loss makes it difficult, but not impossible, for Ellie to peel off Joel’s layers. Survival for Joel now seems to be a mechanistic response to life’s curveballs. Ellie could change that by injecting him with not just the antidote for Cordyceps, but a will to survive for things beyond just survival.
Lena Thakor is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]