I’ve always wondered what a viewer would make of a videogame adaptation who has next-to-zero familiarity with the source material. Not having the reverential love for the original experience and therefore having A) absolutely no idea what was going to happen next and B) no interest in things like Easter eggs to draw your attention, I figured I’d put myself through this exact scenario the second I heard the announcement that The Last Of Us was getting a HBO series.
The upshot of this is I get to wade through an adaptation with no clue what will happen next whereas the down is I’ve had the first game, sat on my shelf, untouched, unplayed and still in the original wrapping since someone bought it for me for Christmas over a year ago.
Well, after watching the first episode, I’m relieved to find that my idiotic experiment has not only paid off, but we have the greatest videogame adaptation ever made.
In 2003, the already complicated life of Joel Miller gets turned into a living nightmare when a fungal virus kicks off a full-on pandemic when the victims of this brain-altering parasite start doing the zombie two-step and start infecting everyone in sight. Diving into his pickup truck with daughter Sarah and rifle waving brother Tommy, Joel guns the engine and runs a frantic gauntlet of panicked neighbours, rampaging infected, blocked highways and crashing jets in order to try and make it to something approaching safety. However, despite their best efforts, tragedy strikes and the cruelest blow is struck to the most innocent of their group and after a time jump of twenty years, we are thrust into vastly different world.
The virus has rocked the world like a hurricane and Joel lives a very different life a walled off quarantine zone in Boston, struggling to make ends meet by scrabbling for paid labour while working as a smuggler on the side with his partner in crime Tess while trying to remain under the radar of the Federal Disaster Responce Agency who runs the settlement with an iron fist.
Meanwhile, Marlene, the leader of the rebel organisation known as the Fireflies has a young girl named Ellie chained up in a secret location and is trying to gain her trust. You see, despite her shitty attitude and smart mouth, Ellie, apparently, is incredibly important and needs to be transported to the Massachusetts State House.
After a chain of events that sees Joel and Tess enter her orbit due to some business about a stolen car battery, they agree to smuggling the young girl out of Boston through the lethal world beyond – but after killing a guard on their way out, can they ever chance coming back?
Over the years, we’ve seen numerous zombie-style infestations over the years, from the stark, raw visuals of 28 Days Later to the hyper-active momentum of the Dawn Of The Dead remake, but the opening moments of The Last Of Us’ premier episode may be one of the best yet. Not only does it skillfully introduce us to Pedro Pascal’s Joel and his family in a way that’s both endearing and economical, but the opening moments of the infestation are fast paced and legitimately panic inducing in a incredibly human way that rivals similar scenes from such movies as A Quiet Place Part 2. The heart breaking ending to this breathtaking opening only enforces Joel’s future outlook on life and with its sizable time jump into a desolate and rundown dystopia manages to create a realistic apocalypse that contains fascist leaders and struggling rebels in a way that achieves more in a single episode than The Walking Dead achieved in its last five seasons.
The world building feels as fresh as this alternate world feels musty, which is something of a miracle considering how in many dystopia show have turned up on the small screen over the last 10 years. One of the main reasons for this is that the showrunners include game creator Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, the dude behind the instantly traumatic Chernobyl, who (so I’m told) keep things incredibly faithful to the game while intelligently expanding on the source material in ways that count.
Elsewhere, you couldn’t really ask for a better lead than Pedro Pascal, who continues his outstanding run of game changing television (The Mandalorian and Game Of Thrones if you were wondering) with a performance that’s as effecting as it is world weary and he’s given able support by Gabrial Luna (previously a Ghost Rider and a Terminator) and Anna Torv (Fringe and Mindhunter), but the most important member of the cast proves to be Bella Ramsey, a fellow GOT alum who puts her adolescent death scowls as Lyanna Mormont to good use as the notorously anti social, 14 year old Ellie.
A fascinating character in her own right, Ellie not only is perfectly willing to kill despite her limited age (and does indeed stick a knife into someone at one point) and who, it turns out, is infected with the virus but who hasn’t turned – hence her importance.
The episode’s pace, style and engrossing nature not only hints at greater things to come (the infected won’t simply look like typical zombies after 20 years of letting their fungal freak flags fly), but it somewhat makes a mockery of virtually every single attempt to translate a videogame franchise to the screen, smashing the notoriously varied quality if the genre to smithereens. Compare The Last Of Us’ sole episode so far with Paramount+’s Halo series and you’ll immediately see that the adventures of Joel, Ellie and co. never takes its eye off the ball, keeping focus on what’s important instead of setting up numerous side plots and secondary missions that actually prevent the show from doing what it’s actually created to do – adapt fucking the game.
Admittedly, we’ve still got a ways to go yet – 8 more weeks by my reckoning – so there’s a lot of time in which anything could happen; but if the first episode is anything to go by, we’re in insanely safe hands. The toughest part, however, is resisting the temptation of taking the game off the shelf and finding out what happens next first hand.
After one episode, The Last Of Us has already cemented itself as the greatest videogame adaption ever made – but if things continue like this we could have one of the greatest shows of all time.
The fun(gus) is only about to begin.