A long time ago, in the distant year of 2013, The Last of Us released for the PlayStation 3. It was a phenomenal game with a captivating story alongside its visceral action. Between The Last of Us and the Uncharted series Naughty Dog had all but defined the cinematic video game experience, creating a benchmark that other developers would be striving to surpass for years to come, for better and for worse. I had expected the TV series to be a familiar tour of post outbreak America, hitting the expected story beats, just without a controller in hand. The first episode did just that, with an extra helping of character depth, filling in some of the missing little details. The second episode did just that, giving names to characters that didn’t have them in the game, while also reducing the scale of the action. The third episode showed why expanding on an already familiar tale could find itself in amazing, unexpected places.
If you’re not familiar with the video game, The Last of Us (2023) tells the story of Joel and Ellie traveling through a post-apocalyptic America. It’s actually fungus that turns humanity into zombies of a sort, specifically of the cordyceps variety. In the real world the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has found its way to infect the bodies of ants, burrowing into their brains and controlling their will. On the show the fungus had turned humans into clickers who behave, aside from a few mouth tendrils, a signature clicking noise that defines their namesake, and a mycelial network, more or less like zombies.
This series is helmed by Craig Mazin, best known for creating Chernobyl (2019), not so well known for his writing contributions to Scary Movie 3 (2003) and Scary Movie 4 (2006). For this show, much like the former and the latter, there’s little humor to be found. The grim setting is made up of close and intimate shots with an almost constant use of handheld cameras, where special effects largely fill in the background. There’s a very grounded approach to the adaptation that emphasizes characters over thrills, story over action, depth over death.
For the James Bond franchise the film Goldeneye (1996) was a return to form, and its video game adaptation was just as important for its own medium. When it came to adapting the movie to the game Bond was given significantly more enemies to fight and locations to explore. It was the same general story, but with less character depth and more action, more hired goons to shoot and more things to explode.
The Last of Us is the inverse, taking an action game with lots of places to explore and enemies to fight and scaling it down. Where there was once dozens of clickers there is now one or two. Where there was once dozens of raiders and thieves there is now one, or sometimes zero. While the show does occasionally offer the larger set piece with many clickers and fire and gunshots galore, for the most part there is a very clear intent not to match the thrills of the game. The story and the drama make for the centerpiece here, and everything that distracts from that gets minimized or cut.
That drop in scale does have an effect on the storyline and characterization itself, in that it makes Joel and Ellie look less like sociopaths cutting a violent swath through everyone who gets in their way, and more like survivors in a world gone wrong. At its best the violence in the show acts as a sudden exclamation in contrast to the peace around it. The last episode actually benefits from this, giving Joel’s characterization and his actions in the end new definition. At worst the lack of scale to the conflict makes the enemy often seems like a distant threat, the world at large asserting inescapable damnation without having to demonstrate control. The clickers that are presented to be the danger, that are often the danger, find themselves drifting into the background before the season is at its end.
The space they leave, both the clickers and the raiders that dropped out in abundance, is filled in by a character driven story that doesn’t seek to match the thrills of the game that its adapting, but rather the emotional depth to its narrative, and of that it succeeds.