‘The Last of Us’ Episodes 1 and 2 Review: The New Gold Standard for Adaptation

HBO's latest hit is off to an emotionally resonant, masterfully crafted start in its first two episodes.

The following article contains spoilers for the first two episodes of HBO’s The Last of Us

Though the video game adaptation curse has certainly wavered over the last few years, nothing has cracked the code more effectively (thus far) than HBO’s The Last of Us. Adapting Naughty Dog’s hit video game into a television series felt like a no-brainer from a story perspective, but adapting source material this beloved runs the risk of it feeling beholden to it. As much as we want to see this emotionally rich story brought to life, any narrative being translated from one medium to another must experience change if it wants to live and breathe as an effective storytelling experience. 

Showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann (director of the original game), in just two episodes, have made bold additions and changes to the original game’s story world, yet they still manage to capture the essence of the original’s game success, even if it sometimes translates as fan wish-fulfillment. This extraordinary balance, along with solid practical craftsmanship and a talented cast, has turned The Last of Us into television’s latest post-apocalyptic prestige sensation.

The series’ powers of adaptation are immediately apparent, as both initial episodes (“When You’re Lost in the Darkness” and “Infected”) begin with cold opens written especially for the series. The first flashes back to a talk-show taping in 1968, where a scientist, Dr. Neuman (John Hannah), explains the circumstances that would allow a fungus to cause a global pandemic. The script’s allusion to global warming stings in its timeliness, but the entire scene implicates us in the show’s events as shots of an empty-eyed audience are intercut with Neuman’s dire monologue. The writing even begins to set up the infection as a metaphor for many of the show’s larger motifs: grief, isolation, and self-interest.

Advertisements

The second cold open sees us in Indonesia in 2003, shortly before the outbreak. The military asks mycologist Dr. Ibu Ratna (Christine Hakim) to inspect a dead body with fungus growing inside of it. Upon seeing a living fungus surviving within a human body, directly harkening back to Dr. Neuman’s warnings, she advises an officer with just one word: “Bomb.” It’s striking to see a humble civilian suggest destroying her own city, underlined by a fantastic turn in Gustavo Santaolalla’s excellent score; we see the impact of these bombs later in the second episode, but Mazin fans are surely dreading (and, sigh, anticipating) the inevitable scenes depicting the context.

These are entirely original sequences, yet they are some of the most memorable moments of the series thus far. They give something new for hardcore fans of the game, while giving new viewers a perfect entryway into the events of the story. Admittedly, though, the meat and potatoes of the original game’s harrowing drama is still the real star of the show.

The pilot’s first thirty minutes centre on Joel (Pedro Pascal), a weary construction worker living in Texas with his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), and brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna). As we spend time with Sarah, a character given new depth and dimension thanks to new scenes written especially for her, several sequences methodically build up the looming threat. When she wakes up in the midst of a mass contagion, we’re off to the races in a stellar driving sequence as the family desperately attempts to flee but are confronted by a soldier, who shoots Sarah in a panic. Pascal’s raw response following her death is instantly heartbreaking, but it’s the zero to 100 between scenes that sells Pascal’s range in this part.

All of this provides texture for when we finally reach 2023. It’s a world barren of life despite the deep humanity within each of our characters. Browns, greys, and beiges colour Boston’s quarantine zone (QZ), stunningly realized by production designer John Paino. We find a hardened Joel working as a smuggler alongside his partner, Tess (Anna Torv). Tommy has gone MIA for three weeks, and the two intend on repairing Joel’s truck to seek him out. However, rebellion leader Marlene (Merle Dandrige, reprising her role from the game) offers a new truck if they can transport a feisty young girl, Ellie (Belle Ramsey), to a team of rebels outside the zone. They begrudgingly agree, setting off a series of events that will surely suck up all our Sunday nights for the next seven weeks.

Advertisements

The first episode efficiently compacts the story into a well-paced pilot, but the following episode is more of a technical showcase. Outside of the QZ, the game’s iconic dilapidated landscapes and interiors are flawlessly recreated using a blend of hand-built sets and visual effects. As Ellie, Joel, and Tess traverse what’s left of Boston, it feels about as close to a filmic experience of the game as a fan could hope for, eerie but, in a way, still beautiful.

Then there’s the Clickers themselves, fully realized in live-action by Chernobyl prosthetics designer Barrie Gower and stunt actors who, according to Mazin, were fans of the original game. The creatures are frightening, but the cinematography and editing never descends into cliche; Mazin and Druckmann know that the horror of these monsters is conveyed by getting a chance to see them in all their glory as opposed to hiding them in service of cheap jump scares. The sequence inside the Boston Museum is just another example of a moment from the games given glorious new life.

It’s clear in every creative aspect of this series thus far that this story is being handled with care and skill. Handheld camerawork is evocative but never indiscernible, the show’s writing delicately laces humour through its grounded tone, and every member of the cast is wholly inhabiting their characters with grace and nuance. Ramsey is giving Ellie a sharper edge than what fans may be used to, but the choice to lean into these qualities will only make the vulnerable moments to come hit even harder. It also sells the humour a bit more, which always helps.

Torv as Tess is simply inspired casting, full of conviction but subtle hints of heart to balance Pascal’s absolute cynicism. Her final scene in the second episode, where it’s revealed that Ellie’s DNA is able to heal following exposure to the fungus, is a hopeful farewell that pushes Joel to narratively cross the threshold. Her death, changed for the series to be at the hands of the infected, is the right kind of nasty–a wrenching visualization of how the infected spread their reach, another bold adaptive choice. One of the episode’s most harrowing shots is when a pack of dormant infected rise up at the the quietest movement of tendrils.

Advertisements

Mazin and Druckmann have laid the groundwork for what feels like another home run for HBO. However, with new directors helming the remaining seven episodes, it will be exciting to see how new voices will blend into the show’s thoroughly realized vision. Further deviations from the source material are to be expected, but the original game’s themes likely will remain a guiding light for Joel and Ellie’s journey across the wasteland.

New episodes of The Last of Us air 9 PM ET on Crave, HBO, and HBOMax.



Comments

Advertisement



Advertisement


Advertisement