HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ Is the Pandemic Show You’ll Want to Catch

HBO’s gripping new drama about a killer virus is the video game adaptation it’s okay to love

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Pedro Pascal as Joel in the first episode of "The Last of Us."
Pedro Pascal as Joel in the first episode of "The Last of Us."Credit: HBO / Yes
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

Is there a more ominous line in the history of entertainment than “adapted from the best-selling video game”? Other than “directed by Michael Bay,” obviously.

It is a genre from which we have come to expect very little over the years – whether it be big-screen disappointments like “Assassin’s Creed” and “Resident Evil,” or TV adaptations such as “Halo” and, well, Netflix’s “Resident Evil.”

Yet we are also living in an age where the dividing line between movie/TV series and video game has never been blurrier. I’ve long-since given up on superhero movies, tired of the sensation that I’m simply a passive participant in a third-person video game projected on a giant screen at a deafening volume (and yes, I’m aware that this line screams “Tell me you’re over 50 without telling me you’re over 50”).

Video games, meanwhile, have increasingly won praise for their hyperrealistic renderings and Hollywood-esque production values. This is a compliment, apparently.

While most big- and small-screen video-game adaptations are as likely to grace awards ceremonies as Itamar Ben-Gvir is to attend a recital of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, there is clearly money to be made out of them. Two of the most recent efforts – the Tom Holland actioner “Uncharted” and damned-if-I-can-label-this-one “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” – were among the top 15 U.S. box-office hits of 2022. And I have to confess that part of me is curious to see how “Easy A” director Will Gluck will turn my kids’ favorite video game, “Just Dance” (in which players have to mimic on-screen dancers’ moves to recent hit songs), into anything possibly resembling entertainment.

So, as you should have gathered, video games just aren’t my thing. There is more chance of me robbing an actual grave than playing “Tomb Raider.” Which leaves me with a problem this week as I have never previously encountered the PlayStation game “The Last of Us,” which Craig “Chernobyl” Mazin has now turned into a nine-part series for HBO.

For someone who likes to do a little homework before watching anything, all I can offer with this post-apocalyptic drama is that I once spent a year living in southeast London in its pre-gentrification years, so I can at least confirm that the scenes of decay, chaos and lifelessness we see on screen feel very realistic.

Still, even with my limited knowledge of the genre, I know that “The Last of Us” enjoys the kind of status that causes grown adults to genuflect before playing it (similar to comic-book fans and “The Sandman”). To the untrained – i.e., my – eye, it may appear like a mash-up of “The Walking Dead” and the wilderness scenes in “Logan’s Run,” but clearly there must be more to video game creator Neil Druckmann’s work than that. For proof, why else would Mazin follow up one of the most highly acclaimed TV shows of the 21st century with a video game adaptation if it were anything other than a cherished project?

To quote from the 2013 video game blurb, “the player traverses post-apocalyptic environments such as towns, buildings, forests, and sewers to advance the story. The player can use firearms, improvised weapons, hand-to-hand combat and stealth to defend against hostile humans and cannibalistic creatures infected by a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus.” Yes, Raymond Briggs was right all along: fungus really is a bogeyman.

Nico Parker as Joel's daughter, Sarah, in "The Last of Us."Credit: HBO / Yes

Fresh blood

Just to confirm: HBO is asking you to dedicate two months to a drama in which a pandemic has rendered the world as we know it obsolete. And this pandemic, it turns out, has the kind of side effects even the coronavirus can only stand back and admire – one in which “the infected” stumble around looking for fresh blood as the survivors hunker down in state-run quarantine zones.

Despite “series about pandemic” appearing only just above “show about Matt Gaetz” in the list of things I wanted to see in 2023, as we hopefully put COVID behind us (apologies if you are reading this in China), “The Last of Us” is just too good to ignore.

I’m reluctant to say too much about the plot – mainly because HBO has promised to unleash a group of infected people on anyone even hinting at the mildest of spoilers – but also because this is one of those shows where the uninitiated will never know what is going to happen next. One minute you’re at the start of the pandemic, the next you’re some distant time down the road (most of the action is set in 2023). And then you suddenly find yourself transported to a seemingly ancillary plot you never ever saw coming.

I’m halfway through the series and, from what I can gather, it is adhering to the original video game: jaded 40-something Joel (Pedro Pascal – last seen in Disney+ series “The Mandalorian”) gets tasked with escorting 14-year-old Ellie (English actress Bella Ramsey, best known for playing Lyanna Mormont in “Game of Thrones”) somewhere beyond the quarantine zone for reasons that soon become apparent.

The quarantine zone in "The Last of Us."Credit: HBO / Yes

Joel is your classic antihero – a laconic, brooding soul giving off strong Harrison Ford/Clint Eastwood vibes as he mumbles lines like “You tell me to look for the light and I’m breaking your jaw.” Joel, of course, has more baggage than a Samsonite warehouse, as we discover in a brilliantly unsettling opening segment.

Ellie, meanwhile, is his wisecracking companion, a fearless soul who sees a creepy dark basement as exactly the kind of place to explore with just a torch for company. After hearing a discussion about taking either the long way or the “we’re-fucking-dead” way to their destination, she chimes in, “I vote long way just based on that limited information.”

Leaving aside our own painful experiences, we’ve not exactly been short of pandemic/post-apocalyptic series in recent times: Guillermo del Toro’s “The Strain”; HBO Max’s adaptation of the Emily St. John Mandel novel “Station Eleven” (which I was cursing myself for not watching before I saw “The Last of Us,” as it seems the most obvious comparison); and the beautiful Italian drama “Anna” (on Cellcom tv), which is definitely the most picturesque apocalypse I’ve ever seen.

But don’t let that deter you from diving into “The Last of Us.” Mazin gives us a drama that, much like “Chernobyl,” takes a large-scale disaster and focuses on a group of diverse characters trying their best to survive it. It’s like a more lyrical, grown-up “Walking Dead,” if Rick Grimes’ partner were a sassy teenage girl.

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey as Joel and Ellie in "The Last of Us."Credit: HBO / Yes

Incidentally, although that AMC zombie series concluded last year, the “Dead” franchise shows no sign of dying with three spin-offs on the way. The pick of the bunch for me is the Norman Reedus-starring “The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon,” in which our motorbike-riding hero wakes up and finds himself in France. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing if the French zombies eat seven courses of human au jus in a bid to improve the taste over epic lunches.

Anyway, back to “The Last of Us.” It’s the show we needed to ease us into 2023 – smart, mildly horrific and engrossing, and a journey you will definitely want to go on.

It’s also a reminder that no matter how bad things might be right now, at least COVID didn’t make infected people bite each other and turn them into zombies. No matter what Marjorie Taylor Greene would have you believe about those vaccines.

“The Last of Us” airs on HBO on Sundays, and is broadcast in Israel from Monday on Yes, Hot and Cellcom tv.

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