Binge Breaks: “The Last of Us”


Photo credit/ Jennifer Flynn

HBO’s new zombie show “The Last of Us”

After “The Walking Dead”’s finale marked the 11-season-series as the No. 2 adult cable drama, a new zombie adaptation threatens to usurp it with one season so far.

HBO’s “The Last of Us” tells the story of a fungus-infested world that turns its human victims into mind-controlled zombies that seek to kill and infect, adapted from the hit video game of the same name released in 2013. The story begins 20 years after the initial outbreak with Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) being assigned to escort Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a girl with immunity to the fungus, to a group working to engineer a vaccine for the infection.

The first episode premiered on Jan. 15 and by the time the second episode aired the week after, the pilot episode had gathered 18 million viewers.

The series showrunners consist of Craig Mazin of “Chernobyl” fame, and Neil Druckmann, director of the original video game. This duo has proven to be a powerhouse with the series– each episode has proven to be riveting, emotional, and engaging.

Druckmann has commented that the show’s overall theme is about love- the joy it can bring, the danger it can bring, the tragedy it can deliver, how twisted it can make a person, and what happens to someone after their love is gone.

“I think the part that makes our story special is its themes and what it says about humanity because ultimately our story is about love (…) there’s beautiful things that can come out of that and sometimes horrific, violent things that could come of that. Just like in our real world, some of the worst atrocities often are motivated by love,” said Druckmann during an after-show behind-the-scenes reel for Episode Three.

The series depicts these different versions of love quite well. We start with Joel losing that love with his daughter, Sarah, and as a result, shuts himself out of love entirely, becoming cold and survival-focused. It’s only when he is assigned to protect Ellie that he begins to accept love again, having a second chance to become a father-figure. But when, like with Sarah, Ellie is put in harm’s way, Joel rises up and protects her, possibly dooming humanity in the process.

The third episode, while a deviance from the plot, is still very important to the story. We are introduced to Bill, a paranoid post-9/11 shut-in survivalist whose small town is cleared by the military during the first few days of the outbreak. With the town to himself, he fortifies the area, building a small compound with electric fences, flamethrower traps, and other defenses to keep Infected or raiders out. However, he meets Frank after he falls into one of his traps. Reluctantly allowing him into his town, love very quickly blooms between them. We see the relationship between Bill and Frank for the next 16 years and learn more about their characters; Bill is only concerned with surviving while Frank is concerned about living, fixing up old shops and maintaining the yards around their fenced-in town. Their story ends on a bittersweet note, one that encourages Joel to love others again and to protect them against anyone who would do them harm.

There is more than plot that is being established here. Bill and Frank’s story shows Joel what a life of love could possibly be, something hopeful and something that Joel could become whole again with. In the video game, Bill’s story is a lot more tragic, with Frank leaving Bill and being infected, resulting in him committing suicide. In the game, Bill’s story is a negative warning about how love could end, while in the show, it’s a positive perspective that Joel needed.

However, like Druckmann said, love also has its negative consequences. What happens when you lose the love in your life? We find that answer in the next two episodes, where Joel and Ellie struggle to survive in Kansas City. The military-occupied quarantine zone had just been overthrown by the people within after 20 years of torture and facism, led by Kathleen, the sister of the man who formerly led the resistance. She has lost herself to vengeance, desperate to find the man responsible for turning her brother into the military. In her conquest to hunt the man, named Henry, down, she winds up getting herself and the entire quarantine zone overrun by Infected. Because of her love for her brother and her inability to let Henry go, she lost everything. However, Henry isn’t let off the hook, either. His brother, Sam, winds up infected and Henry is forced to put him down. Unable to live with the guilt, Henry kills himself. In this moment, Joel receives the potential tragedy of love that he was spared from with Bill and Frank.

Another aspect that the show does remarkably well is Joel’s PTSD. From the first episode, we see Joel struggle with the idea of protecting someone, and suffers panic attacks often. These episodes are mostly due to Joel’s growing attachment to Ellie. He has conflict with this due to what happened to his daughter, and when they reach his brother, Tommy, for information about where to take Ellie, Joel practically begs for Tommy to take her away. Initially, Tommy reluctantly agrees, but Joel changes his mind, saying that Ellie deserves the choice. With this, Joel has taken yet another step towards healing from his trauma.

But then, we are shown the darkest aspect of love. A twisted, wrong, and outright disgusting perception of love by a twisted and deranged man. Joel is injured during a fight and Ellie is stuck on her own looking out for him. When hunting for food, she meets David, the leader of a small religious community. He explains that she and Joel fought his people, and killed one of them as a result. Set on revenge, David’s people hunt Joel down while Ellie is taken prisoner. As she sits locked in a cage, she discovers that David’s people are unknowingly eating their own. But she also discovers that David is attracted to her, to which she immediately tries to escape. However, she is cornered and forced to fight. Here, we see David’s true intentions– to rape Ellie. She stops him before he can go through with the act, brutally murdering him with his own cleaver. After this encounter, Ellie is quiet, shaken, and isn’t as quippy as she was before. With this encounter, and this show of “love”, Ellie has truly lost her innocence.

The loss of innocence is something that both the show and game portray very well. Joel, after losing his daughter, was alluded to have joined a group of raiders, killing innocent people to survive. The effects of this are clear in the way he carries himself and often tries to avoid violence if he can. Ellie, after the fight with David, often trails off, and is far from the enthusiastic girl who Joel first met.

Joel’s progression of accepting love and protecting again is one that is bound to become a double-edged sword. While Joel’s fears and traumas have a chance to be resolved and he can find closure for his daughter’s death, how far is he willing to go to keep Ellie safe in the apocalyptic wasteland they find themselves in? What is the true price for love? How far is one willing to go to protect the ones they love? How far should they go? These questions come back full circle in the finale, when Ellie’s mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus is about to be removed and potentially synthesized in a lab. The operation would kill her, and this is something Joel cannot accept. He will not be able to go on after losing yet another daughter. So he decides to kill every single soldier and doctor in the building, rescuing her but possibly dooming humanity by doing so.

At its core, “The Last of Us” seeks to explore all aspects of love– the good, the bad, and the ugly-, and translates the core elements of the video game in magnificent detail. They know what to keep and what to change, what to remove entirely and what to modify just a bit. At the end of the day, HBO’s “The Last of Us” delivers a heartfelt, gritty, and tragic tale of different sorts of love in a post-apocalyptic world.

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