Levi’s Review of The Last of Us (2023)

We knew this was going to happen, which actually makes it better.

The Last of Us is a TV adaptation of a video game by the same name, which Sam didn’t like. It’s about a man and a girl travelling through America after a zombie apocalypse and killing a lot of people along the way as they struggle to survive.

This review is going to contain spoilers for The Last of Us, which even though seemingly everyone on Earth watched and also which is based on a video game that came out ten years ago, is still worth seeing the ending for yourself rather than having it spoiled for you in a short review.

The Last of Us starts in 2003, when a mushroom zombie apocalypse suddenly starts and kills everyone, including main character Joel’s daughter, who gets shot by the military because the military’s solution to the zombie crisis is to shoot everyone. Twenty years later the world has been destroyed, everyone is living in quarantine zones run by a totalitarian police dictatorship, and Joel and his kinda girlfriend Tess are hired by a sort of terrorist group called the Fireflies to take Ellie, a girl who’s immune to being infected, across the destroyed United States so someone can make a cure. Along the way they meet a bunch of people who either die tragically because they were nice, or die vengefully because they were douchey, and then at the end, Joel kills a whole bunch of people to save Ellie’s life.

First and most importantly let’s talk about the violence in The Last of Us. Joel and Ellie kill a lot of people in their journey from Boston to Salt Lake City. For a zombie show, The Last of Us doesn’t actually have a lot of zombies in it. When they adapted it from a game to a show, they took out a lot of the like, random enemy encounters and stuff, because that would be boring in a TV show, which means that there honestly aren’t that many zombies outside of episodes two and five, where you’re abruptly reminded that the hordes of mushroom zombies are a very intense threat. So there’s not a lot of zombies, and most of the violence is human-on-human and most of that is Joel-on-everyone else.

Joel’s violence always feels justified because he’s doing it to protect Ellie, and we all think that violence to protect a child is okay. There was a lot of response from people online about this show talking about how they forgave Joel for all his crimes and how he did nothing wrong and all that, and most of it was people being memey but I think it’s also true, and though I won’t spoil the events of the second season/game, I have serious doubt that that willingness to justify will hold true later on. There’s a very strong gender dynamic to the acceptance of Joel’s violence—Joel is a straight man so it’s easier to excuse his violence, whereas if hypothetically speaking the same level of violence were being carried out by a queer woman, I think the reaction would be very different. I’m saying this because if anything, the show actually ramped up the amount and severity of violence Joel enacts on the people he encounters, making his attacks more brutal and more than once targeting them at people who’ve surrendered, been tied up, or were trying to escape. The hospital scene at the end, which is a long stealth/combat portion in the final act of the game, is condensed to two or three muffled minutes where Joel goes on a lone shooter rampage through a hospital and kills like twenty people, again some of whom are retreating or not threatening him. It’s one hundred percent mass shooter energy and there’s no way the writers weren’t going for that energy, and that’s very much the right energy. I think a lot of people missed in the first game that Joel is awful, but the show makes it harder to ignore that, and so the fact that people still are really says to me that there’s something else going on beyond trouble with media literacy.

Joel’s not a good person and he’s not doing good things and I think we have to let it be okay to like him and want him to succeed without endorsing his behaviour. I think the writers of the show (which is produced by the director and writer of the game) really understand that, but to be honest, knowing what the reaction to these themes in the games was writ large, I don’t have a lot of faith that the audience to realize that. Which is fine, because you’re not required to like something just because it’s capital-G Good, but I’m just already bracing myself to be angry at the fanbase next season. Please prove me wrong, fanbase.

Now I know, again, a lot of the people online joking about how they didn’t think Joel had done anything wrong were joking, and a lot it was because they want to fuck Pedro Pascal, which same, and that’s fine. Something I find interesting about the casting of him is that Joel in the game is white, which adds racial commentary to his mass violence against everyone. Obviously Pedro Pascal isn’t white, which weirdly for me doesn’t lessen his mass shooter energy. It must just be something about how all-American Texan gun guy he is.

But since I’m talking about racism in The Last of Us, all the Black people still die in The Last of Us. This was a problem in the game where there were only four Black characters and they’re all shot to death, and it’s a problem in the show where there are six Black characters and five of them are shot to death, which sure was a choice! Joel’s daughter Sarah is white in the game but not the show, which is cool and I will say that the cast of the show is more diverse generally than the game. But Joel’s daughter Sarah is also shot by the military, so adding one more character who dies by gun violence Black is a weird optic I think. They also made Tommy’s wife Maria Black and she doesn’t die, which is cool. I think only having three lines probably protected her. Ellie’s first girlfriend Riley and the Firefly leader Marlene are both still killed like in the game (I have a weird feeling that Marlene’s death is just a little more violent but I can’t put my finger on why so I’m probably just making that up).

The other two Black characters, brothers Sam and Henry, get the whole of episode five devoted to them. This was the most racially problematic part of the game and I will say at the outset that I think the show really improved on it from that angle. It’s also the best episode in a show that has a lot of really standout good episodes. Sam and Henry are on the run from some gun-happy patriots who have violently overthrown the totalitarian government in Kansas City, which they accomplished by lynching police officers in the streets in a scene that was not at all subtle and didn’t need to be. The ambiguity of right and wrong in The Last of Us is never clearer than in this episode, where we know that the police state is bad but it’s clear that these people are also awful. Anyway, the murdery revolutionaries are looking for Sam and specifically Henry, because he sold out the main revolutionary lady’s brother so he could get leukemia medicine for Sam. In the game there’s no real context to Sam and Henry, you just encounter them after fighting some random bandits in Kansas City, and linking these two storylines together was a great choice, honestly.

Sam gets infected and Ellie fails to help him, so Henry has to kill him and then he kills himself, just like in the game. Sam is actually Deaf in the show and is played by a Deaf actor, which I think is cool from a diversity standpoint and also from the perspective of it making him just a little bit more like someone I know. But also, Sam is younger in the show than in the game, and there’s a slightly problematic issue of them using his disability to infantilize him while also literally de-aging him. The thing is in the game they don’t let Sam be a child, he’s chastised for wanting a toy and encouraged to grow up, and treated like an adult for the poor decisions he makes. Fun fact but statistically Black teenagers are perceived as being thirty to forty percent older than they are by white people, especially white juries and judges, who disproportionately agree to try them as adults for minor crimes. Sam being read as an adult in the game was really problematic because he’s so young, so making him younger in the show feels like it’s trying to address that, but it’s troubling that they then also gave him a disability to make him seem younger than he even was. It’s possible that was just because they were having trouble finding an actor who fit their criteria, but it’s got to be possible to mitigate one problematic element without adding another.

Race has always been The Last of Us’s boogeyman; it’s so interested in certain kinds of progressive politics that it forgets that racism exists, which is wild but also it was made by white people, so what are you going to do? I think the TV show is more attentive to it than the game is, and there’s a degree to which you can’t expect them to change major elements of the game’s plot, so they’re working with what they can and I do think they’ve made some improvements. It makes me kind of hopeful for some of the stuff that happens in the second game as well. But it’s still the part of the show that leaves me feeling a bit gross after watching it.

But then again, so much happens in this show that you’re not supposed to feel good about. Everyone except for Joel and Ellie and their family dies, so it’s not like the show is only killing Black people. The second-best episode of the show is about this weird survivalist named Bill and his husband Frank; you never see Frank alive in the game and it’s implied that he and Bill were together, but he’s killed himself by the time you meet him and the show made a point of having an episode where we get to see them alive before we see them dead, and that’s really cool. They also devote a whole episode to Ellie’s relationship with Riley, which is also great. The Last of Us is unambiguously for gay people and that’s pretty awesome of it.

At this point it’s somewhat less for women, which sucks. One minor thing that I really disagree with is that the zombies can now transmit the infection through weird mycelial tendrils in their mouths, which happens when they bite people, which is what they normally do. Except for one time, when they kill Tess, a male zombie slowly comes up to her, backs here against a pillar, and tries to push his mouth against hers as though in a kiss. She blows everyone including herself up, but adding weird sexual imagery to the death of a female character sure was another choice. This combined with the increased rapiness of David the weird cult leader (he’s rapey towards Ellie in the game too, but it’s amped up in the show, and it’s the most boring part of his character) sort of just gives off vibes that the writers weren’t sure how to threaten a female character if not with sexual violence, you know?

Sidenote, but I’m bored of rapey cult leader characters. I get that it’s realistic and that charismatic people who are able to draw others into their orbit often abuse that power and that abuse is often sexual. I get that most cult leaders are rapists. I get that lots and lots of clergy people and religious leaders generally turn out to be rapists. I get that it’s dangerous to get into a situation where a charismatic leader is dictating every aspect of your life. I get it, but it’s boring, I don’t know. It just feels like preaching or something and I don’t need that, I can live my own life. I get it.

My only remaining criticism of The Last of Us is the opening sequences. The first two episodes start with these really cool, scary cold opens of people talking about the pandemic, one from way before it starts and one from right at the beginning of the outbreak. Then they don’t have them anymore, and I wish they’d kept doing that. The last episode starts with a cold open of Ellie’s pregnant mom (played by the actor who played Ellie in the game) running away from a zombie and giving birth to Ellie, then getting shot by Marlene (who is the only character in the show played by the actor who played her in the game, with the exception of a very minor cameo by Laura Bailey near the end of this same episode), and it being clear why Ellie is immune to the fungus. All three of those scenes individually are really, really good, and all I could think during the last episode’s opening was how much more powerful it would have been if we’d continued to get scenes like that, little snapshots into the early days of the pandemic, throughout the series, culminating in the birth of Ellie.

Now all of my thousands of words of criticism aside, I really liked The Last of Us and I think it’s one of the best TV shows that’s come out recently. It’s definitely the best video game adaptation I’ve ever seen. It’s super well cast, super well acted and written, super well directed. The sets and exterior shots all look unique and interesting enough that you don’t get bored with decayed buildings, enough like the game that you’re impressed by the attention to detail, and enough like the United States that you don’t realize the whole show was shot in three towns in Alberta. Most of the issues I have with the show are carried over from the game, and with most of those the writers are doing their best to mitigate their mistakes from ten years ago, which is awesome of them. Henry says I tend to focus on negative things instead of positive things, so I’m trying to be better about that but I promise I really thought this was a good show and I really can’t wait for the second season.

The way this was done gives me a lot of hope, because I was worried they’d pull a few of the punches that are in the second game after fan backlash. But in this adaptation they actually doubled down on the themes that made fans angry after the second game came out, which makes me pretty sure the second season (and maybe the third? I heard people talking about them splitting the second game in two, but nothing official) will be really fucking outstanding. The first game is fine but the second game is one of the best video games ever made, and now that the TV show is so good I have a lot of hope for the second season.

So I really enjoyed The Last of Us, even if there weren’t a lot of zombies in it. I think it’s top-tier TV and I can’t think of anything I’ve seen recently that I liked more. I really recommend it a lot unless you’re one of those straight dudes who thinks that straight dudes should be allowed to do as much violence as they want, in which case you’re not the audience for it or this and go away.

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