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Home » Exploring Post-Apocalyptic America in «The Last of Us»

Exploring Post-Apocalyptic America in «The Last of Us»

16 January 2023, Monday
In the post-apocalyptic setting of HBO’s drama thriller “The Last of Us,” survivors ponder between a regimented lifestyle in scattered quarantine zones governed by a repressive government and the risks of death outside their borders. Inside the police-monitored walls, it is understood that only the nihilistic would have the courage to be exposed to the creatures that caused the mass destruction of civilizations two decades ago: mutated parasitic fungi known as cordyceps, which take control of the human body and transform it into a zombie-like state. These infected individuals, who have adapted to the parasite, may very well become a permanent fixture of the world. Upon uncovering the mutation in Jakarta, a horrified mycologist speaks up, suggesting “Bomb this city and everyone in it.”

On the night that the cordyceps arrived in Austin in 2003, Joel (Pedro Pascal) - a construction worker - set out in a truck with his teenage daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), and his younger brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna). He ignored the appeals for help from a young family stranded on the side of the road and was soon to bitterly regret it when a soldier was ordered, without an explanation, to execute Sarah. In the present day, Joel, now an expert smuggler, plans to escape from a Massachusetts quarantine zone with his partner, Tess (Anna Torv), and travel to Wyoming to locate Tommy. To combat the spread of the cordyceps, cities were shelled and some small towns were replaced by mass graves, forming the basis of "The Last of Us", a collaboration between Craig Mazin and his previous creation, "Chernobyl".

The new order's resistance movement, led by Joel and derisively referred to as 'the Che Guevara of Boston', reluctantly convinces a pair of individuals to transport a fourteen-year-old girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsay), with immunity to the cordyceps to a scientific base out West. It is thought that she could possibly hold the key to a vaccine. If successful, a second season of the show could focus on how the characters react to the widespread mistrust of a much needed vaccine.

Adapted with affectionate but not deferential fidelity, “The Last of Us” is a genre-savvy and satisfyingly tense television series. Co-created by Neil Druckmann, who wrote and directed the acclaimed video game of the same name, and Craig Mazin, the show transports Joel and Ellie's mordant, spiritedly macabre adventures to the small screen. Those wary of video-game adaptations need not worry; one of the highest compliments paid to the series is that it works just as well for non-gamers. A late sequence, structured like a conventional shooter game, raises provocative questions about the morality of the gunman.

Audiences unfamiliar with the source material may be reminded of other popular series. The casting of the two leads, who were fan favorites in "Game of Thrones", invites comparisons of the character-driven stakes and seductive use of brute force as a necessary evil. "Station Eleven" offers a different vision - more optimistic - of a Shakespearean theatre troupe in a post-pandemic Midwest. The Ozymandian sights of "The Last of Us" - such as ducks and frogs in a flooded hotel lobby, or a herd of roaming giraffes - bring forth the same beauty of tenacity in the face of devastation.

Mazin and Druckmann develop a distinctive niche between the brightness of “Station Eleven” and the dark and violent themes of “The Walking Dead”. The focus of the show is the relationship between Joel and Ellie, but it is also an exploration of the different ways people are able to live after an apocalypse. It examines the various ways that survivors build communities, and how they establish new power dynamics.

Between maniacal militias and self-destructive cults, a deserted preschool classroom situated underground is a display of optimism many parents kept for their children, as a barricaded commune preserves the goals of equality and collaboration, even as danger looms near. These long journeys often contain heart-stirring stories about secondary characters.

Bill (Nick Offerman), a über-competent prepper who appreciates the seclusion of near-annihilation, confronts seclusion when a ravenous trespasser (Murray Bartlett) shows up. Scott Shepherd is frightening as a quiet pastor who capitalizes on his congregation's longing for comfort and direction. Additionally, a quarrelsome elderly couple in a frosty backwoods signifies that in the end, nothing stands the test of time but cockroaches and bickering old spouses. Early on, Bill's smugly suspicious character is at the vanguard of the film.

Melanie Lynskey's performance as Kathleen, a rebel leader possessed by revenge, is the sole letdown amongst the other secondary figures. Created for the series, Kathleen is a cautionary tale for Joel, depicting what happens when grief turns one into a stronger, sharper, and lonelier version of themselves. Joel is presented with a path to redemption through Ellie, as well as a chance to transform into something more than his rough and gruff heroism. The series, paralleling the game, questions when a patriarchal guardianship, a common theme in action films, turns into something sinister.

"The Last of Us" excels in its portrayal of lightness as well as darkness, showcasing the full humanness of its characters, which makes the series relatable even though Joel is an improbably sprightly fifty-something roughneck and Ellie experienced a Gothic upbringing as an orphan in a post-apocalyptic army school. When Joel and Ellie come across a trove of supplies, Ellie remembers the important things like toilet paper - a luxury compared to using pages of some raggedy old magazine.

Ellie's enthusiasm about discovering an ancient box of Tampax in an abandoned store is expressed with an empowering 'Fuck yeah!', highlighting the show's refreshing approach to menstrual needs. Despite its sometimes clunky dialogue, the show belies an organic through-line for the relationship between Joel and Ellie, structured around scenes of mutual teasing and reminiscences of what the world was like before the apocalypse. Ellie's awe at the sight of a downed airplane prompts a brief recollection from Joel, who shares that the experience of human flight didn't feel so miraculous. Later, Joel offers Ellie his version of the past, reassuring her that everyone loved contractors. Ramsay, with her button-eyes, gives an outstanding performance as the shrewd yet sheltered Ellie, her sarcasm in search of a worthy target.

The striking visual allure of the production is matched by its nods to survivalist adaptations, particularly in the intricate design of the infected cordyceps. Brightly-hued fungi sprout across their faces, leaving their mouths and teeth intact, as they add to a growing population that appears to know no end. As the narrative progresses, it presents clever surprises and graceful twists, ultimately culminating in the discovery of the characters' ability to find hope despite the immense evolutionary abilities of their adversaries and the embrace of our most animalistic tendencies.

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