Image: Still from the TV series 'The Last of Us'

I have tried to keep plot spoilers to a minimum, but this review may have a few minor spoilers.

Even before COVID struck, people were tired of post-pandemic apocalyptic dramas in film and television. The long-running television series The Walking Dead is a case in point. Viewers and critics grew tired of the slow-paced, long drawn-out storylines, lack of character depth, and repetitive, tiresomely predictable plot lines. The Last of Us manages to reverse these criticisms.

The series starts with a cold opening that sets up the show’s storyline. First, we view a 1968 chat show clip featuring two epidemiologists arguing over which micro-organism poses the greatest threat to humanity. One of the two maintains that fungi pose a terrifying peril to our future because an infection could alter behaviour and turn its victims into mindless puppets concerned only with spreading itself. After this, the narrative jumps forward to 2003, when such an infection is shown to be beginning to take hold. This scenario is all the more chilling because the cordyceps fungus exists. When infected, it does take over control of an animal’s central nervous system leading to dramatic behaviour change before eventual death.

Wasp parasitised by the fungus Cordyceps

The television series is based on the earlier award-winning video game of the same name developed by Naughty Dog with creative director Neil Druckmann, who also wrote the screenplay (together with Craig Mazin) for the television series. The game was a story-driven epic of two parts that was unusual in allowing the player to form powerful emotional connections with the main characters. However, it intentionally disrupted these emotional connections by jumping between different timelines and using ‘point of view’ flips between characters. This disturbed the idea of a narrative ‘hero’ by reminding the player that a hero is always a villain in someone else’s story. The plot of Part I of the game was about a road trip to cure the apocalypse, and the plot of Part II was about revenge. Yet, as others have pointed out, plot is not the same as story – for both parts, the story is about how various characters deal with unimaginable grief.

These themes are continued in the television series, which, after the initial set-up, jumps to 20 years after the infection has taken hold. Then, the remnants of society are under the control of an authoritarian military government engaged in a grim battle against rebel factions classified as terrorists — the narrative centres on Joel (played by Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey). Joel is a hardened smuggler in his fifties who has still not come to terms with the violent death of his daughter at the beginning of the pandemic. Ellie is an orphaned teenager with immunity to the Cordyceps infection. Joel is tasked with smuggling Ellie across North America to a rebel-controlled medical facility, hoping a cure may be found.

For a post-apocalyptic drama, The Last of Us is unusual in several ways. First, it manages to mix horror and violence with unsentimental emotion and humour. And second, while the story is about Joel and Ellie, it has the confidence to take lengthy detours to allow long digressions into other characters’ lives. Thus episode three concentrates on the loving relationship between survivalist Bill (played by Nick Offerman) and artist Frank (played by Murray Bartlett) and the micro-utopia they have created. Many critics have rightly said that this single episode may be the finest episode of TV that you will see all year.

The quality of acting in The Last of Us is part of why the series is compelling as a drama. Both Pascal and Ramsey give outstanding performances that are authentic and believable. But even minor characters return characterisations that could form a tutorial on acting. For example, one episode begins when Joel and Ellie encounter a crusty old couple living in a remote Wyoming cabin who have avoided the pandemic. In only a few minutes on screen, the funny cameos by Graham Greene and Elaine Miles give the impression that we have known this couple and their relationship for a very long time.

In addition, as one writer has observed, The Last Of Us “has been a show obsessed with sociology as much as fungus”. The series shows a succession of possible social worlds that may emerge in the wake of a devasting pandemic which has wiped out most of humanity. In this regard, it has been compared to the novel (and subsequent TV series) Station Eleven. Whether it is the dystopian corruption in the semi-fascistic quarantine zones run by FEDRA or the micro-utopias, such as that built by Bill and Frank, the different social worlds of the series appear authentic and believable. And here, the show is not afraid to stray into politics. For example, Joel and Ellie come upon a community where Joel’s brother Tommy lives. The community is shown to have power, plumbing, sewage and hot water. They have a multi-faith house of worship and celebrate Christmas. Ellie asks how the town is organised:

Tommy: Everything you see in our town… greenhouses, livestock, all shared. Collective ownership.
Joel: So, uh, communism.
Tommy: (scoffs) Nah. Nah, it ain’t like that.
Maria (leader of the town council): It is that. LITERALLY – This is a commune. We’re communists!
Ellie (in awe): No way!

Indeed, one of the messages conveyed by the series as a whole is that the fundamental pillars upon which America is believed to have been built, namely revolution, order, religion, and government, have all been called into question. Instead, the series emphasises the importance of people coming together, sharing resources, and helping one another. A second message is that the identity of the self always relates to the identity of the other. As Joel and Ellie journey through their Odyssey, their encounters with others and each other cause them to undergo transformations, some of which are positive and others negative.

The Last of Us is on Sky Atlantic and Now in the UK