The truth about 'The Last of Us'
Can I make it past the pilot of the show everyone is talking about?
In Ejector Seat, I have a strange conversation with myself as I watch the pilot of a TV show – new, classic, or long-forgotten – and decide whether it’s worth watching more or should I… yes, that’s right, hit the EJECT button and parachute out. It’s part of The truth about everything*, my newsletter with a different feature every week.
In this edition: killer mushrooms!
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So what’s the deal?
Based on the smash-hit game of the same name, The Last of Us is a dark dystopian fantasy charting the journey of one man and a teenage girl in a pandemic where humans are taken over by parasites and savage one another. Understandably, the world has gone to sh•t as a result.
Is it another one of those shows where nobody ever gets a shower?
Well, I haven't spotted any Radox yet.
I see. Okay, down to business. It’s a pilot, it’s kinda sci-fi… I’m guessing we kick off with a flashback sequence?
Of course! Backstories gonna backstory. Here, we actually get two: first in 1968, on what looks like the driest edition of The Graham Norton Show ever, where what your mother would call a dashing professor – played by John Hannah – is being dismissed by a smug interviewer for claiming the next big threat to humans might not be our traditional foes bacteria, viruses, and falling over after too many prosecco-tinis, but fungi.
Indeed. Professor Four Weddings reminds us that in the insect world, it’s not unusual for parasitic fungi to inhabit a poor unsuspecting ant, for example, and make it do things it doesn’t want to do, like…
Its geography homework? Listen to Cilla Black records?
I’m thinking more along the lines of spread the deadly fungus to other insects until they’re little more than marionettes with a psychotic puppermaster pulling the strings.
Wait… could this actually happen? Is this thing going to kill us all? Or is this just another fantastical zombie drama?
Weeeeeell, the fungus in the game is based on a real fungus called cordyceps – but these not-very-fun fungi don’t want to kill you, they want to control you. And unlike your controlling ex, you can’t just block his number – this motherf•cker is in your brain sending messages like, ‘hey, just floating this idea but maybe we should… start eating people? Share this good thing we’ve got going here?’ And in case you’re not overly keen, it takes the reins of your musculature so it can move you around to do just that. These aren’t zombies, btw – the game’s creator was very clear about that – the victims are still alive, being destroyed from within.
So, death by mushroom. Except… not death. I’ll never look at a fungal nail infection in the same way again. So there’s another flashback?
We move onto 2003 where… well you can guess what’s about to kick off, but we start fairly idyllic with kindly teenager Sarah getting her construction worker dad Joel’s watch fixed for his birthday (albeit with his own money) and checking in on her ageing, slightly evangelical neighbours, including the senile, wheelchair-using Nana who… might be acting a little strange, but not as strange as she’s going to be acting in about ten minutes.
Oh come on, it’s obvious within ten seconds of laying eyes on this character – this is the setup, we have no time for subtlety.
So Nana is taken over by demonic chanterelles, which must mean all hell is about to break loose.
Yep, pretty soon things are getting more frantic than the post office queue in Nantwich on a Tuesday morning. We’ve got Joel and his brother Tommy skidding onto the lawn in their truck to rescue Sarah, people running in all directions, planes dropping out of the sky, a few of the townsfolk are looking the very definition of not-very-well, and it’s all looking a bit… well, like an apocalyptic video game, really.
Hey, I was thinking.
I’ve warned you against doing that unprompted.
Shut up. When you think about it, if you’re playing a video game, you’re controlling the characters, right? You’re in charge of their every move; they go where and do what you want. Right?
So… we are that parasitic, mind-controlling fungus. Makes you think.
Don’t be ridiculous. We then zoom forward another twenty years to… well, a version of now. Let’s just say the world looks pretty f•cked. Joel is now living in a quarantine zone, doing odd jobs like chucking diseased bodies onto bonfires, smuggling and selling painkillers to chiselled armed guards, and generally looking like he hasn’t had a nice sit down since 1987.
Isn’t this… how can I put this? We’re still not out of the grip of a pandemic of our own. Is this not a bit of a tough watch?
Maybe our own situation lends it an edge it may not have otherwise had, but this is far removed from where we are now. Buildings are in ruins, there appears to be no sign of a cure, the country seems to be run like a military dictatorship, which angry rebels called Fireflies are on the verge of overthrowing, and not one person is drinking a Coke Zero.
Coke Zero came out in 2005 so it won’t have been invented – I guess the world was too taken up with fending off shiitake assassins to consider launching new formats of caffeinated carbonated water. So why are we back with Joel now? What’s going on? What’s his motivation?
Joel and his girlfriend/pal/partner-in-crime (it’s not explained which) Tess have just been swindled out of a very valuable car battery which they need to head out of the quarantine zone and find Joel’s bro Tommy, who is separated from them for plot reasons. They’re given a job by the Fireflies, to transport precious cargo to meet some other Fireflies, again for plot reasons.
Precious cargo? A palette of newly invented Coke Zero? Back issues of Smash Hits 1984–1989?
Nope, a teenager. A plucky one, surprise surprise – no wait, come back! This is a very cool plucky teenager Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, who Game of Thrones fans will recognise, but I did not. [Bella confirmed she was non-binary in the days leading up to the show’s premiere and has said she’s not concerned by pronouns used when referring to her gender, so I will be using she/her as that’s how the character she plays is described in the show.] She’s a wisecracking, tough, opinionated nightmare with flashes of vulnerability.
What’s so special about a wisecracking teen with flashes of vulnerability – you’re describing 50% of the teenagers in any Netflix show! Precious cargo how?
Let’s just say Ellie might have the answer to everyone’s problems. Something about her DNA is pretty special. But even she doesn’t know why. Joel and Tess’s quest is to deliver Ellie, alive, to the other Fireflies and in return they’ll get their car battery and pretty much anything they want, within reason given we are in a dystopian situation here and I’m assuming Amazon do not deliver.
So, it’s a pilot, we’ve done the flashbacks, any more tropes to get through? Shock death of a character you already feel great affection for?
I won’t spoil but let’s just say Nana isn’t the last casualty, and this show is not afraid to gaze admiringly at your hopes and aspirations, maybe even twist them round its finger a little, saying, ‘I adore this’, before dashing them against a rock, setting them on fire, and walking away.
A love interest?
Not so far. Lots of paternal and fraternal conflict coming up, however – this isn’t about romantic love, but the other relationships that bind people together: blood; a common goal; duty; car batteries.
Sassy best friend?
Tess kicks the sh•t out of a number of people in her first ten minutes on screen but believe me when I say, if this show was any lighter on LOLs, it would be your boyfriend’s sexts.
Over exposition? Strange in-universe terminology?
Not a great deal. Those who’ve played the game will know what to expect but many won’t have, and it’s fairly brisk on scene-setting. I suppose one advantage is viewing punters are no strangers to apocalyptic shows, so there’s a lot of assumption, and the sets and characters are immediately well-drawn. Maybe the early scenes between rebel Marlene and Ellie are a little bit ‘and then this happened, then this’ – a storytelling device I call ‘What I did on my holidays’ – but they actually cut away before too much plot is revealed. Were going to be left to find this stuff out for ourselves. It’s dense and thorny, but easy to follow – let’s be honest, ‘I’m doing all this for a car battery’ isn’t exactly Tolkien-levels of complicated.
Most impressive scene?
Aside from a few set pieces, this feels like a grimy close-up rather than a huge spectacle, but if you like wow moments, the early scenes of confusion – which closely resemble the gameplay, apparently – are dazzling and involving, and your first peek at the world outside the quarantine zone (spoiler, but come on!) are very impressive, although I’d like some expert advice on whether a skyscraper would actually lean on another as if they were necking in the back row for She’s All That. There’s a also a more low-key moment that’s no less horrific – a glimpse at what the definitely-not-zombies look like once the fungus has taken full control and is bursting out of any available exit point. It’s not pretty!
Largest bouquets for Nico Parker as Sarah, and Bella Ramsey as Ellie. Everyone else is perfectly serviceable in that gruff, mysterious way people always are in dystopian dramas: Pedro Pascal as Joel, Anna Torv – who was amazing in The Newsreader, you should watch that – as Tess, Merle Dandridge, as Marlene the Firefly, who also voiced the character in the original game; that might come up in a pub quiz or a geek-off or… whatever, I don’t know.
Is it me or are you not exactly rapturous?
If you think apocalyptic stories aren’t your thing, there’s humanity here that might appeal. I will say… I’m not a gamer, or previously emotionally invested in this title in particular, so perhaps it’s not as big an event for me as it is for some – and I know many are hugely excited about it. But it’s okay, watchable, even if it does have an air of, oh I don’t know, might turn out to be a huge disappointment in six weeks’ time. There’s an obvious, necessary shift in tone between 2003 and 2023, but I definitely preferred the anticipation, buildup and playing out of the fungal armageddon to the aftermath. I understand flashbacks will take us back there throughout the series. It’s probably a grower.
LIKE FUNGUS! Okay, it’s time. The ejector seat button awaits. You pushing it? Or are we staying locked in place?
I’m willing to watch it again, although it might ruin mushrooms for me for ever. [Second episode watched since writing this. I will be watching episode three.]
Marks out of ten?
I told you last time; no scores. This isn’t TripAdvisor.
You’re no fun.
The Last of Us is shown on Sky Atlantic and available for streaming on NOW TV. Spoilerphobes will be pleased to know episodes are first broadcast in sync with the US – at 2am UK time – and released every Monday. People who like sleeping are advised to stay off social media and any site that recaps prestige shows until they’ve seen it; it’s a lot easier than expecting the rest of the world to avoid discussing something you haven’t seen.
Got a show you think I should watch? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter. You can see all the other The truth about everything* features – or strands, or formats, or whatever – here.
I think you might have made a mistake in posting this article before watching the second episode - especially when it came out in the UK on Monday, and you've only just posted this. Joel and Ellie's character development is very much at the hart of the show, and there ain't much time for that in the first hour. I don't think I'm going to be alone in my opinion. Apparently the first episode is the worst in the series. There's a scene in the second episode that had me absolutely frozen by how tense it was. If you fear you'll never go near a chanterelle again now, you have no idea what's coming.
I thought your review was really funny, and I enjoyed seeing some balance since everyone else is talking about it as if it's the best thing since sliced bread. RE fungus, apparently the idea of cordyceps infecting humans is possible, but not plausible since there's no way it could evolve to infect humans this quickly (which the creators have acknowledged). Still, as far as I'm aware it's the most plausible 'zombie' show ever made.
Ellie is a fantastic character, and totally goes against the trope of 'lackadaisical youth who follows instructions like a clumsy child with ADHD'. In fact, in the second episode it's Joel who doesn't follow his own advice, and she does everything right. She's adequately scared, and reads like a very lonely, traumatised child who grew up too young and actually respects others to the best of her abilities. I've read countless reviews from viewers who aren't gamers who were left with the impression that it didn't seem like an adaptation of a game at all (I actually only just completed the two games recently because I only just got a PS4). I think the acting is extremely impressive, and certainly knocks the socks off 99% of the actors in The Walking Dead. They seem as good as Rick and Michonne, if not better.
I think Joel's 'motivation' isn't clear because it isn't really to him either. He has PTSD, and is pretty much just surviving, though wanting to get to his brother too. He's had people ripped away from him chaotically, and wants to get to the only person who existed with him in a time before the mushroom people took over. In a way, getting back to Tommy is getting back to himself, before he was utterly changed by grief. There's a thread between them, which tugs at Joel. It's important to note the scene in the first half of the episode that had Tommy pleading to Joel to help a family with a child, and Joel chose to drive on. It seems like Tommy was Joel's better self, and he wants that back. Joel is separated from Tommy because they had a difference of opinion (in the games it's clear that they left things extremely sourly, which is different from the show) because Tommy hasn't been through the same grief that Joel has.
Ellie is a lot more than 'plucky'. A lot more. She's basically scared of people and tries to act older because she's a 14-year-old surviving around dreadful people (even Joel and Tess are morally questionable people, or at least were). We have few 'love interests' because the story isn't about romance, for once. And Marlene and Ellie's relationship is rushed because there isn't time for it to be anything but urgent.
I'm not saying you do, but en bulk journalists hate video games. There's tremendous snobbery because the last game they played was Crash Bandicooot, and they're basically ignorant about a whole art form, and have bought into the media's hatred of them whether they realise it nor not. That resentment goes back decades. There have been years of scared Americans (and Europeans too, to be fair, but there's more evangelical Christianity in the USA) wondering if their children express an interest in little more than glue because their children played GTA, and they don't like that their they don't talk to them because they're basically dull, or treat them with suspicion. Nothing like making your kid feel like an outsider to make them engage with substances or exhibit antisocial behaviour. And so, it always made a great news story to say that video games screwed up 'traditional' values, because it's easier to make claims like that than to try to understand the problems with society and their own parenting. This seems like a massive digression, but it's important to remember all this when reading coverage about video games when people don't actually play them themselves. So gaming either gets criticised, or mostly scoffed at. Again, I'm not saying you do that.
As I said above, Joel and Ellie's character development is very much at the heart of the show, and is what makes it so interesting and refreshing. They are individuals - it isn't just a story about a substitute parent. They don't just fall into roles. So much will happen over the next 9 episodes. In a way, I think that people who don't game feel left out, because there's such a rich vein of experience and art in playing certain games that they simply haven't been able to tap into. And by now, it feels quite daunting to pick up a controller. I even get this feeling myself as a gamer. Recently I tried to play God of War, since everyone talks about it being the best game ever, etc etc. I enjoyed the cutscenes (film-like, unplayable sequences), but as soon as it got to the gameplay I was absolutely rubbish. It made me feel quite left out. It feels like wanting to write but not having a pen. But there are also a LOT of crap games with a lot of predictable, boring tropes, just like any form of media/art.
The show has definitely, definitely made me look at mushrooms differently. If you watch the second episode there's one scene in particular that will probably make you feel a little ill. Again, I do really think you should have watched the second episode before posting this article, and please do. Sorry to have gone off on one. Like I said, I did really enjoy your article, but you have a treat in store. As you do if you decide to approach video games. I recommend getting the first Walking Dead game on a tablet - it should introduce you to the concept of engaging with a video game story (it's basically like a film, but you tap buttons to choose your dialogue and it impacts your story, which can be hilarious if you choose to be a jerk). But I dare you not to cry at the end. I was an absolute state, and so was everyone I've played it with or talked about it with.