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Smart Changes Help The Last of Us Succeed as a TV Show

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Two episodes into HBO’s The Last of Us, the show has already exceeded my lofty expectations. We’ve still got a long way to go, but hopefully, studios are taking detailed notes because this is how you craft a faithful video game adaptation for the small screen. 

It’s not all perfect, mind you. Like the game, the TV show occasionally dawdles and emulates the worst tendencies of The Walking Dead. Action is surprisingly scarce, and there are moments of unnecessary padding.

That said, I’m excited about the remaining seven episodes and am (so far) thoroughly impressed by this breathtaking production, which goes to great lengths to stick as close to the game as possible.

Anyways, here are some thoughts about the first two episodes.

The Fungus Change Makes Sense

Each episode starts with a flashback to before the fungal pandemic, where we learn a great deal about Cordyceps fungus and the like. These sequences, particularly the first involving John Hannah’s Dr. Neuman, are chilling and informative but unnecessary. In the game, we learn details about the outbreak through conversations between Joel and Ellie, letters, and during interactions with strangers, all of which shapes our understanding of the crisis. In that way, we are dropped into this post-outbreak world blindfolded, and part of the fun comes from piecing together the mystery. Why are skyscrapers in Boston blown to bits? Why has society splintered into various factions? Why is everyone so damned sad?

The scenes with the scientists are intriguing but feel more like episode padding than essential elements of the story. 

On a similar note, I dig the updates to the fungus. For example, rather than spores, we get a mushroom network that connects the infected, which is as terrifying as it sounds. Octopus-like tendrils shoot out of an infected’s mouth and latch on to another victim — and yes, it’s weird as hell.  

A Stellar Prologue Sets the Tale

Episode One kicked off with a bang and added minor details to the story. We get to know Joel’s daughter Sarah in greater detail, which makes her death even more difficult to watch, and witness the catastrophic events of 2003 (changed from 2013) on a larger scale — that plane crash was epic. Director Craig Mazin sticks closely to the game but offers a few visual flourishes that make the sequence more cinematic than a PS4 cutscene. Sometimes I wanted to press X, but that’s probably a result of muscle memory.

Where Episode 1 Succeeded and Failed

The remaining episode was a slog full of long-winded exposition and a few needless changes. Rather than stick with Joel, Mazin occasionally veers off to follow Tess on her misadventures and even cuts to Marlene and Ellie for a spell. Again, what made the game unique was how players were thrust into a strange world, as seen through Joel’s eyes. We learn and discover things when he does, an approach that makes each new detail feel more critical. The bit with Marlene and Ellie on the TV show reveals essential information to the audience (Ellie is the cure) and leaves Joel in the dust running to catch up. That feels like a misstep, but I may be overthinking it. 

Mazin and Druckmann also change specific action beats. In the game, before meeting Ellie, Joel, Tess, and Marlene, evade a few FEDRA guards. This sequence highlights the militant group’s totalitarian nature and Joel’s effectiveness as a fighter. In the show, he arrives and finds Marlene wounded and surrounded by dead bodies. I understand that you can’t have TV characters running about tossing bricks and bottles and wasting time moving dumpsters into usable positions. Still, I would much rather see our heroes engage in combat than spend 20 minutes listening to a mycologist explain what we already know.  

Also, in the TV show, Marlene bids Joel adieu with this doozy of a line: “Don’t f*** this up.” Is the series trying to diminish Joel’s badassery? In the game, she asks Tess and Joel to escort Ellie to the Capitol building, where she will rendezvous with a crew of Fireflies. Joel reluctantly agrees and heads off with Ellie while Tess goes with Marlene to verify a weapons cache. Everyone understands their role without further provocation. The “Don’t f*** this up” line makes Joel seem like an unreliable moron. Has he screwed up before? If so, why would she want him to undertake this crucial task?

Moments later, Joel beats the shit out of a FEDRA guard, an action Ellie seems to appreciate. I dug this moment and how it appeared to endear Ellie to her new pal.

Where Episode 2 Succeeded and Failed

The second episode does a better job of balancing drama and action. We get our first look at the infected — a terrifying sight — huddled together near a building. Joel, Tess, and Ellie make their way through a museum and don’t slow down long enough to search for inventory! Come on, guys! You’ll miss those random bullets later in the show.

We then get a magnificent sequence featuring our first pair of clickers. The design on these suckers is incredible — they look exactly like their video game counterparts but are somehow scarier. I like the lack of infected screen time. Too many, and they become redundant. These dangerous organisms should appear sparingly and require a ton of effort to take down.  

The series brushes aside a set piece involving a skyscraper and condenses two sequences into one. Here, Marlene gets bit fighting off a clicker, and Joel and Ellie survive by the skin of their teeth. I can’t relay how incredible this entire sequence was. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey were both very effective here. The creature design was superb, while the atmosphere, lighting, and score were spot on. 

Also, kudos to the VFX team for their rendering of Boston. The Last of Us TV show looks exactly like the game, down to the vegetation growing on the buildings. 

The only other noticeable change was Tess’ death. She dies off-screen in the game after holding off some FEDRA soldiers. The show gives her a more noble death and allows her to detonate a group of infected just as she’s about to turn. That doesn’t alter the story in any way, but again, there’s something creepy about hearing Tess scream off-screen from Joel’s perspective and then seeing the aftermath.

Also, if you can lure a bunch of infected to a single local and blow them up, why is this pandemic still a thing? I had the same gripes with The Walking Dead, where zombies acted dumber than a box of matches, but our heroes still couldn’t outthink them. 

No matter. Most of my critiques are minor nitpicks. I dig the show overall and am invested despite already knowing where the whole thing is headed. Is this what it was like for Game of Thrones book readers during the first four or five seasons of the TV series?

Excellent Casting

The Last of Us would only work if Joel and Ellie were handled with care. Thankfully, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey deliver. Neither resembles their video game counterpart, but they channel their personalities, and the pair of actors display incredible chemistry that will be fun to watch over the next few months.

Next week’s episode introduces Bill, played by Nick Offerman, which is about as perfect casting as I can remember. Then again, I’m just happy it’s not Mark Wahlberg.

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