Halfway Home: How HBO’s The Last of Us Stacks Up to the Game Through 5 Episodes
The show, the game, the comparison
The Last of Us is my favorite piece of media, of all time, full stop. I’ve beaten the game four times across two different versions (I haven’t played Part 1, yet), watched the Grounded documentary at least three times, watched the live performance more times than I can count, and so on. I believe the game has the best acting of any show or movie I’ve ever seen. All of which is to say I am both the target audience for the show and someone who is likely to be extremely critical if the show fails to live up to the source material.
So far, I’m delighted to say that the show is mostly exceeding expectations, and at the bare minimum is putting out the top-notch drama HBO is known for. Series creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckman have had to deftly walk a perilous line of doing the game justice in its retelling of the story’s events, fleshing out the lore and events from the game, throwing in enough surprises so that fans of the game aren’t bored, and still making the show accessible to newcomers who’ve never experienced the story before.
With very few missteps along the way, the show’s creators and directors have done all that and more, which I think underscores the importance of having the source material’s creators (or at least half of them, with Druckman and Bruce Straley having both created the game) so intimately involved in the production.
So I wanted to make some observations on the first five episodes and ponder what will be coming in the final four episodes. If you haven't watched the show or played the game, I implore you to do so; you'll thank me.
Episode 1 – When You’re Lost in the Darkness
The Last of Us game features one of the most iconic opening hours in gaming history. After a short cinematic that introduces us to Joel and his daughter Sarah, players control Sarah and wander around the house, learning more about the family through Naughty Dog’s patented environmental storytelling, while seeing the first signs of the impending calamity.
The show’s first challenge was to replicate that time spent with Sarah so that viewers had the same emotional connection with her that those who played the game certainly felt. Putting us almost exclusively in Sarah’s shoes to see how much she cares for Joel and the steps she takes to give him a proper birthday was supremely well done and certainly worked to show viewers why they should care. The seemingly throw-away details of showing the invalid neighbor eating biscuits, and how Joel, Sarah, and Tommy all narrowly avoided eating products like pancakes and birthday cake, were rewarded in the second episode when it is revealed that the fungus took hold from a flour factory in Indonesia.
As with the game, the show quickly switches from the placid opening moments to full-scale horror as the fungus begins to reveal itself. The subtle clues that things are going badly and the overall sense of creeping dread bring you into the moment even more so than the game. I found the final moments of the prologue to be much scarier than the game, with the gore-filled neighbor’s house taking the place of the neighbor-turned-runner smashing through the Miller’s door. Nico Parker’s work in these moments is outstanding, as you feel her terror from the moment she encounters the dog to when her father kills the old lady with the wrench. Sarah’s death scene is just as gut-wrenching as in the game, though I prefer Troy Baker’s performance in the crucial moments over Pedro Pascal’s.
Speaking of the old lady, now is as good a time as any to discuss the show’s treatment of the fungus that ended the world. There was some consternation among fans when it was revealed that the airborne, spread-by-spores nature of the sickness would be changing. I do miss some of the claustrophobic moments induced by the gas masks, and the reveals allowed by those devices. Simply put though, the recent pandemic and difficulty in filming a show where the characters have their faces covered more than half the time made the choice simple for the showrunners, and on balance, I think the change is for the best. The wriggling, writhing fungus coming from the mouths of the infected and the way in which it spreads makes for some compelling body horror and something akin to gross-out moments that add another dimension to the show and keep viewers from having to suspend their disbelief for the most part.
The actors largely do a great job in their roles, another place where much consternation and hand-wringing was found online in the months between the show’s reveal and its debut. Pedro Pascal is at times understated as Joel when compared to Troy Baker’s performance in the game, though I feel he’s grown more comfortable in the role as the show has progressed. Anna Torv played Tess well, and a bit more depth was given to the background between her and Joel, but overall I prefer Annie Wersching’s (RIP) performance in the game, especially in her final moments. Merle Dandridge is fantastic reprising her role as chief Firefly Marlene, and the quiet conversation she shares with Ellie was wonderful to experience as something that was only briefly discussed in the game.
And then we have Ellie herself, where despite my respect for her work as Lady Mormont in Game of Thrones, I was most skeptical about Bella Ramsey’s casting. As it turns out, Ramsey was the one who nailed her character the quickest, with Ellie’s angry, sardonic, antagonistic, and sarcastic nature shining through from her very first moments on screen. The conversation with Marlene is pure gold, and the anger in her eyes as Joel kicks away her knife perfectly highlights their early relationship.
This episode nailed some of the touchstone moments from the game, and in some cases arrived at the same spot while taking a different route to get there. Tommy, Joel, and Sarah end up as victims of a car crash in both instances, though the vehicle that wrecked them in the game is just a near miss in the show, a clever fake-out that made the ensuing plane crash even more of a surprise.
The episode ended on a fascinating note, with the big reveal of Ellie’s scar and immune status that is oddly given just a few seconds of screen time. At the same time, the look in Ellie’s eyes as Joel beats the FEDRA soldier to death could be the first hint of a sadistic nature or appreciation that someone is finally protecting her.
Episode 2 – Infected
Many fans of the game hoped the show would expand upon the known lore and universe, and Episode 2 gave a huge helping of that even before the show’s intro hit the screen. Everything about this short segment was bone-chilling, from the scientist’s sheer horror at the wriggling mass she pulled from the mouth of the first victim to the single word – BOMB – that we knew wouldn’t even be close to enough to stop what was coming. Seeing the true beginning and confirming a long-held hypothesis that it all started with flour, was both gratifying and horrible at once.
Whereas I thought the discovery of Ellie’s bite and the revelation of her immunity was given short shrift at the end of the first episode, the true opening here righted the wrong. The beautiful imagery of Ellie in the perfect circle of sunlight quickly grew to find Joel and Tess ready to end her at a second’s notice. The non-gaming audience finally received the education they needed to believe in the crux of the story, and it’s clear that Tess is much quicker to even consider the possibility than is Joel.
One of the show’s few missteps lies in this episode, and it’s really more of an issue with me and the new lore, is with the show’s way of how the virus spreads. I said in the last episode I understood the need for the change, but how it was explained here makes it hard for me to accept. I get that the virus grows underground and that it connects all the infected in an area because I understand that is how real fungus works. But the fact that just stepping on a tendril can send them running after you from miles away is hard to take because, especially in old buildings like the museum, the odds of avoiding every bit of the spreading fungus are practically nil. That’s it, that’s the tweet, I’m over it, but it was bugging me since that day and I had to say it.
Speaking of the museum, our first taste of the clickers here was done so magnificently, it is orders of magnitude more horrifying than in the game. Kudos to the crew of makeup artists and special effects gurus who created the real-life versions of the game’s most iconic enemies, seeing them up close is an experience not to be missed. In the game, a single clicker is manageable, where sneaking up behind and shiving in the neck is a plausible outcome. Here though, a single clicker nearly took out all three of our heroes, and seeing it leap over the exhibit to land on top of Joel had my jaw on the floor. The close-up camera work during this scene was the perfect mix of claustrophobic and kinetic, and I could not have asked for more in the game’s first true action piece.
This leads to one of my favorite scenes from the game, and it is wonderfully recreated here, as the adrenaline wears off for the viewers and the protagonists alike. Tess has been bitten, though only people who played the game know it (or at least expected it), so seeing her initial contained grief and Joel’s hurt look is heartbreaking. This is also the moment where we see Joel’s shell begin to crack in regards to Ellie, as they stand looking out toward the Capitol building and the setting sun. Ellie comments on the view and then climbs down the ladder, leaving Joel to look at his watch and think of the daughter he has lost, with the emotion and confusion clear on his face.
For the episode’s final scene, I still prefer the version we got in the game, but a second watch of the episode made me appreciate the intensity of the performances more than I did initially. Annie Wersching will always be the ultimate Tess and her desperation in the moments upon arriving to find all the Fireflies dead is better than what is presented here. I also prefer Troy Baker’s desperate exclamation in the game upon seeing Tess’s bite, but from there I give the nod to the show. As Tess steps toward Joel before she shows the bite, Pedro Pascal steps back and instinctively reaches for his gun (something that wasn’t apparently scripted), and you can see his face processing his grief even though he doesn’t verbalize it. We also get one more nod to the relationship Joel and Tess shared, as she begs him to see the mission through because she’s never asked him for anything, including to share her feelings for him. It’s a powerful performance that happens in Anna Torv’s face as much as in her voice.
Lastly, the final moments of Tess’ life didn’t bother me as much as they did many others. Was it weird and creepy? I suppose so, but I was also fascinated by how it revealed the way the fungus takes over a person’s body. Tess was already in its grasp, and we watched as her frantic attempts to spark the lighter slowed as she lost her free will. The “kiss” with the infected was the end of her life as she knew it, and her determination to save herself was the last gasp that finally saw the spark of the lighter destroy them all. It was disturbing and uplifting at the same time, the fight of the human spirit against the inhuman force taking over her.
Episode 3 – Long, Long Time
A beautiful, incredible hour of television. This was a treat for all the hardcore fans of the game, with powerful, surprising performances across the board, and an ending that was simultaneously triumphant and heartbreaking. Bill and Frank truly won, in the only way that humans can in this world, to live happily and go out on their own terms.
When the show was announced, I eagerly anticipated getting to see the interactions between Ellie and Bill that made Bill’s Town such a wonderful part of the game. Two people cut from the same cloth were bound to spark chaos together, and from the word go they were at each other’s throats, all snark and anger and antagonism. So losing out on the opportunity to see Bella Ramsey’s Ellie and Nick Offerman’s Bill stretch their legs in that scenario was certainly a letdown, at least until the episode started.
A quick shout out to the opening scene, where we see Joel stacking rocks in a grave-in-absentia gesture to his grief over Tess’ death, and then another look into the mind of Ellie. Is it sadism, curiosity, or both that leads her to cut open the head of the trapped infected in the convenience store basement before finishing him off with her knife?
The last moments we spend with Joel & Ellie, at least until the very end of the episode, also give rise to one of the things I appreciate most about the show, its penchant for understated storytelling. When our duo finds the mass grave where people who couldn’t fit in the QZ were murdered, the scene fades out to the skeletons of a person and what is clearly a small child. It then fades back into those same people, identifiable by the scraps of clothing left on their skeletons as we see FEDRA clear out Bill’s idyllic suburban town. We aren’t forced to watch people being shot or the terror they must have felt, we just see the woman’s dress and her baby’s blanket.
It hearkens back to the series premiere, where the young boy wanders into the Boston QZ and is found to be infected. We don’t have to watch him turn or see him shot, we just see the compassion of the FEDRA officer and know how it ends when the boy’s sneakers are seen under the blanket as Joel unflinchingly throws his body into the burn pit. With so much horror and fear already on screen, moments like these are appreciated for their subtlety and effectiveness.
We then get our first sight of Bill, and it must be said that “Not today, you new world order jackboot fucks” is a line that will live in TV lore forever. Getting to watch how Bill’s town became “Bill’s Town” as we saw it in the game was pure delight, and it played into the fantasy that many people must have of a world left entirely to their avarice, to take and have what they want without repercussions. We get a glimpse of just one of Bill’s traps, which was rewarding for those who had to navigate them in the game or draw the infected into them for an easy kill.
The performances on offer here from Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett as Frank are nothing short of Emmy-worthy and astounding. Seeing these two humans connect in the middle of this apocalypse was beautiful, and the real way in which the ups and downs of their relationship was portrayed made it all the more impactful. When it all comes down to their last day together, the simplicity and humanity of their performances were simply incredible.
The final straw that broke the reservoir of tears for most viewers was Bill’s letter to Joel, acknowledging how alike they were and the path that each of them had taken in the apocalypse. The kicker, however, was Bill’s reference to Tess, not Ellie, as the one he entrusted Joel to take care of, and the mere mention of her name nearly brought Joel to tears. And of course, the final scene with the wind gently blowing the window curtains is another nod to the game, where the same iconic imagery is literally the first thing players ever see of the game. It was truly a masterful piece of television that will get plenty of award-season mentions.
Episode 4 – Please Hold to My Hand
The fourth episode opens with Ellie mugging in the mirror, fascinated by the gun she stole from Bill’s house, examining the bullets and dry-firing the weapon. Again we are left to question, does she love the violence or is it just child-like exuberance for something new and exciting?
The first 20 minutes of the episode were full of great moments with our two main characters and some wonderful nods to the game. The iconic book of puns made its glorious debut and was used to even greater effect than in the game, helping to melt a bit more of the ice around Joel’s heart. Bill’s adult magazine was there, as was the hauntingly beautiful Hank Williams song that played during the first part of the truck journey across the Midwest.
As the two camp together in the forest, Ellie settles in for the night and asks Joel if anyone will find them. When Joel tells her they will be safe, Ellie responds with a simple “OK”. While it may seem like a throwaway moment to many, fans of the game will recognize its significance, and without straying into spoiler territory, it is a call forward to one of the most important moments in the story of either game in the franchise.
Fast forward to the duo’s arrival at, and forced crash-landing in, Kansas City, standing in for the game’s locale of Pittsburgh. Joel manages to kill and run off the bandits who attacked them in the streets but is surprised by another one sneaking in from behind. Ellie comes out of hiding just in time to save Joel by shooting the bandit with her previously hidden gun. As Joel recovers from his near-choking, the bandit begins to plead for his life, saying his name is Brian and offering to trade with them, saying his mother is nearby, and lamenting that he can’t feel his legs. Ellie is shaken and turns away at Joel’s insistence, tears in her eyes as she does so. The focus is on Ellie as she angrily wipes away the tears, and we hear Joel end Brian’s life. I couldn’t help but think of the game’s sequel here, where the enemies were given more voice and actively lamented when their comrades were killed, calling out their names in grief and anger. It was a truly disturbing and heart-rending moment that had the intended effect of humanizing the violence on both sides of the conflict.
The only thing I didn’t like about this whole encounter and its aftermath was it eliminated the anger between Joel and Ellie over the gun. In the game, Ellie shoots an enemy, saving Joel’s life while disobeying his orders to stay out of sight. Joel is immediately angry with her, exclaiming “I’m glad I didn’t my head blown off by a goddamn kid!” The relationship here is advancing more quickly, which makes sense for the show, but it does leave out some of the better payoffs due to the longer arc of development for their partnership.
And now we get to Kathleen, the show’s most divisive character so far. Though the first scene with the doctor was well made, I didn’t much care for her in this episode generally. It seemed implausible that a group of people would follow her and she could command them effectively. Because she is a completely new character, game fans had no particular insight into her, so it seems natural she would receive the most pushback from fans, but at this point, that derision felt earned.
The scenes in Kansas City did yield some familiar points from the game, with the truck that said “RUN” on it playing a terrifying part of your flight from the bandits, though the .50cal machine gun mounted on the truck was missing from the live action. And fans of the game may have noticed a familiar voice behind an unfamiliar beard, as Jeffrey Pierce, who plays Tommy in the game, played Kathleen’s lieutenant Perry to good effect in the game.
The final scene gives us the best pun and humorous moment between Joel and Ellie before we are ever so briefly introduced to Henry and Sam…
Episode 5 – Endure and Survive
Game fans and newcomers alike are finally treated to scenes of a city where FEDRA lost control in the opening moments of Episode 5. A stark reminder that the oppressed can become as bad as the oppressors when pushed too far, we see FEDRA officers being hung, shot, and dragged through the streets. Amid the violence, Sam and Henry are trying to affect their run to safety. I was immediately drawn into Henry and Sam’s plight, much more so than in the game because we get so much more time and background with them.
Flashing back to the present, we learn that Henry and Sam had seen the whole fight between Joel and Ellie and their common enemy, and tracked the duo down to use them in their escape plan. Lamar Johnson’s performance as Henry is truly impressive, one of the best of the series, and every moment he shares with Joel as they plot and execute their escape is so well done, two fathers by circumstance coming to grips with each other and their roles. Seeing Ellie and Sam get to be kids and share unbridled joy with each other is an effecting sight and made me wish they could stay in the tunnels forever.
Speaking of the tunnels, the show effectively recreated one of the iconic locations from the game, the various rooms and places where fan-favorite character Ish and his group tried to make a home for themselves. Henry reveals that he gave Kathleen’s brother up to FEDRA to save Sam’s life in an emotional speech that clearly hit home for Joel as well, and made clear why Kathleen wanted to capture Henry and Sam.
I have to admit, I did a complete 180 on the Kathleen character in this episode. Seeing her in the aftermath of the overthrow of FEDRA and learning the reason why she has the group’s loyalty really flipped the switch for me. While everyone loved her brother, Kathleen was the reason they freed themselves from the yoke of FEDRA’s reign of terror, and that sort of leadership is powerful despite the appearance or origins of the leader. Kathleen is doing terrible things for the memory of her brother, proving once again that humans will go to any lengths, good or bad, in the name of love.
The episode’s centerpiece was one of my favorite locations from the game, with the sniper bearing down on them from the house at the end of the block. In the game, Joel has to take out several hunters under terrifyingly accurate fire from the sniper, but here he is easily able to get to the house and confront the shooter. Seeing him beg the old man to put down his gun was a powerful moment, though I think we all knew how it would end. The change in perspective for parts of this scene was well done, as in the game we only play as Joel, taking out infected from the sniper’s nest. The show allows us to see the terror on the ground as Ellie, Henry and Sam try to escape from Kathleen’s soldiers, with Joel saving Ellie as she’s about to be run over.
The encounter with the infected and Bloater was absolutely terrifying, and staying tight to Ellie reinforced the claustrophobic action the show has become known for. Her escape from the child clicker within the confines of an SUV was brilliantly handled, proving that action and horror don’t need massive scale to be effective. But of course, massive scale is something HBO does well, so why stop a good thing? The fiery background as the infected pour out of the ground and the nigh-invincible Bloater rampages through the ranks of the soldiers was an impressive site. That Kathleen met her demise at the hands of the same child that Ellie escaped was a bit of justice even with the appreciation I had for her quest.
The final scene, as in the game, was terribly depressing, and the scenes in the show were even more devastating for all that we knew about Henry and Sam’s motivations and struggle to survive. That Ellie tried to cure Sam after he revealed his bite was an extra punch in the gut, and I couldn’t help but think that if I was Henry, I would have wanted Ellie to tell me that Henry was bitten so I could have spent his final hours with him. She must have truly thought that her blood was the cure, and I wonder how that will affect the end game of the show’s plot. I definitely teared up at the end of this episode, especially seeing Joel bury the bodies, knowing that he is worrying even more now that he can’t protect Ellie, seeing the futility of the task mirrored in the loss of Henry and Sam.
Episode 6 and Beyond
So where do we go from here? The preview for episode 6 shows that the duo will finally reach Tommy. In the game, we meet Tommy at the hydroelectric dam, but the show looks like it may go straight to Jackson where the community Tommy has built is flourishing. My favorite scene of the entire game should take place in this episode, and while I don’t think anything can match the performances of Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker in those moments, I’m excited to see what the show has in store.
There’s a lot left to happen in just four episodes, so here’s how I think it will break down:
Episode 6 – Tommy, Jackson, and Ellie runs away
Episode 7 – Journey to Colorado and UEC
Episode 8 – David
Episode 9 – Salt Lake City
What iconic moments will we see, will there be a giraffe, will David be just as creepy as in the game, and how will the show handle the endgame? I’m all in, and I hope all of you are too. The show has turned out better than anything I had hoped for, and I see no reason it should slow down now. Buckle up, look for the light, endure and survive.
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