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Last of Us, The [tv]

Entry updated 23 October 2023. Tagged: TV.

US tv series (2023-current). Naughty Dog/Playstation Productions/Government of Alberta. Created, part directed and written by showrunners Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin. Other Season One directors include Ali Abbasi, Peter Hoar, Liza Johnson, Jeremy Webb, Jasmila Zbanic. Based on the Videogame The Last of Us (2013), designed by Druckmann and Bruce Straley. Cast includes Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey (all ten episodes); Murray Bartlett, Merle Dandridge, John Getz, Samuel Heoksema, Lamar Johnson, Gabriel Luna, Melanie Lynskie, Nick Offerman, Nico Parker, Jeffrey Pierce, Olivier Ross-Parent, Anna Torv, Rutina Wesley, Keivonn Woodward (one to three episodes). Nine episodes; first two hours, remaining episodes 50 minutes. Colour.

The first (and still ongoing) iteration of the Videogame known as The Last of Us was released in 2013, the year its action begins. A seeming mutation (see Mutants) activates a Pandemic caused by the previously benign cordyceps sac fungus, which is transformed into a poisonous root-linked quasi-entity that, like a nightmare swarm of ichneumon wasps (though not in reality a fungus) eats out its human victims from within, taking over their brains, transforming them into rabbity speeded-up Zombie-like Monsters. The change can begin within moments of infection, and can seem almost instantaneous; once transformed, victims of the rabid fungus, their open mouths spouting tendrils, attack anyone not infected. Anyone bitten must therefore be shot (through the tendrils if possible). Gothicky melodramatics of this sort can make for good Affect Horror; but as the only element of Pseudoscience in a narrative whose adherence to plausible speculations and venues is otherwise unusually strict, these irruptions of mindless but incensed zombies jar whenever they are called for (they appear much less frequently in the Television series). In the videogame version of 2013, civilization as we have known it ends in an instant. It might be noted, in the non-horror-oriented context of this encyclopedia, that as Scientific Romance author E C Large long ago demonstrated in his witty and exhaustive nonfiction study The Advance of the Fungi (1940), mycological devastations are incapable of cartoon antics, but are not unlikely to devastate on the quiet: while we sleep.

In the event, the videogame leaps almost instantly from 2013 to 2033. We are in the decimated ruins of Near Future America, a traditional venue for the Dreadful Warning tale so commonly found in sf literature (see Battle of Dorking; Invasion). The "Infected" – victims of the cordyceps fungus now generally referred to as clickers – remain a constant threat. A scattershot militarized Dystopia known as FEDRA (ie the Federal Disaster Response Agency), which has presumably replaced the much-deprecated real-life FEMA (ie the Federal Emergency Management Agency), fitfully governs bits of the balkanized land. Rebels known as Fireflies commit crimes for freedom. Two figures dominate: Joel Miller, a ruthless middle-aged survivor, a saviour and killer, complexly motivated (which is to say actioned) but not a Superhero; and Ellie Williams, a fourteen-year-old girl who has proven uniquely immune to the fungus. His mission, which players of the game are tasked to track (but which they cannot instruct), is to convey Ellie from the ruins of Boston to a vaguely designated fastness out West, where doctors are convinced without proof that her immunity could save us all, though the necessary operation on her brain, which necessitates its removal, will be fatal. Joel kills off the medicos and most of the remaining cast in order to rescue her from death. As a game, The Last of Us has proved highly successful.

In essence, the 2023 Television version of The Last of Us adheres to this outline. The original version, as noted in The Last of Us videogame entry, had been well designed for conversion into another medium such as film or television, since its various player-friendly bells and whistles do not materially affect the actions of the core protagonists, who are hardwired into the central story, which may undergo enrichment in 2023 without betrayal. The only real problematic issue was the world itself, which had of course suffered a genuine Pandemic between 2012 and 2023. Any notion that an invasion of fidgety clickers might without offence convey the nature of the post-coronavirus real world must have seemed not only tasteless but laughable. A Last of Us for the 2020s needed either totally to rewrite the nature of the catastrophe, or leap-frog the tale into another dimension, where a dramaturgically tangible set of events – ie the whole of the videogame – could be set, a narrative set in a world sufficiently simple (and graspable) for that 2013 story-engine to work.

The answer, very simply, was to start the twenty-first century all over again (for many viewers not at all a bad idea). In the terms used to understand sf in this encyclopedia, the television version of The Last of Us can therefore be described as an Alternate History, with the Jonbar Point of the tale – the moment that history changes – being 26 September 2003, when a sudden and unprecedented world-wide assault of the cordyceps fungus breaks out in Jakarta, Indonesia (a nod here to the far-eastern origin of Covid). Almost overnight it has engulfed the planet. American civilization is demolished in days. As with the game version, the main action is dated twenty years later, in an alternate-history version of 2023, which much resembles the near-future 2033 of the videogame: the distinction being that we are not playing out a Dreadful Warning set in the Near Future of our own world, but a nightmare set in a world unmistakably resonant with our own but, over and above the obvious absence of Covid, magically cleansed of impediments. The Last of Us (2023) does not portray a terminally convulsed, corrupt national government; there are no oligarchs or politicians gorging on the for-profit detritus of a failing world and whose every action is a tipping point; no migrants by the millions failing to escape fire or flood or famine; no steroidal billionaires bloated unto death by fungal narcissism; no Mad Scientists, or for that matter sane ones; no agribusiness; no Big Pharma; no fix; no Secret Masters playing dice with us.

The world is therefore an arena clear-cut for story, which its protagonists may moreover track without fear (on their part or their viewers') that the reality they perceive will cavitate into deeper nightmares of irreality: this world may be shot to Hell, but it is locked in place. This ontological security of the alternate history depicted in The Last of Us is perhaps partly due to its origins as a game set in a world whose base reality is not at issue, and is never deviated from. So neither the game nor the television series subjects users or viewers to the funhouse spirals of reality-disqualification that ultimately do cavitate series like Lost (2004-2010) or Westworld (2016-2022) into Arabian Nightmare [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], ending in realities created by some Secret Master or god, unless chaos (almost certainly due to cancellation) puts a stop to the nonsense. What you see in The Last of Us is what you get: a narrative that pulses between hard-edged relentless presentations of the central story, and a series of interludes, some of substantial length, whose main function over and above their considerable intrinsic interest is to affirm – with an amplitude not available in the game version – an ultimate humane frame for that central mission.

The television version is much as before. We begin in Austin, Texas. It is September 2003. The fungus attacks at flank speed. Joel Miller (Pascal), a toughened veteran of American invasions of the Middle East, and his brother Tommy (Luna) attempt to save Joel's daughter Sarah (Parker) from waves of new-born clickers and from the panicked response of the military. They fail. Decades pass instantly off-camera. The main story arc begins. In Boston, in 2023, Joel and his partner Tess Servopoulo (Torv) co-exist edgily with FEDRA (see above), and with Marlene (Dandridge), leader of the Firefly insurgency. She cuts a deal with Joel and Tess to conduct the fourteen-year-old Ellie Williams (Ramsey), who is immune to the fungus, westwards across America to a Zone of safety. The term zombie is never used in the television series, but multiple fatal conflicts with the "Infected" duly ensue as episodes one and two come to a climax when Tess is infected and blows herself up to save the others, who light out Westwards, grief-stricken, into territories whose slightly surreal winterized dourness may derive from the fact that the show was shot exclusively in Canada. At this point, as episode three begins, the exceedingly unusual narrative structure of The Last of Us makes itself felt.

We now witness in narrative terms what might be likened to the systole and diastole of the operations of a heart, with the main narrative line (or systole) pounding forward, and interludes (or diastole) allowing Joel and Ellie, and us, and the world, respite from the thrust of telling. Pacing is of course normal. What is unusual here is the depth and durance of what normally would be relaxing but sidebar glimpses of that passing world, blurred by speedlines. But episode three in its entirety stands still, wholly given over to a technically supernumerary enriching of the palette, a deepening of the sense that a real non-optional world circumambiates the systole of high necessary drama. Bill (Offerman), a Survivalist, takes shelter in his compound in 2003 and hardly leaves it; a stranger, Frank (Bartlett), stumbles into one of his traps; they become involved; they age slowly and with increasing mutual love unafflicted by melodrama; elderly and increasingly ill, they take Suicide pills together in 2023 at the end of the episode they have dominated, just as Joel, who had known them in previous years, brings Ellie into this Pastoral Zone for shelter from the grueling systole of their inexpugnable trek west. They are given sight of good lives. They see something like paradise: possibly a prevision. They supply themselves with goods and the story resumes with its full thrust. Later sidebar episodes, each of which Parodies with love a familiar genre, contribute further aperçus, convergent ways of seeing the world. Episodes four and five depict Kansas City as a Dystopian fortress rotted from beneath by ganglions of clickers who have bred Underground; episode six, formatted as a classic Western, features a mensch reconciliation between Joel and his brother; in the backstory episode seven, Ellie remembers spending a night with a friend in a shopping mall with an enclave where videogames seem to be played: an inconceivably distant America; episode eight focuses on a religious community (see Religion) whose guru preacher claims Sex rights over the women under his control, and practices cannibalism.

Echoing more normal videogame conventions, there are quite a few shots of the two protagonists in their systole pomp, backs to the viewer, camera tracking their backs as they hike toward the next challenge. Their mission is on their minds. They move as a pair; they do not divagate. They kill clickers and humans who block their path. Inexorably they continue their ultimately unthwarted progress, though we only catch sight of the home town or Zone of safety in a Slingshot Ending that terminates episode nine. The obvious good chemistry between the two actors conveys, almost without saying, a sense of the burden of implications they bear as they clamber onwards towards a second season (that chemistry may also explain the number of two-shots). The systole narrative plays out as foreordained. If all the diastole interludes were cut, nothing of the synopsis would be lost. But the rapport between the protagonists would have been asserted rather than earned; the heart of The Last of Us would be hopeless.

Caught in the engulfing pulse of the tale, it is easy to disregard its alternate-history frame. But a frequent if glancing focus on the beauty of the natural world – in a tale where Climate Change has been brutally avoided by killing billions of polluters, and is in fact never mentioned – can create a poignant sense of desiderium: glimpses of an alternate natural world that failed to survive but should have. Especially in later episodes, where glacier-bedecked mountains are more and more frequently glimpsed at the back of shots, the world of The Last of Us does seem genuinely counter-factual: something so hugely less damaged than the real 2023 that it seems some message to the planet may be intended by the series makers. Heartbreaking glimpses of the real mountains of this fake world, panoramic visions of which backlight the final scenes of The Last of Us, may perhaps be intended to uplift our spirits. But it seems more likely that sightings of those mountains are meant to ring tocsin. [JC]


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