If you watch HBO’s “The Last of Us” there’s a good chance you know it’s based on a video game, even if you’ve never held a controller in your life. (I’ve never played the game, though before I reviewed the series I watched a 10-hour play-through video on YouTube, which I can safely say was a first in my career as a TV critic.)
You didn’t really need to know the series’s origins to enjoy the zombie-apocalypse drama, though, and for most of the first season, it was easy to forget them. But in the season finale’s bloody and morally harrowing climax, “The Last of Us” fully embraced its video-game roots — and by doing so, became powerful TV.
The setup: After a perilous cross-country journey, Joel (Pedro Pascal) has finally delivered Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to a medical center run by a resistance group called the Fireflies. Ellie, a scrappy teen immune to the zombie fungus, may be humanity’s only hope. But Joel learns at the last moment that the operation to extract a possible cure from her will kill her.
As you’d expect, he springs into action. When he overpowers his guards in a stairwell, the narrative shifts into game mode. He collects the dead soldiers’ weapons in the same way a game character resupplies inventory. As he blasts his way through the hospital, the over-the-shoulder shots mimic the point-of-view vantage of gameplay; the clank of shell casings recall the sound design of modern games. You half expect to see a health and ammo meter somewhere in the corner of the screen.
We have seen Joel pull off some spectacular fights, and the history of TV and cinema tells us to expect a battle royal here. This is not that. It’s a slaughter. The ambient noise fades behind a mournful score as Joel mows down the overmatched guards, as if he’s playing on easy mode. He shoots armed opponents and unarmed ones, grimly and mechanically.
Finally, he makes it to the operating room, where Ellie has just gone under anesthesia. Point-blank, he executes the surgeon — who, however unethically, is trying to salvage an effort to save the human race — then orders the terrified nurses to unhook Ellie.
He saves her. He wins. Isn’t this what you wanted?
When “The Last of Us” was first announced, it may have seemed like a mismatch for HBO, that citadel of mature TV drama — at least if your image of video game adaptations was formed by “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” But a video game, even or especially a shoot-em-up, can actually have a lot in common with the antihero drama format.
Inside the Dystopian World of ‘The Last of Us’
The post-apocalyptic video game that inspired the TV series “The Last of Us” won over players with its photorealistic animation and a morally complex story.
- Game Review: “I found it hard to get past what it embraces with a depressing sameness, particularly its handling of its female characters,” our critic wrote of “The Last of Us” in 2013.
- ‘Left Behind’: “The Last of Us: Left Behind,” a prologue designed to be played in a single sitting, was an unexpected hit in 2014.
- 2020 Sequel: “The Last of Us Part II,” a tale of entrenched tribalism in a world undone by a pandemic, took a darker and unpredictable tone that left critics in awe.
- Playing the Game: Two Times reporters spent weeks playing the sequel in the run-up to its release. These were their first impressions.
Many great HBO dramas, going back to “The Sopranos,” have worked by making you share the perspective of imperfect protagonists. You may find Tony Soprano repellent, but you’re along for the ride. You spend time with him, you share in his conflicts, you laugh at his jokes. The act of following someone in a narrative makes you complicit — you want Tony’s story to keep going — which challenges you to question what you want and why you want it.
Nothing makes you inhabit the experience of the protagonist quite like a video game. There is a challenge, enemies, a goal. You control the point-of-view character, and you want to win. So you are on the side of Mario, not Donkey Kong; the lone gunslinger, not the cannon fodder in the hallways.
There is a history of games, including “The Last of Us,” that use this dynamic to make players confront complicity much as cable dramas do with viewers. The 2012 game Spec Ops: The Line puts the player in the position of a special-forces soldier who commits atrocities in the name of completing the mission. (“You are still a good person,” a loading screen taunts the player.)
The “Last of Us” finale puts the controller, figuratively, in the viewer’s hand. You share Joel’s perspective. You have the gun. You have come to know Ellie, to laugh and grieve with her, to love her. You want her to live, and you have the charge of protecting her. So everyone standing in the way needs to die. Humanity will need to find some other way to save itself.
What complicates the scene is that no one is entirely the good guy here. The Fireflies didn’t give Ellie the chance to choose her fate. But the scene also doesn’t offer the easy comfort of framing Joel as the underdog beating the bad guys. There are only people making lousy choices, trying to survive.
In a conventional zombie story or game, what Joel does would be the right thing, the only option. Zombie narratives like “The Walking Dead” tend toward a simple moral framework: The world has gone to hell, the survivors have reverted to beasts, and all you can do is look out for you and yours. Pursuing noble obligations to a larger community only gets you killed.
As my colleague Michelle Goldberg has written, “The Last of Us” has sometimes embraced this essentially conservative outlook, celebrating the wisdom of building fences and hoarding guns. But not wholly. Yes, there are raiders and cannibals out there, but Joel and Ellie also stay over in Jackson, Wyo., now a thriving communist society that does not, contra what “The Walking Dead” has led us to expect, hide a terrible secret.
More important, as the finale makes painfully clear, the series rejects the easy moral escape clause of “It’s us against the world.” As much as Joel and Ellie may be a self-sufficient unit, they are still part of the world. Their choices have ramifications beyond themselves. And here, “protecting your own” may mean millions more dead, somewhere offscreen. The consequences of your beating the final level are not, whatever you might say, above your pay grade.
Which is why, as disturbing as Joel’s shooting spree is, it is not the most chilling thing he does in the episode. The finale, like the video game, saves this for the end.
We rejoin Joel driving away from the Firefly compound with Ellie. When she wakes up, he lies to her about what happened. “Turns out there are a whole lot more like you,” he says. But the Firefly doctors couldn’t figure out how to reproduce the immunity effect. “They’ve actually stopped looking for a cure.”
The Fireflies were going to take Ellie’s life. Joel takes her hope.
When I reviewed “The Last of Us” before the season started, I could talk about his act only in general terms. The series is “an extended horror story of single parenting,” I wrote. “Joel’s struggle is a heightened version of the everyday experience of how being responsible for a vulnerable life makes you vulnerable yourself, how it can make you do unforgivable things for them — or to them — in the name of protection.”
Joel, as we now know, watched his daughter die at the beginning of the outbreak. It is not lost on anyone that he sees Ellie as a surrogate child. And to this point, under the worst conditions, he has done what a parent should: He has protected her and given her the wherewithal to face the dangers of the larger world and to accept her responsibility to it.
But he fails Ellie in the way that many parents fail their children: out of love and fear. Maybe he doesn’t want her to feel guilty. Maybe he doesn’t want her to hate him. Maybe he suspects that, if she had the choice, she would have agreed to save the world instead of herself. She gave us good reason to believe that earlier, when Joel offered to turn around and leave with her. “After all we’ve been through, everything I’ve done,” she said. “It can’t be for nothing.”
Joel’s tender betrayal of Ellie is unbearable partly because of the narrative structure “The Last of Us” borrowed from the video game. Ellie is, in game terms, a “playable character.” In the game, you play as Ellie while Joel is laid up with his wound. In the series, you join her point of view in the last two episodes before the finale, watching her fall in love in a flashback and then defend her own life while saving Joel’s.
We have already been told that Joel has done horrible things to survive the apocalypse. But the unforgivable thing he does here is to make Ellie into a non-player character again, denying her the agency to be the protagonist of her own life.
Is it permanent? Maybe not. Just before the credits, Ellie questions Joel: “Swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true.” He sticks to his story. She says, “OK,” but there’s a disquiet in her eyes. Is she accepting that she is no longer humanity’s hope for a cure? Or that she gave Joel a chance to tell the truth and can no longer trust him?
This may be the question that hangs over the next season. With this gut-punch of a finale, “The Last of Us” has made its stakes about something bigger than simply keeping Ellie alive. All of us, it says, have the right to play our own game.