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The Last of Us Review (Part 1)

From a writing standpoint, the story in episode one is about as tight and well-written as one can expect, but will they maintain that standard going forward?

HBO Max has begun airing the series The Last of Us, which is based on one of the most popular video games to come out in recent years. However, if you’ve followed the video game series, then you know there’s a part two, and The Last of Us Part 2 has become known as one of the most infamous bait and switches in video game history. So, needless to say, there was a great amount of suspicion directed at this series before it ever aired.

That makes reviewing this first episode rather difficult because the truth of the matter is that the episode is good. From a writing standpoint, it is solid. There are no plot holes or contrivances of any consequence, and the whole creation forms a very tight story. But again, the first episode, like the first game, is meant to be good, the propaganda doesn’t start until well after you’re invested, which to be fair, is, at least, cleverer than anything the Orville Season Three tried to do. So with that said, let’s begin.

Setting the Scene

The story opens with Sarah, a regular kid going to high school who has a dad working in construction named Joel. We go through her day, hearing a couple of seemingly irrelevant details that are surprisingly pertinent if you watch the show a second time. And for the record, one of the hallmarks of a well-written show is the rewatch value. If you’re catching new details each time you watch the episode, then you know the writers have put some thought into it. As the day goes on, Sarah sees jets flying overhead, hears more police sirens than usual, and gradually, grows more uneasy with time. Then, in the early morning hours, Sarah wakes up to a helicopter flying over her house. She goes down to the kitchen and sees the neighbor’s dog trying to enter the home. She tries to take the dog back to her neighbor’s place, but one of them has turned into a zombie and has killed her husband and relative. Sarah flees and reaches the road just as Joel arrives and kills the infected neighbor. They attempt to flee, but their truck crashes, and Sarah’s dad and uncle are separated. Finally, Sarah and Joel to escape the chaos and reach the military. However, a soldier tries to shoot them. Joel is unharmed, but Sarah is killed.

I can’t really say this is a problem from a narrative standpoint because the video game also begins by having the player see the crisis through Sarah’s eyes. So, to follow Sarah’s point of view in the series is to remain consistent with the source material. However, personally, I don’t really like it, particularly when it comes to television adaptations because the viewer has a limited amount of time to become attached to the main characters. A choice like this might be fine for a video game because the player still has multiple hours to play with the real main character; and therefore, can still become invested in the core plot. But I’m not so sure it works in a television series, and in my humble opinion, this plot device is infuriating in books. Looking at you, Stephen King. To be fair; however, it’s not a new tactic. Game of Thrones did this by killing off the main character, Ned Stark, after the first season, and pretty much every slasher movie in the history of cinema has done something similar by having the viewer follow a bunch of unlikable main characters until those characters are unceremoniously killed off, so the real movie can begin. And for better or worse, The Last of Us is a horror story. So, for them to make this choice is consistent with both the source material and the genre. I just, personally, don’t care for it. But note, I am not faulting the show for doing this mostly because I believe following the source material as closely as possible is a prerequisite for a good adaptation. That criterion will become very important in later episodes.

Twenty Years Later

The show jumps twenty years into the future. Joel is taking odd jobs and selling drugs to get by. He’s also known to participate in a little smuggling from time to time. He has a partner named Tess, and together, they have been looking for a car battery because Tommy, Joel’s brother, has not been heard from in several weeks. He is currently in Wyoming, so Joel has decided to find him and make sure he’s alright.

However, the man who was supposed to find the battery for Tess and Joel double crosses them, and this betrayal forces Joel and Tess to stumble across the Fireflies, who are at war with the current military occupation, known as FEDRA. They are trying to restore the old government. The Fireflies have had troubles of their own. They were trying to get a group out of the city so they could transport a girl named Ellie to another unit of Fireflies, who are waiting for them in a nearby town. Presumably, this first group of Fireflies got into a gunfight with the man trying to sell them the battery, and only two members of this initial team remain, and both are wounded. One of these Fireflies is the leader of the entire resistance movement, and since she knows Joel already, she asks Tess and Joel to smuggle the girl out of the city for them. If they do this, then the Fireflies will give Joel and Tess whatever they want, not just a battery but a truck, and all the guns and supplies they could ask for.

Joel and Tess reluctantly agree, and they smuggle Ellie out of the city. But once outside the city walls, they encounter a surprise. Ellie has been bitten by one of the zombies. She should be dead, but she has survived a considerable amount of time after the bite. Through this discovery, they learn that the reason the Fireflies want to get Ellie out of the city is because they wish to use her to find a cure for the virus which has caused the zombie outbreak. The episode ends with the three of them entering the city’s abandoned ruins.

The First Episode Succeeds, But Proceed With Caution

I have to say, the first episode is very well-written. That’s not to say I’m the biggest fan of zombie or post-apocalyptic narratives in general, but from a writing standpoint, the story is about as tight as one can reasonably expect. There are no plot holes, a minimal number of contrivances, and no inconsistencies when it comes to the characters and how they behave. In short, the writers did a good job, but again, if you know how this story ends, then you know that the disingenuous behavior of Naughty Dog, the company which developed the video game, is enough to make anyone dubious about the future of this series. And they should be.

Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

The Last of Us Review (Part 1)