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REVIEW: HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ Series Is a Perfect Exploration of Loss, Survival, and Hope

5/5 clickers

Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal as Joel in key art for HBO's 'The Last of Us' (HBO)

The Last of Us is finally here, and the wait has been worth it. Based on the hit survival game created by Neil Druckmann, the HBO series is meant to be a retelling of the Naughty Dog game with some changes to make it its own standalone piece, and it happily works. And right when the world said goodbye to the long-running zombie series The Walking Dead, The Last of Us hits with a fresh perspective and a different kind of post-apocalyptic outbreak. Starring Pedro Pascal as the game’s protagonist Joel Miller with his substitute daughter Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey), the series shows audiences and fans just how to adapt a video game into a live-action story.

With the game already famous for how cinematic it was, the show does a great job of keeping the beats that made the game such a fascinating one for fans to dive into while still maintaining its own status as something new and fresh—making The Last of Us another great adaptation from HBO. Maybe the key to their adaptations is having Ramsey and Pascal as part of the series.

The series features shots that mimic moments of the game and dialogue that works and flows within the tone of the show and doesn’t feel just like a carbon copy of the game we all know, but it does a pretty phenomenal job with adapting what Druckmann built to be its own piece and that is, in part, due to Druckmann’s relationship to writer Craig Mazin.

The series is much of the same in tone and objectives: Don’t get bitten by clickers (the zombie-like humanoids infected with the Cordyceps brain infection) and get Ellie to the Fireflies. But it is within the relationships between all the characters and their moving parts that makes this series one of HBO’s best.

Adapting The Last of Us for an HBO audience

Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us HBO series

When news broke of the HBO adaptation, one of the first things that many people did was take on The Last of Us and The Last of Us: Part Two. As someone who is not great at video games, I have watched playthroughs of both parts and found the story to be so captivating that I knew the HBO series had a lot to live up to, and boy did it. If you know nothing about the game, the series will feel like that first time many of us learned the story of The Last of Us and what awaited Joel and Ellie. It has that edge-of-your-seat feel while also maintaining its own originality.

Druckmann has spoken in the past in how the show will differ from the game, and it does—not in completely drastic ways but in little moments that enrich your viewing experience and give you time with characters that you might not have known a lot about while playing through the game. But more than that, the adaptation works because the story at the heart of the game is one of hope and survival—something that many of us can connect with, especially in 2023.

Pedro Pascal brings Joel’s pain to life in a perfect performance

HBO's The Last of Us First Footage: Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller.

With something like this, the casting has been a hot topic of conversation with “fans” complaining that their dream casts didn’t work out, but the show really did master these characters by casting Pascal and Ramsey at the heart of it all.

Joel Miller is, frankly, the most important casting of the first part of this story. While the journey of The Last of Us comes down to Joel trying to get Ellie to the Fireflies, if Joel didn’t work on his own, the series wouldn’t work. Ramsey’s portrayal of Ellie is also of equal importance, but we do spend a little bit of time with just Pascal’s Joel, and we need that grit and anguish to carry us through his journey—and Pascal delivers in a way fans will love.

He has, constantly, given us performances that destroy viewers. Thinking of how he can convey so much with just a look in The Mandalorian will break your heart, and that was the one time he didn’t have a helmet on. Add that moment into countless scenes where Joel is struggling to come to terms with everything he’s lost and his own will to survive, and it makes for a layered and fascinating performance to watch. It does also add to Pascal’s unique brand of “daddy” content that will make audiences giddy to see how he tackles Joel Miller, but rest assured, it is perfection.

Bella Ramsey’s Ellie Williams is a feisty mix of strength and fear

Bella Ramsey standing as Ellie in The Last of Us

Ramsey comes into the role of Ellie with such an energy that your love for the character might be instantaneous. Ellie Williams was also the heart of the game, the one who made Joel realize that in this apocalypse there was still something worth fighting for. She’s quick-witted and not afraid to be a smartass to Joel, which works for his gruff and often dry sense of humor, and the two have such a balanced relationship throughout the series that you find comfort in their back and forth.

Their performance as Ellie is something that just feels so natural. Often, when a young actor is pulling off a less than “sweet” character, it can feel like a young person finally getting the chance to swear and be mean and comes across as disingenuous. But with Ramsey, Ellie works because of how Ramsey uses Ellie’s sass and anger to explore the pain that exists within her.

Making up the Miller family

Gabriel Luna as Tommy in The Last of Us

Another great choice was Gabriel Luna as Tommy Miller. Tommy is Joel’s younger brother who is with him on Outbreak Day. We get to see him briefly in different moments throughout the game, and while the show functions in a similar way, you are left with lingering thoughts about Luna’s performance that make his character feel bigger than he is. You care about him, and it’s all down to how Luna takes up the space each time he’s in a scene, and it works so well.

But really, some of the most brilliant casting in the season though comes with Nico Parker’s portrayal of Sarah. Sarah Miller is an important part of the prologue of the game, and the series lets us spend some time with Sarah that only works because of Parker’s childlike wonder as the character, while also showing us how Sarah’s dynamic with her father works. It’s such a good performance from Parker that matches the energy of Pascal’s Joel in a way that I think many are going to be talking about Nico Parker’s take on the character.

The two help to give Joel’s pre-outbreak life color, and it bleeds into his modern day character in such a layered way. Joel’s character works because of Pascal but is helped by the incredible performances from both Parker and Luna.

A supporting cast that is stellar

anna torv as tess in the last of us

Then there’s Anna Torv. Tess Servopoulos is who we come into the post-apocalyptic world with alongside Joel. She plays a brief but important part in the game, and her strength is the aspect of her character that really sticks out. And Torv did an incredible job bringing that to life. One of my favorite parts of the game is Tess pulling Joel up buildings and being seen as his equal. And while the show doesn’t have those exact moments, they show Tess’ strength in new and interesting ways, and it really works to bring her character to life.

Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett provide new light to Bill and Frank, characters that are fan favorites but that we don’t know much about. The series gives them time to explore their relationship and who these characters are in such a way that it’s incredible to see. And having Bartlett and Offerman in the show in general is exciting, but they both bring their all to both Bill and Frank.

One of the best episodes of television

Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) stands in a dark room, holding a flashlight in a still from 'The Last of Us'

What shocked me about the episodes of The Last of Us was how beautifully they weave stories together that could feel disjointed. One of the best episodes of the season comes with episode 3, and while I won’t say anything about it until audiences have seen it, the episode is one that I have not stopped thinking about since watching it.

That is a testament to how this show gives life to these characters we all knew so well from the game. The adaptation makes them their own beings while still remaining true to the source material. They aren’t carbon copies of the Joel and Ellie that we saw in The Last of Us video game, but they have their same core emotions and beliefs. So, the nuanced takes on the characters work because you know they are still, at their hearts, the same characters we loved. But they are lived in, in a new and refreshing way.

Joel and Ellie’s relationship in The Last of Us

Joel Miller and Ellie Williams in the Last of Us

While Joel’s arc is incredibly important, the show would not work if you didn’t believe he cared for Ellie and vice versa. Their dynamic is what drew fans into the game in the first place. It’s what fueled the sequel game and what brought fans to the series. Luckily, Ramsey and Pascal have managed to not only capture what made these characters so interesting, but they’ve brought their own take on the father/daughter dynamic.

The two had never met before they were fated to go on this journey together. So, two actors who didn’t really know each other bringing it to life could work, but they still needed that spark. And the two have it in spades. They click in a way that makes their back and forth feel so refreshing in the darkness of the material. They are two characters who try to find a bit of humor in the midst of chaos—even if Joel doesn’t necessarily laugh in the way that Ellie does.

They find their light and share it with each other, and the way it grows throughout the season is definitely a draw to the show as a whole. They’re both brilliant characters on their own, but watching Pascal and Ramsey together is why The Last of Us works.

The fight to survive

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey in the Last of Us

The Last of Us was a game about survival, and the HBO adaptation is much of the same. We have our goal and we have to meet it. But where the series really shines is exploring the different layers to these characters that we meet along Joel and Ellie’s journey. We see their fear, their pain, and the struggle they’ve all faced in the post-outbreak world.

And so yes, the show is about survival, much like the game was. But it is also a series about hope. It’s a story of believing there is a bright light in the future. It is a character study in how people can change someone else’s life. All of this is why we flocked to the story of The Last of Us in the first place, and why now, in the midst of a pandemic, we want to see this story come to life in a new medium.

This is a show for those who want to have hope. Who want to fight and survive. It’s about having a bond with someone else and finding your own chosen family, and the HBO show knocked the adaptation out of the park.

The Last of Us premieres on HBO on January 15 and is proof that adaptations of games work if you have the right team behind it. This is one that you won’t want to miss.

(featured image: HBO)

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Resident Spider-Man expert, official Leslie Knope, actually Yelena Belova. Wanda Maximoff has never done anything wrong in her life. New York writer with a passion for all things nerdy. Yes, she has a Pedro Pascal podcast.