Warning: This article contains major spoilers for the events of The Last of Us.
The HBO show The Last of Us has been taking the internet by storm, and I admit I’m definitely one of the enjoyers. After being hesitant to watch it because of my inability to enjoy horror and general distaste for most zombie apocalypse media (very much motivated by my fear of everything that is even slightly scary), I finally decided to give it a try. Fortunately, this was after everyone had already finished it and all episodes were out; I don’t think I could have handled the tension with a week’s wait in between each episode.
Even after the first episode, I was hesitant to continue watching. Of course, Pedro Pascal’s general beauty and acting was a joy to view, but the zombies – or infected, as they are referred to in the series – were terrifying. It was a great combination of gorgeous prosthetic work and acting by the extras. Nevertheless, I persisted, and I have never been more glad that I decided to give something the benefit of the doubt.
Even without the beautiful sets of overgrown cities and deserted woods and roads, the phenomenal acting work of Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller and Bella Ramsey as Ellie Williams, and the stunning cinematography and parallels suggested by it- the story alone would be enough to get pulled into the world of The Last of Us. I will admit that I have never played the games (and probably never will, considering the series terrified me enough), and there are most likely many subtle references and distinctions that I am not able to appreciate, I have been completely absorbed into the story of humanity that the writers and actors tell.
Despite it being set in a zombie apocalypse and the story is driven by the necessity of survival in it, it is not a story about the zombie apocalypse. Many episodes do not contain infected, and the main conflict in them is nearly always between humans, rather than humans and infected. It is a story of how desperation can make humans more cruel than mindless beings, and how love drives one to do terrible things. Because above everything, The Last of Us is a story about love.
The central story of love is between Joel Miller, a hardened, somewhat grumpy, middle-aged man who has lost too much, including his own daughter, to want to love again; and Ellie Williams, a young, cheeky teenage girl who is desperate for someone she loves to not die or leave her. Forced to travel together by circumstances, they grow to care and protect each other, into a relationship that is both a reflection of a father-daughter relation, but seems to be so much more and unique than that, as consequence of the harsh environment of a post-apocalyptic world. They fight and they joke, push each other away and come back to them- they are co-dependent on each other to feel human, almost, and their fights driven by fear of losing the other. It is here where the acting skills of both actors shine through- the fear and helplessness they feel when the other is in danger, the affection between them as they share a joke, the ruthlessness they project when trying to protect the other – the latter mostly by Joel – is seen in every little movement and expression and feels more real than anything else.
All these emotions come to a final climax in the final episode – the first half is filled with bonding and friendly banter and talk between the two (including feeding a giraffe set loose from a zoo long ago), while the second is filled with tension as Joel unflinchingly kills a hospital filled with (mostly) innocent people when he realises they have to kill Ellie to find a cure for the infected and are planning to do so. In fact, he almost seems to be in a trance as he does so, completely focused on saving Ellie – the power of Pascal’s acting is intrinsic to the feeling of the scene; he does not even blink as he fires his gun on anyone in his way. Time and time again, The Last of Us asks the question: What would you do for love? How far would you go, despite the greater good? Each time, it is answered the same way: Love will make us lose our morals. This sentiment is even more intensified by the high stakes of a post-apocalyptic world.
This is not only exemplified in the main bond of love in the show. There are two episodes almost solely dedicated to telling a story of romance- of how love persists even through the cruelty of the world. There is first the story of Bill and Frank- two men who find each other in the middle of the apocalypse, and live isolated from everyone else. There is a nuance to it- these are people who have lived the world before the apocalypse and almost find a sense of normality in each other. Later in the series, there is one between Ellie and Riley, two teenage girls who have grown up in a Quarantine Zone and know no other life than that of an apocalyptic world, and somewhat discover the mundanity of life how it used to be together, until they are torn apart by the reality of the harsh world they grew up in. The love that drives the story is seen in everything- in the first episode between Joel and his daughter Sarah pre-apocalypse, in the bond between Joel and his brother Tommy, in every character they meet along the way. Even the antagonists in several episodes are driven by desperation formed out of love. Love moves everyone, and despite rooting for the protagonists, you can understand why they do what they do. In fact, they are driven by the same force that the protagonists are, and in all fairness, Joel and Ellie cannot exactly claim to be living a more moral life than the people opposing them.
Ellie and Riley experience a merry-go-round for the first time together (Source: HBO)
Nevertheless, there is a sense of humanity in everything the characters do- Joel reminds Ellie to put on her seatbelt (she had never ridden in a car before), he finds Ellie her favourite canned foods, he teases her and tells her white lies and truths about the world before the apocalypse. Ellie purposefully annoys him, constantly tells jokes from her book of puns, gets excited at the sight of things we now consider mundane; an escalator, for example. Even as they also ruthlessly kill and threaten for each other and their own survival, you can find yourself in them, and even their less than moral actions are almost endearing; they make their way into your heart before you realise it has happened.
The Last of Us is a story about love, grief, and humanity. Even if we would like to think ourselves better, in the literal end of times, we are all human and unlikely to give up love, for anything. Humans are cruel and ruthless as well as caring and affectionate and still looking for light-heartedness and jokes even in the harsh reality of the world around us. Joel kills men without blinking, but also makes an effort to find Ellie her favourite canned foods and a board game they can play- Ellie wrathfully stabs a man to his (deserved, if you ask me) death in a burning building, but enjoys nothing more than annoying Joel with jokes from a book of puns she always carries with her. The story is so essentially human that you cannot help but care for and understand the characters and their actions – and realise you could probably be driven to do the same in their position. I believe I certainly would.
Written by Merel Langeveld