Smart Changes Will Help Us Finally Succeed as a TV Show

Two episodes on HBO The Last of Us, the performance has already exceeded my high expectations. We still have a long way to go, but hopefully the studios are taking detailed notes because this is how you do a faithful video game adaptation for the small screen.

Not everything is perfect, mind you. Like the game, the TV show sometimes indulges and mimics the worst tendencies of The Walking Dead. The action is surprisingly sparse, and there are moments of unnecessary padding.

That said, I’m looking forward to the remaining seven episodes and I’m (so far) very impressed with this impressive production, which goes to great lengths to stay as close to the game as possible.

Anyway, here are some thoughts about the first two episodes.

The Evolution of Fungus Is Significant

Each episode begins with a flashback before the fungal pandemic, where we learn more about the Cordyceps fungus and more. These sequences, especially the first one involving Dr. Neuman by John Hannah, chilling and informative but unnecessary. In the game, we learn details about the epidemic through conversations between Joel and Ellie, letters, and during interactions with strangers, all of which shape our understanding of the crisis. That way, we fall into the world after the outbreak blindfolded, and part of the fun comes from piecing together the mystery. Why are Boston’s skyscrapers collapsing? Why is society divided into different factions? Why is everyone sad?

The scenes with the scientists were interesting but felt more like episode padding than important story elements.

On a similar note, I dig the fungus updates. For example, instead of spores, we get a mushroom network that connects the infected, which is as scary as it sounds. Octopus-like tendrils shoot out of the infected’s mouth and attach themselves to another victim – and yes, it’s weird as hell.

A Stellar Prologue Sets the Story

The First Episode starts with a bang and adds little details to the story. We get to know Joel’s daughter Sarah in greater detail, which makes her death harder to watch, and witness the catastrophic events of 2003 (changed from 2013) on a larger scale — the plane crash is an epic. Director Craig Mazin closely follows the gameplay but offers some visual flourishes that make the sequence more cinematic than the PS4 cutscene. Sometimes I want to press X, but that’s probably a result of muscle memory.

Where Episode 1 Succeeded and Failed

The rest of the episode was a slog full of long-winded explanations and some unnecessary changes. Instead of staying with Joel, Mazin sometimes turns to follow Tess in her mistakes and even cut off Marlene and Ellie for a spell. Again, what makes the game unique is how players are transported to a strange world, as seen through Joel’s eyes. We learn and discover things when he does, a way that makes each new detail feel more critical. Marlene and Ellie’s little companion in the TV show reveals important information to the audience (Ellie is the cure) and leaves Joel in the dust scrambling to catch up. It seems like a wrong move, but maybe I’m overthinking it.

Mazin and Druckmann also changed certain action beats. In the game, before meeting Ellie, Joel, Tess, and Marlene, avoid some FEDRA guards. This sequence emphasizes the totalitarian nature of the militant group and Joel’s effectiveness as a fighter. At the show, he arrives and finds Marlene injured and surrounded by dead bodies. I understand that you can’t have TV characters running around throwing bricks and bottles and wasting time moving trash cans into usable positions. However, I’d rather see our heroes do battle than spend 20 minutes listening to a mycologist explain what we already know.

Also, in the TV show, Marlene bids Joel adieu with a bad line: “Don’t do it.” Is the series trying to play down Joel’s badness? In the game, he asks Tess and Joel to escort Ellie to the Capitol building, where she will meet a crew of Fireflies. Joel reluctantly agrees and leaves with Ellie while Tess goes with Marlene to check out a cache of weapons. Everyone understood their role without further provocation. The line “Don’t do it” makes Joel look like an untrustworthy idiot. Has he been dating before? If so, why did he want him to do this important work?

Moments later, Joel beats the crap out of a FEDRA guard, an action Ellie seems to appreciate. I dig this moment and how it shows that Ellie loves her new friend.

Where Episode 2 Succeeds and Fails

The second episode does a better job of balancing drama and action. We get our first glimpse of the infected – a horrifying sight – gathered near a building. Joel, Tess, and Ellie pass by a museum and don’t slow down long enough to find inventory! Come on guys! You will forget the random bullets later in the show.

We got a nice sequence showing our first pair of clickers. The design of these suckers is unique – they look exactly like their video game counterparts but somehow scarier. I like the lack of screen time. Too many, and they become redundant. These dangerous organisms should appear small and require a ton of effort to remove.

The series ditched a set piece involving a skyscraper and condensed the two sequences into one. Here, Marlene fights a little with a clicker, and Joel and Ellie survive by the skin of their teeth. I can’t say enough about how amazing this whole sequence is. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are both effective here. The creature design is very nice, while the atmosphere, lighting, and markings are spot on.

Also, kudos to the VFX team for their rendering of Boston. The Last of Us The TV show is exactly like the game, right down to the plants growing on the buildings.

The only other noticeable change is the death of Tess. He died off-screen in the game after fending off some FEDRA soldiers. The show gave him a more dignified death and allowed him to blast a group of infected as he was about to turn. That doesn’t change the story in any way, but then again, there’s something eerie about hearing Tess scream off-screen from Joel’s perspective and then seeing the ending.

Also, if you can lure a bunch of infected into a local and blow them up, why is this pandemic even a thing? I have the same complaints The Walking Deadwhere zombies act dumber than a matchbox, but our heroes still can’t figure them out.

It doesn’t matter. Most of my criticisms are minor nitpicks. I dug the show as a whole and I was invested even knowing where the whole thing was going. Is this how it used to be Game of Thrones book readers for the first four or five episodes of the TV series?

Good Casting

The Last of Us will only work if Joel and Ellie are well taken care of. Fortunately, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey deliver. Neither is similar to their video game counterparts, but they let their personalities shine through, and the pair of actors show amazing chemistry that will be fun to watch over the next few months.

Next week’s episode introduces Bill, played by Nick Offerman, who is almost as perfect a casting as I remember. Then again, I’m just glad it’s not Mark Wahlberg.

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