As a fan of the video game, the first season of The Last of Us I was left pleasantly surprised. The series has some problems, and I am confident that it would make a better two-hour movie, but there are many positives in its episodic format as well. So let’s take a look at what worked and what didn’t during its first season.
Joel and Ellie
At first, I was disappointed when the show pushed Joel and Ellie aside to pointlessly shine light on side characters that offered nothing to the overall narrative. Once The Last of Us slows down long enough to give screen time to the main protagonists, it really finds its footing. Pedro Pascal knocks it out of the park from an acting perspective, though his portrayal of Joel pales against his video game counterpart. Bella Ramsey is a mixed bag, sometimes strong and daring, other times just annoying. However, he does have some high points, including a violent confrontation with David, the friendly cannibal. Her chemistry with Pascal is definitely on point. Good thing too, because their relationship is the most important element of the show.
Season 1 ditched the action and spectacle in favor of quiet character moments, for better or worse. However, viewers are treated to some beautifully crafted violence when the action hits. Episode 5, the best of the bunch, gives us the strongest action yet when a horde of infected, led by a Bloater, attacks Kathleen’s militia. I dig Clickers and don’t mind the new spore-less take on mindless zombie drones. I wanted more (see below), but at least the show had the good sense to stick with the original designs.
Henry and Sam
Too much time is spent hanging on useless side characters – do we need to see more of David or Kathleen? However, one set works well: Henry and Sam. The two brothers run into Joel and Ellie, which leads to a series of misadventures that take them through the tunnels of Kansas City, where they discover an abandoned community, and into a rundown town where they meet Kathleen and the aforementioned Bloater. Their story leads to the most shocking death of the entire season, a bit I will never forget.
The opening episode did an excellent job of establishing the tone of the series. Let’s see Outbreak Day through Sarah’s young eyes and watch the world go up in flames. Airplanes fall from the sky, houses burn in the distance, people run amok, and cars pile up on the interstate. More importantly, we see Sarah’s tragic death at the hands of a terrified soldier. This moment pays off in the last episode of Joel’s disinterested foray into the hospital. If we didn’t care about Sarah, the series might have failed to gain much emotional traction with viewers. Nico Parker is amazing and manages to make Sarah a great character with little screen time. Well done.
In my opinion, the second half of the season works better than the first and offers a little more satisfying, if not scary, character payoffs. Ellie’s anger finally surfaced during her fight with David; we watch in horror as he unleashes his pent-up aggression and hacks the man to death. Later, we see Joel unleash hell on the Fireflies to save Ellie. He kills dozens, including Marlene, and escapes with his surrogate daughter in his arms. These beats hit home thanks to strong direction, great acting, and a script that takes its time setting up. Seriously, this Game of Thrones Season 1-5 level plotting.
What Didn’t Work
For a season that skipped so many of the game’s epic sequences, it’s surprising to see so much time devoted to some useless side characters. I didn’t mind the introduction with John Hannah in Episode 1. However, Episode 2 spends at least 30 minutes following a mycology professor as he learns about the cordyceps outbreak and pleads for a soldiers to start bombing towns. Later, in Episode 3, we leave Joel and Ellie to spend an hour with Frank and Bill, two men who fall in love, pick strawberries for several years, and eventually kill themselves. We also hang out with Kathleen for a spell and then join Ellie and her doomed friend Riley for the rest of the episode.
None of these parts are bad, but they screw with the pacing and feel more indulgent than necessary. In addition, they ignore Joel and Ellie’s new relationship, which is the most important element of the show. Do we need to see how the outbreak started, especially as Joel explains what happened later? Should we spend more time with Frank and Bill when their contribution to the plot is as little as one letter? Need to know about Kathleen’s backstory about her sudden death? Do we need an entire episode dedicated to a DLC storyline? Should we see David brutally slap a little girl?
Many of these beats are not experienced by our heroes and contribute nothing to their journey. Witnessing everything from the eyes of Joel or Ellie is more effective. Imagine if we only saw Kathleen from Joel’s perspective, leaving us questioning Henry’s actions. What if Joel spent a lot of time telling Ellie about Frank and Bill only to find a letter lying next to their dead bodies?
I thought someone would edit all nine episodes to follow the flow of the game more closely, which would work better.
Lack of Action
I understand you can’t feature zombie action in every episode. still, The Last of Us Season 1 ignores the infected until they are no longer a threat. In addition, Joel and Ellie meet many people who are happily living in this apocalypse. They walk from Boston to Salt Lake City and only run into a couple of Clickers, a Bloater, and some infected. In fact, this recurrence of the fungus is connected by a network, which should be very easy to eliminate, right?
In the game, the infected appear to a nauseating degree, which makes Ellie’s mission feel even more important. In the show, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Joel and Ellie find a comfortable house somewhere in the country and live like kings. So why not stay with Tommy in his well-organized communal?
The Last of Us The video game features many of the character’s beats, bringing out the best set pieces. Ellie and Riley’s stay at the mall leads to a wild chase through the corridors, a large group of infected hot on their tails. When Joel and Ellie arrive in SLC, they encounter obstacles that eventually lead them to the Fireflies. In short, the character drama blends well with the action to provide a satisfying, albeit dark, gaming experience.
In general, The Last of Us Season 1 a satisfying television experience worth watching whether or not you’ve played the game. I have issues with some of the creative choices the showrunners made, but there’s still a lot to admire here. Regardless, this is the best video game adaptation to date. That’s not a high bar to jump over, though The Last of Us cleared the competition by a wide margin. It will be interesting to see what they learn and incorporate into Season 2!