In June 2013, gamers and fans of post-apocalyptic horror were given a zombie video game that looked at the genre differently, giving fans an experience that seemed more visceral than most other media. When Videogame developer Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment developed a story-driven, action-adventure, survival-horror RPG titled “The Last of Us,” they couldn’t have predicted the game’s impact on pop culture. In the 10 years since the game’s initial release, it has spawned several different media, including a downloadable expansion with its own storyline, a direct sequel to the original game in 2020, and now in 2023, a hit HBO TV Series.
Since the first episode aired on January 15, 2023, the HBO series has quickly garnered a cult-like following that anxiously awaits the release of the next episode every Sunday. The show follows in the original game’s footsteps while also taking on a few creative liberties to deliver a more realistic take on the genre. In the show, a pandemic is the cause of a fungal-based virus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, otherwise known as cordyceps or zombie-ant fungus. Cordyceps only affects insects and doesn’t affect humans. Luckily cordyceps can only survive in sub-tropical and tropical climates. The fungus has two main objectives: self-propagation, and dispersal. The virus drains its insect host of nutrients before filling its body with spores so the fungus can reproduce. The fungus then, essentially through mind control, compels the insect to seek height and remain there before it expels these spores, infecting nearby insects in the process. In the show, the virus goes through a mutation that allows it to adapt to higher temperatures, eventually finding its way into the human population. The virus is then able to possess its host, turning them into rabid, cannibalistic shells of themselves, only seeking to infect other hosts.
In other media featuring zombie apocalypses, the cause of these outbreaks is the result of an experiment in a scientific laboratory gone wrong, a virus contracted from an animal finds its way into a person to begin the chaos, a curse, or dark magic used to reanimate dead corpses to punish humanity. However, “The Last of Us” is a truly believable take on classic zombie tropes. So far, the show’s producers have done a good job at going into great detail to fill in plot holes and sell the plausibility of an outbreak like cordyceps actually happening, really making the science behind the horror interesting.
While the series’ first season is yet to come to a conclusion, and fans are yet to discover what initially caused the outbreak to happen. The showhas already dropped several hints as to what happened with the cordyceps virus. During episode three, the two main characters, Joel and Ellie, discuss how the outbreak may have started. As Joel explains to Ellie,
“Best guess… cordyceps mutated and some of it got into the food supply — probably a basic ingredient like flour or sugar,” Joel says. “There were certain brands of food that were sold everywhere. All across the country, and across the world. Bread, cereal, pancake mix. You eat enough of it, it’ll get you infected.”
Slight details don’t seem as foreign as they do in other zombie movies and shows. As Joel explains, it most likely got in flour, sugar, and pancake mixes, which viewers will probably pick up on from events in the series pilot episode. Yet, while the show is littered with little easter eggs and tiny details to make you go back and rewatch it, like the game, it is the story that truly captivates audiences. The show dazzles audiences with its cinematography, lived-in set pieces, makeup, costume design, and, above all, its plot.
The “Last of Us” does an excellent job of showcasing the brutality and hostile nature of post-apocalyptic America, but the character dialogue and development overshadow everything else. One of the reasons why so many audiences are clinging to it is because it hits closer to home, and the characters are what drive it apart from other shows and movies. Every character featured in the series thus far has something that the audience can relate to and attach themselves to. Each individual’s story and plight to survive is something worth telling, but it is the relationship between the two main characters that takes center stage.
Strangely enough, the show takes place in 2023, 20 years after the beginning of the pandemic. In 2003, Joel Miller, played by Pedro Pascal, lived in Austin, Texas during the onset of the outbreak. After several different news reports and military presence ramps up, the situation becomes increasingly dire as people begin running around streets and neighborhoods attacking one another. Joel eventually takes his family along with his brother Tommy and leaves Austin before the city is overrun.
When the show fasts forward 20 years to the present, there are only pockets of civilization scattered throughout the remains of the country run by the remnants of a pre-outbreak U.S. government, alongside the Department of Defense and the CDC, which collectively call themselves “FEDRA”. Viewers learn throughout the show that FEDRA is corrupt and not a permanent solution to bringing back civilization. Other threats loom such as bandits and thieves who rob and murder when the hordes of infected aren’t around. In the city of Boston, one of these FEDRA-secured quarantine zones exists, where Joel happens to live as well. Here, through strange circumstances, Joel is introduced to a girl named Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, who just may be the last hope at saving humanity.
Without spoiling anything, it is the relationship between these two characters that eventually becomes the main focus of the show. It’s the relationship between Joel and Ellie that makes “The Last of Us” a worthwhile watch. The banter between the two, and the raw, emotional moments where the audience learns more about Joel and Ellie are some of the key highlights of the show. As their relationship progresses, it is harder to find a dull moment when they both are on screen, as they both learn not to survive for themselves, but for each other.