This story contains spoilers for the first season of “The Last of Us.”
One of the first hit TV shows of the year, HBO’s “The Last of Us” has been hailed as one of the best video game adaptations ever.
The series, created by executive producers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, is set in a post-apocalyptic America where humanity has been ravaged by a mutant fungus that turns those infected into mindless cannibals. Sunday’s finale saw Joel (Pedro Pascal), a grizzled survivor whose daughter was killed during the first day of the outbreak, and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a teenager miraculously immune from infection, finally conclude their cross-country journey to a medical facility where they hope to help create a cure.
The season finale, as expected, has been divisive. Times staff writer Tracy Brown and video game critic Todd Martens discuss the reactions to the episode, how it compares to the game and more.
Tracy Brown: Despite Hollywood’s inconsistent track record with video game adaptations, “The Last of Us” was a series I’d been looking forward to for quite a while. As someone who doesn’t usually play games that require shooting things and avoids most horror, a TV show felt like the perfect way for me to finally experience a story I’d heard so much about. But then I ended up feeling like I should play the game first anyway.
All that is to say, I knew what to expect with the season finale. I’d known even before I started playing “The Last of Us Part 1” how the game ended and that the ending was divisive. But what I did not expect was how different the experience was as a TV show compared to the game. So I’m curious, Todd, as someone who also experienced “The Last of Us” through the video game first, what you thought of the finale?
Todd Martens: The ending of “The Last of Us” has been divisive since its release in 2013. It’s made for debate, as it raises multiple moral questions. There’s the question of sacrifice — should one person give their life if it means possibly saving humanity? And then there’s the personal questions, as Joel, in an effort to protect Ellie, proceeds to lie to her about the surgery. His inability to be truthful to Ellie, to let her know what actions he took to save her life, always felt uncomfortable, even in the game.
But I think the ending is an example of the power of interactive entertainment. For much of the game, we are playing as Joel and seeing the world from his perspective. We may not always agree with Joel’s actions, but we have the illusion of control over them, and as we propel Joel through the narrative, we develop a sense of empathy and a level of attachment to him. We see, for instance, how his relationship with Ellie is reawakening his faith in humanity. Joel had never healed from the trauma of losing his daughter, and Ellie shows him it’s possible to become close to others again.
This creates a protective feeling for the player. We care for Ellie. We want to safeguard her. And I think that was why, in my initial review of the game in 2013, I wrote that it felt hopeful, despite the harshness of the world. In a sense, its message was one of yearning, of so desperately wanting to be able to connect with another human. With that emotional backdrop, I felt, in the game, that one should protect Ellie above all costs.
What surprised me is how different I would feel watching it unfold as a television episode. I think Lorraine Ali, one of the Times’ television critics, pretty succinctly summarized it in her review:
“As Joel said to Ellie before they entered the hospital where a team secretly planned to dissect her: ‘Maybe there’s nothing bad out there, but so far, there’s always been something bad out there … We don’t have to do this. I want you to know that.’ She answers, ‘After everything I’ve done. It can’t be for nothing.’ Oh, but it will be, Ellie.”
For the last eight episodes, “The Last of Us” showed us the cruelty of its world. We saw how humanity was ravaged and optimism felt like an endangered emotion. We didn’t just see Joel’s perspective. We saw a broader, wide-angle lens, and — while I don’t think this means the ending is good or bad, per se — I think that made Joel’s decision to protect Ellie, rather than attempt to save the world, more difficult to grapple with.
You’ve been playing the game more recently, and you said you felt the ending hit differently on the series. How so?
Brown: Like you mentioned, I found that after hours and hours of essentially living in Joel’s shoes in the game, it was much easier to understand his decision to save Ellie over potentially saving the rest of the world. Even him lying to Ellie about what happened when she asks Joel to swear that he is telling the truth is uncomfortable to see, but you sort of accept it and hope they can find some happiness together after.
But watching Joel in the episode is much harder to stomach.
The show has been less subtle in its lead up to the finale about making a point on the complicated depths of love. Episode 3, with Bill and Frank’s story, introduces this idea of there being just one person worth saving in the world because you love them. Kathleen, the rebel leader in Kansas City, was willing to risk the entire city to avenge her brother. You see Ellie’s mom, Anna, in the early moments of the finale lying to Marlene about the timing of her infection because she chooses Ellie’s life over everybody else’s safety. All are moments that don’t exist in the game, but they foreshadow Joel’s ultimate decision.
In the show, it’s far easier to see Joel’s actions as horrific because it feels much more abrupt. You’ve always been aware you’re not Joel, so the lack of empathy twists the meaning of the ending a little. Now, Ellie’s desperation to believe Joel — even though you can tell she knows he’s not telling her the truth — is that much more heartbreaking and their relationship is something messy to root for. The future just seems bleak.
It’s also been interesting to see how the response to the finale has been divisive among those who’ve just followed the TV series. You’ve mentioned Lorraine’s review, but we also know colleagues who loved the finale. The recaps and reviews from different outlets are also split.
Martens: It’s interesting to me how personal the ending can feel. As a childless single person, I think that informs my perspective. It’s maybe a bit easier for me to say, “The right thing to do is to try and save humanity.” But I remember when I spoke to Neil Druckmann, the writer of the game and the co-creator of the series, he was very adamant that he felt Joel was making the right choice. He made it clear that he would have made the same decision.
“To me, he did the right thing for him. As a parent, if I found myself in that same situation, I would hope I could do what Joel did.”
Druckmann did add, however, that he likely would have spared Marlene, the Firefly leader who swore to raise and protect Ellie. “That’s the part where I think Joel is different from me,” Druckmann said. “But everything else I would hope I would do the same to save my kid.”
I also felt the show made it more clear what Ellie would want. In the game, as someone controlling Joel, you sort of make his perspective your own. But I felt the show worked harder to show us Ellie’s view of the situation, and it seemed to imply that she was willing to sacrifice herself because she had experienced so much loss and heartbreak and hoped to spare others from those feelings.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that the surgery and vaccine would work. I remember feeling that in the game, “We must save Ellie because there’s no assurance this will work.” In interactive entertainment, we feel very much like puppeteers, like we are in dialogue with the character we are controlling. We see the world through their eyes, and their emotions become our own. I think the ending, which was already divisive, becomes more so on television because we’re a step removed.
Brown: In the game, “the right choice for Joel” becomes “the right choice” because that’s how you win. But on a TV show, you don’t have to worry about winning.