Celebrating the Success of HBO’s “The Last of Us”

Photo posted by @pascalispunk on Instagram

This article contains spoilers for “The Last of Us.”

HBO’s latest venture went out with a bang — quite literally. The hit action-adventure video game adaptation finale broke a new record for the production company, surpassing a viewership of 8.2 million despite competition with the Academy Awards.

With millions of viewers who anticipatedly tuned in each Sunday night at 9 p.m., the record-breaking series earned a higher overall viewership than HBO’s previous hit, “House of the Dragon.” With a confirmed season two on the way, why exactly did “The Last of Us” achieve such success?

The Story

Originally developed by Naughty Dog, “The Last of Us” takes players on a post-apocalyptic journey in 2013 when players learn that an outbreak is destroying the world and its inhabitants through mutant fungal cordyceps who take control over their human hosts, transforming them into violent creatures known as “infected.” Players begin as the character Joel, navigating a route to escape with his daughter Sarah and his brother Tommy. Yet as they flee, soldiers shoot Joel’s daughter, leaving her to sadly die in his arms.

After those events, the game picks up twenty years later as players find Joel and his partner Tess hunting down stolen weapons that were traded with the Fireflies, an opposing militia group formed during the outbreak. The duo finds the leader of this group who promises to double their weapon cache if they smuggle a teenage girl, Ellie, who is immune to infected, to a nearby Firefly base. The Fireflies believe they can create a vaccination for a cure from Ellie.

On the trek to the base, things do not go according to plan — the trio doesn’t find any remaining Fireflies at the base and Tess becomes infected. Joel quickly decides that he must take Ellie across the country to find his brother Tommy, a former Firefly, in hopes of locating the remaining members of the group.

After finding Tommy and learning where the Fireflies are located, Joel and Ellie find a group of them in a hospital who are awaiting Ellie for their research. However, after learning that the Fireflies must sacrifice Ellie’s body for a vaccine, Joel goes on a rampage in the hospital, killing everyone in his path in order to rescue Ellie from surgery — who is unaware she is about to die at the hands of the Fireflies. The controversial point of this story is that Joel lies to Ellie, telling her that the Fireflies are unable to create a cure and have stopped trying to look for one.

The game ends with Ellie expressing survivor’s guilt. Yet, once again, Joel insists that all he told her about the Fireflies is true. Players can see the once built-up trust and tight-knit bond between the duo breaking, thus setting up the story for the second part of the game and show.

The Adaptation

One of the most notable differences from the game is the amount of violence and the presence of “infected.” However, this choice was thoughtfully made by the show creators, Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann. In the gameplay, players are constantly battling threats and violence, but in the show, there’s a balance in order to be able to connect with the characters on screen. With that, the creators introduced new storylines and characters that enhanced the story to an electrifying new degree.

In an interview with Collider, Maszin says, “Anybody that has played the first game, and then watches this season of television, will know that we are neither afraid to do what was in the game, nor afraid to do something that wasn’t in the game, nor afraid to change things somewhat radically from the game. We follow our hearts, when it comes to the process of adaptation, which is sometimes about fidelity and sometimes about new creation.”

One of the main reasons for the game’s original success was due to the complex nature of the story. At the end of the day, while players are navigating the game, they are also learning and connecting with a very rich and layered story that covers a variety of personal pain and growth. In terms of the show, viewers got an even closer look into the lives of characters who were not shown in the game — particularly the characters of Bill and Frank.

The third episode of the series, “Long, Long Time,” follows the story of a survivalist, Bill (played by Nick Offerman), and how he connected with a visitor that approached his compound, Frank (played by Murray Bartlett). The episode unfolded their raw, very much human love story in a way that touched the hearts of millions. This story was not explored in the game, so it gave a brand new light for all those watching. Deeply moving and full of sadness, the episode resonated with viewers across the globe — it is considered some of the best television and writing in years.

In an interview with Complex, Bartlett says, “I have said this before, but it’s the truth; it’s one of the most beautiful episodes of television I’ve ever read in that it’s beautiful writing and feels like a film. It’s so complete, it’s so nuanced, it happens over a long period of time, and it punches in at sort of just the right moments to fill out the picture of what this relationship is in such an extraordinary way. That all happening in a world where it’s very difficult to find connection, to be vulnerable, and to survive makes it extra poignant.”

Along with the storylines, the series does a brilliant job at adapting the game into television. Fans have enjoyed comparing the game and showing side-by-side and it is truly satisfying to see.

Photos from ign.com
Television’s Favorite New Duo

When it was announced that the video game would be adapted into a television series by HBO, fans of the game were rightfully apprehensive. The story, characters and world they interacted with for hours on end would be coming to life on the screen — would the creators get it right? Many like to say they did.

Part of the reason for this could be contributed to the casting of Joel and Ellie. Played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, the acting duo brings a refreshing, yet familiar flare to the beloved characters. The casting of Joel and Ellie had the power to make or break the show. Yet, Pascal and Ramsey were able to embody these characters perfectly, while bringing something brand new to them.

Pascal brings Joel’s stoic and emotionally unavailable personality to life on screen, while Ramsey seamlessly captures Ellie’s witty, stubborn and rash traits. Joel and Ellie begin their relationship on a very sour and rocky start, but they soon grow closer through the obstacles they face on their journey.

After being together for such an extensive amount of time, Pascal and Ramsey have quite a friendship. Their one-of-a-kind connection is beautifully shown both on and off-screen.

In a video tweeted by HBO Max, Pascal shares heartfelt words about Ramsey saying, “I call her Bellie and she’s my blessing. It was a match made in heaven, and I love her.”

When speaking with USA Today, Ramsey shared a sweet story about Pascal saying, “Pedro wrote a little card to me at the end, saying, ‘How interesting that something so huge and life-changing should happen so early in your life and so late in mine.’ I thought it was a really sweet observation and I just had the best time.”

With early talks of season two production beginning at the end of this year, viewers can anticipate this friendship to only grow bigger.

Have you watched “The Last of Us?” Let VALLEY know your thoughts by tagging @VALLEYMag on Twitter.


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