The Last of Us is the latest prestige drama from HBO and has gained near universal critical acclaim, garnering the second-largest audience for the network since 2010, trailing only the Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon. This is an amazing accomplishment in an era that jazz historian Ted Gioia has described as one of “attention downsizing.” Major players in media and entertainment are struggling with increasingly fragmented audiences and the rise of what Gioia calls alt culture fueled by a seemingly endless proliferation of “podcasts, Bandcamp albums, YouTube channels, Substacks, and various other emerging platforms.” The fact that The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic zombie drama based on a video game makes its runaway success doubly interesting. The action-horror-film franchise Resident Evil proved the commercial viability of the zombie video game adaptation to the big screen, but its critical reception was cool. The consensus of critics echoed Kipling’s devil in The Conundrum of the Workshops: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”
The Last of Us opens in 1968 on the set of a talk show in which panelists are discussing the potential of a global pandemic. One epidemiologist, played with chilling effectiveness by John Hannah, dismisses the long-term threat of viruses and bacteria, noting that humanity has always triumphed over these adversaries throughout its history. Even at sometimes terrible costs, human life has endured and survived such calamities before and would do so again. He does, however, fear fungi, noting their ability to affect the human mind, possessing even the potential to control humans “like a puppeteer with a marionette.” When a fellow panelist objects, observing that fungi cannot survive human body heat, the epidemiologist notes the potential for the evolution of fungi spurred on by rising global temperatures, adding that the probable outcome of that scenario is that “we lose.”
The narrative then jumps to 2003, when the prophecy of fungal pandemic has been fulfilled. Chaos grips the earth as the newly evolved fungi spread rapidly throughout the population by means of an inadvertent contamination of the world’s food supply. The protagonist, building contractor, and father Joel (Pedro Pascal), along with his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) and daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), is introduced. It is also here where the effects of the mutated fungus, Cordyceps, on the human population are revealed. The infected present less like traditional zombies, slow moving and moaning, and more as ones processed, albeit biologically: moving rapidly as if jerked about from within, clicking, and shrieking to great dramatic effect. Later in the series, stages of Cordyceps possession are revealed, with the infected gradually becoming more fungal and less human as they devour their human hosts from within.
In the chaos, Joel’s daughter is tragically killed, and with that the last significant narrative time jump is made to the world of 2023, at which point Joel has made his way to the Boston Quarantine Zone (QZ) managed by the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA). In a moving vignette, a young girl approaches the QZ from the wasteland beyond and processed by FEDRA agents. She tests positive for infection but is told the first noble lie, a recurring theme of the series, that she will be receiving medical treatment, when in fact she is euthanized. Joel, working as a day laborer for FEDRA, disposes of the body.
Joel is now also a smuggler and drug dealer with a reputation for violence. Tommy has since joined the resistance to FEDRA, the Fireflies, and made his way out west. Having lost communication with Joel, he and his partner are seeking to leave the QZ in search of him. A double coincidence of wants emerges when Joel is approached by the leader of the Fireflies to take a teenager named Ellie outside the city. Ellie, immune from infection, is believed by the Fireflies to be the key to an eventual cure for the plague of Cordyceps.
As the plot develops, Joel and Ellie make their way across the country from Boston to the Fireflies’ western outpost. This main narrative is interspersed throughout the series with vignettes from the pandemic’s outbreak elsewhere, from Malaysia to a citizen uprising in the Kansas City QZ that overthrows a monstrous FEDRA regime only to replace it with a murderous civilian government singularly preoccupied with revenge on erstwhile FEDRA collaborators. These vignettes are both the high and low points of the series, with some serving as mere information dumps about the post-apocalyptic world and others illuminating character backstories that deepen the viewers’ understanding of their motivations and moral commitments, and complicating impressions of both the FEDRA QZ governance and resistance to it.
The low point, frankly, is the story of Bill and Frank, which makes up the bulk of Episode 3, “Long, Long Time.” Bill (Nick Offerman) is a survivalist who endures alone in his abandoned town, constructing impressive defenses against Cordyceps and hostile humans alike. When a wandering refugee from Baltimore, Frank (Murray Bartlett), stumbles into one of Bill’s traps. Bill reluctantly invites him to dinner, and they begin a domestic partnership. The series’s most comical moments come from Bill, played with gusto by Nick Offerman, playing against type as a gay paranoid survivalist. Much has been made of this episode for its depiction of a same-sex domestic partnership, but the tale serves as, to use a video game metaphor, little more than a loot box conveniently placed to give Joel and Ellie the food, arms, and transportation necessary for the next leg of their journey west.
Most effective is the story of Henry and Sam in Episode 5, “Endure and Survive.” Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard), brothers on the run from the new civilian government of Kansas City, help Joel and Ellie escape KC. During the episode, Henry tells Joel he is wanted by the civilian government for his assassination of the leader of the Kansas City resistance and collaboration with the brutal FEDRA regime. Henry did this to secure medicine to treat his younger brother Sam’s leukemia. When Joel offers a sympathetic construction of these events, Henry refuses to justify himself, stating plainly, “I am a bad guy because I did a bad guy thing.” In a world where everyone tells noble lies to excuse their behavior, he stands alone in refusing to do so.
Such noble lies are told by FEDRA and Fireflies both—and most graphically and disturbingly by the grotesquely evil false preacher David in the penultimate episode. The first words uttered by Ellie’s mother to the leader of the Fireflies, whom she gives her daughter to, is a noble lie, as are the final words by Joel to Ellie at the series’ conclusion. All are motivated by fundamentally disordered loves.
In the documentary Zizek!, the Slovenian philosopher says: “Love, for me, is an extremely violent act. Love is not ‘I love you all.’ Love means I pick out something … a fragile individual person. … I say, ‘I love you more than anything else.’ In this quite formal sense, love is evil.” This is the vision of love presented repeatedly in The Last of Us. Such disordered affections do not exist only in the world of zombie fictions and do not deserve to be called love.
Ellie and Sam are both great fans of a comic book featuring the tag line “Endure and Survive.” It is because the flawed characters of The Last of Us despair of enduring and surviving without the objects of their disordered affections that they cannot actually will the good of others in their own lives and cannot ultimately come to terms with the zombie threat in their own world. While there are often moments of genuine affection between characters, that affection becomes all-consuming, superseding the needs of all others within their world and, paradoxically, the moral agency and responsibility of the objects of their own disordered affections.
In a world in which any genuine faith in a transcendent God is absent, true love that “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Cor. 13:7) cannot prevail. Early in the series, a stranger approaches Joel asking if he is feeling lost. Joel threatens the stranger saying, “If you say look for the light, I’ll bust your jaw.” The final episode, titled “Look for the Light,” only teases its audience, for the light is never sought. The Last of Us presents us with a terrifying vision—one of a world of wounded, vulnerable, and violent people unwilling or unable to see the true light that gives light to every man coming into the world (John 1:9). It’s technically accomplished in many ways despite its flaws, but spending 10 hours in it, when there are now more entertainment options than ever, seems ill advised as it offers no hope, only a severe lesson.