The midpoint of The Last Of Us’ nine-episode first season technically landed somewhere in the middle of episode five, but let’s call it halfway for the sake of convenience. Before the show began airing, we wondered whether it could turn out to be TV’s best video game adaptation and whether you should play the game before watching it. The answer to the first question is already a yes, and it’s not even close. The second question is still up for debate, but the show has at least demonstrated that it’s not afraid to deviate from the game’s story when it makes sense for the adaptation. That’s been fun for both gamers and newbies.
In terms of popularity, it’s pretty clear HBO has a hit on its hands. Ratings have steadily gone up with each new episode, from 4.7 million viewers tuning for the premiere to 7.5 million for last week’s fourth episode. We don’t have the figures yet for the fifth, so we’ll have to wait and see if the network’s strategy of an early release on Friday to avoid competition with the Super Bowl paid off. Ratings aren’t the only measure of success we can point to, though. The show has been well received by critics, including here at The A.V. Club. It’s also taken over social media, trending on Twitter every Sunday night, and often during the week too. And this past Saturday night it achieved another pop-culture milestone—an SNL parody featuring The Last Of Us star Pedro Pascal (who was guest hosting for the night).
The first season has not been without controversy, though. Episode three, “Long, Long Time,” drew effusive praise from critics and viewers for its standalone love story between two men (played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett) who build a life together in the middle of the fungapocalypse. While many appreciated the heartfelt, emotional story (which was a departure from the game) there were closed-minded objections from the usual homophobic corners and attempts to review bomb the episode on IMDb and other sites. Nevertheless, the episode remains a high point of the season that the show will have to work hard to top.
“Long, Long Time” is a good example of one of the things The Last Of Us has been doing well. The casting has been masterfully calibrated, first in pairing Pascal and Bella Ramsey as Joel and Ellie, then bringing on guest stars like Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett to play Bill and Frank. It’s a sign that showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann (who also created the game) care enough about these characters and fans of the game to get them right. The response to Melanie Lynskey as resistance leader Kathleen in episode four, a character who wasn’t in the game, was more mixed (she directly addressed some of the criticism herself on Twitter), but her performance in the second of her two episodes managed to win over some skeptics. The key to Kathleen—and many of the other characters as well—is considering what Mazin and Druckmann had in mind when they cast the role, because it’s never arbitrary.
The Last Of Us is determined not to be just another zombie show set in the aftermath of a fungal plague (although it is partly that); it’s a show about love, longing, and human connections. While other shows with similar premises (looking at you, The Walking Dead) have stripped away the humanity of their characters bit by bit, The Last Of Us is about them finding it again. In the game, players have to fight nameless human bad guys as often as the infected. But on the show we are forced to look into the eyes of the antagonists and know them. In episode four Joel and Ellie are ambushed in their truck and come up against a young man named Bryan crying and asking for his mother (Joel deals with him off screen). Then there’s Lynskey’s Kathleen, who isn’t just evil for the sake of being a villain. She has a sociopathic streak, for sure, but it’s grown out of the pain of losing her brother. Good and bad are murky concepts in this world, but at least we can say that there is some good in it.
In the most recent episode, “Endure And Survive,” we saw what it looks like when the character elements intersect with some truly epic action scenes. The conventions of a genre show still come into play from time to time. In between the quiet character moments, introspection, and ethical dilemmas fans expect to see the heroes kick some ass. That’s exactly what we got in the last 15 minutes of “Endure And Survive,” with a horde of infected bursting from the ground and the first introduction of a bloater (the oldest and largest variety of infected monster in the game), the final boss of the Kansas City level. It was almost a mirror parallel of a big moment from another high-profile HBO genre series, Game Of Thrones, in which the Night King reanimated all the dead soldiers on a battlefield. Zombies gonna zombie, even in prestige TV shows. Obviously, The Last Of Us is very different from Game Of Thrones, but there’s certainly some overlap in the fandoms, and HBO seems to be taking that into account.
As we head into the back stretch of season one with the next four episodes, we’re looking for more of that mix of action and storytelling. The growing relationship between Joel and Ellie has been informed so far by all of the other characters we’ve met—Bill and Frank, Henry and Sam, even Tess and Kathleen to some extent. That’s bound to be tested at some point, and we’re looking forward to seeing how. Although the show is ostensibly serialized, it leans into the episodic nature of the game, which is told in chapters. Each new destination brings Joel and Ellie closer to each other, and to the explosive end of their journey together. We’re already fully on board, and planning to follow them every step of the way.