Experiencing The Last of Us never gets any easier. It’s a painful, heartbreaking story that might feel gratuitous if it wasn’t so devastatingly good. Of course, the difficulty involved with balancing so much grief with a storytelling necessity for actual payoff is a huge reason why the game was so beloved, but it’s not a task so easily accomplished. That’s why, as with any adaptation of an iconic video game, fans were likely terrified of a live-action series that would fumble the chance to convey this unicorn act to a wider audience. Luckily for them, HBO’s revamped take on Naughty Dog’s 2013 classic hits all the same marks as its predecessor in a shockingly faithful premiere episode that even manages to improve on a few key moments in the franchise’s lore.
The series’ first 80-minutes are essentially broken up into two segments – a 20-minute prologue detailing Outbreak Day and the origins of the Cordyceps takeover, followed by a proper hour that introduces viewers to the show’s post-apocalyptic world and its grungy cast of characters. Truthfully, it’s hard to remember the last time a major adaptation converted its source material from format-to-format with such pinpoint precision. The story beats are all almost exactly the same, with the episode only straying from what previously existed in brief efforts to expand upon what fans were already expecting. Normally, a word-for-word translation could prove costly for a series of this caliber, but The Last of Us is, quite frankly, not normal.
Perhaps it’s because the video game previously existed as a somewhat cinematic experience, but the show’s surprising method of sticking to what works is admirable for multiple reasons. The obvious positive is that The Last of Us is still The Last of Us, and not an entirely new tale riding the original’s credibility. Those who played the games and loved them will be thrilled to see certain scenes play out exactly as they did on their PlayStations nearly a decade ago; those who are witnessing this story for the first time can take comfort in the fact they’re not “missing” anything the former group has raved about for years. As mentioned before, The Last of Us is special in large part because of its emotional tight-rope act, and series creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin clearly don’t want to mess with that wildly effective formula.
Both Mazin and Druckmann stated before the series premiered that there would be new elements and expanded segments throughout the story’s retelling, and the colossal first episode wastes no time in proving this to be true. Viewers are quickly treated to a 1960s cold open explaining the science behind Cordyceps, and a much longer tenure with Nico Parker’s Sarah and the pre-apocalypse Miller family. Thankfully, neither of these bits wear out their welcome and actually end up serving the overall plot rather well. Parker is so likable in her elongated stint on the show that Sarah’s ultimate demise becomes all-the-more tear-jerking, while the eventual collapse of society is made far more upsetting after an incredibly stressful sequence involving the Miller’s neighbors that will likely qualify as one of the most tensity-filled television scenes of the year.
Among the show’s greatest achievements, thus far, is how successful it is at conveying the brutality of The Last of Us without most of the gut-wrenching action. This is accredited mostly to the brilliance of the cast. Pedro Pascal‘s Joel and Anna Torv‘s Tess are more delicate than ever before, stripped of their near-superhuman survival abilities in a slightly more realistic version of the apocalypse than the game was allowed to portray. As such, the series is forced to show their capabilities through smaller moments, leaning heavily on the dramatic aspects of the story, and both performers are adept at meeting the challenge. Bella Ramsey, the biggest question mark leading into the series’ premiere, is outstanding. The most important part of bringing existing characters to life is capturing their essence, which they have in spades. The same goes for Gabriel Luna as Tommy, and, obviously, Merle Dandridge‘s Marlene.
All-in-all, it would appear that HBO has a bona fide hit on their hands. The Last of Us recaptures magic in a bottle, mixing sorrowful, awe-inducing set pieces with the damaging beauty of the human condition, and finally revealing to the greater world why they should be so invested in the journey of Joel and Ellie. The premiere does an excellent job of pacing itself through its own expository chapter and leaves off on an intriguing-enough note that promises a thrill ride when viewers return next week. If the first episode is any indication, newcomers to the franchise are in for a treat, and longtime fans should be excited about what they already know comes next.