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 devastated 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 to the infection, finally wrapped up their cross-country journey to a medical center 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 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 it had been looking forward to for quite some time. As someone who doesn’t usually play games that require shooting things and avoids most horrors, a TV show seemed like the perfect way 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. He knew even before he started playing “The Last of Us Part 1” how the game ended and that the ending was divisive. But what he didn’t 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 do you think of the ending?
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 is the question of sacrifice: should a person give their life if it means possibly saving humanity? And then there are the personal questions, as Joel, in an effort to protect Ellie, proceeds to lie to her about the surgery. His inability to be honest with Ellie, to let her know what actions he took to save her life, always made him 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 play as Joel and see the world from his perspective. We may not always agree with Joel’s actions, but we have the illusion of controlling 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 example, how his relationship with Ellie is awakening his faith in humanity. Joel has never healed from the trauma of losing his daughter, and Ellie shows him that it’s possible to be close to others again.
This creates a feeling of protection for the player. We care about Ellie. We want to safeguard it. And I think that’s why, in my initial review of the game in 2013, I wrote that she felt hopeful, despite the harshness of the world. In a sense, her message was one of longing, of desperately wanting to be able to connect with another human being. With that emotional backdrop, I felt, in the game, that one should protect Ellie above all costs.
What surprised me is how differently I would feel watching it play out as a TV episode. I think Lorraine Ali, one of the television critics for The Times, summed it up pretty succinctly in her review:
“As Joel told Ellie before she entered the hospital where a team secretly planned to dissect her: ‘Maybe there’s nothing wrong out there, but until now, there’s always been something wrong out there… We don’t have to do this. I want you to know that.’ She replies, ‘After all I’ve done. It can’t be for nothing. Oh, but it will be, Ellie.
During the last eight episodes, “The Last of Us” showed us the cruelty of its world. We saw humanity devastated and optimism felt like an endangered emotion. We didn’t just see Joel’s perspective. We saw a wider wide-angle lens, and while I don’t think this means the ending is good or bad per se, I do think it made Joel’s decision to protect Ellie, rather than try to save the world, more difficult. . to deal with
You’ve been playing the game more recently and you said you felt like the ending hit differently in the series. How is that?
Brown: As 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 rather than potentially save the rest of the world. Even him lying to Ellie about what happened when she asks Joel to swear that she’s telling the truth is awkward to watch, but you accept it and hope they can find some happiness together afterwards.
But seeing Joel in the episode is much harder to swallow.
The show has been less subtle in its build-up to the finale about making a point about the complicated depths of love. Episode 3, with the story of Bill and Frank, introduces this idea that there’s only one person in the world worth saving because you love them. Kathleen, the Kansas City rebel leader, was willing to risk the entire city to avenge her brother. You see Ellie’s mother, Anna, in the opening moments of the finale lying to Marlene about the timing of her infection because she chooses Ellie’s life over everyone else’s safety. These are all moments that don’t exist in the game, but foreshadow Joel’s final decision.
On the show, it’s much easier to see Joel’s actions as horrible because it feels so much more abrupt. You’ve always been aware that you’re not Joel, so the lack of empathy kind of twists the meaning of the ending a bit. Now, Ellie’s desperation to believe Joel, even though she clearly knows he isn’t telling her the truth, is much more heartbreaking and her relationship is somewhat difficult to support. The future looks bleak.
It’s also been interesting to see how the response to the ending has been divisive among those who just followed the TV series. You mentioned Lorraine’s review, but we also know colleagues who loved the ending. summaries and reviews of different points of sale are also split.
Martha: It’s interesting to me how personal the ending can feel. As a single person with no children, I think that informs my perspective. Maybe it’s a little easier for me to say, “The right thing to do is try to save humanity.” But I remember when I spoke to Neil Druckmann, the game’s writer and co-creator of the series, he was very convinced that he felt Joel was making the right decision. 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 find myself in the same situation, I hope I can do what Joel did.”
However, Druckmann added that he probably would have forgiven 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 in everything else, I hope to do the same to save my son.”
I also felt that the show made it more clear what Ellie would want. In the game, as someone who controls Joel, you make his perspective your own. But I felt that the show worked harder to show us Ellie’s view of the situation, and seemed to imply that she was willing to sacrifice herself because she had experienced so much loss and heartbreak and hoped to prevent others from feeling those feelings.
Of course, there is no guarantee that surgery and the vaccine will work. I remember feeling like in the game, “We have to save Ellie because there’s no guarantee this will work.” In interactive entertainment, we feel like puppeteers, as if we are in dialogue with the character we are controlling. We see the world through his eyes, and his emotions become ours. I think the ending, which was already divisive, becomes more on TV because we’re one step further.
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.