‘The Last of Us’ pilot review: Us and Them, over and over again

Fans of the hit video game should be delighted, but will the deliberate start to HBO’s adaptation draw in new viewers?

Shoumik Hassin
Published : 17 Jan 2023, 01:48 PM
Updated : 17 Jan 2023, 01:48 PM

This review contains mild spoilers for the first episode of HBO’s The Last of Us.

Two men and a teenage girl are in a car, trying to outrun the apocalypse. A family stranded on the road waves to them to stop. Tommy (Gabriel Luna) slows down. Joel (Pedro Pascal from The Mandalorian) asks him what he’s doing.

“[They’ve] got a kid, Joel,” Tommy says.

“So do we,” says Joel. “Keep driving.”

Joel’s daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) watches, stunned, as they drive away.

The Last of Us, HBO’s major production based on the mega-hit video game, starts dark. Our main man Joel isn’t easy to like. Midway through the pilot episode his partner Tess (Anna Torv) will compare him to Clint Eastwood - a hard man with hard principles. The most important of these principles? There’s ‘us’ and there’s ‘them’. He’ll do anything for us, but he has no patience for them.

The Last of Us is about where we decide to draw that dividing line and what the consequences are.

It might take new viewers a while to grasp that because there's a whole lot going on. The show stays faithful to its source material, which showrunner Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) touts as the ‘the greatest story in video games’, but the modern single-player game doesn’t translate seamlessly to the ensemble world of prestige TV.

And the pilot of The Last of Us is prestige TV through and through. Running an indulgent 81 minutes, the show takes its time to set up a grand post-apocalyptic world, ambitious ideas, and grounded characters. It has a heck of a budget on it too, if the production design and number of extras is anything to go by. HBO is clearly hoping their gamble on making the ‘best video game adaptation ever’ (a low bar, but a good marketing hook if you can get it) will pay off.     

But some things are lost in translation. The original game, by its very nature, is welded to Joel, even when it looks through the eyes of others. The show can’t be that narrow, so it broadens its view. We jump from character to character, getting to know the unusual setting and its intriguing science fiction circumstances. In fact, for close to half the episode’s runtime, Joel isn’t even the character we’re following.

Fans of the game are likely to lap it up. It adds even greater depth and texture to a story they already love. Those new to it are likely to have a tougher time with the looser focus.

There are, however, good things to grab their attention. After all that time inside the Mando helmet, it’s a relief to see Pedro Pascal actually getting to do things with his face. He’s good at it too! His natural warmth as a performer cuts against Joel's harshness in a way that seems additive instead of destructive. And Pascal’s aided by a trio of excellent scene partners in Torv, Parker, and Bella Ramsey. Ramsay, playing her character a bit rougher than I expected, is particularly charismatic.

In addition to budget, the production is also rich in care and detail. One particular special effect, practical as far as I could tell, elicited a gasp of disgusted delight. The Walking Dead, the most popular recent entry in the TV post-apocalypse, often struggled to provide enough substance to chew on. The story in The Last of Us might be meat and potatoes at this point, but it’s solid. The quality of the set design, the nuance of the cinematography, and the endearingly twangy soundtrack, are just gravy.

The pacing worries me though. The series is taking a slow and steady approach, which I rather like. But one of my favourite shows of last year was Andor, which many fans of Star Wars found desperately dull. I hope The Last of Us doesn’t suffer the same fate. I’m not the game’s biggest fan, but I’m certain a broader audience will appreciate where its story goes.

All in all, if the final scene of the first episode leaves you itching for more, The Last of Us will probably go down a treat. But if you find your attention wandering, hang on for a couple more episodes. There’s more life in this thing than you might expect.

This article is a part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective. 

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher