Home » ‘The Last of Us’ Review – Naughty Dog’s Opus Comes to Life

‘The Last of Us’ Review – Naughty Dog’s Opus Comes to Life

by Ron Hilliard
Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey star as Joel Miller and Ellie in post-apocalyptic survival gear on the official poster for THE LAST OF US HBO series.

When Naughty Dog initially released The Last of Us in 2013, it was lightning in a bottle for the gaming industry. From the first moments of starting the game, you knew this was something different. The premise itself was nothing new; pop culture was already dominated by zombie stories that same year – World War Z, Warm Bodies, and The Walking Dead, to name a few. So what made The Last of Us stand out? Its radical cinematic presentation combined with the rigorous and immersive survival-horror mechanics, as well as its unique twist on the zombie trope. The game has sold millions of copies, charted many best of all time lists, and for better or worse shifted the gaming industry’s direction for nearly a decade. Now, Neil Druckmann, creative director/writer of both games, and co-writer Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) hope to recapture that magic with The Last of Us on HBO.

Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian) is no stranger to the “dad-core” genre, and effortlessly embodies the beloved character of Joel Miller. It may take some time for you to fully see him as Joel if you’re used to the games, but by the end of this first season, it’s undeniable that he’s fantastic in the role. Joel is a cynical man living in a post-apocalyptic world after having lost his daughter. He’s feared by many and loved by fewer. He’s gruff, resourceful, and not above resorting to violence to survive. Pascal succeeds in portraying all of this perfectly while still making the role his own.

Opposite Pascal is Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones) as Ellie, a brash 14-year-old girl who discovers she’s immune to Cordyceps, the mycelial virus that has devastated Earth’s population. Ramsey is incredibly dynamic as Ellie; they play her humor and wonders at the open world well, also giving weight to the character during her more vulnerable, emotional moments. Supporting our main duo in the opening episodes are the charismatic Gabriel Luna (Terminator: Dark Fate), who plays Tommy, Joel’s younger brother, and the always great Anna Torv (Fringe) as Tess, Joel’s lover. The two do an exceptional job playing off Pedro Pascal and their characters provide key insight into who Joel was before and after the pandemic started.

With an episodic series format on HBO, Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have managed to expand the scope of The Last of Us in clever ways with their writing. Often vignettes will be inserted into episodes highlighting aspects of the story previously unseen by viewers and gamers alike. These can comprise of supplementary information about the outbreak itself, or a look at a past event that has brought a character to where they are now. One such expansion from the cast is Bill (Nick Offerman), a paranoid survivalist who plays an essential part of Joel and Ellie’s journey in the game. Where before his past was elucidated by the player making their way through the level, speaking with Bill and finding fragments of his story via clues, here the show elects to dedicate a considerable amount of time unraveling his past.

Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller inspects a dark and decaying hallway with infected roots all over the walls in THE LAST OF US HBO series.
Pedro Pascal in ‘The Last of Us’ courtesy of HBO

Narrative deviations from the video game in HBO’s The Last of Us can be unexpected, yet quite effective. With Bill’s origin in the show, it endears the audience to him and his partner, Frank (Murray Bartlett), prior to our leads meeting them. Smart changes like this elevate as well as expand on the material being adapted in a way that the game simply didn’t have time for. Other new additions include original characters like Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), the leader of a militant revolutionary group in Kansas City, and how she intersects with Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard). Players of the game will of course remember these two brothers who come upon Ellie and Joel while also trying to escape the city. If you can believe it, Johnson and Woodward give the characters even more depth than in the game, leading to some very heart-wrenching and satisfying storytelling.

This newly invented portion of the plot with Kathleen, Henry, and Sam provides the middle arc of the season with some much-needed and well-directed video game-level-like action. These elements are also preoccupied with the same questions that Neil Druckmann himself was asking in 2020’s The Last of Us Part II. What does it take to survive? What is the nature of revenge – is it justice? Self-serving? How far is too far? All of these questions could have been answered in a multitude of ways. However, in HBO’s The Last of Us, unlike with the critically-acclaimed Part II, Druckmann paints too hard a stroke in one direction, losing the potential nuance regarding the revolutionaries and reducing them to the same one-note characters that the hunters from the original game were.

The detailed locations and gorgeous visuals of the original game are incomparable. From dilapidated and flooded subway stations to eerie and overgrown metropolitan areas, these images communicated to the player just how far modern civilization had collapsed. Unlike many video game adaptations, HBO’s The Last of Us manages to effectively recapture the aesthetics of the source material – most of the time. We follow Joel and Ellie as they wade through murky green water and travel through crumbling buildings. The show’s set design and direction gives much of the same look and tense feelings as the game. Any fan will appreciate this. Unfortunately, there are times when the HBO series dips in visual quality. The lighting can often be flat and environments can be stark in cases where the game was the opposite. Admittedly, these instances may merely be due to the restraints of adapting a vast game into live-action.

Bella Ramsey as Ellie sits on green grass inside a torn down building while underneath a bright ray of sunlight as she talks to Tess played by Anna Torv in THE LAST OF US HBO series.
Bella Ramsey & Anna Torv in ‘The Last of Us’ courtesy of HBO

What did translate effortlessly from game to show was the emotional core of the narrative. At its heart, The Last of Us is about Joel and Ellie finding a home within each other, finding a respite from the harsh cruelty of the hopeless world by protecting and caring for one another. It’s simply beautiful. It’s why the game resonated so deeply with millions around the world. With the writing from the game already so strong, as cinematic as it gets, and the series being written by its original creator and the mind behind the nail-biting Chernobyl, it should come as no surprise that HBO’s The Last of Us is just as moving. Perhaps even more so in some respects, as the show allows the story more time to breathe in certain parts. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s performances are of course what really sell and give new life to it.

HBO’s The Last of Us series is one of the best examples of adaptation done right. While at times it doesn’t compare to the breadth or visuals of its namesake, it takes the story and finds many clever and powerful ways to elevate the material. In addition, original game composer Gustavo Santaolalla once again provides a touching score that bolsters the performances, saturating every scene with emotion. This is something that all adaptations should aim for but rarely do they try or succeed. Just like with the 2013 video game, the show forces the audience to reconcile their love for the characters vs. the morality of what actions they see unfold on screen. It’s powerful, bold, and will no doubt leave both new and old fans incredibly satisfied. Hopefully, this does well enough so Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin can return to adapt the sequel in a second season!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Last of Us premieres on HBO and HBO Max January 15!

Follow writer Ron Hilliard on Twitter: @darkmotifs


Anthony January 11, 2023 || 9:17 am - 9:17 am

I don’t believe any of what this guy is saying about the last of Us I mean the first thing out I noticed is that the daughter of Joel happens to be black so what we’re supposed to accept the fact that the black girl actually just dies just like every black person in every single movie from the ’80s up until now in the horror movies the first person to die in this has to be a black person and not just a black person but a little black girl at that and then we’re also supposed to buy the fact that this Hispanic dude fell in love with a black chick and had a black baby I’m not buying it unless she’s adopted because what happened to the mama and then also why is Joe Hispanic and also his brother Tommy why couldn’t they just stuck to the source material they had to be Hispanic we have to be so much of a work agenda that every single person that comes to the silver screen has to be of color and then who cares about Frank and the fact that he was gay and hung himself we’re supposed to care about the relationship between him and Bill come on son they could have did a better job than that and then Tess could have been normal beautiful not some ugly chick I give this TV show -5 Stars

Amber January 14, 2023 || 9:21 pm - 9:21 pm

zero punctuation = your opinion probably sucks

Fabiano January 17, 2023 || 7:14 am - 7:14 am

Your comment manages to be the most ridiculous thing I’ve read this year, and look, we’re on the 17th already!

Hugh January 17, 2023 || 10:33 am - 10:33 am

I think my remaining brain cells killed themselves after reading this

eric January 18, 2023 || 2:30 am - 2:30 am

I agree 100% with you. The game was shit also.

Heath Babayco February 2, 2023 || 5:48 am - 5:48 am

What game were you playing its amazing

beans January 19, 2023 || 8:40 am - 8:40 am

touch grass

Erik January 30, 2023 || 6:45 am - 6:45 am

I think this is a good point to bring up in conversation. Most of the characters we’ve seen so far have been changed a lot from the video game and the only characters, in my opinion, that look like the character in the game is Joel (Pedro Pascal) and maybe Bill (Nick Offerman). But hear me out, all of the amazing performances from the actors and actresses really outweighs the need for the TV shows characters to resemble the video games characters. The Last of Us is a great show overall!

Heath Babayco February 2, 2023 || 5:47 am - 5:47 am

And yet you havnt watch the show it is amazing stop negative crap so what if his daughter is black and so what if he married a black woman she died to sad it sucks and the actress who plays Tess is amzing too . Only prob I have with it they kill off good actors in each episode just lije game of thrones

Fraffl January 24, 2023 || 1:15 pm - 1:15 pm

While I enjoy the show a lot, I find it is too close to the game. It’s flat and distant at times and the characters lack depth. While this works when you actively play the game, watching it is often unsatisfying. It’s like watching a let’s play.
I agree that being true to the source is crucial, but giving the viewer a bit more to chew on would be nice. Episode 2 was missing so much, it was a lot of dungeon crawling and sterile conversations, the opening scene didn’t fire. Let’s hope this will get better.

Smart guy January 27, 2023 || 10:40 am - 10:40 am

Too close to the game? Shut your dumbass up

ve January 31, 2023 || 2:24 am - 2:24 am

Great review, I’m all in

Anonimus February 1, 2023 || 3:42 am - 3:42 am

“HBO’s The Last of Us series is one of the best examples of adaptation done right” – Well, then came episode 3. Woke, forced, useless, disgusting through the sex scene between two old men, who contribute nothing to the plot of the show, if from episodes 1 and 2 we had jumped straight to 4 we certainly would not have had any gaps uncovered in the story. Terrible! I’m afraid to watch episode 4 again so I won’t risk another disgusting woke mess to attack me.


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