Smart changes help The Last of Us succeed as a TV show

Two episodes in HBO’s The last of us, the show has already exceeded my high expectations. We still have a long way to go, but hopefully the studios are taking detailed notes because that’s how you make a faithful video game adaptation for the small screen.

It’s not all perfect, mind you. Like the game, the TV show occasionally stumbles and mimics the worst trends The Walking Dead. Action is surprisingly scarce and there are moments of unnecessary padding.

That said, I’m excited for the remaining seven episodes and (so far) deeply impressed by this stunning production, which goes to great lengths to stay as close to the game as possible.

Anyways, here are some thoughts on the first two episodes.

The mushroom change makes sense

Each episode starts with a flashback to before the fungal pandemic, where we learn a lot about Cordyceps fungus and the like. These sequences, especially the first one involving John Hannah’s Dr. Neuman, are cool and informative, but unnecessary. In the game, we learn details about the outbreak through conversations between Joel and Ellie, letters, and during interactions with strangers, all of which shape our understanding of the crisis. That way, we fall into this post-outbreak world blindfolded, and part of the fun comes from piecing together the mystery. Why are skyscrapers in Boston blown to pieces? Why is society divided into different factions? Why is everyone so damn upset?

The scenes with the scientists are exciting, but feel more like episode filler than significant elements of the story.

On a similar note, I dig the updates to the mushroom. For example, instead of spores, we get a mushroom network connecting the infected, which is as scary as it sounds. Octopus-like tendrils shoot out of an infected’s mouth and latch onto another victim – and yeah, it’s weird as hell.

A stellar prologue sets the story in motion

Episode One started with a bang and added minor details to the story. We get to know Joel’s daughter Sarah in more detail, making her death even harder to watch, and we witness the catastrophic events of 2003 (changed from 2013) on a grander scale – that plane crash was epic. Director Craig Mazin sticks closely to the game, but offers a few visual flourishes that make the sequence more cinematic than a PS4 scene. Sometimes I would press X, but that’s probably a result of muscle memory.

Where Episode 1 Succeeded and Failed

The remaining episode was a run full of long-winded exposition and a few unnecessary changes. Instead of sticking with Joel, Mazin occasionally turns to follow Tess on her misadventures and even goes to Marlene and Ellie for a spell. Again, what made the game unique was how players were thrown into a strange world, seen through Joel’s eyes. We learn and discover things as he does, an approach that makes each new detail feel more critical. The bit with Marlene and Ellie in the TV show reveals essential information to the audience (Ellie is the cure) and leaves Joel in the dust running to catch up. It feels like a mistake, but maybe I’m overthinking it.

Mazin and Druckmann also changed specific action beats. In the game, before you meet Ellie, Joel, Tess and Marlene, avoid a few FEDRA guards. This sequence highlights the totalitarian nature of the militant group and Joel’s effectiveness as a fighter. In the show, he arrives to find Marlene wounded and surrounded by dead bodies. I understand that you can’t have TV characters running around throwing bricks and bottles and wasting time moving trash cans into usable positions. Still, I’d much rather see our heroes engage in combat than spend 20 minutes listening to a mycologist explain what we already know.

In the TV show, Marlene also says goodbye to Joel with this silly line: “Don’t do this.” Is the show trying to downplay Joel’s bad words? In the game, she asks Tess and Joel to escort Ellie to the Capitol building, where she will meet up with a crew of Fireflies. Joel reluctantly agrees and leaves with Ellie, while Tess goes with Marlene to verify a weapons cache. Everyone understands their role without further provocation. The “Don’t f*** this up” line makes Joel seem like an untrustworthy idiot. Has he messed up before? If so, why does she want him to take on this crucial task?

Moments later, Joel beats the crap out of a FEDRA guard, an action Ellie seems to appreciate. I dug this moment and how Ellie seemed to love her new friend.

Where Episode 2 Succeeded and Failed

The second episode does a better job of balancing drama and action. We get our first look at the infected – a terrifying sight – huddled together near a building. Joel, Tess and Ellie walk through a museum and don’t slow down long enough to search for artifacts! Come on guys! You will miss the random bullets later in the show.

We then get a grand sequence with our first few clickers. The design of these suckers is incredible – they look exactly like their video game counterparts, but are somehow scarier. I like the lack of infected screen time. Too many and they become redundant. These dangerous organisms should appear sparingly and require a lot of effort to remove.

The series sidesteps a set piece involving a skyscraper and condenses two sequences into one. Here, Marlene gets sick fighting a clicker, and Joel and Ellie survive on their teeth. I can’t tell you how incredible this whole sequence was. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey were both very effective here. The creature design was excellent, while the atmosphere, lighting and score were perfect.

Also thanks to the VFX team for their rendering of Boston. The last of us The TV show looks exactly like the game, down to the vegetation that grows on the buildings.

The only other noticeable change was Tess’s death. She dies off-screen in the game after holding off some FEDRA soldiers. The show gives her a more noble death and allows her to detonate a group of infected just as she’s about to turn. It doesn’t change the story in any way, but again, there’s something eerie about hearing Tess scream off-screen from Joel’s perspective and then seeing the aftermath.

Also, if you can lure a bunch of infected into a single room and blow them up, why is this pandemic still a thing? I had the same problems with The Walking Deadwhere zombies acted dumber than a box of matches, but our heroes still couldn’t outwit them.

Does not matter. Most of my criticisms are minor rants. I dig the show overall and am invested despite already knowing where it’s all going. Is that what it was for Game of Thrones book readers during the first four or five seasons of the TV series?

Excellent casting

The last of us would only work if Joel and Ellie were handled with care. Fortunately, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey deliver. Neither of them look like their video game counterparts, but they channel their personalities and the pair of actors show incredible chemistry that will be fun to watch over the next few months.

Next week’s episode introduces Bill, played by Nick Offerman, who is about as perfect casting as I can remember. Then again, I’m just glad it’s not Mark Wahlberg.

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