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REVIEW: ‘The Last of Us’ reverberates pandemic paranoia with fungi-infected zombies

By Jerald Uy Published Jan 16, 2023 6:17 pm

Nearly a decade after it was released as a video game, the story of The Last of Us could not come at a better time, dropping its first episode (and a horde of dead bodies) on HBO GO, during Year 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic. The present-day setting of the post-apocalyptic series is likewise in 2023, albeit in a world where a fungal outbreak has destroyed modern civilization.

Right off the bat, it explains the cause of the impending outbreak. In 1968, a scientist tells on television that as the climate gets warmer, it is possible that fungi could mutate and make humans their undead marionettes, much like how some fungi do with ants. A quick search online would also yield a NatGeo documentary on it, showing that the show’s premise is based on facts. 

At the get-go, viewers would no longer be blindsided, which is already a step ahead of the 11 seasons of The Walking Dead and its spinoffs that left some fans still clueless and frustrated. The scientist tells the viewers that there are no preventatives, treatments, or cures when fungi mutate and burrow in human brains—or aren’t there?

After the exposition, it takes us to 2003, where single parent Joel Miller (The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal) celebrates his birthday with his daughter Sarah (Dumbo’s Nico Parker) in Austin, Texas but had to bail out his brother Tommy (Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Gabriel Luna) from jail. This was a superficial change to the setting in the video game, which was in 2013. Still, 2003 was the year when a heat wave killed hundreds of people in Paris and London, later attributed to global warming. The gap between 1968 and 2003 also implies how the world was all too quiet about the impending destruction of civilization due to climate change.

Then comes the outbreak. It’s 12 minutes of non-stop over-the-shoulder chaos as the family of three attempts to escape Austin. The stunning cinematography takes us along the Millers’ ride at the edge of death from the infested streets to a crashing aircraft. It was as cinematic as TV streaming got.  

This is no longer spoiler territory for those who followed and played the nine-year-old video game: A soldier gets orders to kill the survivors, mortally wounding Sarah, inevitably changing the soft-hearted father for good.

Told chronologically, the world-building of the series is easy-to-follow. After 20 years, we then see Joel as a hardened survivor, tapped to smuggle Ellie (Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey) out of a militaristic quarantine zone so he could find his brother. If the resistance group Fireflies are to be believed, the 14-year-old might be the key to finding the cure for the outbreak.  

Episode 1 of The Last of Us reverberates the paranoia and the evil that we have witnessed during the pandemic. Zombie stories, after all, are more about the flaws of humanity in extreme conditions. It is fear itself that causes more problems than metaphorical and literal monstrous creatures. 

Pascal knows the assignment and there’s nothing to nitpick with his acting. Post-Game of Thrones, he has wowed pop culture fans in Disney+ Star Wars series The Mandalorian and Netflix’s Narcos. I hope, though, to forget he is in Wonder Woman 1984, but I digress. The Chilean-American actor is the perfect casting for Joel, a man who has lost his everything but might find something worth living for in Ellie.  

Ramsey, another Game of Thrones alum, still gives the stern and unrelenting vibe of Lyanna Mormont in the first episode. The young English actress’s American accent is notably perfect. We still have to see more of her character as the central duo traverses the US in the next episodes.

All in all, the pilot episode of The Last of Us is a fine blend of intense action and soap opera that will make fans of the video game and the zombie genre satisfied. Who says zombie shows are dying? After laying the groundwork, the stage is set. We are thrilled to follow Joel and Ellie in the next eight episodes of The Last of Us. 

The first episode of The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO GO. New episodes drop every Monday.