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The Last of Us – a show that surprised and challenged audiences, even those who had played the game

Warning: this article contains spoilers

The first season of HBO’s The Last of Us has come to an end. The TV adaptation of a hit game was a raging success with 8.2 million tuning in to HBO’s streaming platform for the finale – impressive considering it aired during the Oscars.

Despite its success, the show has received criticism for lacking the action of the original game. Adapting anything is a difficult feat but turning a game into a linear narrative for the screen is more so.

We come to stories, and especially adaptations, with a lot of expectations based on what we know. With The Last of Us, people who had played the game knew the story and those who hadn’t came to the show with ideas about video games, zombie narratives and post-apocalyptic stories.

Psychological theories of curiosity broadly suggest that we’re drawn to novel, ambiguous stimuli and that we derive pleasure from successfully interpreting them.

The more novel or ambiguous a narrative is, the more challenging, and therefore pleasurable, it is to infer what will happen by drawing on our expectations, experiences and narrative understanding.

Over its nine episodes, the first season has managed to dash a lot of the expectations both fans of the game and newcomers had of The Last of Us. The writers have achieved this through clever adaptation that deftly mixes fidelity to the original with thoughtful and unexpected additions to the story.

An ambiguous world

Set in a post-apocalyptic 2023, The Last of Us presents a world that’s been ravaged by a pandemic caused by a fungus called “cordyceps” (terrifyingly, a real fungus), which turns its hosts into violent zombie-like creatures whose only goal is to spread the infection. The story follows Joel, a smuggler, and Ellie, a feisty teenager who is immune, as they travel across the country to a militant group of revolutionaries called the Fireflies who hope to synthesise a vaccine.

The Last of Us already offers up a lot of ambiguity, which encourages audiences to try and imagine what the rest of the world outside of the story might look like. We are shown Joel’s story in the first days of the pandemic in 2003 before being thrust into the thick of it in 2023.

Audiences can infer what has happened through shots of crumbling cities and overgrown environments. We get a sense of how humanity has changed through the behaviours and attitudes of the characters.

We are never told, but we understand, how cordyceps has spread and changed in 20 years, how the ruling martial authority Fedra (Federal Disaster Response Agency) has coped in maintaining order and how the Fireflies have risen in response.

Amid this chaotic world, ambiguous characters are born. It’s a world where the monsters are inherently bad, but where the people could be the best or worst examples of humanity. As such, no one can be trusted.

For instance, in one episode Joel and Ellie are surrounded by armed individuals on horseback. You can see their minds are reeling with the same questions we might have: who are these people and what are their intentions? Friend or foe? We have seen them in this situation a handful of times at this point and it’s ended in gunfire and death. However, the show turns expectations on their head as these people are revealed to be friends.

New additions

While some events are fairly faithful to the game’s story, the writers have played with other aspects to create intrigue for those who love the game.

The most distinct of these is episode three’s (Long, Long Time) adaptation of Bill and Frank, a paranoid survivalist and an artist who form a romantic relationship. This relationship is largely implied in the game but deftly explored in the show. While some of the stories are similar to the events of the game, a lot of the narrative is new.

In the game, Frank is dead by the time players meet Bill, so there’s an expectation of his death in the series. However, the specific nature of their relationship differs greatly.

The game portrays a much more sour state of affairs than the episode, which is an unexpectedly moving piece of TV in a show about a bleak, post-apocalyptic world. Players of the game are expecting Frank to die but they see moments that differ from what they know, such as Bill’s close brush with death or the myriad arguments and loving moments between the two.

A man in wheelchair talks to a man on a sofa.
The relationship between Bill and Frank is fleshed out in the series where it is merely alluded to in the game. Liane Hentscher/HBO

The ending ultimately subverts expectations offered by the game, portraying a different relationship and different outcomes. In the series, they are still in love. When Frank chooses death in the face of a terminal disease, Bill decides to join him. They die in their sleep, in each other’s arms. In the end, Joel and Ellie never meet with Bill as they do in the game.

Through this episode, HBO’s The Last of Us emphasises to audiences that this is a different story and expectations informed by the game will not be enough.

The Last of Us, therefore, offers all audiences something new to grapple with. It tells its tumultuous story ambiguously, inviting and teasing the audience to read between the lines.

For a show about a “zombie” apocalypse that was adapted from a video game it certainly has made audiences question all sorts of expectations they came to the show with. It has left many pleasantly surprised as it engaged and challenged viewers emotionally and mentally.

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