I’m barely a minute into the premiere episode of HBO’s TV treatment for The Last of Us and I’m already uncomfortable. No one’s died yet, and no one’s speaking in a cringe-worthy Texas accent, but as two experts chat about the threats to human society from airborne illnesses, I realize that I’m not quite sure if I’m in the mood for this kind of fiction. Sadly, for much of the remaining episode, that feeling never quite went away and it still hasn’t. While The Last of Us is a well-made show that I’d recommend to fans of the games and otherwise, it should come with a heavy emphasis that, just like shows like Station Eleven or Craig Mazin’s much-lauded Chernobyl, the very real pandemic of COVID-19 doesn’t totally mix well with what’s on the screen. And no amount of Pedro Pascal can change that, at least for some of us.
The Last of Us, originally released for PS3 in 2013, remastered for PS4 in 2014, virtually remade for PS5 last year and now adapted to television format on HBO, follows the fallout of a fictional global pandemic that transforms people into literal monsters. Society is derailed and countless lives are lost in the process. The plot also tells the story of competing factions of humanity in the wake of the pandemic, some with ties to old-world governments, others entirely new, each on edge and ready to shoot bullets at one another. In both main entries to The Last of Us, as well as the show, the lines between good guys and bad guys blur frequently, but what is perfectly clear is that the world now sucks and a mysterious, incurable disease is what set all of this in motion.
In 2013 that premise could slot more easily into the realm of fantasy, back when many of us weren’t so labored with the fear of getting sick and numb to governments that would’ve preferred to ignore it while using military aggression to calm civil unrest over many of society’s pre-existing conditions.
I’ve played The Last of Us a good handful of times (and am currently replaying it, as well as running a first-time playthrough of Part II), but never before did I dread the plot’s opening moments like I did during the TV show. One of the most immediate changes that many will notice in the TV adaptation is that the pre-outbreak prologue is longer and takes place in a different time; in the show, it’s 2003 that the contagion hits, not 2013. But time changes aside, it’s still an expanded portrayal of a world that, in reality, we’ve only just started to return to.
As the first episode moves on, building up to the death of the main character’s daughter and the eventual 20-year flash forward, I found myself in a state of anxiety, remembering all of the fear and uncertainty of COVID (particularly in the early days of 2020), both the virus and the United States’ government criminally fraught response. I dreaded watching an amplified mirror-image rendition of our world slip into the chaos of a public health crisis mismanaged. I recognize that not everyone will make these types of associations, but given the world-changing gravity of the pandemic, it’s hard for me not to go there.
In reality, I remember seeing the truckloads of dead bodies just around the block from where I live. I remember and still grapple with the fear of at-risk relatives and friends, much like the very first victim in the TV show, possibly getting sick, soon to suffer and die. I remember how acute that fear was when we knew so little about COVID and how it spread. I experience anger at the military’s heavyhanded response in the show, but it is swiftly replaced by the anger felt when the Trump administration’s Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow lied to all of us, saying COVID was “contained,” when that same administration continued to show they were simply unfucking concerned with the specifics of what they were dealing with. I probably don’t need to repeat the fact that our very president suggested ingesting or injecting bleach as a cure for the disease, that we stop testing, and that it will all just “go away,” but yeah, that all happened. It wasn’t fiction.
The Last of Us in TV form feels closer to reality. In the video game the infection more easily drifts into background lore, a justification for why we’re moving our characters around all-too familiar monster obstacles that’ll send us to a checkpoint if we’re not careful. But whether it’s seeing real flesh and blood people on screen instead of, as showrunner Craig Mazin put it, “watching pixels die,” or subtle changes to the narrative that fill in more opportunity for human expression instead of times spent crafting smoke bombs out of video game objects I gathered with the triangle button, it all combines in the HBO show to make for an experience I’m unable to resist drawing painful parallels from. This is no fault of the show. I don’t particularly care for how “realistic” its portrayal is or is not. In fact, the emotions stirred by the show might be a testament to how evocative it is.
There’s a lot to appreciate about The Last of Us’ HBO adaptation, but I advise folks check in with themselves, before watching or recommending, and ask whether or not this particular story is something they want to spend time with at this particular moment in history.