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27 January 2023

How The Last of Us turns the apocalypse into mindless entertainment

The latest show to profit from our obsession with dystopia reveals the limits of the genre.

By Gavin Jacobson

How long would I be able to keep my two-year-old son alive in the aftermath of a world-ending catastrophe? In the stupefying realm of pure disaster, would I think to do something so seemingly trivial – as does the father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – as to attach a motorcycle mirror to our cart to spot danger behind us? Could I fix that cart if one of its wheels broke? I could shoot at a bandit who held a knife to my child’s throat, but, lacking any marksmanship, I would likely miss.

Unlike Joel, he antihero of The Last of Us, I would lack the skills, and mettle, to repel attacks and traverse the blasted terrain before us. Apocalypse as revelation: I am my son’s guide and guardian for only as long as our fragile world allows me to be.

[See also: The Passenger: The phantom world of Cormac McCarthy]

Set in the aftermath of a fungal pandemic that turns people into flesh-eating zombies, The Last of Us focuses on Joel (Pedro Pascal), who is tasked with escorting a young girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsey), out of a militarised Quarantine Zone in Boston and across the cauterised wasteland of post-apocalypse America. The show’s origins as a bestselling videogame are evident in the narrative structure of the first two episodes, where each scene – the abandoned hotel, the “clicker”-infested museum – represents a new level that the protagonists must complete.

The script, too, often sounds like the ersatz mechanical dialogue spoken by non-player characters in computer games, and the entire premise – spiriting a girl, and possibly the saviour of humanity, to safety – rests on familiar tropes of the dystopian-survivalist genre. The motto of those who resist the Quarantine Zone is: “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light” – a message sufficiently trite to have quickly worked its way into the culture, appearing on everything from online fan art to London Underground noticeboards.

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Part of an incessant glut of remakes, adaptations and sequels, The Last of Us is not only another symptom of a decadent society – cultural repetition and creative exhaustion – but also of the economic imperatives of contemporary film-making. Risk-averse studio executives endeavour to prolong the cashflows from existing cultural products, such as a videogame, rather than invest in the unproven.

To watch The Last of Us, then, is to be reminded of Theodor Adorno’s lamentation that “every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse”. Indeed, the hyped reviews of the show – “desperately moving”, “phenomenal”, “perfect” – suggest that journalists are merely the willing helpmeets of the culture industry, trafficking in easy promotional blurbs at the expense of original critique.

[See also: The Last of Us review: the dystopian drama of the post-pandemic era]

But why, for all the clichés and stylistic orthodoxy of the first two episodes, is The Last of Us so popular? After enduring the exhaustions of daily life, why do we sit down to watch such horror in high definition? Why is there a cultural obsession with post-apocalyptic narratives?

Surveying US culture in the 1940s, Adorno and his fellow exile Max Horkheimer considered the narrowing gap between film and real life. “The familiar experience of the moviegoer,” they wrote, “who perceives the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left, because the film seeks strictly to reproduce the world of everyday perception, has become the guideline of production. The more densely and completely its techniques duplicate empirical objects, the more easily it creates the illusion that the world outside is a seamless extension of the one which has been revealed in the cinema… Far more strongly than the theatre of illusion, film denies its audience any dimension in which they might roam freely in imagination.”

The capitalist democracies of the West hardly constitute a “seamless extension” of the zombified hellscape depicted in The Last of Us (although life in the Quarantine Zone doesn’t look too dissimilar from the sprawling barrios, favelas, garbage hills and immigrant encampments of the Global South). But in following Joel and Ellie we do know what their efforts to survive feel like, because survival is the default mode of life under capitalism – one defined by increasing material hardship, precarity, malignant bureaucracies and psychological torment. As the political theorist Nancy Fraser has recently written, we are living in the teeth of “cannibal capitalism”, which is devouring all spheres of life and destroying its – and our own – conditions for survival. The desire to inhabit a post-apocalyptic fantasy-nightmare like The Last of Us is a desperate form of escapism into a world that is worse than ours, but where the promise of salvation still exists.

In the face of real pandemics, war and climate crisis, there is widespread perplexity about how to understand the scale of these runaway emergencies and about how to formulate credible answers to them. Deadlock and powerlessness have become “the common stigmata of the politically conscious”, in Roberto Unger’s words. In this sense, we are closer to Children of Men on the dystopian scale, where life is evacuated of resolve and ambition to overcome the crisis of our survival. It is partly owing to the likelihood of deliverance – the discovery of a cure (Children of Men, I Am Legend, The Last of Us) or liveable habitats (Waterworld, Interstellar) – that we find reassuring substitutes for our own helplessness. The absence of any comforting denouement was what made Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up such a subversive intervention.

Shows like The Last of Us foreclose the imagination and stunt the will, engendering the idea in viewers watching alone that things might be bad but they’re not that bad. As Adorno and Horkheimer knew, “pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown… It is flight not, as is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance.”

[See also: Tár is a crafty, cryptic take on art and morality in the online age]

The Last of Us still has seven episodes left (at the time of writing), which may yet justify the laudatory reviews. Watching Joel and Ellie move up through the levels of no doubt increasing danger, I will surely ask myself how I would keep my son alive, hoping that for however long that might be I could at least provide him the same reassurances the father does for his boy in McCarthy’s epic:

We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That’s right.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.

“The Last of Us” airs weekly on Sky Atlantic and Now

[See also: How the world turned global]

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con