Dystopian fiction feels different when you’ve just been through a mini version of your own. It was March 2020 when HBO announced it would be adapting The Last of Us, the video game masterpiece about a mysterious and lethal pandemic, for television. You’ll remember that as the month when everything changed.
In this new context The Last of Us takes on new significance. While other post-apocalyptic dramas such as The Walking Dead, The Road and The Rain portrayed worlds descended into horrifying anarchy, The Last of Us accumulated more contextual baggage. It’s well aware of it, too. Among the first words we hear in the first episode, streaming on Sky and Now in the UK, are “something like influenza … a global pandemic”. These come from an academic, who is describing a potentially catastrophic future event, and are discarded almost straight away by John Hannah’s epidemiologist, who argues with handy prescience that really dangerous outbreaks are more likely to be incurable brain-controlling fungi. It’s a fantastic scene, flashing back to a 1968 talk show that features Hannah as a doom-mongering, middle-aged academic, legs crossed, cigarette waving around. What could have been an information dump is, in the hands of Hannah and the show’s writer Craig Mazin, of Chernobyl, engaging and a little chilling.
Episode one spends half of its run-time in Austin, Texas, in 2003, setting up the little-understood viral outbreak that turns people into ravaging monsters, and its impact on our central character, Pedro Pascal’s Joel, before flashing forward to present-day Boston. Twenty years on things are bleak: humanity trembles under the jackboot of an authoritarian regime using public safety as justification for fascism. In the pilot, at least, the real terror comes from the corrupt police, brutal punishment (we see the public execution of people caught entering “exclusion zones”) and horrible conditions – as yet, we’ve seen little of the mushroom-brained monsters that have overrun much of the world.
What sets The Last of Us apart from other TV dystopias is its humanity. This isn’t the usual every-man-for-himself post-zombie outbreak set up. This a shattered world, but a recognisable one: in the wake of disaster, mankind has turned on itself. Authoritarianism, poverty and paranoia abound. Everyone is constantly tested for the lethal infection; a thriving black market in drugs and amenities has emerged. People beg for a day’s work: throwing the bodies of infected children onto a fire, perhaps, or cleaning the sewers. (“Which pays better?” “The one with the shit.”) Fights to the death break out over car batteries. People numb themselves with pills to get through the day. Over it all hangs a deadening cloud of grief. This, you can’t help but think, is how humanity would really react to the end of the world – not with anarchy, but with opportunistic and brutal control.
The Last of Us would be compelling and powerful television at any time, but in the latter stages of a pandemic of our own it feels especially so. The world didn’t descend into totalitarian terror – it would be absurd to claim that it did – but there are echoes of emotions that are eerily familiar: many of us did go through a period of unnaturally strict rules governing where we could go and who we could see, testing, dread and grief. We all saw a version of a world like the one presented here hovering in the distance. It’s that germ of familiarity that gives The Last of Us its unnerving power.