Not Quite Moldy, Not Quite Fresh
The Last of Us: Season 1
Does a zombie show work without zombies. I don't mean that facetiously, as in "the zombies on this show aren't zombies". Sure, that argument on the show can be made because the creatures aren't the undead but, instead, are infected by Cordyceps fungi, taken over so their bodies are controlled by the fungi to create a kind of fungal network. If we want to have that conversation that's fine, and I'm happy to do so, but that's not the reason why I asked that question at all. I ask it because, man, The Last of Us really doesn't have many zombies in it.
There's a lot of stuff the show gets right, and when it comes to drama especially the show in on point. But for a series defined by a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has been all but destroyed and, aside from a few pockets living behind walls, defending against the fungi drones that will inevitably come, there just aren't a lot of those fungal drones (or any other kind) for the heroes to fight week to week. It's like the producers heard the line, "it's the humans, not the zombies, that you really have to worry about," and just ran with it. It's really weird.
We touched upon the basics of the story for the show back in the review of the premiere episode and it hasn't deviated far from there. The show is, in essence, a road trip adventure for Joel (Pedro Pascal) and his ward, Ellie (Bella Ramsey). Ellie, as it happens, in immune to the cordyceps strain that's infected, and taken over, the world. She was bitten (more than once) and always heals and survives despite the fungus clearly being in her. Joel has to get Ellie across country to a lab that can use her blood (or whatever) to make a cure. That was the setup and, for the rest of the season, we watch as he takes the girl to Wyoming, with a few narrative diversions along the way.
This isn't a knock on the plot, mind you. The first season of the show mirrors the plot of the game, and it works well in the context of both media. In fact, i think the whole "quest for the cure" is a solid idea. Yes, it's a trope of many disease films and shows, but it works here as the Cordyceps fungus works not only as a nice, scientific setup for the "zombies" on the show but also as a way to setup a good "looking for the cure" plot line. If Ellie is the cure then protecting her at all costs in required. I get it, and I dig it.
No, the problem is that the adventure, for all it's fun narrative diversions and interesting ideas, just doesn't seem to actually want to commit to the setup of its post-apocalyptic story. There's a midpoint in the series where the heroes get far enough away from the zombies that you have to wonder just why anyone is even afraid of them anymore. It's weird to have a zombie show without any zombies, but that's basically what The Last of Us evolves into once the heroes get out past the Mississippi.
In the meantime we do get some absolutely stunning episodes, mind you. The third episode of this first season, "Long, Long Time", focuses on Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett). We're introduced to the characters via an episode-long flashback where we see Bill hide away in his prepper basement as the U.S. troops clear out citizens of Bill's small town. Ostensibly the government is doing this to save the people, but with a lack of supplies, and not wanting the fungus to get more hosts, those civilians are killed. But not Bill, who doesn't emerge until the troops are gone. He then spends the next few months creating a perfect defensible compound, all before Frank walks into his life. The show then becomes, for this one episode, a love story about two gay men and the life they live together and it's beautiful. It also, long run, has no bearing on the show.
This is an issue shared with the other really solid episode of the season. "Left Behind", the seventh episode of the season, gives us a long flashback to Ellie's life back when she was in Boston, training for FEDRA to protect the city. One night her best friend shows up back at her room and takes Ellie over to a mall that had been found. The mall, she says, is zombie free, and so for the next few hours they get to explore the mall and see all the wonders our civilization used to have before it fell. That means seeing a Halloween story, playing video games at the arcade, taking photos in a photomat booth and, well, falling in love. This episode fleshes out Ellie's back story and underlines that she's gay but, again, it doesn't really do much for the forward movement of the series. It's good, but oddly inconsequential.
I think it says something about the show that the best moments of the series come from stories that actually have no bearing on the main plot line. Had the series been "Tales from the Last of Us", maybe that could have actually worked. Vignettes from the world that was and the world that now exists in the aftermath. Certainly the show pulls off these stories with aplomb; if Offerman and Bartlett aren't nominated for awards for their performances in "Long, Long Time," that will be an absolute travesty. But as far as actually getting the story of The Last of Us going, these episodes don't help that.
A big issue is that this season is only nine episodes long and, for whatever reason, the production team had to fit the whole of the first game's story into that nine episodes. That meant limiting the scope of some set-pieces and trimming a whole lot of the quieter moments that might have been the heroes on the road, bonding and, occasionally, fighting zombies. Yes, the show does make a good case, more than once, that the humans are dangerous. But, man, I need some zombies on my zombie show.
The show runners, Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, have stated that they didn't focus on the zombies so much because they "didn't want the show to get repetitive." Since Joel and Ellie have plot armor I suppose that makes some sense -- what's the point on introducing zombies if we're never worried about the damage they could do to either hero. As long as the show was beholden to the exact plot of the video game everyone was going to know what would happen because it already happened in the game (again, plot armor). That, however, shows the limitations of the way the series was created. Because it's so beholden to the plot of the game without finding enough ways to push outside the narrative structure of that story we can never get new moments between Joel and Ellie that aren't prescribed by the game series' content.
Think about it like this: had the show deviated more on the main story, maybe by inserting a new character to travel with the heroes, it could have gone some way to add back in that threat of what the zombie apocalypse could provide. Someone in the band could travel without plot armor, and then you could bond with them, care about them, and feel something when they died. There were opportunities for the show to add characters, mind you. Episodes four and five, "Please Hold to My Hand" and "Endure and Survive", introduce Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard), two brothers trying to escape the whack-jobs that have taken over Kansas City. They die on the show because they die in the game... but what if they didn't? These are two great characters and their deaths didn't have to happen, or at least didn't have to happen here. Letting them travel and get picked off later could have added emotion and narrative thrust.
Plus then we could have gotten more zombies. That is one thing this show about zombies really just needs. We see some "clickers" early (zombies that can't see but communicate and echo-locate via clicking). We see a "bloater" later (a huge, hulking zombie) in a giant, climactic fight between those Kansas City loonies and a whole spread of zombies. Both of these zombie types promise more action and more dangers on the road... until suddenly the show forgets all about them together and stops featuring zombies at all. We gets a couple of zombies in some flashbacks after that, but none in the main story and that just seems so weird. That's why we're here, guys. We want to see the actual dangers of this world.
This is unsubstantiated but I suspect one of the main reasons the zombies fade out from the story is because the makeup effects and action staging for them is expensive. Why put zombies into the show when you can get away with saving some money and just having humans be evil instead. Why set up elaborate set-pieces to film the monsters when you can just have wide open prairie and two people walking down a road? The scope feels so limited despite itself and the only thing I can think is that the show had to save costs where it could and trim the things that didn't "matter" to the story. Joel and Ellie matter, zombies don't.
The reason I harp on this is because it ruins the actual motivation for the story, the whole reason we're here. Why worry about making a cure if the zombies don't seem like much of a threat out West? Why does Ellie need Joel to protect her when there's really nothing to protect her from? The zombies stop feeling like a threat and suddenly you're sitting there going, "man, Ellie can take care of herself. What the hell is she doing with this Joel guy?" The show undercuts its whole story by cutting the zombies and, suddenly, you stop worrying if Ellie will get where she needs to go.
And, in a way, the show does get repetitive. We don't get the zombies, we're told, so that the series could focus on the parts of the story that would entertain us. What we get instead, though, is one group of crazies after another, each losing their humanity and becoming, in effect, the worst of us. That, in its own way, becomes repetitive and redundant. The show is so relentlessly bleak that it's hard to actually care about the last of us. Why are we trying to save humanity if we're only going to save the worst of us? The series doesn't have an answer for that. Maybe there isn't one and maybe having more zombies wouldn't change that. It would spice things up, though.
I had a lot of time to think of the story because the show wanted me to. It wanted me focused on Joel and Ellie and their travels across the West. If they could have fought more zombies and seen more dangers I might have been more invested, but by the end I felt the long slog of two people just wandering and, man, I started to actually get bored. This is a very handsome production, well filmed and well acted, and I shouldn't have been able to get bored. I did, though, and that feels like a major issue.
I liked the first half of this first season of The Last of Us and while I didn't hate the back half it did start to lose the thread. The show needed to take more time to breathe, to just let the characters wander and be characters. I think that meant we needed more zombies, more characters, more narrative diversions away from the source material, and more episodes in general. This season feels rushed and under baked and, man, it's hard to care about a series when it does shit like this.