‘The Last of Us’ Series Premiere Recap: Spawn of the Dead (2023)

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Provided you don’t mind watching a show without a single original thought in its head, the series premiere of The Last of Us is an okay way to spend an hour and twenty minutes. And honestly, why would you expect this show to blaze new trails for the post-apocalyptic zombie genre? It’s an adaptation of a ten-year-old video game that itself arrived years deep into the zombie renaissance best represented by The Walking Dead, from Chernobyl creator (and labor “dissident”) Craig Mazin. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead it isn’t. Hell, James Gunn and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead it isn’t, either. For one thing, both those movies were scary.

The same cannot be said of The Last of Us, co-created by Mazin and original TLoU video game creator Neil Druckmann. Not that the show seems to have more than a passing interest in being scary in the first place, mind you. Aside from a prolonged opening sequence that depicts a microcosm of society’s rapid breakdown in the face of a pandemic involving mind-warping fungi, it’s mostly dedicated to presenting the dreary reality of post-apocalyptic life. In both cases, anyone with even a passing familiarity with these genres has seen it all before. The question, I suppose, is whether you feel Mazin & Druckmann’s iteration of the concept, or the performances of leads Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey, and Anna Torv, merit revisiting.

‘The Last of Us’ Series Premiere Recap: Spawn of the Dead (3)

Pascal stars as Joel, a father raising his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) on his own with some help from his brother and construction-business parter Tommy (Gabriel Luna). After a brief prologue inexplicably set in the 1960s during which scientists on a talk show debate the potential of a fungal pandemic if, say, the earth’s temperature were to warm by a few degrees (dun dun dunnnnnn), we join Joel, Tommy, and Sarah on the day of the end of the world, when mind-altering fungal infections turn much of the human race into ravening zombies with tendrils extruding from their mouths. Joel and Tommy survive; Sarah is shot to death by the army.

This probably helps explains Joel’s antagonistic posture some twenty years later, when we rejoin the action. By now he’s relocated all the way to Boston, where he lives under martial law along with the remnants of the area’s human population. He and his girlfriend Tess (Torv) are smugglers, and their current goal is to procure a car battery so they can drive a truck cross country to rescue Tommy, who we learn has become a part of a rebel group called the Fireflies.

That group is led in Boston by Marlene (Merle Dandridge), who has bigger fish to fry than just the usual docket of blowing up buildings and putting up poetic graffiti about looking for the light and whatnot. A kid named Ellie (Ramsey) has fallen into her hands, and with her a potential cure for the fungal pandemic: She has been infected, but not turned or killed, which until now had been believed to be an impossibility.

So Joel and Tess make a deal: They’ll get the Fireflies’ resources in order to go on the hunt for Tommy, in exchange for ferrying Ellie to safety. It’s only when they jump ugly with a guard of their acquaintance that they learn the truth about her infection status, but by that point they’ve got no time to sit and talk it over — they’ve got to move or die.

‘The Last of Us’ Series Premiere Recap: Spawn of the Dead (4)

Which is a familiar plot structure, to say the least. Lone Wolf and Cub, Shogun Assassin, The Road, Logan, Pascal’s own The Mandalorian: Lone hardass travels cross country with a child he must protect at all costs in tow is one of the most shopworn stories in genre fiction. Other than the (at least temporary) presence of Tess, nothing here complicates that concept in the slightest. The opening segment of sudden-onset societal collapse, meanwhile, suffers by direct comparison to the things-fall-apart stretches of Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, Patrick Somerville’s Station Eleven, and any number of other antecedents, all of which tackle the same task with genuine frightening power.

You also can’t derive much pleasure from the individual performances. Pascal and Torv are beautiful, watchable actors, but Mazin and Druckmann’s script gives them nothing interesting or surprising to do. Ditto Ramsey, whose Ellie seems to be checking off boxes in a list of “cool things for a hardass but lonely teenager to say” instead of actually functioning like a human being. (It’s amazing how much better the comparable characters and actors in HBO Max’s own Station Eleven pull off this dynamic.)

The show looks like a AAA video game, and I don’t mean that as a compliment; it’s all the kind of green-brown run-down urban-decay detritus you’ve come to expect from you-are-there narratives about the collapse of society. In that regard it honestly looks as much like Batman: Arkham City as any other video game I can think of, which kind of goes to show you how copy-and-past this aesthetic is. Other than a creepy shot of an old woman fungusing out unseen in the background and a sort of disintegrated mushroom man melded to a wall that’s straight out of Annihilation, I can’t recall any particularly impressive visuals or shot compositions. (I haven’t played the game so I can’t testify as to which got there first, other than to say it was probably Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Shunned House” by approximately eight decades.) The score is similarly anonymous, as is the unremarkable costuming (the survivors in Station Eleven looked interesting, which is possible!). The opening titles are like the Game of Thrones credits with mushrooms instead of models. All told, it’s the definition of what Barton Fink referred to as “merely adequate.”

‘The Last of Us’ Series Premiere Recap: Spawn of the Dead (5)

Needless to say, this is going to be a huge hit, or I’ll eat my fed-issued rations. For years the only show able to give Game of Thrones a run for its zeitgeist money was The Walking Dead; now, in the form of House of the Dragon and The Last of Us, the heirs to both series are now on the same network. That’s probably pretty thrilling if you’re Warner Bros. Discovery honcho David Zaslav — hooray, a show he probably won’t shitcan! — but if you’re someone looking for a fresh take on the zombie concept, though, or just a good horror show of any kind, you should probably keep looking. Honestly, coming out the same weekend as Skinamarink — and a couple of weeks after Copenhagen Cowboy, for that matter — does the show’s pedestrian aesthetic and lack of real wonder and terror no favors at all.

I don’t mean to sound like I hate the show, because I don’t. I mean, I’ve only watched the one episode (titled “When You’re Lost in the Darkness”), long though it may run. Who knows? Maybe things pick up after this. It’s hardly unheard of for an introductory chapter to be weighed down by exposition, worldbuilding, and character introductions, and I can rattle off probably half a dozen shows that took a full season, or even two, to become the great television they wound up becoming.

‘The Last of Us’ Series Premiere Recap: Spawn of the Dead (6)

So, as is the case with the characters themselves, all hope is not lost. There’s every possibility that when the (exceedingly gross) mushroom zombies from the commercials and trailers start popping up, the excitement and originality levels will rise, allowing Pascal, Torv, and Ramsey to do more interesting work. It’s also possible this won’t happen at all. Like any survival-horror protagonist worth their salt, we in the audience have just got to grit our teeth and get on with it.

Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.


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