Well, here we are (seven weeks later 😅). This particular review has been hanging over me. Sure, I’ve been quite busy with work, podcast production, and buying a house: I have excuses. But I haven’t been able to shake the weight of finishing up my season review of The Last of Us. It’s surrounded by completed tasks on my to do list; a constant, blank reminder to come back.
Part of me needed time from the finale. I came out of it with disappointment and I kind of just sat in that. I poured myself into those other tasks—those excuses—all the while letting the finale be mulled over in the back of my mind. Not being on social media allowed me to be alone with my thoughts. I think I only discussed the finale with Abby, Logan, and one friend who brought it up at ultimate frisbee.
It’s time though.
The finale of The Last of Us is stunted. Clocking in at just under 43 minutes, there is no time for it to come into its own. The bulk of it sticks strictly to the game and that adherence is a hinderance. The strongest moments are not from the game, but new material brought into the light of the tiny silver screen. But those wonderful new elements have zero no time to grow or have no payoff. The rushed nature that I have been talking about since episode five compounds in the finale.
The cold open returns and was the defacto highlight of the episode. Ashley Johnson plays Ellie’s mother, Anna. Perfect casting. No one else could have done this. Ashley has given life to Ellie both in her decade long performance has her in the game and now on the HBO adaptation.
There’s real tension and suspense watching this pregnant women, in labor, trying to fight off the infected. We also get an explanation to Ellie’s immunity, something the games never really broached. Turns out this was all an original story and pitch back in 2014. There’s more to this story and one we may yet see come to light. It’s so fast, raw, and powerful. The show can do that because there is no box to be contained in. This story is new and the show shines because of that.
Later on, Joel and Ellie have a classic heart to heart before the final battle moment. We see Joel open up about some scar on his head, which turned out to be an attempted suicide on day two of the apocalypse. It’s a scenario that feels so grounded and it’s one I never considered for Joel. But this scar, as far as I recall, had never been mentioned before, never brushed off, or focused on. So we get this moment of vulnerability without any meaningful build up. It’s shock value that cheapens the weight of the actual moment between the two characters.
I think a little before that particular exchange, we get the legendary giraffe scene. It was great to see a real giraffe, a choice I was hoping they’d make. I feel like the scene lacked punch though. The show follows the game beat for beat, which includes the ladder “prompt” and subversion. This loses all its umpfh. These two have never done the ladder retrieval on the show. There’s no expectation to subvert. This narrative beat was entirely sculpted around gameplay. Now, the actual giraffe encounter is strong. A little is lost since we don’t control the pace of departure. I always linger and this, again, felt rushed. We have a lot of story to get through and only checks playhead 22 minutes to go.
During Joel’s hospital massacre, a tonal mismatch of the highest degree occurs. As Joel is ratta tat tatting through the Fireflies, we hear Gustavo Santaolalla’s All Gone (No Escape) sweeping underneath. A melancholic song that pulls your heart along its desperate notes. In the game, this emerges as Joel carries Ellie out of surgery to escape. In the show, it plays while Joel mows down mercenaries. The juxtaposition is so jarring. It lends tender, clinging hope to the most gamey part of the show rather than the paternal affection and desperation Joel displays during the actual escape. I’m saddened by this emotional mismatch.
My last complaint/nitpick/issue/etc. lies in the camera work of the infamous final scene. When Joel lies to Ellie outside of Jackson, the cameras are tilted ever so slightly to give power to Joel in the scene. From Joel’s perspective, the camera is looking down on Ellie; and Ellie’s angle is looking up to Joel. Sure, there is the physical height of it all, but in the language of cinema, this gives Joel the power in the scene. In the game, the camera is square with both protagonists. I felt this tilt diminishes Ellie’s understanding, hesitation, and growth throughout. In fairness, this is something that could pay off cinematically in future seasons, should they mirror this conversation dynamic as roles and power shift.
Here, at the end of season one, I am bummed, yet hopeful. This debut is too crammed and squanders what time it does have with the audience. Trying to fit the entire first game was a necessity from a “we have one chance” perspective. Now with multiple seasons in the works, the crew has time to slow down, explore, and grow.
HBO’s The Last of Us was at its best when it did its own thing; when it tried to expand upon the world. Some new bits were strong, while others were weak. Time was the enemy here.
As a fan, it was strange to look at something new, yet familiar. The shape of the thing was a rough approximation for what came before. The details were where differences stood out. Being so close, so familiar at times, creates an urge to reject. It can put you in a place of denial even. By the end, I wanted space from it all. I wanted the original back. Heck, I might play both games this summer.
And here, at the end of it all, I can’t help, but compare it all to Sarah and Ellie. I am Joel. I’m older. I long for the joy of new Naughty Dog stories. My reaction is to reject the 2.0, the replacement, the adaptation. By the end of my adventure with season one, I am not the Joel at the end of the game. I’m closer to the Joel at the ranch outside of Jackson. I’m scared to get close, guarding myself off as we tread on some mighty thin ice. Perhaps over time, with full understanding of what the show is and what the games are, I can see the show for what it is rather than what it is not. Perhaps with the space to breath both the show and myself can understand one another and grow. There is hope and opportunity in the space between. And when I consider that, I think it will all be okay.
I did it. I reviewed an entire season of television. Dang man. TV criticism is tougher on paper. I have no clue if I’ll do that same for season two, but thankfully I have time to figure that out. It wouldn’t be a TV episode review from me without my observations. Hopefully I can parse my notes seven weeks removed.
- The amount of Part II music was apparently “sooooo much.” I was always excited to hear Gus and Mac’s newer music utilized in Part I scenarios.
- Sticking with the Part II energy, the house in the cold open had major Ellie farm vibes.
- I found it interesting that Anna and Marlene knew each other their entire lives. Not sure that was a detail in the games.
- Anna reminded me quite a bit of the American Daughters easter egg in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. I would love to know the story behind that poster.
- Pretty sure I spotted that Pedro Pascal is double jointed in his thumb.
- Marlene’s cold delivery was stellar.
- Given how swiftly Anna was killed, feels like there was no chance for her to write her letter to Ellie. Perhaps she did in between scenes, but felt like that didn’t happen in the show.