The Last of Us on Sky Atlantic and NOW review: expertly tugs both heartstrings and nerves

 (© 2022 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)
(© 2022 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)

Any foolhardy creative making a show about zombies has big boots to fill. Namely, those of The Walking Dead: the TV programme that took the world by storm when it aired in 2010 and whose first seasons arguably set the bar for zombies on the small screen.

It’s not a surprise, therefore, that the shadow of The Walking Dead looms large over The Last of Us, HBO’s newest drama, which launches today.

Adapted from the hit video games of the same name, The Last of Us follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), a grizzled ex-army veteran who survives the apocalypse and sets out to find his missing brother in Wyoming.

Along for the ride is Ellie, a precocious young teen played by precocious young teen actor Bella Ramsey (Catherine, Called Birdy)– who just happens to be immune to the zombie-making fungus plaguing the world and could therefore be the key to creating a long-awaited vaccine.

This dynamic duo will set forth into a post-apocalyptic America where zombies, raiders and all sorts of danger lurks around every corner. And for the most part, it’s a rollicking ride – if slightly light on plot.

As you might expect, Pascal and Ramsey steal every scene they’re in: Pascal brings convincing grit and reticence to a man who has lost pretty much everybody he loves, which makes Ramsey’s foul-mouthed, wide-eyed Ellie a perfect foil for him. It’s sorely needed, as watching their relationship evolve provides the only heart-warming content in the entirety of the show.

 (© 2022 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)
(© 2022 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)

It’s worth noting just how good the special effects are too. In the first episode, a plane falls out of the sky onto the town that Joel and his family are trying to escape from; in later episodes, we’re treated to zombies with mushrooms growing out of their heads and mouths, and the gag-making kiss I’ve seen - maybe ever.

This is all good stuff. Indeed, in terms of video game adaptions, it’s excellent. However, The Last of Us does fall prey slightly to creator Neil Druckmann’s love for the video game (which he also created).

Characters who feature briefly in the game (such as Bill and Frank, the gay couple who live in a bunker in the middle of nowhere) are given extended cameos here – cameos with their own story arcs, which take up the whole of episode three. Though it’s a beautiful, moving bit of television, it’s also plonked in with minimal explanation, which is fine – for fans. For people who have never played the game before, it may well be confusing.

In addition, The Last of Us doesn’t really tread any new ground thematically. The only part that feels new (apart from the fungus) are any references – intended or not – to the Covid pandemic. Talk of halting the spread of infections, the army stepping in and “not seeing it coming” all sent a shiver down this reviewer’s spine and made the show hit slightly closer to home than was comfortable. The spread of this mushroom virus is even blamed on the earth’s temperature heating up “one or two degrees” – enough, in other words, for it to evolve to be able to inhabit humans.

Despite the slightly bizarre premise, The Last of Us makes it work. As mentioned before, there isn’t too much in the way of plot – the joy in The Last of Us lies in watching Joel and Ellie explore a familiar world made strange by disaster – but the show expertly tugs on both the heartstrings and the nerves to create something that feels very bingeable. For thriller fans, it’s going to be catnip: more please.

The Last of Us is on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW, with an Entertainment Membership for just £9.99