The powerful adaptation of PlayStation’s zombie game The Last of Us has unexpected glimpses of human grace amid the primal horror. By Sarah Krasnostein.

The Last of Us

A middle-aged man wearing a greybeard and flannel shirt sits by a piano, looking through the pages of a Linda Ronstadt songbook. A man in similar clothing watches him from behind, gun strapped to his hip.
Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett as Bill and Frank in The Last of Us.
Credit: HBO / Binge

“No change comes calmly over the world,” says Walter M. Miller Jr in A Canticle for Leibowitz, a post-apocalyptic novel that is still in print. It was written in 1959 after Miller’s return from World War II, where he participated in the bombing of a monastery that haunted him for the rest of his life.

The book is about attempts to rebuild civilisation over the centuries after nuclear war, following how an order of monks preserves scraps of scientific knowledge until humanity can be trusted with them. In each iteration of society over the thousands of years the book chronicles, we appear intent on annihilating ourselves. Watching The Last of Us as crowds returned to business as usual after Covid-19, I was haunted by Miller’s book.

Like us, they were warned. The Last of Us opens with a prologue set in 1963 on a talk show where an epidemiologist (John Hannah) coolly posits the possibility of a threat to human life posed by fungi. “What if, for instance, the world were to get slightly warmer?” he asks. “Well, now there is reason to evolve. One gene mutates and an ascomycete, candida, ergot, cordyceps, aspergillus – any one of them could be capable of burrowing into our brains and taking control, not of millions of us, but billions of us. Billions of puppets with poisoned minds permanently fixed on one unifying goal: to spread the infection to every last human alive.”

Nimbly cutting to 2003, his hypothetical materialises and accelerates with catastrophic consequences. By the end of the world-obliterating first episode, extinction-level horror is the norm in an alternative 2023.

Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (creator of the multi-award-winning, eponymous game), announced plans for PlayStation Productions’ first series in early 2020, as the world was locking down. Filmed in Canada, the show follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), a grieving construction worker-slash-smuggler. He leaves the repressive Boston Quarantine Zone (BQZ) after reluctantly agreeing to a request by Marlene, the leader of the resistance (Merle Dandridge), to transport a child to a rebel medical facility out West. With a rare immunity, 14-year-old orphan Ellie (the dexterous Bella Ramsey) may be humanity’s hope, but Joel undertakes that mission for his own reasons. They brave the boneyard that was once America where the remnants of traumatised humanity survive in sympathetic dyads or more sinister combinations, which, at their worst, pose a threat greater than zombie predators.

Early on, there’s a mundane moment of shocking weight when they happen upon a crashed airplane that nature is reclaiming. “You fly in one of those?” Ellie asks, awed.

“A few times, sure,” Joel replies.

“So lucky.”

“Didn’t feel like it at the time. Get shoved in the middle seat, pay $12 for a sandwich.”

“Dude, you got to go up in the sky.”

Excellent visual storytelling, The Last of Us is frequently breathtaking and often horrifying, both in the conventional sense and the one used by philosopher Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Kristeva connected the visceral repulsion of horror to the always-lurking threat of primal chaos, where we will return should the fragile boundaries we depend on for meaning and order collapse. Human/fungus. Living/dead. Us/them.

Horror’s nauseating flavour may be exactly the content we crave. In the analogue age, the 1994 series based on Stephen King’s The Stand (4.5 million copies sold), was watched in about 19 million homes. While The Walking Dead’s 11th series is probably the last, its spin-offs stagger on. Station Eleven, another evocative post-apocalyptic series, has a 98 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers, real survivalists planning for the end of days, remains that network’s most-watched show to date. Three episodes into The Last of Us, viewership was expanding at unprecedented rates. “For the record,” Paul Tassi wrote in Forbes, “this kind of thing just … doesn’t happen, even with HBO’s other megahit shows.” Seems we can’t watch enough of what we refuse to learn from. While dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories both typically involve contagion, climate extinction, nuclear warfare, meteorites and/or tyranny, the genres are sisters, not twins. Dystopian narratives depict reduced but stable societies following profound disturbance. The post-apocalyptic is more inchoate, unfolding in the aftermath of cataclysmic collapse.

Both, however, are intrinsically hopeful. They concern generative power more than destruction per se. They cloak everyday nobility and heroism in extreme circumstances. And they warn that we remain our own greatest threats. As the great Octavia Butler put it in her visionary novel Parable of the Sower (1993), which became a bestseller in 2020: “God is Change”. Often standing with the best of these genres, The Last of Us finds new ways of representing the opposing impacts of repetition and rupture on human survival.

The zombie apocalypse is fungal not viral: a difference just trivial enough to frighten and just disarming enough to avoid triggering its shell-shocked audience. Our common era has been chronologically bisected by the pandemic. Given that the World Health Organization continues to designate Covid-19 a “public health emergency of international concern”, we are no more “post-Covid” than we are post-colonial, post-race, post-gender or justifiably climate-complacent. But magical thinking produces fictions that define everyday reality: confirmation bias, conformity bias, normalcy bias and egocentric bias all busily protect us from anything that requires uncomfortable change. As Miller wrote in his post-Holocaust novel, even when it’s killing us, we “seize the error hungrily because it has a pleasanter taste”.

The quality of The Last of Us is connected to its layering of causes and effects. Subtlety is not a value in your average zombie narrative: here the writers hold space for realistically paced emotional development. The tranquil movement that is episode three may be the most surprising storytelling I’ll see this year. Nick Offerman is Bill, the emotionally wounded, utterly vindicated prepper capable of surviving luxuriantly on his own, at least until his resources run out. He reluctantly offers temporary shelter to Frank (Murray Bartlett), but eventually it’s Bill who is saved.

Masterfully acted, in the miniature span of an episode their story makes the case for meaning-making over nihilism. It reveals the direct relationship between empathic attention and disaster resilience. And it reminds us that the human quality of grace resides in the choice to practise radical acceptance of an always imperfect reality. The single-player The Last of Us Part I is consistently ranked as one of the best video games of all time. New features include “haptic feedback”, the controller replicating the feel of a gun and “sensations of subtle falling rain”. Fans speak of its characters and their cinematic arc with adoration.

More profitable than Hollywood and the music industry combined, the astronomical size of the current gaming market is unsurprising. Gaming’s attractiveness isn’t so different from that of the post-apocalyptic as a narrative device: both are perfect simplifiers and equalisers. Reality disappears. With most of humanity conveniently annihilated, the playing field levels, inviting new opportunities for agency, heroism and community. And both promise a chance to change the ending, for better or worse.

In the non-digital world, the ending will be determined by the nature and degree of the changes we embrace. As Joseph Campbell explained when discussing historian Arnold Toynbee’s study of the rise and fall of civilisations: “Only birth can conquer death – the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.”

The rage-driven, the fear-driven and the slow-dying who stalk The Last of Us are recurrence personified: the traumatic past ripping through the clean page of the present. But Ellie – like the vignette about the little superhero Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard) and the ghosts they briefly encounter of kids who didn’t make it as far – might give us pause to weigh the loss of flight, the feel of rain, where we are headed, what might be done. Or it might just be a rollicking watch. After all, they aren’t us. Yet.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "Apocalypse soon".

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