'The Last of Us' Is Bleak, but It’s the Bleak You Need
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The Last of Us is bumming everyone out. Mostly because the HBO series’ juggernaut first season ended on Sunday, beginning the long arduous wait for a second season. But also because The Last of Us is really freaking sad. The series began with a man watching his daughter die, and ended with him shooting his way through a makeshift hospital to ensure another kid didn’t meet a similar fate. In between, everyone died or killed (or ate) someone, and short of some gay gardening, there were few odes to joy.
And truly, despite chatter online decrying the show’s dour denouement, that was the point.
Look, I get why curling up on the couch to stare at a big pile of bleak isn’t everyone’s favorite thing to do. Banks are collapsing, Joe Exotic wants to run for president—doubling down on your Sunday scaries with The Last of Us is not a choice everyone wants to make. But this is not a shortcoming of the show or its storytelling. It’s a matter of preference.
Also, despite the darkness, The Last of Us remains a form of escapism. Bleak as it is, it’s still fiction—fiction about a pandemic worse than the one currently raging that’s intended, on some level, to give viewers the opportunity to think about something else. Granted, it mostly makes them ponder what happens when humanity decides the only way to save a lot of people is to slaughter many more, but still.
In other words, The Last of Us doesn’t trade in darkness for darkness’ sake. It’s not a DC Comics film trying to be edgy. It’s not even Squid Game, which in a way was even more depressing in its “oh yeah, that could happen”-ness. As it stands, the world is not infected with a zombifying fungus, but it’s full of people who will do anything to stay alive and/or make money. If anything, The Last of Us is a parable for what could happen when that Cordyceps fungus is introduced into a place that often prizes rugged individualism over community.
Yes, there are probably scriptwriters out there who would have suggested to Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin that they inject a little emotional reprieve, one episode that ends on a happy note. But if you believe, as Vulture’s Roxana Hadadi does, that The Last of Us is a commentary on the many flaws of American exceptionalism, then those looking for slivers of hope are destined to be left in the dark.
All of this came to a swirling conclusion in Sunday’s finale. In the final moments, Joel (Pedro Pascal) learned that the Fireflies would likely kill Ellie (Bella Ramsey) trying to find a cure for the Cordyceps fungus. He shot nearly every Firefly in sight to save her. Some folks argue he went too far, slaughtering many people to save one; others feel his actions were justified. But the point isn’t to figure out whether he’s “right” or “wrong.” The point—as my colleague Adrienne So noted over Slack this week—is that a society that would kill a child to save itself maybe isn’t worth saving. Anyone who read Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” knows this.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Joel is a hero or villain. What matters is what his actions reflect. As Hadadi noted, “The Last of Us has painted a portrait of an American identity incompatible with drastic change.” When the pandemic hit, all of the country’s selfishness and individualism transformed into something even more virulent than before. It’s bleak, but it also feels that way because it’s familiar.