By now, you’ve probably seen the headlines regarding how wildly popular HBO’s adaptation of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us has become. The inaugural episode was HBO’s largest debut for a show in years, as it reached over 10 million viewers in just two days. Unsurprisingly, the second episode managed to capitalize on that momentum with a 22% jump in viewership over the already absurd opening figure.
It’s been overwhelmingly successful, and I don’t think that was a doubt in anybody’s mind, despite how lukewarm video game adaptations have been in the past few years, with Master Chief struggling and Henry Cavill seeking other pursuits besides The Witcher. As someone who doesn’t fancy The Last of Us, I’ve found myself shocked at how good the adaptation is and, frankly, how terrifying this universe Naughty Dog created manages to be a decade later.
*This post will feature spoilers regarding the first two episodes of The Last of Us on HBO. If you have not seen it, please check it out first. If you do not care, proceed at your own risk.*
One of my issues with the universe was the lack of build up to create any fear in me, as the opening sequence of Joel’s journey happens, and then the world falls apart leaving me confused as to what just unfolded. With that in my mind, the opening minutes of the first episode completely shatter that train of thought by presenting a horrific reality.
The year is 1968; a pair of scientists make an appearance, each presenting an imminent risk the world faces. One of the scientists pleads with viewers to be wary of a potential pandemic caused by international travel patterns and borders ceasing to exist. The other scientist foresees a different illness, one caused by brain-controlling fungi, which of course becomes the dominant timeline.
This opening sequence works so well; while this is a faithful adaptation of the hit game, the showrunners start by exhibiting they are not afraid to take liberties to build up a palpable tension. As the episode unfolds, aside from the traumatic opening sequence fans knew would take place, I felt a sense of anxiety, wondering when the world would collapse. When it does, it happens in a manner that feels so real.
Over the years, zombies have become commonplace in the media industry and have lost their fear factor due to their menial nature. The second episode dismembers that sentiment by reworking the very infection Naughty Dog created. Rather than infecting hosts through spores and bite marks, the fungi work as a hive mind: disturbing one sends shockwaves throughout the fungal network, alerting infected hosts nearby.
It seems like a small change to the game’s lore, but it has such a massive ramification and boosts the show’s overall fear factor. Could fungi take over the world, and throw society into disarray? I don’t know, but I do know removing the original build up of spores makes all the difference in this rendition, as the gas mask defense felt like a cheat code in the video games. There’s palpable fear here, and each episode dives deeper into it, as viewers are thrust into a horror-filled science lesson.
We’re only two episodes in, and watching them has been nothing short of a masterclass on how one simple lore change can rework an entire universe. I’m sitting on my couch wondering if I would survive if I were in Joel and Ellie’s shoes, or if it’s even possible, with the latter sentiment becoming a popular thought as of late. Again, we’re only two episodes in, with plenty of horror left to be covered as fans know The Last of Us covers more than just scientific atrocities.
On a side note, many video games are in the process of becoming media works, such as God of War and Horizon Zero Dawn. The retooled success of The Last of Us show has me particularly interested in one adaptation: Fallout. While the scenarios are different — nuclear arms races as opposed to zombies — Fallout does have moments that can match the intensity of The Last of Us, with the wasteland and vaults filled to the brim with Ghouls and Super Mutants.
Will Fallout deliver? Who knows, but one change of Naughty Dog’s decades old script has me rethinking my doomsday prep.