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'The Last of Us' Finds Grace Among the Ruins: NPR

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“I like the rug. It ties the room together.” Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Tess (Anna Torv) on the HBO series The last of us.

Liane Hentscher/HBO

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Liane Hentscher/HBO

“I like the rug. It ties the room together.” Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Tess (Anna Torv) on the HBO series The last of us.

Liane Hentscher/HBO

Living Dead. Fear the walking dead. Y: The Last Man. The passing. The tension. The stand. Sweet tooth. Invasion. Zero Station. Resident Evil.

Given the plethora of post-apocalyptic fare television has served up in recent years, you’d be forgiven for reaching out to HBO. The last of us with a skeptical mind. A not insignificant percentage of potential viewers, upon learning that the series is based on a video game, will adopt a kind of defensive mental squat. (To be clear, these people have never played the heart-rendingly excellent video game(s) in question.)

What’s new to say? is a valid question. Or, for that matter, to show off? After all, there’s a limit to the number of times one can watch bands of gun-toting, greasy-haired, gray-haired survivors who seem to smell like a particularly cheese slither tiptoe through crumbling cityscapes overrun with lush vegetation before concluding. : “No, yes, I understand, thank you.”

The last of us contains several of these sequences and others that are just as familiar: Militarized outposts imposing martial law. Idyllic pockets of civilization that hide a dark secretMT. Distrust. Violence. The horror of realizing a loved one has been infected, followed by the grim recognition of what must be done about it.

But those are all genre pitfalls, the parameters any post-apocalypse show and its viewers agree to set and work with. You don’t go into a sci-fi series and roll your eyes at every spaceship, do you? Or scoff every time a forensic investigator discovers luminol?

No, what matters is what happens within its genre conventions – the precise narrative fuel mix that drives the show in question: are the zombies/vampires/mutants/cannibals/militias the real stars of the series, or does it belong to the survivors? ?

The last of us belongs entirely, gratifyingly, to the survivors – two in particular. There are laconic, obstinate (but not yet actually bitten) Joel, played by Pedro Pascal, and young Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey — she may carry the future of humanity in her blood. They team up to travel across the country with tangentially related agendas—he to find her brother, she to find a lab where scientists can figure out a way to replicate her mysterious immunity.

Along the way, they encounter quasi-fascist government agents (“FEDRA”), anti-government freedom fighters/terrorists (“Fireflies”), invaders, revolutionaries, and a few friendly faces too. The series is confident enough to give two of those allies — a doomsday prepper played by Nick Offerman and a wily charmer played by Murray Bartlett — the screen time they need so that we can grow emotionally invested in their fates. That confidence is well deserved, as Offerman and Bartlett take turns in the season’s standout episode.

Of course, there are plenty of scenes where our heroes fight or flee the various fungus-decked monsters dutifully reproduced from video games – runners, stalkers, staggerers and, most memorably, clickers (whose heads have turned into toadstools and who echolocate their prey through a seriously unnerving sound design).

But The last of us of is about these various evil mushrooms in exactly the same way as The Sopranos it was about RICO accusations. Which is to say – they’re a threat, yes, and they’re ever-present, but the show is really about what the characters do in spite of them.

And what do they do The last of us at the very least, it is becoming deeper and more complex in significant ways. Pascal plays Joel in the first few episodes as if he had enclosed his heart in his beskar steel armor from The Mandalorianbut as his connection with Ellie grows, he starts talking more – risking more, emotionally, in every scene – and it lands on us with a satisfying heft.

The young Lady Mormont of Ramsey was an exciting surprise in War of Thrones, but this character was written to do one thing – be tough – and Ramsey did it well. Last year at Lena Dunham’s house Catherine Call of Birdy, she managed to show us so much more. Even so, she’s an absolute revelation here, investing herself in Ellie with a toughness that manages to create plenty of room for vulnerability, adolescent silliness, the pangs of first love, grief, anger and steely resolve.

Some might balk at the series’ choice to spend so much time showing us two people learning to trust each other, rather than unleashing relentless hordes of CGI-enhanced fungal enemies against them. But by allowing the monsters to serve primarily as catalysts for your characters’ complex emotional reactions, The last of us performs what Station Eleven did last year.

It’s a hopeful show about the end of humanity – one that manages to find and nurture moments of grace amidst the ruins.