Spoiler Alert: This review contains some minor spoilers about the plot of The Last of Us.
Content Alert: The Last of Us contains adult themes, graphic violence, nudity, and strong language.
The Last of Us begins, not where we might expect, but in a restaurant in Jakarta, Indonesia. A middle-aged professional woman is enjoying her lunch when two officers approach. They inform her she must come with them, and both she and the audience are left wondering what is happening. Has she committed some crime? She certainly doesn’t believe so.
But the agents refuse to divulge any information. They simply inform her that she must come with them. In the next scene she arrives at a governmental lab. A dead body lies on a gurney. It’s here we realize why this woman was suddenly whisked away: she is a professor of mycology, that is, someone who studies fungi.
The factory worker lying dead on the table has been bitten by someone, and this fungus has completely taken over her body, transforming her into a zombie-like creature. The government officials implore her to find a cure…she shakes her head…there is no vaccine and no treatment. There is only death. If you want to save the human race, she tells them, “Bomb this city and everyone in it.”
From Indonesia we are transported to suburban Texas, a common-enough town where Joel Miller (played by Pedro Pascal) and his daughter Sarah Miller (played by Nico Parker) are living a normal life. Sarah, at home alone, begins to notice strange behavior in her neighborhood. The tensions build and build, as the audience waits for the moment of crisis when the zombie apocalypse begins and normal life is replaced by a desperate struggle for survival. After a tense separation Joel and Sarah are reunited and they make a desperate attempt to get out of the city.
There’s military everywhere, but it’s clear that they do not have a handle on what is happening. Chaos ensues as soldiers attempt to keep Joel and Sarah within the city… ostensibly to quarantine them from uninfected parts of the country. But Joel is a dad, his daughter is not sick, and he just wants to do whatever he can to save her. But ultimately, he can’t. Sarah is killed by a soldier unwilling to let them escape. Joel somehow has to move on and survive, something he develops a knack for throughout the show.
Ever since high school, I’ve been a big fan of dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories. A part of what draws me to these stories is really a human question. What would the world be like if all institutions, rule of law disappeared? Would we revert to a primordial state where killing and death become regular occurrences, like a lion hunting prey? Or would some remnant of human culture, of empathy, of collaboration, kindness, and even love remain? In other words, are human beings, removed from society, primarily good or bad? The Christian story, does offer help here. Human beings are both good and bad. They are good because, in their creation, they were endowed with God’s image. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” to quote the psalmist. We have been given the ability to create, to love, to serve others. But we are also sinful, prone to a self-centered existence that can easily devolve into traits worse than what we might see in the rest of creation.
Like scripture, the answer The Last Of Us offers is also both, though it tilts strongly towards violent darkness and chaos. The world of the show consists of two primary realities inside the walled cities created to (mostly) keep the infected out, life inside withers under the authoritarian rule of the governing body, FEDRA.
This quasi-fascist government is willing to kill its citizens for even the smallest of infractions, leaving its people, including the protagonist Ellie, a contrarian by nature, to decide between staying faithful to her overlords, or giving it all up to become a member of the Fireflies, FEDRA’s nemesis, who eschew the authoritarian rule of FEDRA, but nevertheless employ questionable means, that is, terroristic acts, to try and bring down FEDRA. It’s a no-win Sophie’s Choice scenario that illustrates just how bleak the options are in this post-apocalyptic world she finds herself in.
Fortunately for her, the choice to stay and fight her former protectors or join the quasi-terrorist Fireflies is postponed, as a new opportunity develops. This opportunity, we find out, is caused by a singular reality: Ellie is bitten by an infected person, but stays alive, fully human. The Fireflies decide this means Ellie holds the key to a cure, but in order to develop one, Ellie must travel to Wyoming in order for the doctors to develop a cure to save the world. As brutal as life is inside the walled-city of FEDRA’s Boston, the world outside the walls is a dangerous unknown, with chances of survival extremely low.
The good news for Joel is that his role is merely to get Ellie out of the city (and past FEDRA’s sentries) to an extraction point, upon which he will be rewarded handsomely for his work.
As you may have guessed, he does get Ellie to the extraction point, but an ambush radically changes the plans. Joel is left with a choice: continue the journey across most of the North American continent, across a desolate “valley of the shadow of death” landscape that would punish most intrepid travelers. In other words, a piece of cake.
But the entire future of the world is at stake, right? Shouldn’t that be enough? Not for Joel. Joel has stayed alive primarily by focusing solely on what he needs to do to keep breathing. He has ruthlessly avoided joining causes (Fireflies, etc.) in order to keep himself breathing. Ultimately, his love for Tess (his partner in crime, at times literally) and his desire to fulfill her dying wish pushes him to commit to the long journey, though he is visibly unhappy with the decision.
This puts his relationship with Ellie at a difficult place to start. His gruff, no-nonsense, survivalist personality is challenged by Ellie’s adolescent desire for fun and novelty.
The original story (the video game) built heavily around Joel’s loss of his daughter at the onset of the virus. This loss has made him hard, cold, and doggedly focused on his own survival. Dealing with the trauma of losing your own child, it’s understandable that Joel wants nothing to do with being responsible for a teenager, one with no real experience staying alive outside the protected confines of her home city.
In so many ways, the cinematography matches the tone and tenor of the story, not just in terms of the radical violence and brutality of this world, but also in the emerging relationship between Joel and Ellie.
The show is quite stunning from a visual perspective (it matches the beauty of the video game). While remaining true to the landscapes of America, the cinematography creates what you might call a black and gray desert…a brutal reality where death appears around every corner, either by violent, fearful humans, or even worse, the infected, seeking new victims to sate their thirst.
Just as the monochromatic hues of the desert contain a unique kind of beauty, the world of The Last of Us is able to create a powerful aesthetic, building a world that is dark, but beautiful nonetheless. There’s a mood to it, echoing Joe’s dire reminders to Ellie of the danger that could lurk around every corner. But every once in a while, Joel and Ellie will come upon a moment of transcendent beauty that reminds Joel of his previous life and opens Ellie up to new vistas of what life must have been like before. There’s one particular moment towards the end of the season that almost takes your breath away, but I’ll let you discover that on your own if you choose to watch.
Just as there are these moments of life, where the greens and blues overtake the grays and blacks, so too does the relationship between the two main characters begin to blossom. Joel can’t help but like Ellie, with her quirky personality, strong and reassured as many adolescent minds can be. She refuses to simply survive, she’s open and honest with her hopes, her fears, and this softens Joel’s character.
There’s an extremely touching scene towards the end of the show, in which Joel reveals how close he came to giving up on life (suicide) after losing his daughter. Instead of describing it, I’d like to share the dialogue:
Joel Miller : I was the guy who shot and missed. There’s no story. Sarah died… and I couldn’t see the point anymore. Simple as that. And I wasn’t scared either. I was ready. I couldn’t have been more ready. When I– When I… went to pull the trigger, I-I flinched. Still don’t know why. Anyway, the reason I’m telling you this…
Ellie Williams : I know why you’re tellin’ me all this.
Joel Miller : Yeah, I reckon you do.
Ellie Williams : So time heals all wounds, I guess.
Joel Miller : It wasn’t time that did it.
[Joel looks at Ellie, the one who healed his wounds]
The Last of Us, with all of its gore and violence, is ultimately a show about finding kindness and connection, even in the midst of great trauma. It is about learning to heal and to find a way to love again. There isn’t a ton that is original or genre-transforming about the story (within the post-apocalyptic genre), but it doesn’t have to be. It’s not perfect, but one thing it does remind us of, is the need to find people to love in this life.
Otherwise, we may be living, but we’re certainly not flourishing. Scripture makes it clear from the outset of Genesis, that for life to be lived—it must be done in relationships: “The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Gen. 2: 18)
When we experience a traumatic loss of someone we love, it’s understandable to put up walls, to turn inward, often placing blame on ourselves. But doing so will not help us live a life of flourishing. At the heart of the Christian faith is this idea of forgiveness. That no matter what we have done or will do, God loves us, and forgives us when we repent and say, “I’m sorry.” I was watching another show recently in which one of the characters said, “forgiveness has to be earned.” It’s not hard to see why someone that has been deeply hurt would make such a statement. We don’t want to be hurt over and again.
But the truth is, we can never earn our forgiveness.
That’s sort of the whole point.
Grace flows out of our inability, not our ability to be reconciled—both to God and to each other. (Disclaimer: this does not imply forgiveness can’t involve appropriate boundaries, especially in the case of abuse.)
Timothy Keller, in his recent book, Forgive, has noted a marked shift in some Americans, especially activists, against forgiveness. Those critics suggest that forgiveness has been used to keep those in privilege from being held accountable. It’s a position you can understand. And yet, studies show time and again that forgiveness is the only path towards health and healing. Carrie Fisher is right, ”resentment is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die.”
This brings us back to The Last Of Us, and the character progression we see in Joel. That’s not to say forgiveness, especially forgiveness of ourselves, is easy. Obviously, a secular show on HBO isn’t going to go the faith route…in fact, unsurprisingly, when Joel and Ellie come upon a small Christian community, they are, dare-I-say, not so friendly or well-disposed to outsiders. And yet, we see in some sense, we are given a not-so-difficult to believe scenario in which a character has trouble living a life that is anything other than a life of survival. And so healing comes through a restored relationship. But in the real world, we know that the author of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and, dare I say even restored relationships, is God alone, who modeled what a flourishing life looks like.
The Last of Us is certainly not a show for everyone. The graphic violence is something to take seriously. But for those who do choose to watch it, there is a lesson in it for all of us. No matter how painful life can get, the only way to truly flourish is to find a way to forgive, whether that be someone else, or even ourselves. And then to connect with others. To allow ourselves to once again be open to love, even if that same love will eventually cause us pain.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
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