The Last of Us premiere doesn't trust its audience enough
The importance of subtlety.
The opening half-hour of The Last of Us is heart-wrenching. Even those who have played the original Naughty Dog game may still wince at the tragedy that protagonist Joel has to go through. It is a moment that works just as well on-screen as it did in the game, solidifying that this is a great adaptation. But when the premiere continues to revisit this moment again and again, it loses its weight and highlights the greatest flaw of HBO’s The Last of Us — it doesn’t trust its audience.
Spoilers for episode 1 of HBO’s The Last of Us ahead.
Play it again — Joel’s daughter Sarah is an important figure in The Last of Us, despite dying in the opening moments. Her tragic end is the key explanation for Joel’s motivations and how he interacts with the world around him. The loss of his daughter also sets the stage for his tumultuous but transformative relationship with Ellie.
HBO’s adaptation of Sarah’s story follows the game very closely, with some fleshing out to make audiences fall a little more in love with her and make her absence all the more tragic. Which it is. Watching Sara slip away in her father's arms is just as heart-wrenching as the first time I experienced it in game. While this moment hangs over the rest of the story, the series takes this to the next level by shoving it in the audience’s face at every turn.
Less than ten minutes later, we see Joel twenty years later in a post-apocalyptic Boston where he takes odd jobs such as disposing of infected bodies by dropping them into a mass bonfire. One body is that of a child, even younger than Sarah was; he picks up the body in the same manner we saw him carry his daughter and lower it into the bonfire. This shot is original to the series and at first, I thought it was a subtle way to reinforce the lingering weight of Sarah’s memory — until they do it again.
Near the end of the episode, Joel, now with Ellie, finds himself at the wrong end of a FEDRA agent’s rifle. Begging for him to reconsider pulling the trigger — the audience is well aware of how this situation ended twenty years ago — and at this moment the show flashes back to Sarah’s final moments.
The show feels the need to hammer into the audience what they should be thinking and loses some of the subtle genius of the game.
Are you paying attention? — One of the series' greatest strengths, according to critics, is how it builds out the world and characters that the game did not flesh out. While there is merit to this, this moment in the premiere undermines the game’s subtler storytelling.
The game features no flashbacks or heavy-handed illusions of things the audience should be paying attention to. Instead, it takes a more relaxed approach of letting the player mull over the events presented, and in some cases try to uncover more information on their own. While much of this is due to the interactive nature of games that a TV series should not be expected to replicate, it does suggest that sometimes restraint is better than exposition.
Sarah is the most prominent example in the premiere, but it’s not the only one. Much more space is given to fleshing out the backstory of the Fireflies, as well as throwing out early references to important characters like Riley and Bill that may as well be red flashing signs that read “THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER.”
So much of The Last of Us’ premiere episode centers on building out the world and laying the groundwork for supporting characters and side stories that will appear later in the season. What is lost is a focus on Joel and Ellie, making the core relationship feel secondary even though their relationship is what is so special about the original game.
Hopefully going forward the show pulls back the camera’s focus on heavy-handed shots in favor of trusting the audience and letting the “greatest story that has ever been told in video games” speak for itself.
The Last of Us airs Sundays on HBO Max.