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The Last of Us finale review: Moments of beauty descend into a whole lot of bloodshed in brutal showdown

Some viewers might find that the HBO epic crosses a line in its last episode – into a violence that feels unjustified, even in a world of murderous mushroom men

Nick Hilton
Monday 13 March 2023 03:04 GMT
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The Last of Us trailer

What will survive of human civilisation when pandemics have stripped back the population, or the sun has swallowed our planet? A Hank Williams CD, perhaps, or Mortal Kombat II? These are the artefacts that survive the end times in Sky’s hit zombie thriller The Last of Us, which comes to its brutal denouement this evening. But for all the acclaim – all the gushing editorials about its place in the pantheon of TV shows that should be preserved from the apocalypse – can The Last of Us deliver an emotionally satisfying conclusion?

Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) are approaching their destination. Having dispatched the cannibalistic leader of a survivalist cult with a meat cleaver in the final minutes of last week’s episode, Ellie is struggling to stay upbeat. “Everything I’ve done,” she tells Joel, “it can’t be for nothing.” Out now on the West Coast, there are moments of beauty: a stray giraffe who eats from their hands, a rooftop of abundant vegetation. But this tranquillity is fleeting – soon enough, they’ve rendezvoused with the Fireflies and it becomes clear that Ellie is not intended to survive the process of synthesising a vaccine. Cue Joel’s moral conundrum and a whole lot of bloodshed.

For the first eight episodes of its first season, The Last of Us has been very good TV, with flashes of brilliance (such as the self-contained love story of “Long, Long Time”). It has stopped short of being truly great TV, only because of its over-reliance on the picaresque construction of the video game, which leaves proceedings feeling, somewhat counterintuitively, more episodic than a truly great show. And this finale – the shortest episode of the series, at just 44 minutes – is no different. Characters return, characters depart; and at the centre, Joel’s increasingly paternal relationship with Ellie remains. “So far, there’s always been something bad out there,” he cautions his 14-year-old charge as they approach their terminus. “We’re still here, though,” she replies.

And thank God they are, because the acting across the series has been excellent, and rightly acclaimed. Ramsey, especially, is just breathtakingly convincing as a precocious yet vulnerable teenager making her way through a bearpit of a world. The writing, too, from showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, has salvaged the series from the memeable dialogue of its video game forebear. But there are elements of the craft of The Last of Us that have been insufficiently celebrated, particularly John Paino’s extraordinary production design. The rendering of the Cordyceps infestation, a Vitruvian Man of fungoid bloom, stands alongside The Fly and Videodrome for the most effective body horror.

As watercooler television, culture to unite the masses, The Last of Us is a significant improvement on either of last summer’s blockbuster offerings (Sky’s own House of the Dragon and Amazon’s insipid Lord of the Rings prequel). That doesn’t make it perfect, and the finale is a clear example of the show’s inconsistencies. As Joel rampages through the hospital, on a mission to save Ellie from a sacrificial craniotomy, the violence suddenly transitions from the impactful, restrained brutality of the opening stretches of their trans-American journey into something more like, well, a video game. The emotional resonance of, say, the suicides of Bill (Nick Offerman) and Henry (Lamar Johnson) is overwhelmed by the almost war-criminal enormity of Joel’s vengeance.

Some viewers might find that The Last of Us crosses a line in its finale – into a violence that feels unjustified, even in a world of murderous mushroom men. It is typical, however, of the creators’ ambivalence. This is a vision of the future where life is both very cheap and very dear, where scores of nameless henchmen might meet their maker to save the life of one girl. It is symptomatic of a show that has been morally capricious, and leaves the inevitable second series finely poised.

In the wilderness of this desiccated America, the only law is the bond between survivors. Even after all the blood (and fungus) spilt in this first season, Joel violating the sanctity of that relationship, with the lie he tells in the final scene, still has the power to shock.

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