Review: Deeply human ‘The Last of Us’ is so much more than a zombie show on HBO

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews HBO's 'The Last of Us'

The hottest show on television isn’t airing Sunday night because of the Super Bowl.

Instead, HBO’s “The Last of Us” will drop Episode 5 a few days early, on Friday at 9 p.m.

That’s great news for those of us who can’t wait to watch, after four powerful episodes that have been simultaneously thrilling, heartbreaking and even thought-provoking.

Based on the 2013 video game, the series is set in 2023, but in this post-apocalyptic version, it’s 20 years into a pandemic caused by a dangerous fungus that turns its hosts into zombies. While grieving the death of his daughter, Joel (Pedro Pascal), must escort a fearless teenager, Ellie (Bella Ramsey), who just might hold the key to a vaccine.

Clearly, the premise hits close to home after three years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann were forced to quarantine their cast and crew for two weeks after entering Canada, which stood in for the United States during the 200-day shoot in 180 locations.

Directing alongside Peter Hoar and Jeremy Webb, Mazin and Druckmann craft a tone that is more serious than “Zombieland” (2009) but more realistic than “I Am Legend” (2007). It’s the best post-apocalyptic filmmaking since Alfonso Cuarón‘s “Children of Men” (2006), which similarly escorted a young person who represented humanity’s last hope.

Humanity is the key word to the success of “The Last of Us,” which features deeply human performances. Pascal portrays a man who has been burned so many times by grief that he doesn’t want to grow close to another kid, and yet he can’t resist Ramsey’s spunk as the precocious Ellie. Who knew that a video game could inspire such great acting?

Episode 1, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” opens with 1960s scientists debating future pandemics. In 2003, empty streets and low-flying planes recall 9/11 during Joel’s back story. Flash forward to 2023, as he and partner Tess (Anna Torv) rescue Ellie from the QZ (Quarantine Zone), managed by FEDRA (Federal Disaster Response Agency).

Episode 2, “Infection,” opens with another flashback, this time to the outbreak’s origin in Jakarta, Indonesia, with parallels to Wuhan, China. In 2023, the zombie action really picks up as we learn the infected are called “Clickers,” with terrifying fungi oozing from their mouths, as Joel and Tess escort Ellie out of Boston with an explosive, sacrificial ending.

You might think this is just another “Walking Dead” show until Episode 3, “Long, Long Time,” shattering our preconceptions with one of TV’s finest hours. Burly survivalist Bill (Nick Offerman) welcomes a surprise lover, Frank (Murray Bartlett), who grow old together like “Up” (2009). The final shot through a bedroom window is heart-wrenchingly poignant.

Detractors complain that it’s a tangent, pulling focus from the zombie action, but such “bottle episodes” have given us TV gold in “Pine Barrens” (“The Sopranos”), “Fly” (“Breaking Bad”) and “The Suitcase” (“Mad Men”). The Bill-and-Frank hate is just homophobia. God forbid viewers feel empathy for a gay romance. It’s life. Grow up.

In fact, the Bill-and-Frank digression brilliantly sets up all of the supplies that Joel is able to gather, including a pickup truck, gasoline and weapons that would have felt forced had the show not set up Bill as a doomsday prepper. Episode 4, “Please Hold Onto My Hand,” hits the road for adventure, including Ellie’s pun book with zingers about hereditary diarrhea.

After a cut-to-black cliffhanger, I can’t wait to see what happens in Episode 5, “Endure and Survive,” on Friday. Judging by the title, you can bet Joel will overcome this obstacle and continue moving west to bring Ellie to his brother Tommy’s house in Wyoming. We just have one piece of advice: stick to the highways and stop taking shortcuts through cities!

It would be wild if their journey brings them to Glendale, Arizona, where the Super Bowl is being held. It was smart to move Episode 5 to Friday, as zombies are tough enough opponents without having to face the Chiefs, the Eagles and Rihanna, who is “friends with the monster under her bed and gets along with voices inside of her head,” zombie style!

I’m curious to see the ratings for Friday’s episode, but so far audiences are eating it up. The pilot was HBO’s second most-watched premiere, with 4.7 million viewers on the first day and 22 million viewers within the first 12 days. The nine-episode first season will end March 12, and it’s already been renewed for a second season. So grab your popcorn.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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