HBO’s The Last of Us Doesn’t Make Any Damn Sense

I feel like I should be enjoying HBO’s latest prestige series The Last of Us a lot more than I actually am. I want to like this show, and don’t get me wrong, I don’t actively dislike it. As expected of the network, the program has excellent production values. It also has well-drawn, appealing characters played by good actors, and a strong emphasis on their character development. Individual action or suspense set-pieces within the episodes are compelling. Unfortunately, I just can’t get over the fact that the central premise behind the series is, frankly, complete nonsense.

Part of the problem, or even the main problem, may be that The Last of Us is based on a popular video game franchise whose creator (Neil Druckmann) is also one of the guiding forces behind the TV adaptation. As such, the show feels beholden to stay true to the games. As we saw with last year’s Halo adaptation on Paramount+, gaming fans get very testy when a film or TV adaptation deviates from their precious gaming canon to even the slightest degree. That can prove very problematic, in that video games aren’t exactly known for the quality of their writing or storytelling. Most games have simplistic plots to facilitate letting players run around shooting and blowing up everything in sight until they defeat level bosses in the most badass way possible.

Having said that, I’m going to admit that I haven’t played The Last of Us game or its sequel. I’m assured by fans that they actually have a really good, surprisingly complex story, in a different class than most comparable video games. I’m not in a position to judge that. Maybe they do, and maybe I haven’t given the TV series enough time yet to let that unfold. I’ll concede to having a bias that’s probably coloring my opinion of the first few episodes. Even if that’s the case, the TV show still has some glaring problems that hold me back from embracing it.

Walking Dead 2.0

AMC’s incredibly successful and iconic The Walking Dead became an instant cultural phenomenon when it launched just over a dozen years ago. Between that show and its spin-offs, we’ve had more than twenty collective seasons of storytelling set in a zombie apocalypse, with at least three more upcoming series in the works for the franchise. That’s to say nothing of the many knock-offs and imitators, such as Syfy’s Z Nation (five seasons) or Netflix’s Kingdom (two seasons), Black Summer (two seasons), and recent Resident Evil adaptation (one season). Of course, we’ve also had a ton of movies (including the original Night of the Living Dead and its sequels) and video games on the subject. Between all those and more, is there anything left to explore in this genre that hasn’t already been thoroughly covered?

Immediately, fans may take issue with my lumping these things together, as the monsters in The Last of Us are not technically zombies in the traditional sense. They’re human victims infected by a fungus that takes over their brains, but are not undead. Yet the show still follows all the usual tropes of the genre, and these fungus monsters behave enough like zombies to make the distinction semantics. The pilot episode suggested that the Infected are still mortal and can be killed in the same ways regular humans can, but that rule gets thrown out by just the second episode, in which we see protagonist Joel (Pedro Pascal) shooting the Infected and fighting with them to little effect until he can get a clean headshot. The not-zombies also seem to have superhuman strength and senses as a result of their fungal mutations.

Zombies or not, post-apocalyptic shows of any sort (whether aliens, vampires, viruses, or climate change-related) have gotten to be an overplayed cliché at this point, and I’m not sure that this one brings much new to the table. Apologists will argue that there are no truly original stories left to tell, that everything is derivative of something else, and that what actually matters is how well each one is executed. Is the story well told? Are the characters interesting? I can go along with this line of thinking to a certain extent, and it’s probably the main reason I haven’t already given up on The Last of Us. I do find these characters interesting so far and want to know what happens to them. All the same, I can’t help that an over-abundance of content leaves me feeling burned out with this entire genre. The Last of Us may simply be too late to break any new ground.

Boston Uncommon

Over the last couple weeks, The Last of Us has been very rightly ridiculed on social media for its ludicrous depiction of Boston-area geography. Admittedly, as a Boston resident, I’m more sensitive to this than viewers from other parts of the world may be. I understand that the series is actually filmed in Canada for budgetary and logistical reasons, and that the Boston setting is mostly kludged together by a lot of set dressing and visual effects. Scenes in the early episodes showing characters walking for hours to reach locations only a few blocks apart can be forgiven, but this issue really drew attention to itself in Episode 3, which opens with a caption stating “10 Miles West of Boston” over an image of a vast mountainous wilderness.

The Last of Us (2023) - 10 Miles West of Boston

Ten miles west of Boston are the lovely and quite populated suburbs of Newton and Waltham, neither of which are woodland expanses or anywhere near a mountain.

I don’t necessarily expect or need exacting attention to geographical precision from a TV show about fungus monsters taking over the world, but this is just silly and suggests a lack of attention. Boston may be pretty small by metropolitan standards, but like any major U.S. city, it’s surrounded (on the sides not facing the ocean, at least) by extensive suburban sprawl. If the show-runners needed a scene set in a forest as part of the story, the characters would have to trek a hell of a lot further than ten miles. And if the forest wasn’t really essential, surely they could have cheated something a little less absurd and avoided using wide shots of the mountains.

Mushroom Kingdom

That forest scene leads to perhaps my most serious criticism of The Last of Us. In a world where society has collapsed due to a global fungal apocalypse, would anyone really be stupid enough to take a walk in the woods? THAT’S WHERE FUNGUS LIVES, DUMMIES!

Episode 4 opens with young Ellie (Bella Ramsey) inside an abandoned gas station bathroom, totally unconcerned that the walls are covered with mold. Which. Is. A. Fungus!

A few minutes later, the characters make camp for the night in the woods again.

The fungus aspect of this story makes no sense at all, on any level. The show’s pilot episode opened with an expositional prologue laying out the premise that fungus evolved due to global warming raising the planet’s temperature by a few degrees. Even if we suspend disbelief for that, this is a big planet with a lot of different climate zones, and a lot of different types of fungi. A few degrees in, say, Florida is not going to have the same effect it would in Northern Canada. Did only one particular type of fungus evolve, or did every fungus coincidentally undergo the same evolution at the same time? This isn’t clear. What about regions that are already naturally much hotter than the United States, such as the Middle East? Do those countries have widespread fungal growth? Of course not, because they don’t have the moisture to support it.

Yet The Last of Us would have us believe that this fungal evolution was a global phenomenon that hit the entire planet all at once. In a later episode, Joel tries to explain a theory that the fungus somehow got into the food supply and spread quickly around the world, but even that’s hard to believe when different cultures have very different diets. I’d also assume that cooking food would kill just about anything. If fungus got into flour, it wouldn’t survive being baked into bread. Yes, perhaps it could have gotten into some other staples that aren’t typically cooked, but we still have to believe that over 80% of the world’s population consumed this fungus in a short period of time. That’s a lot of disbelief to suspend.

Compounding this is a decision the show-runners made to explicitly state that the super-fungus can only be spread by physical contact – one fungus monster biting a human or shoving tentacles down a person’s throat. It cannot produce spores or spread by airborne means – hence the lack of concern about hiking through the woods. In fact, the characters only ever worry about fungus when it’s already inside a human zombie host, and give no thought at all to the fungus that infected them in the first place.

This choice was made for the pragmatic reason of not wanting the actors in the show to cover their faces with masks in every scene, but it really undercuts the plausibility of the story. The lack of airborne transmission would greatly limit and slow down the spread of such a fungus.

The doctors and scientists in the show also behave like a fungal infection is totally unstoppable and incurable. Because it’s not a virus, vaccines won’t work against it. Once fungus gets into your system, that’s it for you – game over, nothing to be done about it. And once the fungus evolved, nothing could stop it from spreading. In a flashback scene, a mycologist advises the military to firebomb a city where an outbreak started. Are we supposed to believe that this story takes place in a world where fungicides were never invented, and anti-fungal medications don’t exist?

Most preposterous of all is the idea that, after traveling around the world, the fungus lied in wait until it was ready to take over. Joel tells Ellie that society fell in just a single day. This suggests that the fungus planned and coordinated a simultaneous attack all over the planet, across continents and oceans, to happen all at once everywhere. Did the fungus evolve into intelligent sentience? The series hasn’t suggested anything like that so far. From what we’ve seen, it mostly behaves just like the fictional viruses in other zombie shows. It’s highly infectious, but doesn’t think. True, we’re only a few episodes in, and I haven’t played the game. Perhaps that’s a plot twist to be revealed at a later time, and I don’t know how I’d feel about it. That seems even dumber and more far-fetched than the rest of this nonsense.

No, I’m not a mycologist. Maybe my understanding of how fungus works is off-base and some of these things are theoretically possible, but something tells me that’s not the case. I’m having a very hard time buying into the show’s central premise, and that’s a big problem for a “high concept” series like this.


One thought on “HBO’s The Last of Us Doesn’t Make Any Damn Sense

  1. Yeah, that forest scene “10 miles west of Boston” made me laugh out loud. Not only is that not 10 miles west of Boston, it’s nowhere near the east coast. Those trees and landscape scream western US mountains. The science behind what fungi can or can’t do is also ludicrous. Microscopic spores would be flying around all over the place and infecting everyone. Also, LOL’ed at the idea that fungicides don’t exist. Anyway, you’re thesis is undeniable. This is 100% mushroom zombies. I still wanna see where the story goes though. HAHAHA


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