A rushed, disappointing season finale shows ‘The Last of Us’ should have lasted longer
Sticking the landing of the year’s most popular drama is not an enviable task, and “The Last of Us” set its own high bar heading into Sunday night’s finale. The zombie drama showed itself to be the rare video game adaptation, on the big or small screen, that honored its source material while taking its own detours for added depth and grace.
One of the more impressive aspects of the show is how it’s dared to move slowly against the urgency of a plot in which time is running out for humanity, taking care to build a complex emotional bond between main characters Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) while laying waste to zombies, FEDRA, Fireflies and other opposing forces in post-apocalyptic America.
Though risky, the thoughtful, spacious storytelling paid off: “The Last of Us” has been The Television Conversation of the year, from its stunning premiere (HBO’s most popular in a decade behind the “Game of Thrones” prequel, “House of the Dragon”) to the moving love story in Episode 3 starring Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman to last week’s hellish escape from a cannibal compound.
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But on Sunday, that underlying urgency finally infected the show’s pacing. “Look for the Light” felt harried and rushed, as if it was scurrying to get the job done before the closing credits. Across a relatively short 43 minutes (versus 85 minutes for the premiere), Joel and Ellie finally made it to that hospital in Salt Lake City, where doctors were waiting to study and replicate her immunity to the cordyceps fungal plague, saving what’s left of civilization. And boy do they need to do something fast. It’s a grotesque pandemic, with fuzzy tendrils crawling from host to host via a ghoulish wet kiss, turning the new victim’s head into something that resembles a cauliflower stuffed with angel hair pasta. Is it too late to warn folks not to watch this show while eating?
The series had taken its time building the bond between protector Joel and his ward, Ellie, but there still wasn’t enough groundwork to support the finale’s abrupt change in their dynamic. Stoic killing-machine Joel is uncharacteristically warm and upbeat at the beginning of Episode 9, initiating light banter with Ellie about playing Boggle and eating Beefaroni. The hardened survivor is even making plans for their future together: “Maybe I’ll teach you to play guitar.” The usually smart-mouthed, sarcastic Ellie is oddly quiet and pensive, presumably because she just hacked a man to death back at the creepy cult lodge.
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It’s a sudden leap for both these characters, even after all they’ve been through, and it’s jammed between Ellie’s dramatic origin story and an infuriating ending drawn from the game. As Joel said to Ellie before they entered the hospital where a team secretly planned to dissect her: “Maybe there’s nothing bad out there, but so far, there’s always been something bad out there… We don’t have to do this. I want you to know that.” She answers, “After everything I’ve done. It can’t be for nothing.” Oh, but it will be, Ellie.
The conclusion of PlayStation’s “The Last of Us” — Joel opting to save Ellie’s life, negating the purpose of their arduous journey and killing off dozens of people who were trying to save the human race — was a controversial closer back in 2013, and it’s just as unsatisfying now. It’s the first time during the run of this series from “Chernobyl’s” Craig Mazin and game co-creator Neil Druckmann that the HBO drama’s integrity suffered by sticking to the original narrative. It may have been easier to digest if “Look for the Light” were broken up into one or two more episodes. This may sound ridiculous given the propensity of streamers to stretch a two-hour story into a 10-part saga, but “The Last of Us” is the exceptional production that needed more room to land.
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As is, the finale appears to have been forced to wrap before it was ready. It’s tense and manic but short on suspense and nuance, and the giraffes got short shrift. Directed by Ali Abbasi, it flashes back to the beginning of Ellie. Her mother was alone and trapped in an old house, giving birth when a snarling, infected thing attacked. She killed it, but not before it bit her — with the umbilical cord still attached. That early, partial exposure likely explains why Ellie is immune to infection. Firefly Marlene (Merle Dandridge) arrives in time to save the baby and kill her friend before she morphs into a monster. It’s a backstory unexplored in the game, but the series could have spent an entire hour unpacking the event and its ramifications rather than a few minutes before the show said goodbye for a year, or three, or however long it takes between seasons.
HBO announced the renewal of “The Last of US” just two weeks into the show’s run. It’s one of many indicators that the cable giant has confidence in this high-end zombie drama. The premium channel pitted “Look for the Light” against the Oscars, after all, which says as much about the power of its newest hit as it does about how little the Academy Awards factor into programming decisions these days. But it’s doubtful the disappointing finale will hurt the future of a series built on a prestige video game, along with eight beautifully crafted episodes.
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