Editor’s Note: The following contains likely spoilers for the first few episodes of The Last of Us.
The long-awaited trailer to HBO‘s adaptation of acclaimed Playstation video game The Last of Us is finally here. Developed for TV by Chernobyl‘s Craig Mazin and writer of the original game, Neil Druckmann, The Last of Us has become one of the most hotly anticipated series of the coming year, thanks in no small part to its star-studded cast, featuring Parks & Rec‘s Nick Offerman as Bill, Bella Ramsey as Ellie, and The Mandalorian himself, Pedro Pascal, as Joel. Whether you’re unfamiliar with the original game or are already a diehard TLOU fanatic, this article will break down and explain the key details showcased in the first official trailer of The Last of Us series.
Hope in a Hopeless World
The trailer begins with a philosophical question: “If you don’t think there’s hope for the world, why bother going on?” This question is something of a thesis statement for both the game and the TV series. It provides a hint at one of the core internal conflicts that TLOU‘s characters must face. If self-serving survival is all that one cares about, is survival even a worthwhile endeavor? The game’s primary playable character, Joel, is forced to come to terms with this question while transporting teenage Ellie cross-country as part of his work as a smuggler in a fungus-infected wasteland. This first trailer provides the viewer with a look at an overgrown, rundown U.S. city, with Joel and his smuggling partner Tess leading Ellie down a war-torn street toward a shimmering golden rotunda in the distance. The shot harkens back to similar post-apocalyptic series like The Walking Dead or HBO’s own beautifully shot sci-fi series, Station Eleven. Though the golden building in the distance is not a perfect match for Boston’s iconic Massachusetts State House, it seems to be a clear analogue to that location, an important place in the game where Joel and Tess are supposed to deliver Ellie to a rebel militia group known as The Fireflies.
The trailer fades to a high-contrast shaky cam close-up of Joel attempting to remain stealthy as the iconic sound of a clicker is heard. Once infected humans in TLOU devolve thoroughly enough, they mutate into clickers, blind and ravenous mutants that emit clicking trills as a form of echolocation, allowing them to stalk the player, or in this case, Pascal’s Joel. The viewer can catch a cleverly obscured glimpse of a clicker through the rusted frame of a dilapidated car in the next shot, which shows just enough to imply that clickers are bestial, often writhing and shrieking. In a few short moments the trailer establishes that it will be a thematically faithful adaptation of the video game, replicating both the game’s philosophical, interpersonal drama and its tense, stealth-based combat sequences. Through a bit of subtle performance work, Pedro Pascal shows that even his rough-and-tumble Joel is mortified of clickers. Anyone who has played the game knows that Joel has reason to be afraid. The game makes it clear that in most cases, being grabbed by a clicker means sudden and brutal death.
The next major scene shows Joel and Ellie conversing as they travel by car. Joel seems to be answering Ellie’s question that began the trailer, “…why bother going on?” He replies, “You keep going for family.” With a smirk in her voice, Ellie muses, “I’m not family?” Joel asserts, “No. You’re cargo.” Pascal’s soft-spoken, dispassionate delivery of this line, said while maintaining both eyes on the road, suggests that he is not only trying to convince Ellie of this point but also himself. Here, we get a glimpse into Joel’s psyche at the offset of their journey. After the tragic loss of his daughter, Joel is no longer willing to open his heart to other people out of fear of feeling the devastation of loss once more. Joel has a psychological need to keep Ellie at arm’s length because any attempt to treat her in a familial manner will dredge up his feelings of loss and potentially open him up to further trauma. His entire persona now is built around being closed-off and doing whatever he can to survive, hardening himself to his emotions. This is in sharp contrast to Ellie’s sly sense of humor and youthful naivety, both of which are key weapons she will use to puncture Joel’s emotional carapace as the journey continues, even as he fights it all the while.
A Quest for the Cure
In a montage of sweeping shots, the trailer reveals scenic terrain scattered with abandoned vehicles. There are also government soldiers operating a humvee, an armored car with a machine gun atop it. Fans of the game will recall several tense sequences in which they are forced to evade the humvee’s devastating bullet sprays. When Tess asks Ellie why she’s worth the risk of transport across such dangerous terrain, Ellie explains, “Somewhere out west, they’re working on a cure.” She then reveals her scarred over bite-mark, an indication that unlike most people, she is capable of surviving a bite from an infected human without turning into a creature herself.
As Ellie puts it, “I think what really impressed them was the fact that I didn’t turn into a monster.” Here Bella Ramsey showcases a bit of Ellie’s wit and sarcasm while also informing the viewer of the importance of the transport mission. Joel needs to take Ellie to a Firefly doctor in hopes that she can be studied and thereby create a cure to stop the nightmarish infections. We again see the key distinctions between Joel and Tess’s hardened mentality and Ellie’s youthful sense of humor in a moment that follows. When Joel threatens that he’s willing to kill Ellie if “she so much as twitches,” Ellie begins to mimic her own transformation into a clicker-like creature. This is hilarious, but of course, having narrowly evaded fatal attacks by such creatures time and time again, neither Joel nor Tess find it funny.
What follows is a montage of decaying buildings, heavily armed soldiers, and tense encounters set to a melancholy rendition of A-Ha’s “Take on Me.” Here the viewer sees that humans pose as much of a threat to Joel and Ellie’s progress as the infected do. Joel orders Ellie to “do what I say when I say it,” and the frightening shots of soldiers and militias suggest that he’s not just being officious for no reason. Joel knows that one slip-up could mean the end for both of them. A scene featuring a pair of new characters seems to suggest that heading west is a bad idea, further heightening the notion that Ellie and Joel are in for the fight of their lives. Marlene (Merle Dandridge), the leader of the rebel Fireflies, tells Ellie that she has “a greater purpose than any of us could have ever imagined,” her words reiterating the importance of their journey and seemingly functioning as a reminder to Ellie to take things seriously, as she could potentially save the world. The trailer presents a few shots that seem to be about Ellie’s life leading up to this point: a woman holding a newborn baby, Ellie staring at the main drag of an abandoned shopping mall as the lights turn on, and Ellie taking silly photos in a photo booth with her friend (and perhaps first crush) Riley. The latter shots seem to reference the DLC from the original Last of Us game, Left Behind, which suggests that this adaptation will not limit itself to content included in the game’s original 2013 release.
A character’s voiceover reminds the viewer, “Be careful who you put your faith in,” as the A-Ha song glides to its refrain. We see shots of memorable characters from the game, like Bill (Nick Offerman), a paranoid survivalist who owes Joel a favor, and the brothers Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard), whom Ellie and Joel meet and befriend on the road. Henry tells Joel, “You may not be her father, but you were someone’s,” a sentiment which is underscored by shots of Joel stepping between Ellie and harm’s way, suggesting that he may be forced to take on a fatherly role whether he wants to or not. There is a great shot of Ellie riding a horse through the snow, followed by one of Bill aiming a sniper rifle. As the song hits a high crescendo, we see a violent explosion along city streets (likely a shot adapting the game’s prologue in which the infection first takes hold). A man nearly slices Ellie with a meat cleaver. We see the same man leading a hunting party through the snow. It’s unclear whether this is the antagonistic character David from the game, or a new character meant to represent him in some way, but the implication is that this man is a threat to those he meets, especially Ellie.
The trailer rounds out with a few ambiguous but exciting shots. Ellie smashes some shelving of an abandoned building with a baseball bat. Joel is pursued by a rampaging infected woman. A blood-flecked Ellie embraces Joel. In the trailer’s final moments, we see something truly monstrous: as creatures emerge from a pile of burning rubble, viewers get their first clear look at a gigantic bloater, a massive heavily-armored mutant.
A Video Game, But Make It Cinematic
This trailer showcases something that was once thought to be impossible: an adaptation of a video game that looks not only good but like a captivating, prestige drama. It is clear that Mazin and Druckmann were passionate about capturing what made the original Last of Us game so special, while also adapting its story in a visually-stunning, well-acted way that newcomers could also enjoy. The show is set to premiere on January 15, and it’s likely that for fans of TLOU games, that date can’t come quickly enough.