Turning action into drama also helped flesh out some of the game’s more derivative aspects. There’s no getting around the similarities to station eleven, The Walking Dead, Children of Men, I Am Legendand The Road. But the show transforms The Last of Us into a full-blown environmental fable.
Before the action-packed scenes of Joel and Sarah fleeing their home, there is a preamble: a Jack Paar-like talk show in 1968 featuring two epidemiologists. One warns that humanity is at great risk from a pandemic caused by a flu-like virus. The other scoffs: The real threat is not more bacteria, but a fungus like Cordyceps, which controls its victims by flooding their brains with hallucinogens and turning them into “billions of puppets with poisoned minds,” he says, “with one unifying goal: to spread the infection to every last human alive.” (Cordyceps is a real fungus that has a comparable effect on ants.) The host wants to crack LSD gag, but the expert is serious. It would take just a few degrees of global warming to encourage the fungus to jump to humans.
The second episode visits the infection’s place of origin, a flour and grain factory in Jakarta. The fungus grasps out of a victim on a mortician’s table. “Makes more sense than monkeys,” Ellie (Game of Thrones‘ Bella Ramsey) says at one point, referring to the outbreak’s origins.
For Mazin, the zombie is about mortality, forcing us to confront the corpse we will all become. Cordyceps is the great leveler, spawned by our relentless consumption. “I think the thread underneath it is: You don’t want to be too successful on planet Earth,” says Mazin. “I’m not an anti-progress, back-to-the-Stone-Age guy. But we must regulate ourselves or something will come and regulate us against our will.”
There’s also a genuine attempt to explore the traditional tropes of the apocalyptic setting, such as the descent into Hobbesian sadism. In the game, Joel and Ellie encounter Bill, an eccentric who has taken control of a town and littered it with hare-brained traps. His story in the show is much more poignant. Played by Nick Offerman, Bill is a full-blown prepper, eager to ring in the apocalypse. But when he captures a wandering survivor in his trap, the pair begins a 20-year-long love story. As they rebuild the town, Bill eventually discovers the poverty of his worldview. Even though some of his paranoid views were right—the world did end and the government was overrun by the Nazis—he had lived a meaningless life waiting for the end of the world.
Later in the season, Mazin promises an exploration of the roving lunatics, sadistic gangs, and religious fanatics that typically populate the zombie genre and provide simplistic cannon fodder for the player. In a scene set in Kansas City, an analogue to the game’s Pittsburgh section, Mazin and Druckmann wanted to explore why these people trick, murder, and rob innocent travelers for their supplies. “Neil and I felt: Let’s get under the hood, let’s understand some of these people, and let’s not steal their humanity, because it cheapens the impact of their sins,” says Mazin.