Don't get me wrong: I love HBO's The Last of Us series. But what's the old saying? You're more critical with the ones you love? So, while my The Last of Us review had a five-star rating (out of five), that was only written having seen the first four (out of nine) episodes. And I sit here today having finished it all, and pondering how and if it could have been better.
One of the best HBO Max shows in ages, The Last of Us saw HBO flexing a muscle I never expected: the video game adaptation. And, yet, weeks later, I sit here with a Pedro Pascal character quote running through my head.
No, I'm not thinking about "the way," or the puns that Joel actually admitted to enjoying. I'm thinking about how Maxwell Lord (his character in Wonder Woman 1984) said "Life is good, but it could be better." It's a perfect time to think about how The Last of Us could be improved upon, as Bella Ramsey has revealed that showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann will begin filming The Last of Us season 2 by the end of this year or the start of 2024.
While I'll never argue that Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey or any of the rest of the cast (especially Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett) did anything wrong, there were tweaks that the show could have made that would have made it an even better series.
Of course, though, a spoiler warning must precede this list of how The Last of Us could have been improved.
1. Too many characters died too quickly
The law of diminishing returns started to hit The Last of Us near the end of the first season, thanks to a storytelling habit that the series developed. In the first, third, fifth, seventh and eighth episodes (five out of the nine), newly-introduced characters (Sarah, Bill and Frank, Henry and Sam, Riley and David) were killed off before the credits rolled.
For the first three instances, The Last of Us managed to deliver full-force gut punches. But with Riley's passing, it's very arguable that even new members of the audience knew she wasn't long for the world all along. That's partially down to her scenes being in a flashback, but after three episodes with one-and-done characters, the show leaned even harder on the capable shoulders of Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid to make their relationship matter to the audience. And because Riley's death was less-than-surprising, that took some of the pain out of her passing.
Additionally, David seemed all too disposable when he showed up in The Last of Us episode 8. Sure, you might not have seen him as a big bad, because he's not that tied to Ellie and Joel's overall mission, but with the history of quickly-disposed characters, there wasn't much menace to his threat.
How to fix it: Sarah would have to be killed off as she was, as would Bill and Frank, but I think you could have introduced Henry and Sam a little earlier, somehow, and then break up the pattern.
2. Not enough Kathleen
Unfortunately, in the one case of The Last of Us doing a good job of keeping a newly-introduced character — Melanie Lynskey's Kathleen — around for multiple episodes, they really could have kept her going at least a little longer. Admittedly, Kathleen's shocking death in The Last of Us episode 5 offered a pretty cool moment, but it definitely felt like Lynskey had more to give the show.
Up until that point, her character had basically three big beats. First, she was menacing to the FEDRA supporters she had locked up in Kansas City — including the doctor who was in charge of her own birth that she killed in cold blood. Second, Kathleen showed some of her soul as she mourned her brother, whom Henry had betrayed for Sam's cancer medicine. Third, she soullessly pondered aloud if maybe Sam was supposed to die. Then, blinded to the chaos surrounding her by her bloodlust for revenge, Kathleen was offed by a flying infected child.
This set of story beats shows Mazin and Druckmann's ruthless efficiency, but Kathleen could have still given more to the story.
How to fix it: Watching her killed off so easily was almost comedic, and it would have made Kathleen cooler had she survived that flying kid — and then been given a little more to do before dying.
Seeing as how Joel and Ellie make it to Jackson, Wyoming in episode 6, I don't know if it would have made sense for Kathleen to survive too much longer. She wasn't a warrior, but a little more from that episode — especially in battle — would have made the character more compelling. Or, hell, maybe Kathleen follows Joel and Ellie to Jackson, and gets got trying to exact revenge.
3. The Last of Us failed geography class
This one might be more of a nitpick, but it was a fail for such an immersive show. In The Last of Us episode 3, when Joel and Ellie were en route to Bill and Frank's house, we see a description on screen that reads "10 miles west of Boston," after Joel was rinsing his sore hand in the water of a riverbed. And he did so while being surrounded by trees, with a vista of mountains in the distance.
As everyone who knows Boston, MA and its 10-mile radius of land knows, that could not — at all — be within 10 miles of the home of the Red Sox and Fenway Park. Noted New Englander Stephen King was one of the many who piped up to complain, tweeting "Do you really want to tell me that's 10 miles west of Boston?"
THE LAST OF US. Episode 3: Do you really want to tell me that’s 10 miles west of Boston?January 31, 2023
And the team is aware of the complaints. As Mazin told the press (as TVLine reported) that Mazin admits that "Every now and then [in Season 1] you get a little bit of an ‘Oh, it’s Canada,’ when we don’t want it to be Canada," — and that "my goal is to do better next season, now that we’ve learned some lessons.”
How to do better in season 2: Like Mazin said, make your locations look like where they are.
4. Where were all the infected?
This is probably the one thing we can all agree on. While I understand that the human drama of The Last of Us is the true meat on its bones, it's not difficult to watch this post-apocalyptic show and wonder where are all these cordyceps-infected beings that everyone's afraid of?
I don't need more action scenes, necessarily, but more infected would have meant more immersion in this world. For example, the final two episodes of The Last of Us — which is 22% of the whole series — had zero infected on sight. Neither did the trip to Jackson in episode six.
So, you're telling me that our heroes spent a third of their time in this adventure free of clickers, bloaters and all the other dangerous infecteds? To that I say: come on! There shouldn't have been a single episode without them.
How to do better in season 2: Give us more infecteds.
5. Yes, the finale was rushed
This one ties back to the previous problem with The Last of Us, and left some folks I know with a sour test about the ending of the show. No, they're not arguing about Joel's decision, or how the finale was only 45 minutes long. To me, that was pitch-perfect, pulling out the rug from underneath all of those who expected a full hour, and putting Joel's decision and Ellie's "Okay" in even starker contrast.
No, what I'm more talking about is the lack of build toward the ending. Another episode — one of, say, a fight against more infected — would have helped make the Joel we get in the finale make more sense. For example, it was only episode 8 when he was recovering from the stab wounds from the penicillin that Ellie gave him. He's already ready to go on a shooting spree in a hospital? Doesn't make sense.
How to make it make sense: Lengthen out Joel and Ellie's trip to the hospital with a new 9th episode. It would be interesting to see how the still-recovering Joel and the traumatized Ellie would handle more infected.
Outlook: At least season 2 won't be rushed
It's already been revealed that Mazin and Druckmann are planning for The Last of Us season 2 to be only one chapter of their adaptation of The Last of Us Part II. Yes, people are already already talking as if The Last of Us season 3 will happen.
A lot of my critique of this first seasons boils down to "shouldn't HBO have given them more time and money," which I'll admit is rich considering the series reportedly cost as much as $100 million to make.
But since we've already gone over how The Last of Us is a hit for HBO, and how Part II has a high degree of difficulty to adapt, there's no reason to think season 2 won't be given all of the proper support.