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Sorrel’s Side Quests: HBO Max’s “The Last of Us” finds new anxieties in an old apocalypse

The opening minutes of “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” are brand new. This episode of television, the series premiere of HBO Max’s “The Last of Us,” is deeply devoted to recreating events from a decade-old PlayStation 3 game. But for a few minutes, right at the top, co-showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann– the co-director of “The Last of Us” the game– have chosen to create something entirely original. And it quietly changes everything.

The episode opens on a 1968 talk show panel, where a host chats with two epidemiologists regarding the possibility of a global pandemic. One of the two doctors fears that the emergence of air travel will open the door for more far-reaching airborne viral infections (that should sound familiar). The other man has a different worry– were the average temperature on Earth to rise by a couple of degrees, he posits, parasitic fungi like ophiocordyceps unilateralis may feel the biological need to evolve to survive at higher temperatures, potentially opening the door to human infection. If such a spore burrowed its way into a human brain, it could take it over entirely.

“The Last of Us” does a few interesting things here. First, it provides some context for the seemingly random outbreak at the center of the game. But more important than the presence of an explanation is its meaning. “The Last of Us” as a video game is outwardly pessimistic. It posits that the world could fall into disarray at any moment because of a random act of god. This first episode of the show has a different thesis: the world is always in disarray, and it’s our fault. It’s a more dire and less cynical idea. After all, if we’re priming ourselves for disaster, we can do something about it– we just … won’t. 

As the epidemiologist speaks, the camera cuts to an enraptured audience that won’t look away. The show isn’t so hokey as to suggest that television is the real plague. Still, it offers a troubling notion: mass media has already become a network of mind-manipulating fungus.

HBO Max’s “The Last of Us,” so far, is pointedly concerned with the causal relationship between societal ills and literal illness. The original game begins in 2013, with an outbreak that led to almost immediate societal collapse. Wisely, the television series moves things back a decade. After that unsettling introduction, it jumps to 2003, at the height of post-9/11 America. 

A photograph of George W. Bush hangs reverently above a chalkboard in a classroom. Protagonist Joel Miller’s neighbor scornfully remarks that the world is becoming “godless.” Police cars roam the streets of a seemingly-peaceful suburban neighborhood. Even before things get really bad, there’s thick anxiety in the air.

Once bad meets worse, this pilot offers up a nearly shot-for-shot recreation of the notorious prologue from “The Last of Us.” This time, it feels a lot more upsetting. Fires break out in the streets, the military sends in soldiers with orders to kill indiscriminately. What once felt like a somewhat contrived lead-in to the apocalypse now feels like a natural breaking point during an especially fraught period in American history. As though to drive the point home, Joel’s daughter, Sarah, wonders aloud if this new plague has anything to do with terrorists. It doesn’t. As an especially prescient epidemiologist predicted in 1968, it’s all fungal.

So far, the changes made from the game in HBO Max’s “The Last of Us” have been small but profound. I don’t think the bones of the story will change at all, but Mazin and Druckmann have shifted things in clever directions, placing a fairly quiet, ground-level story in an entirely new political and ecological light. The original game’s incredibly depressing theory that complete and total collapse could happen anywhere, at any time and for any reason has been replaced with a concept that’s both more depressing and more hopeful. Every bit of this dystopia is our fault. Humans built the conditions for this particular apocalypse, and only humans can meaningfully respond to it. I’m personally very excited to see what the show does with that idea.

Sorrel Kerr-Jung is a sophomore studying virtual reality game development at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Do you agree? Tell Sorrel by tweeting her at @sorrelkj.

Sorrel Kerr-Jung

Opinion Writer

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