It seems I was too quick to judge HBO’s The Last of Us. While the first four episodes certainly kept my attention as well-written and delightfully-shot prestige television, I had been a little let down as the adaptive process of turning the game into a show has, so far, left out the recreation of specific, memorable action sequences from the game. Well, with “Endure and Survive,” the fifth episode of the first (but not the last) season of The Last of Us, the show has revealed that it’s more than capable of adapting the action of the video game, and in some cases, just might be doing a better job with it.
Adapted from the hit PlayStation 3 title of the same name, The Last of Us’ gripping, character-driven plot exists alongside tense, deadly, moment-by-moment combat encounters. The player, as Joel, must overcome both hostile humans and infected with a combination of stealth, firearms, and crudely improvised weapons. For its first four episodes, HBO’s adaptation has, mostly, prioritized the story elements, choosing in some cases not to recreate memorable action sequences or feature unique, crafted props of the kind we’ve seen in the game. It makes sense for television to focus on the actors and the story, but until now I’ve found the show to be missing that key action ingredient I’ve loved so well, not just from seeing the game, but from playing it.
There’s a reason The Last of Us appears on our list of the best action games you can play this year. With a slower cadence than what you find in something like Naughty Dog’s other recent series, Uncharted, and an emphasis on survival, The Last of Us as a game injects tight, intense, action sequences throughout the narrative, reminding you that, however much things might feel under your control during the narrative downtime, you’re never actually safe in its deadly world.. The action sequences are when the rug has been pulled out from under you and you must deal with a situation in the here and the now. Mess up, and someone’s dying.
Our action game list highlighted the sequel, Part II, as being a bit more flexible, with more options for how you approach and respond to various situations. But the sequel follows what the first game already did so well: Moments where, forgive the cliche, all hell breaks loose and you must respond. Immediately. It’s stress-inducing action for sure, but damn, is it a thrill.
While I would’ve certainly traded the first game’s “upside-down” shootout sequence in the “Bill’s Town” level for the beautiful story of Bill and Frank we got in episode three of the show, I was beginning to worry that HBO’s TV adaptation would continue to leave out other, more explosive sequences rather than attempt to translate the immediacy of the game’s action to the screen. But here we are with episode five’s suburban sniper sequence. This gripping scene not only translates the game’s action particularly well, but does so with a narrative revision that makes the carnage even more intense.
Just like in the game, Joel and Ellie have teamed up with Henry and Sam. But this time, Henry and Sam’s situation is a bit more urgent. Kathleen, the leader of a revolutionary force, obsessively wants to see Henry die for his role in her brother’s death. Like the game, Joel, Ellie, Henry, and Sam must travel down an abandoned suburban street, moving from car to car to avoid getting shot by a sniper overlooking the area.
The TV show does depart a touch from this scenario as it exists in the game. To start, Joel isn’t faced with additional hostile forces on his approach to the sniper’s nest. And it becomes clear once Joel deals with the sniper that this individual belongs to the revolutionaries in Kansas City (the game’s parallel version of these events takes place in Pittsburgh and doesn’t feature Kathleen or any of the revolutionaries introduced in episode four). This is one of the improvements the show makes over the original game, something its sequel also worked harder to achieve: lending faces, complicated motivations, and identities to the antagonists.
But we need to talk about the sound design in the sniper sequence first. Though the show has caught my ear before (a particularly unnerving-yet-satisfying ambient music swell as Joel, Ellie, and Tess ascend the stairs in episode two’s museum is one such example), I am unhealthily obsessed with the gunshots in this scene. The exacting and penetrating strike of the sniper rifle’s shot is chased by a split second of silence that could swallow the universe, followed up with a timeless whisper of air and sensually percussive hits on the bodies and windows of cars. Satisfying bangs funneled into powerful clangs, sharp shatters of glass…heavy metal bands will spend their entire careers trying to deliver something so sonically beautiful and destructive at the same time. This is bliss.
The sounds are loveable as special effects and creations on their own, but the effect really drew me in with an intimacy of the kind I’ve felt in video games—and in particular, the one this show is based on. The scene that mirrors this one in the video game is one example, but the latter half of The Last of Us Part II also has a similar sniper scenario. Cover-to-cover movement with the threat of violence pressing you back is successfully brought to life on screen. But we’re not done yet.
Like in the game, Joel eventually gets to the top of the sniper’s nest, eliminates the shooter and must then get behind the scope as hostile human forces march forward. In the show, the personality-less mob of foes is replaced by new-character Kathleen on her quest for revenge, with her forces in tow. Joel must make several needle-threading shots, one of which is recreated from the game: Hitting the driver of a hostile vehicle, with the camera going behind the scope of the rifle itself. And yes, like the game, that car crashes into a house…a house which has a surprise in store.
The TV show’s vehicle veers off and crashes to the right side. It crashes on the left in the game; this mirror image of recreated scenes seems to be a common element of the show. Joel and Sarah are flipped in their position on the couch in the opening episode; Joel’s “I am sure you will figure that out” line of dialogue to Ellie asking what the hell she’s supposed to do while he naps in the first episode sees the couch he lays on flipped to the other side of the room.
And while a cluster of infected does ultimately flood the street in the game as well, it’s quite different in the show. Here, the emergence of a horde of infected from underground serves as the payoff to some wonderful foreshadowing in the previous episode and earlier scenes in this one, where we learn that FEDRA had previously chased all the infected underground as a way to “fix” the problem. It’s clear that this is something that will resurface to cause a problem. And in this scene, once you see that truck fall into the house…you know what’s coming, and that the hubris that led Kathleen to go to such extremes will soon claim its price.
Shattering the calm insanity of Kathleen’s myopic quest for vengeance, the fallen truck and the chorus of screams and roars from the mob of infected it unleashes is a powerful release, snapping us out of the daze of trying to follow Kathleen’s justification for cruelty. We’re barely given time to digest the contours of her bloodlust as the infected’s long-buried rage drowns out all, the great equalizer that considers no one safe and needs no justification for its wrath and violence. At the end of this scene, I felt the instinctual urge to put down the controller and take a breath. Except there was no controller.
Episode five’s sniper scenario doesn’t just adapt a key action sequence of the game, it makes it better. The pacing is tighter, more intense. The narrative wrapping pulls you into what’s at stake in a far more satisfying way, and it earns its zombie mob scene. This is the kind of game sequence adaptation I’ve been waiting for in HBO’s show, and it did not disappoint. Until next time, I’m gonna go see if Whole Foods has crow on sale.