The Last of Us is finding apocalyptic meaning where The Walking Dead couldn’t

Over the course of the first six episodes of The Last of Us, Joel (Pedro Pascal) is a man without hope. But he’s trying — at least somewhat. After all, without it, one is left with nothing. And so Joel is constantly reminded that his shepherding of Ellie (Bella Ramsey) westward across the United States is more than just shipping a particularly snarky biology experiment. As we wrap up the sixth episode, Joel comes to believe this as well, picking away at the scar tissue of his past trauma until he’s able to accept that he might have a purpose beyond the day-to-day struggle for survival. It gives the series an obvious place to go, even when the narrative goalposts change.

It’s a message that comes close to feeling like a zombie world Sunday school lesson at times, but it’s also one of the parts of the show that feels the most genuinely refreshing. This is especially true in regard to The Walking Dead, another blockbuster apocalyptic show, which ended just before The Last of Us debuted. If any show was set to prove the opposite, that eventually mankind’s cruelest id will emerge again and again… and again in times of struggle, it was AMC’s long-running epic about Rick Grimes and a cast that consistently shuffled in and out because 90% of the time, they were on the menu.

With a half-dozen episodes under its belt, The Last of Us has reached its emotional pinnacle so far (though one could argue that episode 3, which shifted its focus to the beautiful relationship between Bill and Frank, is the zenith of whatever theme this show is gonna go for). Ellie confronts Joel about his inability to move on after his daughter’s death and how his fear is affecting her. When he changes his mind about leaving her, it’s a huge, vulnerable moment for Joel: Ellie needs him, and Joel realizes that he is capable of being needed again and that he can be there for someone.

Meanwhile, The Walking Dead’s first season only lasted six episodes and similarly reached a grand narrative point, sending Rick and company hurtling into their journey with new, upsetting knowledge about the zombie infection while also letting certain characters sour in their personal issues and even choose sudden death over indefinite misery. At this point, they’ve both shown clear examples of their narrative aims, and the results couldn’t be more different.

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Photo: Curtis Bonds Baker/AMC

It’s in the “indefinite misery” where the comparisons between the two series become the most stark. The relationships between characters are not totally different — though by the end it seems that The Walking Dead would be prone to use its expanded cast as mere cannon fodder, it wasn’t that way in the beginning. They’re often wracked with hurt, and each death is treated with appropriate and desperate grief. But one needs to look no further than the two main brotherly relationships — actual brothers Joel and Tommy in TLOU and close friends Rick and Shane in TWD — to find out where the paths diverge.

In TLOU, Tommy is set up as the potential wild card of the family, the little brother that needs protecting against his own worst impulses. Joel’s hunt for him isn’t just done out of vague sibling bonds. He needs to make sure that, in the time they’ve been apart, Tommy didn’t screw something else up — the sense of nurturing that he once had for his late daughter has now been passed on in warped fashion to his brother, an adult man who should be able to handle himself. When he finds Tommy, happy with a wife and a baby on the way in a commune, it is the exact opposite of what he and the audience expects. If anything, it forces Joel to reevaluate his own life as a loner that’s only good for dealing out more pain, and as someone who seems to long for a life far away from his responsibility to others and the potential human ache that comes with it. It frames his ultimate struggle as painful but surmountable.

When Rick manages to find Shane in TWD and take over as de facto head of their group, the course is reversed. Whatever back-slapping rapport that Shane once held has been slowly dissipated by the apocalypse, revealing a seething violent streak. It doesn’t help that Rick’s appearance means that Shane’s affair with Rick’s wife, Lori, is over, and Shane takes out his frustration with muscly displays of anger and vengeance. Rick’s reappearance means Shane also begins to lose time with Rick’s impressionable son, Carl. He’s a kid that seems enthralled with Shane’s good-’ol-boy mannerisms and tendencies and being alienated from him further crushes Shane’s purpose.

Shane (Jon Bernthal) sitting and holding a shotgun

Photo: AMC

Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) holding their hands up while surrounded by Jackson people on horseback

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Whatever responsibility he felt as a friend to Rick and as a cop has now mutated into haphazard displays of righteous fury. He nearly beats Carol’s abusive husband to death at one point (the zombies finish the job) and one gets the sense that he did it as much out of justice for Carol as out of a boiling dissatisfaction with his diminished role in the world. No longer a leader or a lover, he is only able to swing blindly.

As such, Joel and Rick become protectors moving in vastly opposite directions. Joel has realized his violent capabilities, with nearly everyone he meets recognizing that there is — or could be — something more to him. So he fights back against these trauma-born impulses, trying to become a good man on behalf of those he loves, or at least use these violent skills for good purposes. Rick, on the other hand, arrives as a total newbie in the zombie-infested wasteland, and while people believe in him and tend to implicitly trust him, he will actively push the limits of what it means to be a good man over and over again. The ingrained terrors of the bloody world won’t let him act otherwise if he wants to keep himself or his group alive. His misery isn’t a choice, and his family and relationships provide little solace — it’s borderline predestination that this world will ruin him.

Both series have the same theme — “The real danger isn’t the zombies, it’s the people, because get it? We are the Walking Dead, etc., etc.” — but the relationships between the leads renders them as opposites. TLOU finds a society attempting to scratch its way out of doom, with Joel and Ellie both finding that being impersonal allows an easier existence than the actual complications of connection. What they have succumbed to is what seems to be a growing cultural realization: One has to make those connections and to be without them, as Tommy seems to prove to Joel, is ultimately empty and downright detrimental. TWD doesn’t offer the same aspirations — if the world is to get better, it will do so through outlasting those that want to make it worse. Careening into hell, as Shane proves, is nearly inescapable, even with his best friend by his side again.

There have been many great works of art about humankind’s ability to spiral out of all moral control in times of strife and panic. The godfather of all zombie cinema, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, made its impact on the back of not providing a reassuring message. The closest the film has to a hero character, a brave Black man in the ’60s, is shot by a mob simply out of thoughtless fear. We leave the film knowing that humanity is perfectly capable of eating itself alive, even as zombies try to eat us alive. It’s a masterpiece.

Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) standing and looking at something

Photo: AMC

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey sit together at a table with food in The Last of Us.

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Now, whether The Walking Dead is a masterpiece is arguable, though Rick and Shane’s catastrophic brotherhood certainly made for some great television. But watching it at times became the televised equivalent of doomscrolling, giving us all manner of what can go wrong. It’s a show that opened with Rick Grimes recoiling in horror from a little zombie girl before shooting her, an ugly “what must be done for survival” that was horrifying at first and then became numbing as it was compounded. Goodness was only granted to characters who survived long enough to receive it, as they first had to work through what TWD deemed our instinctual effort upon realizing that the world was irrevocably ruined — paranoia, rage, and loneliness.

Without an emotional ending to work toward, this left TWD feeling much like Shane — swinging blindly on a road to greater depravities. These are zombie shows, so of course both are going to head toward the macabre fairly often, but TLOU’s bleakness is countered by the reverse course of its lead characters, while TWD’s moments of nightmarish dread pull the plot, characters and all, with them. Some of these were shocking and effective, but in many cases, especially as the series slipped out of mega-popularity, it gave no place for anyone to end up.

Eventually, with everyone having committed numerous atrocious acts, all you’re left with is a series of vague redemption arcs, ones that are destined to collapse as soon as the clock rolls back to “what must be done for survival.” It’s one of the reasons why the upcoming six-episode TWD miniseries focused on different characters, while obvious franchising, is actually kind of enticing — with just six episodes, the story has to be contained. The character drama has to lead somewhere. One can’t rely on the feeling that it will just get worse.

In its first six episodes, The Last of Us has shown that connections to others can give you a reason to live. Like the strawberries in Frank’s garden sprouting amid a dead world, it instead opts for a structure about finding purpose in connections with others. In a world with infected nearly everywhere, situations will only get more dire. But the show has concocted a post-apocalyptic brand of connection that seems worth saving.

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