The season-one finale opens with Ellie’s birth and the death of Ellie’s mother, Anna (Ashley Johnson), a story hinted at but never fully told until now.
Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Even the man behind The Last of Us is surprised by the symbiotic relationship that has developed between the video game and its TV adaptation. “They’re enriching each other in a way I wouldn’t have predicted,” says Neil Druckmann, co-director of the acclaimed 2013 PlayStation 3 game and co-creator of the HBO series that recently got the phrase “Baby Girl” trending on Twitter.
With Druckmann, unusually, in a key leadership role for both the video game and the HBO series, the relationship between the two versions of the story has been fascinating to parse. At times, the TV show offers nearly shot-for-shot remakes of scenes that appeared in the video game a decade ago; at other times, it departs radically from the source material. “We’d always talk about the knock-on effect: If we take this other road, what does it mean for the rest of the story?” says Druckmann. “If there was a change big enough, we’d take a step back and look at the whole season, or even past the first season. Sometimes we’d have to say, ‘Oh, that changes too much,’ and have to go back and undo it. You’re just seeing the version that succeeded.”
As The Last of Us winds down its first season, Druckmann unpacked the rationale behind some of the TV show’s most interesting deviations from the original video game.
The series premieres not with Joel or Ellie, but in 1968, with characters it seems unlikely we’ll ever see again. A scientist on a talk show (John Hannah) outlines a hypothetical future in which a fungus evolves to become infectious to humans.
We originally had a different idea for the opening: a David Attenborough, Planet Earth–style sequence where we’d show an ant with Cordyceps growing out of it. But it just felt a little dry. It felt like there was a more interesting way to dramatize it, and even insert some humor.
I don’t know that we needed extra information. But we wanted to make it clear that the Cordyceps have been around forever, and that people have been aware of it, and the danger of it, a long time before our story begins. Even before Joel is born. It just took a perfect storm for it to jump from insects to people.
The second episode again opens by flashing backwards, as an Indonesian mycologist (Christine Hakim) becomes the first to realize the world is ending.
With the game, we had pretty much a singular perspective: Joel and Ellie. We’re always in the United States and seeing things through these characters’ eyes. With the show, we made a conscious choice to leave their perspective. When this outbreak happened, how did it start? Where did it start? How do we make that an interesting vignette? To see an expert in her field and see the terror in her eyes. For her to say a bomb is the only chance we have. Often, in the real world, we look to experts. And when the experts panic, that’s when we get really scared.
In the game, Tess is killed while fighting FEDRA soldiers, giving Joel and Ellie enough time to escape. In the show, she’s instead surrounded by Infected, giving us an up-close-and-personal look at how Cordyceps spreads.
There was a Tess backstory we almost did for the second episode. That got pretty far. She was married and had a kid, and we explored what happened with that, but ultimately it felt like we could tell the story without it.
But it always felt appropriate to end her journey in episode two. The person Joel is closest to at that point in his life is Tess, so to have her dying wish be taking this girl was the only way to get him to continue with Ellie. The game was engineered in the same way, but because we’d already moved on from FEDRA in the previous episode, we wanted to change the second episode to explore the Infected. To demonstrate, really, what happened in those 20 years, and why so many of us died off.
As far as how, specifically, Tess was infected — we wanted to show these things are not inherently violent. They’re only violent if you’re fighting back or running away. If you’re just standing there calmly, all they need to do is send their mycelium into you and infect you. And we wanted it to be beautiful. We’ve tried to do that across the board. When you see an empty street, even though there’s death in the emptiness, there’s beauty in nature reclaiming her domain. The skies are clearing up because there’s no smog. It’s beauty mixed with sadness, death, fear, and panic.
In the show’s biggest departure from the game, we spend an episode with Bill and Frank, bearing witness to a love story that sustains both men through the apocalypse and up to their relatively peaceful deaths before Joel and Ellie arrive. In the game, Joel and Ellie meet Bill and discover Frank has hanged himself, leaving a bitter note for Bill to find.
In the game, that sequence is about Joel learning to trust Ellie a little more. It’s also showing a counterpoint: This is what could happen if you prioritize survival over everything else. It was a cautionary tale.
The biggest flaw it had, as we were trying to port it over from the game, is that it was very action-driven. And the way the show was evolving was not so action-driven. We have action sequences, but we felt like if we were just killing a bunch of Infected — which we do in the game to get you immersed and master the mechanics — it would get boring. The Infected would become less threatening, not more.
So we started to think about the drama that would benefit this version of the story most. And we started realizing we had a lot of negative counterpoints for what Joel could experience, but we didn’t really have a positive one. There’s an opportunity here. What if it became the opposite? In our conversations, when we hit a dead end, we often say, “What if we did the complete opposite of this idea?” In this case, instead of showing a negative counterpoint, what if we say, You can win in this world. It’s actually possible to succeed, and find love, and be happy, and live a full life.
That was our a-ha moment. The fight you see in the suicide note is very similar to the fight they have in the show: Bill believes it’s just about survival and nothing else, Frank says there’s more to life than that. In the game, Bill never bought into that argument, and the fight became bitter and resentful. Our what-if was: What if he did change? What if Frank convinced him there was a better way of living?
I started thinking about the knock-on effect. Okay, so Bill’s not alive. Well, Bill doesn’t show up anywhere else in the story, so that doesn’t matter. At the end of the episode we still end up in the same place, with Joel and Ellie in a truck driving to Tommy. But by showing you can succeed in this world, it gets you to root for them more, because there’s a chance they can come out on the other side happy.
In the game, Joel and Ellie square off against numerous antagonistic factions without learning much about them. In the show, the group hunting Sam and Henry, and eventually Joel and Ellie, is given a leader in Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey).
The game has this mechanic — what we call “environmental storytelling” in games — that we couldn’t do in the show. When you walk around spaces, you can look wherever you want, and you can spend as long as you want in them. Just by looking around you could see there was a fight and a resistance that fought back. And then you could find notes from the resistance and learn that they started with altruistic goals before becoming the thing they fought against. But we never personified that with a character, and the people you encounter in the game are just an obstacle. So we started thinking: Who would be their leader? Why would they rise up? We became very intrigued with humanizing some of these “villains” and seeing what makes them tick.
Co-creator Craig Mazin had the idea to cast Melanie Lynskey. It was very intriguing, because it’s not necessarily who you’d expect, but I could see why people would follow her. She has resolve in a way that very few people do in this show.
That conflict culminates in a massive action sequence in which The Last of Us debuts a “Bloater,” an especially dangerous Infected enemy from the games.
We were debating whether to do a Bloater — whether that would be too much. But we wanted to show that this infection doesn’t stop. It keeps evolving, keeps becoming more dangerous. We added the Bloater later.
One memorable beat of environmental storytelling in the games comes when Joel and Ellie enter the aftermath of a once-hopeful community that collapsed, as dictated in a series of documents left behind by a man named Ish. This setting, while briefly glimpsed, is never elaborated upon in the series.
I don’t know if we ever considered an episode about Ish. It’s a nice backdrop with some thematic flavor for the game, but because Ellie and Joel are not changed by that character, it didn’t feel like it was worthy of an episode on its own. You can’t do it all, so you have to pick and choose. But we have a lot of ideas for the next season for stuff like this.
In the first game, Joel and Ellie never actually enter the Jackson community. In the show, we get a portrait of what a thriving community looks like in the post-apocalypse.
If you look at the artbook for the first game, there’s a lot of art of Jackson. We actually wanted to go inside Jackson, but we ran out of time and money, so we go to the power plant.
It felt like a straight-up win for the show to go into Jackson. When we made the first game, obviously, we didn’t know where the second game was going to go, and this time we knew exactly where it was going to go. There were tracks we could lay — things for Ellie that would better establish the character she becomes in the future. Again, it establishes you could live a comfortable, healthy life in a thriving community if you just give up on this quest. Or, if you finish this quest successfully, there’s a place to return to. It was important to show it instead of just talking about it.
And there are a lot of Easter eggs and callbacks to the second game. Which our fans figured out in five seconds.
In the game, Joel is injured when he falls onto a rebar, forcing Ellie to guide him out while killing numerous antagonists. In the show, Joel is stabbed by a broken baseball bat.
That is one of my favorite sequences from the first game. You’ve been playing as Joel, upgrading his skills and weapons, becoming this really capable murderer. And he falls on this rebar and gets injured so badly that we start removing mechanics. Ellie is leading the way, and yelling and panicking, and has to kill a few people to get on the horse and escape.
But it was one of those things where we had to be honest and say that the story we’re telling in the show is a little different. Each kill in the show has a lot of weight, more so than the game. If all of a sudden we’d done that sequence, it would have felt like too much. Tonally we’d suddenly have been on a different show.
The show also spends more time on one of the game’s more horrifying antagonists: the religious cannibal leader David and the desperation of the community he leads.
We had fleshed out a whole intro where we saw David in the outbreak. We were interested in his reaction to the outbreak and the chaos that ensues. Where everybody else panicked, he seemed excited, almost like this was the moment he’d been waiting for. But ultimately, it felt like we wanted to stay more present tense.
In the game, you only get David when Ellie’s around. He’s an interesting character because he puts on different masks depending on who’s in front of him. We wanted to show how he leads, and how he’s so charismatic that people follow him. All he has to do is give James a look and James just looks at the ground. You understand their dynamic immediately. With the other kids, he can be loving and supporting or threatening and scary.
We also wanted you to see how beaten down this community was, and why they’ve made certain choices, because it’s so easy in this genre to have the cartoony cannibals. We wanted to show David controlling the flow of information, and that most of the people in the community don’t even know what’s happening.
When Joel recovers in the show, as in the game, he brutally tortures a member of David’s flock for information.
We went back and forth on the Joel torture sequence. There was a version where we didn’t have that. We were worried it would be too much, but we finally felt we weren’t demonstrating the things this guy has done and what he’s capable of enough. So we added it back in.
The show also riffs on a memorable boss fight from the game, as Ellie turns the tables on David and kills him, enduring yet another trauma in the process.
In the game, it’s a much longer sequence, and it’s engineered to make you believe that you will play as Joel, bursting through the door and rescuing Ellie. But as in the game, it was important to show that she survives on her own, and that she’s learned so much from Joel that she doesn’t need him to rescue her physically. What she needs him for is to rescue her emotionally. To be a dad.
The season finale opens with Ellie’s birth and the death of Ellie’s mother Anna (Ashley Johnson) — a story hinted at but never fully told until now.
This story had so many permutations of how it almost came to life. We discussed doing an Anna story as a separate game, which never came to life but helped inform the sequence. There was a time I wanted to shoot it as a live-action short story and I was talking to Ashley Johnson about having her star in it.
By placing the cold open here, you get to see that Marlene and Anna really care for each other. And it was important to show that both Joel and Marlene really care for Ellie, because that’s what makes the decision really hard. Joel feels he will do whatever to rescue his very small tribe of one other person, and Marlene is willing to sacrifice her own morality to save as many people as possible. Then we put them at odds with each other.
There were times when I thought the Anna story would never come to life, and then an HBO show came along and it found its way there. Every time I think a story is dead and never coming back, it finds a way.
In the finale, Joel reveals that he attempted suicide the day after Sarah died.
There is an optional conversation in the game that players can miss. Joel and Ellie find a bathtub with the skeleton of someone who committed suicide, and there’s a short exchange where Ellie says, “Oh, looks like they took the easy way out.” What Joel doesn’t know is that she’s repeating Riley’s language. But what Joel says is, “It’s never easy,” and the implication there is that he tried and couldn’t do it.
So we took this exchange and fleshed it out. Craig had the idea that he’d have this scar that we could talk about very early in the season. And so these two characters are carrying these secrets. Ellie never fully talks about Riley until the very end, and Joel never talks about the suicide attempt, or Sarah in general, until the very end. It symbolizes that all the cards are on the table. They fully trust each other and are fully being honest with each other. Until they’re not, at the very, very end.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.