Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from Episode 7 of The Last of Us.Episode 7of The Last of Us gives us yet another heartbreaking relationship in the middle of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic setting. By this point, we’ve watched Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Tess’s (Anna Torv) unspoken love for each other end with Tess’s sacrifice, as well as Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank’s (Murray Bartlett) tragic yet fulfilling love story span over a decade. Now, this latest episode “Left Behind” gives us Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Riley’s (Storm Reid) burgeoning love story which ends in, again, tragedy.
In many ways, this episode is reminiscent of other young adult dystopian romances in the past, especially with the craze over live-action adaptations of books such as The Hunger Games, Divergentand The Maze Runner series a decade ago. In terms of setting, they also take place in a dystopian future where resistance fighters rebel against oppressive governments. Another comparison can be made between how they use the overall political conflict to influence the characters and relationships of their stories. However , The Last of Us approaches these themes and storylines in a more intimate and gratifying way compared to the other YA dystopian stories, which tend to focus more on the revolutions and scale.
In the Not Too Distant Future
One key difference between The Last of Us and the other YA dysstopian adaptations of the past decade is the time period in which they take place. In the video game, the Cordyceps outbreak begins in 2013, then Joel meets Ellie in 2033. However, the live-action series sets the timeline even further back, with the outbreak starting in 2003 and Joel and Ellie’s adventure beginning in 2023. Though the video game is set some decades into the future, the setting is still a familiar enough world that lets audiences relate to the “normal life” that the Survivors have lost. Because the live-action adaptation is set in our contemporary year of 2023, we similarly can still see a reflection of our world in its story.
On the other hand, the settings of The Hunger Games, Divergentand The Maze Runner are set drastically far into the future. Though the books and the movies merely hint at a specific time period, it’s safe to assume that the futuristic world of those dystopian societies is at least a few centuries away from our time in the twenty-first century Although there are still remnants of the old world scattered around in desolate landscapes, such as in deserted cities and deteriorating skyscrapers, no one from that time period is left alive to remember what the world looked like before it turned into a dystopia.
Because The Last of Us takes place only twenty years after the outbreak and the fall of civilization, there are many characters who were alive in the world before and lived to survive the end of the world. In fact, we spend a substantial amount of time with Joel and his daughter Sarah on the day before the outbreak. This glimpse into Joel’s everyday life with his daughter plays a significant role in shaping his relationship with Ellie twenty years later.
Furthermore, because the outbreak begins in 2003, much of the technology of the live-action series is stuck in that time — before the rise of smartphones, social media, and artificial intelligence. Conversely, because The Hunger Games, Divergentand The Maze Runner are set so far into the future, the technology in those stories is more advanced than anything we can find in our real world, from the various weapons, vehicles, and other gadgets and devices. The analog and bare-bones tech and weaponry of The Last of Us keep the show grounded and even heightens the stakes for characters who are barely getting by to survive. Compared to the advanced technology of the dystopian YA adaptations which are convenient for the characters, the characters of The Last of Us are more reliant on their skill, wit, and overall humanity — which ultimately leads to The Last of Us‘s greatest advantage over those other films.
Intimacy Over Revolution
The overall plot of the various YA dysstopian trilogies adapted from the books leads to the culmination of a rebellious movement between resistance fighters and the dysstopian overlords. The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, ends with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) successfully uniting the Districts in a revolution against the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Mockingjay: Part 2 Especially is one battle set piece after another. Although Katniss does share some more personal scenes with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) throughout the series of films, the love triangle is ultimately engulfed in a story that is more focused on how the revolution is formed and ultimately succeeds.
In The Last of Usthere is definitely a number of revolutions forming in various QZ’s (Quarantine Zones) where everyday people are fed up with the oppressive regime of FEDRA. The Fireflies are a group of resistance fighters — or terrorists depending on who you ask — who are actively fighting against FEDRA in various cities. In Boston, one of the leaders Marlene (Merle Dandridge) is the one who finds out that Ellie is immune. Marlene is also the one who recruits Joel’s brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) to join the Fireflies.
However, whereveras The Hunger Games prioritizes the story of resistance and rebellion, The Last of Us merely treats the FEDRA vs. Fireflies conflict as a backdrop and instead focuses on the actual characters and relationships caught in the middle of it. Episodes 4 and 5, for example, take place during the “liberation” of Kansas City under the leadership of Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) and her own militia group separate from the Fireflies. However, those episodes are less focused on the actual overthrow of FEDRA and more so concerned with Joel and Ellie’s growing bond as well as Sam (Keivonn Woodard) and Henry’s (Lamar Johnson) brotherhood.
But there is no better example of this than in the most recent episode of The Last of Us“Left Behind.” We get a glimpse into Ellie’s life as a FEDRA trainee, while her best friend Riley is introduced. Riley had been a trainee alongside Ellie, that is until she sneaks out of her quarters and is recruited by Marlene into the Fireflies. It’s a classic star-crossed lovers’ story but in a dystopian world where mushrooms have infected human beings. But the advantage of The Last of Us is a series with multiple episodes is that the show can take its time with the characters.
The majority of this episode, in fact, is really just a date night in a shopping mall that Riley has planned for Ellie. Though Ellie and Riley initially disagree about their opposing sides, most of their time is spent wondering in awe of escalators, carousels , photo booths, Halloween costumes, and the second volume to Will Livingstone’s No Pun Intended. There isn’t talk of some full-scale revolution by the Fireflies or some counterinsurgency plan of FEDRA, at least not until the very end when their opposing sides push Ellie and Riley closer together. Their one last night together roaming around a shopping mall. with a soundtrack of A-ha’s “Take On Me” and Etta James’ “I Got You Babe” blaring through store speakers has more in common with Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist than with The Hunger Games or Divergent.
what The Last of Us Ultimately gets across better than other YA dystopian relationships is how love and friendship persist despite the seemingly hopeless circumstances of the world. The show does this, not by appealing to an overall sense of liberation and revolution, but through the en act smaller, more intimate characters. Whether or not the show will ultimately lead to a greater conflict between the Fireflies and FEDRA remains to be seen. But that conflict isn’t as enticing as the inner conflicts between characters like Ellie and Riley, and even brothers like Joel and Tommy , whose relationships are tested yet are ultimately fortified by love.