HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ should be longer
Give more space for the actors to, well, act
Just FYI: Some “The Last of Us” TV show spoilers in this one.
There’s something I just can’t unsee about HBO’s “The Last of Us.”
The show, which adapts the story of the popular video game series1, debuted in January, and I’ve watched just about every episode as it’s aired. Recently, though, I’ve struggled to shake this nagging feeling that the show is missing something. That oomph. The secret sauce.
I think that missing thing is time.
Right now, the show feels like clockwork — or, less kindly, a Rube Goldberg machine. Every scene and line of dialogue is like a part in a crude mechanism; it plays its role to set up the next part, and that’s about it. You can always see the show’s scaffolding through the polyethylene sheeting: the objective of each line of dialogue and how it relates to and sets up what’s next. That’s not always bad, but here, there’s a transparency to it that’s almost unseemly.
Here’s an example. In episode 6, the protagonist, Joel, has an important conversation with his younger brother, Tommy. They haven’t seen each other in a really long time, and one of Joel’s big objectives up to this point has been finding Tommy. They meet up in a bar to chat.
Their conversation touches on a lot of subjects: The commune Tommy is living at; Why Joel’s got Ellie in tow; The revelation that Tommy is going to be a father. But the scene is very transparently about Joel. What viewers are meant to take away from the scene is that Tommy has learned to live with his trauma, and Joel hasn’t. The scene lasts about three minutes.
My issue with this scene is that I can picture the writer’s room in my head, and there’s a big whiteboard in the background with a bunch of arrows pointing toward the phrase “Joel Still Has Trauma.” The scene opens with Joel being snide toward Tommy for living comfortably. (Joel thinks this because he hasn’t forgiven himself for the bad things he’s done. He has trauma.) Joel thinks Tommy is distant and ungrateful. (Joel thinks this because he has trauma, and is bothered by Tommy’s relative well-adjustedness.) Joel reacts poorly to Tommy saying he’s going to be a father. (There’s that trauma again.)
This is fine, in a cosmic sense. Loss is a big part of Joel’s character, and it wouldn't feel right if he behaved randomly, in a way that was out of step with his character.2 You could also convincingly argue that, hey, this is a simple show. It is not setting out to tell a too-complicated story.
But this treatment just feels inelegant. A conversation between two long-separated siblings with a complicated past seems like it would, in itself, be complicated. How do these characters feel about each other? Is there ambivalence? Love? Disgust? Disappointment? In theory, there should be more there than what’s written on the page.
In "The Last of Us," though, there’s this relentless four-on-the-floor quality to the writing. In this case, all of it adds up to this thing we already know: Joel Has Trauma.3 It’s the “Oops! All Sledgehammers” school of dialogue. It is completely guileless; what you see is what you get. It's Infinite Content (shudder).4
And once you notice it, you start seeing it everywhere. The "constructed-ness" of it all. The whiteboard in the office. The big neon arrows propped up across each scene, flashing toward The Point Of It All, like the writers are in a hurry and really need you to Just Get It.
Now, in the most basic terms, it’s good when stuff in art means and builds up to something. You don’t want a story to spin its wheels. When something happens, you’d like to be able to interpret it and see how it fits into the bigger picture. A scene in which Joel and Tommy talk about nothing much and the viewer doesn’t learn anything wouldn’t be very good.
There’s a passage in “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” by the author and professor George Saunders that feels relevant here. Saunders wrote:
"The Last of Us," though, can feel economical to a fault. Sometimes I’ll watch a scene and it’ll feel like they’re moving as quickly as possible to set up the next beat, to earn that next bit of character development — and that bums me out! There’s no breathing room. No whimsy. No tiny actorly gestures or artistic choices that complicate or add depth to what you’re seeing.5 The figurative candy factory executives, in this case, have given too much rein over to the McKinsey consultants.
“The Last of Us” has plenty of quiet moment. But even these have a workmanlike quality; the show is always operating in the emphasize, underline, highlight registers, even when things look calm on the surface. My honest recommendation to fix this: make the show longer.6
What would length grant “The Last of Us?” More space for the actors to, well, act. I think what reads to me as bluntness is just the fact that a lot of the show is the actors hurriedly reading their lines and then scurrying off to the next thing. We don’t see them think about stuff. The camera doesn’t linger much. Everyone is a perfect talking machine, and most of the people we meet or follow are archetypes who just behave in a specific way. When we see stuff happening, emotionally, it’s sweaty and effortful and in full frame:
The best thing the showrunners could do is grant the show some room to breathe, to stretch its legs. Let these characters internalize information! Let them mull things over! Let conversations have awkward pauses and uncomfortable silences! Let people not know what to say! Let faces twitch and eyebrows rise — ambiguously! Emotion doesn’t have to be Jaws bursting onto the deck of The Orca; it can be a silhouette under the boat in otherwise placid, clear waters.
Substack is a venue for pretty informal writing, and I’m happy with what I’ve written here. Still, I realize this piece might read a bit harsh. My general feeling about HBO’s “The Last of Us” is that it’s a fine way to spend an hour every weekend, and better than a lot of other options. I’m comfortable missing the exact air time, though, or pausing the show if it’s getting late to go to bed. It’s fine.
So why is this newsletter so sharp-elbowed? Uhhh… Sometimes I’ll think myself into more evocative language as I write takes7, which can make a story too kind or too mean, depending on the subject. Usually, the solution is just having an editor, but I also feel like there’s something essentially honest about prose as it was first conceived. Writing is sometimes — and in this case — a means of processing feelings. This newsletter isn’t a first draft, but it is a first stab at articulating something. Is the thought process that led me to a phrase in the first place more honest than the edited, more-carefully-considered version that followed? (Maybe? Sometimes?)
If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.
I was also going to write something about why professional critics seem to like the show less than viewers but I think the answer is just:
Maybe I’ll write more about this someday.