HBO's The Last of Us is masterful – but season 2 will be harder to get right

The Last of Us season finale
(Image credit: HBO)

Warning: this feature contains discussion of The Last of Us Part 2 game, so if you're hoping to go into The Last of Us season 2 fresh, proceed with caution.

Now that HBO’s The Last of Us has come to a climactic end, it’s clear that the TV show is an adept adaptation of the hit PlayStation game. With a unanimously-positive critical response, and bawling fans across social media, it’s not hard to see why the streaming service has seen fit to greenlight a second season of the high-caliber zombie drama.

Actors Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey had their work cut out for them, playing the iconic pair of Joel and Ellie – but have absolutely delivered, unfolding a terse but heartfelt relationship as they find themselves thrown together by circumstance in a cruel and dangerous world.

Showrunners Craig Mazin (Chornobyl) and Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann have managed to faithfully recreate the beloved game on screen – at times even shot-for-shot – while gradually zooming out on the wider world, capturing the horror of scientists, governments, and talk show hosts as an incoming apocalypse comes into view.

Given the iconic end to The Last of Us finale and game (won’t spoil it here, but if you know, you know), that contrast between a personal journey and broader societal needs feels like the truest way to expand the game’s world, and it’s hard to see how HBO’s show could have been improved.

Outside of the over-the-shoulder third-person viewpoints of Joel and Ellie, the TV format has allowed for fleshed-out explorations of other characters and NPCs, with episode 3’s heartbreaking depiction of Bill and Frank’s tender, decades-long relationship – taking passing details from the game and turning them into stirring hours of television.

It’s a difficult trick to pull off, appeasing fans of the original game’s aesthetic, narrative, and characterization, while enriching the story in new ways in a different medium. To put it simply, the show really is good.

However, The Last of Us season 2 will bring its own problems, and it might be harder for HBO to tread the line between faithful adaptation and creative license once again.

Things get weird in The Last of Us 2

The Last of Us Part 2 Seraphite

(Image credit: Sony)

The Last of Us Part 2 is quite a different game from its predecessor. The same core elements are here: roving AI zombies, action and stealth, Oscar-worthy voice acting, and cutscenes that last for days. But where the original TLOU game felt grounded, in a deadly but rather predictable apocalyptic landscape, the sequel ramps things up to 11.

Rather than facing nondescript soldiers and cannibal communities (so far, so Walking Dead), Part 2’s time jump sees new forms of societies emerge, with a shaven-head religious cult proving one of the main antagonist forces in the game – complete with whistling signals, highly restrictive gender roles, and ritual worship of a supposedly prophetic civilian.

This jumps far out of the comfort zone of The Last of Us Part 1, trying to sketch out an alternative future rather than simply the immediate aftermath of societal collapse – which, in its crumbled buildings and desperate scavengers, is pretty familiar to enjoyers of post-apocalyptic fiction in any medium.

The delicately-built sky bridges of Part 2, which connect the high-up floors of different skyscrapers together in America’s ruined cities, feel a lot more ‘apocalyptic concept art’ than the previous game, and certainly stretch our suspension (ha!) of disbelief a little further too.

It’s also worth noting that The Last of Us Part 2 is much more… unpleasant. If the first game sought to show how people respond in the face of impossible decisions, the second focuses instead on cycles of violence and trauma, and sees the damaged teenager of The Last of Us Part 1 become a pretty unrelenting revenge heroine.

From what we’ve seen so far, Bella Ramsey certainly seems up for the task, displaying a potent mix of teenage anger and vulnerability in her scenes so far. But The Last of Us season 2 on HBO will have to hit harder, while moving away from the more grounded apocalyptic fiction that Part 2 and the corresponding TV show sit so comfortably in.

The problem of a 'bigger and better' sequel game, is that any TV adaptation has to match its energy – which includes everything from the emotional stakes to the size and caliber of enemies, whether the introduction of floating spores or nightmare-inducing Rat King monstrosities.

The show’s creative team seems up for the challenge – but the hurdle is only going to be bigger next time around.

For more on The Last of Us, check out our breakdown of all of the changes made from the game, The Last of Us ending explained, and what the showrunners have said about season 2 so far.

Freelance Writer

Henry St Leger is a freelance write who has written for sites including NBC News, The Times, Little White Lies, and Edge Magazine, alongside GamesRadar. Henry is a former staffer at our sister site TechRadar too, where started out as Home Technology Writer before moving up to Home Cinema Editor. Before he left to go full-time freelancer, he was News and Features Editor reporting on TVs, projectors, smart speakers and other technology.