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Looking back at ‘The Last of Us’: Did the show need more gore?

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Glass laboratory flasks on light table

The Last of Us took on the hefty challenge of adapting a video game into a show, and delivered exceptionally, with one of the best first seasons we’ve ever seen. Every decision the show made — whether it was replicating exact scenes from the game or featuring the game’s actors in newfound roles — included a careful curation of storytelling built on honoring the source material while introducing us to a new Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey). And the show’s more daring decisions to stray away from the game’s canon and reimagine particular (fan-favorite) scenes actually made things even better, despite everyone’s initial apprehension. 

While The Last of Us changed some storylines, including Bill and Frank’s and even the cause of cordyceps, one unique way the show formed its own character was by downplaying the game’s violence and gore. Yes, the show had its fair share of violence, but it was considerably less gory than The Last of Us‘ gameplay. This may have been disappointing for some, but it was an incredibly smart decision that made the show’s teasing of violence and gore all the more significant. 

Show-writer Craig Mazin explained that he was worried ceaseless scenes of gore would become numbing to an audience. If he were to replicate every ounce of the original gameplay, including having to shoot your way repeatedly through NPCs (non-playable characters), the violence in the show would become expected. The intentional decision to reduce violence made scenes like Joel’s displays of more animalistic aggression all the more surprising and important

Seeing Ellie’s sporadic moments of violence made her a smidge (fine, a lot) scarier.
Credit: HBO

The reason Joel’s torture scene in episode 8 was so gut-wrenching and shocking was in part because the show never introduced us to that side of him earlier, leaving room for us to expect better from him. If we were to have seen all the gory violence Joel was capable of early on, not to mention in each episode, the torture scene wouldn’t have made as much of an impact or teased (in just the right amount) who Joel was about to become in the finale. Recognizing the hostility of The Last of Us and its characters, but keeping it isolated, was ultimately a saving grace for the show — maintaining a level of the game’s exhilaration without the risk of compassion fatigue. 

Even downplaying the game’s gore by changing scenes like Joel’s stabbing, which in the game is a result of him falling off a platform and landing on a metal spike, didn’t detract from any intended shock factor. We all felt the same pitting “oh no” when Joel turned around to reveal he was stabbed. And other scenes, like Ellie finding a human ear underneath a table in David’s (Scott Shepherd) estate, also teased the right amount of gore without sacrificing her (or our) fear. We didn’t need to see David dismembering a body, as is in the game, to understand what Ellie was about to go through and who she was dealing with. Ultimately, the wild card decision for a dystopic, post-apocalyptic show to not revel in blood and guts kept the focus on our characters

It’s all about these two.
Credit: Liane Hentscher / HBO

The Last of Us isn’t about blowing up bloaters, it’s about Joel and Ellie. Minimizing Joel’s violence until one extreme scene of tunnel-vision aggression gave us significant understanding of the scope of his character and what he can turn into for the people he loves — something that wouldn’t have been as shocking had we seen it in each episode. Likewise, keeping the show’s gory violence limited meant we could also understand Ellie more. We’re allowed to see her reactions to Joel’s hostility through landmark moments instead of a continuous, forgettable drawl. We remember her initial allure to it in the pilot episode, where her violent side was almost activated, and then her anger toward it by the finale, when she realizes Joel’s failed her. Keeping the violence contained meant we could really see Ellie and pinpoint the exact moments that were influential for her. 

While it may have been disappointing for some, The Last of Us‘ decision to turn its violence into a rarity rather than a spectacle was the right one. We all love a good, squeamish fight scene, but that wasn’t the point of this season. The real pull was watching Joel and Ellie become something new, something they both could be if they wanted to — and what that all ultimately means for them next season

The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO Max.

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