Warning: this article contains spoilers for The Last of Us finale.
After nine episodes, The Last of Us finale aired on Sunday night with a violent and poignant finale that mirrors the shocking events of the 2013 video game. Just like in the source material, Pedro Pascal’s Joel goes to inhumane lengths to save Ellie (Bella Ramsey), and in the process dooms the remnants of the world to a prolonged post-apocalyptic existence.
Ahead of the final episode, we sat down with co-creators Neil Druckmann (who co-created the video game) and Craig Mazin to discuss the creative decisions and diversions driving Season 1, how they approached adapting such a sacred ending for TV, and where they hope to take the series for season two and beyond as they adapt the next game, 2020’s The Last of Us: Part 2.
GQ: Craig, you’ve talked a lot about how much you love the original game. What was your first interpretation of it when you played it in 2013?
Craig Mazin: I initially wasn’t planning on playing it because it was a zombie game. That’s what I knew: zombie game.
Neil Druckmann: Actually, the word zombie is banned.
Mazin: I’m still angry at Eben Bolters [director of photography] for that! I texted him like “Eben! Nobody banned any words anywhere?!’” And he’s the “the guy that took it out of context!” But, basically, it just wasn’t my genre. And a friend of mine, Chris Morgan, who made the Fast and Furious movies was like “Dude, no, you don’t get it.” So I pop it in. And after about 10 minutes, I’m like, “What the fuck is going on?!” Not only is this not the thing that I didn’t want to do, this is even better than anything I would’ve wanted to do.
Now that the entire season is out, are there any parts of the game that nearly made it into the show but didn’t make the cut to fit? Or, Neil, is there any part of the game that you fought for that you decided to not adapt?
Mazin: I know there are sequences that people were very excited to see that weren’t in the show. One that would come up a lot was the hotel basement.
The scariest part of the game!
Mazin: That is a terrifying sequence. But it’s harder to pull off solo sequences like that, where it’s one character alone and it’s just about action and atmosphere. What we find in the passive medium is that those action sequences are best appreciated by us watching through the reactions and interactions of the characters. So the episode Neil directed, where Tess, Joel and Ellie are in the museum and the clickers come. So much of that is about them looking at each other. And that is where the character magic happens.
Druckmann: One of my favorite sequences in the game is when Joel falls on the rebar. And you’re playing as Joel and Ellie’s leading you and protecting you. If we’d done that the same exact way, the show would have suffered. Joel falling on the rebar is less realistic for the show we we’re building. So for everything we’ve set up until that point, we’re giving up some reality. Ellie having to lead you and kill a bunch of people takes away from her killing David and James [in Episode 8]. The question is always “What’s the least we need to do to tell this version of the story?”
In the finale, we were struck by how Joel’s rampage felt so much more accentuated than it does in the game, because of how much less conflict is peppered throughout the episodes. It felt like Joel almost turns into John Wick for a moment. Was this intentional?
Druckmann: We had a lot of conversations. That, in withholding a certain amount of violence, we’re going to really accentuate when it comes through. When Ellie shoots and kills someone, or injures them so badly and Joel has to kill them, it has a lot more impact. When it’s time for Joel to rise to the occasion and show us what he’s made of, to save Ellie, we don’t shy away from it. We show it in all its awfulness and awesomeness.
Mazin: You mention John Wick and that’s an interesting point because John Wick does live in a slightly heightened world. With this, we’re trying to be a bit more grounded. But when we get to the very end, we do give him his John Wick moment. The one thing that gives him the god mode power-up to not get shot and to shoot everybody else is saving Ellie. Because that’s where we want to see overpowered Joel and we understand that he’s fueled by this love that is beautiful and dark at the same time.
Neil told me a while back that you experimented with changing the ending – something seen by a lot of people as sacred. Even a subtle change could be seen as betraying the original by a lot of players. How did you look at changing it, and why?
Mazin: The change was really more something that Ali Abbasi, our director, had been playing around with. He had this thought of just playing out this slightly longer, sadder version where Ellie says, “Okay,” and then she turns and walks away. And Joel looks after her. We see the two of them walking, not really together but apart, down towards Jackson. It lingers and then fades. There was something beautiful about it. And there was that meta-discussion of, are the people that played the game going to be more annoyed that they didn’t get it just the way it’s supposed to be, or are they gonna be more annoyed that they only got what they had before? And then how will everybody else feel? In the end, there’s something very specific about ending on that close-up of Ellie. Not knowing what comes next. Not knowing what she does. Does she walk away from him, does she walk with him, how does she feel? That moment gets suspended permanently. As we’re recording this, we haven’t aired it yet and we don’t know what the reception is going to be. I think people will get angry!
Druckmann: Obviously, there’s the moral kind of ambiguity of that decision: are people still rooting for Joel as he’s lying to Ellie’s face? But when we made the game, and that ending hit, no one knew if we’re gonna make another game. So I think it was easier for people to accept it’s not a cliffhanger, it’s a proper ending. Here, they might say ‘Oh, you left us with a cliffhanger’ as they know season two is coming. So that’ll be interesting to see if that means people have a different reaction.
The second game relies heavily on perspective shifts that are unique to the agency of video games. How are you going about adapting the show to make sure that’s not lost in the passive medium?
Mazin: Oh, it’s not lost. [both laugh] I think we know what we’re doing on this one. I’m not saying that in snarky way, I’m saying that in a hopeful way. There are going to be things that are going to be different, and there are things that are going to be identical. There are things that are going to be added and enriched. There are some things that are going to be flipped. Our goal remains exactly what it was for the first season, which is to deliver a show that makes fans happy. We’ve got an incredible returning cast. It’s a daunting task. But Jesus, so was the first season. You can’t make everyone happy. But we’ve made a lot of people happy and that’s our intention to do it again.
Do you think a TV audience will react in a similar way to where the story goes? Justifiably or not, a minor portion of the gaming community reacted incredibly negatively to the direction of Part 2.
Druckmann: I guess, to go back to the earlier [Todd Phillips] quote from Craig, which is like… I don’t care. How they react is how they react, that is completely outside of our control. So how do we make the best TV show version of that story? That’s the problem that we wrestle with every day.
Mazin: To the extent that the storylines move people to rage, confusion, or disappointment or anger. Well that, I suppose, is preferable to the worst possible outcome, which is indifference. There’s been a lot written about the third episode of this season, and it’s an episode we’re very proud of, and it moved a lot of people. It’s one of the lower-rated shows on IMDb for one reason – a lot of people came on and gave it a 1/10. Not 5/10. One. The median score on that episode is 10. And the mean is an 8 or something. And that’s because there are incredibly strong opinions one way or the other. But I would much rather have a show that lives off of 10s and 1s, than a show that lives off of 5s.
One of the complaints we’ve seen online is the reduced level of infected in the show versus the game. Can we expect to see more of them in Season 2?
Mazin: One of my least favorite notes as a screenwriter to receive from a studio is, “We really liked this, give us more of it.” And I always think, well, I’m going to give you more good until you’re like “Ah it’s too much of it.” I learned that lesson as much from watching Game of Thrones as anything else. That series had such a slow and interesting build to the presence of the wights and the White Walkers. Every time you saw them, your blood pressure skyrocketed. They were special. Had Game of Thrones been a game first, as opposed to a set of novels, there’s no doubt that in the game, you’d be fighting White Walkers all the time. And so of course you would want more of them [in a TV adaptation]. All that said, we learned by watching the audience watch the show. I personally have noted how much they liked those encounters. And I think we have some really interesting things coming that will be very satisfying without burying you.
People are also speculating how Season 2 will encompass such a large game. Will the next season span the entire course of the second game?
Mazin: [shakes head] No. No way.
Druckmann: It’s more than one season.
Can you tell us if it’s two or three seasons?
Mazin: You have noted correctly that we will not say how many. But more than one is factually correct. [Laughs].
Druckmann: Some of the stuff I’m most excited for [in Part 2] are the changes we’ve discussed and seeing the story come to life again in this other version. And I think it’s exciting because it leans into those feelings you had from the game, really heavily, in a new way.
Has the process evolved as you go into Season 2?
Druckmann: I find that the process is easier. There’s more trust, there’s more of a shorthand, I know that I’m working with my friend, that even when we have some very strong disagreements, it’s always light. I’ve been in so many situations, where if you disagree with someone, it feels like life or death. The process here is really a joy.
Mazin: I wouldn’t say that there were any main disagreements. It wasn’t like for three weeks I was like “Ellie should be a boy.’” These things are always tiny. “Should she say this word or this word?” All the subtleties are where Neil and I invest a lot of our effort and attention, because that’s where we find beauty.
This story originally ran on British GQ with the title “The Last of Us finale writers on that cliffhanger ending and Joel’s John Wick moment”