Remembering the Dread: The Last of Us, Station Eleven, and the Power of Pandemic TV

TV Features The Last of Us
Remembering the Dread: The Last of Us, Station Eleven, and the Power of Pandemic TV

Do you remember the dread? Before the words “unprecedented times” became comical in their frequency. When everything was uncertain, when no one knew how infection truly spread and what the devastation could be. The pandemic was a wave in the distance with no sense of scale. We were huddled behind screens, cleaning produce with Clorox wipes, arguing over how much fear is justified. There was only one thing we could all agree upon: we did not want to see any TV shows about COVID.

There are some natural exceptions. Cable hospital procedurals like The Good Doctor, Grey’s Anatomy, and New Amsterdam were able to fit COVID storylines naturally into their repertoire of possible illnesses. But there are also misfires like You’s COVID storyline or the off-hand mentions in Brooklyn 99’s last season. Bringing up the pandemic can feel too real, too fragile, or just plain weird. The shows don’t feel as fictional as we want them to.

While mentions of the recent real pandemic are mostly unwanted in television, the years since 2020 have brought some great (fictional) pandemic shows. HBO Max’s Station Eleven set a high bar not just in pandemic storytelling, but in TV as a whole. And now there’s The Last of Us, HBO’s adaptation of the hit 2013 video game about an infectious zombie-like fungus that wipes out most of the world’s population. Both of these shows went into development before COVID began, but their storylines are viscerally real in the context of the last three years.

Station Eleven and The Last of Us feature remarkably similar first episodes. They play through the end of the world. The panic, the mayhem, realizing your life will never be the same. Fear of infection turns every moment into a tense life-or-death situation. Both episodes even have airplanes falling from the sky, symbolizing the end of a great technological age and how major catastrophe blends into the horror of modern life’s destruction.

The Last of Us’ Episode 2 cold open of an Indonesian scientist realizing there is nothing that can stop the infection was terrifying. It had something the video game didn’t: someone staring down the end of the world and knowing nothing can be done. The shaking of her teacup on a saucer, the quiet of the room against the roar of the city outside. Episode 2 depicts the onset of hopelessness, of realizing that humans no longer have control over this Earth. And it’s… very familiar.

The Last of Us TV show has benefited greatly from being made in the wake of a global pandemic. Creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckman are able to tap into the emotions of a society that is trying to move on. The Last of Us game was praised for its tense and brutal emotional depths; but that was in the context of killing, of complicated people begging for their lives, or characters wrestling with horrible decisions. The TV show asks something else of the audience: to remember the dread.

Episode 3’s tale of Bill and Frank was rightfully praised as being an excellent slice of life and depiction of love in a dying world. But it’s also a story of connection in isolation and fearing strangers. Bill and Frank build their own world separate from everyone else. The love story isn’t just beautiful, it says that love is possible in a world where trust and closeness no longer exist. During the pandemic it felt like emotional ties were severed, meagerly maintained through Zoom calls. Episode 3 said connection is possible, that innate human desire to be with someone doesn’t disappear when the rest of the world does.

The Ellie and Riley-focused Episode 7 also becomes richer in a post-pandemic context (post pandemic starting; COVID is here to stay). As the two girls skip through the “wonders of the mall” they get to experience a life they never had. A life of public spaces, of having fun without being worried about survival. It’s eerily reminiscent of young kids who were isolated during COVID. The pandemic killed malls more than online shopping. It killed giving young people a space to have fun together. Ellie and Riley wander through a public place turned barren wasteland. They can only speculate what other kids were able to experience every day. They get one night to play pretend as normal kids with a hopeful future ahead of them.

That’s why the story of Riley and Ellie is so tragic. It’s not just the love for each other they were deprived of in their own life, ripped away by infection. A pre-infection life was also taken from them. They live their lives through compounded losses outside of their control. The future is not guaranteed. They choose between anarchy, becoming destitute, or rising a little higher in the ranks of a fascist government. When I played the game in 2014 I thought their story was sad. When I watched the show in 2023 I was overcome with that feeling I had when I attended Zoom classes and wondered if the futures I wanted would even be possible. How much would be destroyed? How much would life be changed forever? I remembered the dread.

Playing in the ruins of the end of the world can be therapeutic. While lockdowns were still in place and we were all confused I remember many people rewatching Chernobyl. Seeing a story about government denial and incompetence leading to unnecessary deaths of damage felt very familiar. We didn’t know what could be done about COVID, but we were definitely being left in the dark. Watching Chernobyl felt like experiencing just how bad things could get. You can only pretend to like Tiger King for so long. At some point you need to face the source of the dread. It’s weird to hear someone say COVID on TV. But change it to nuclear meltdown, the Georgian Flu, or “infection,” and suddenly these shows become fables about our own world, twisted with a comfortable separation made of fiction.

We deal with the world through complimentary situations. One of the best changes The Last of Us made was adjusting the years. In the game the infection begins in 2013 before jumping 20 years. The show has the infection begin in 2003, putting the show’s timeline in our present day. The Last of Us TV show changes the game’s “what if a zombie virus was real?” premise to “what if our world ended?” What if the pandemic spread faster, more violently, and with a much higher death toll? Making the show in our time heightens the connection we feel to the world. It’s not just some imaginary future, it’s an imaginary present.

I’m still generally anti COVID TV. But you can’t deny a world healing from the collective trauma of death, isolation, confusion, and decay is in need of some art that indulges in our emotional lows. Pretending like the trauma of the pandemic didn’t happen and acting like it’s business as usual is even stranger than seeing characters wear masks and ask what vaccines they got. The Last of Us TV show is an emotionally richer and more complicated work because it came out this year in this world at this time. If art can’t be influenced and aided by our own world then what’s the point? Why are we denying the dread?

Station Eleven and The Last of Us share one more very specific similarity: juxtaposing destruction with art. Both shows feature comic books being read by the survivors 20 years later, finding new meaning in the words of someone who had no clue what was about to happen. In Station Eleven, the thematic line is “I remember damage.” It reminds us to not forget the past and its catastrophes, which is fitting for a show about learning to say goodbye and reckoning with permanent loss. The Last of Us has “endure and survive.” The show is about resilience, of doing whatever you can to cope in a destroyed world. You push forward. Whatever it takes.

But The Last of Us’ line is also deceptive. The show does not think survival is enough. There is hope in Ellie and a cure. Maybe the world could recover. Maybe one day they can just remember the damage. Endure and survive is the motto of a stagnant world. The characters must be brave enough to foster connection—to believe in love and build a life even when the rest of the world argues against it. We reckon with the damage and we make something new. We prove that it’s worth fighting for a future. We stare the dread straight in its eyes and we make a TV show.

Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, FOX Digital, The Spool, and Awards Radar. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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