Editor’s Note: This article containers spoilers for the season finale of HBO’s “The Last of Us.”
In “The Last of Us,” the world ends over the course of the weekend. During that time, Joel kills a neighbor, watches his daughter die and nearly takes his own life – but ultimately, he survives for more than 20 years after that fungus-induced apocalyptic event. The violent tendencies he stifled throughout his pre-apocalyptic life keep him alive when the world as he knows it ends.
“Apocalypse” comes from a Greek word that means to unveil or reveal – and an apocalypse, then, shows people who they really are when the trappings of society fall away. For Joel, it revealed the mechanical, horrifying violence he was capable of. For Ellie, meanwhile, it revealed a scared kid hiding beneath flagging courage.
“What I’ve come to find out is that during an apocalyptic time, that doesn’t change people – it reveals people,” said Glenn Stutzky, an instructor in Michigan State University’s school of social work who for years taught a course on surviving a zombie apocalypse.
Joel and Ellie’s trek across the American wasteland – depicted in HBO’s television adaptation of “The Last of Us” – drew in millions of viewers during its first season, which ended Sunday night. (HBO shares parent company Warner Bros. Discovery with CNN.)
Part of the series’ appeal might lie in its audience’s fascination with the idea of who they might be if the world ended, Stutzky said. Post-apocalyptic stories captivate us because they challenge our ideas of ourselves, the way our society functions and what the future could look like. Would we be able to make the same terrible choices as Joel? Could we defend ourselves like Ellie has? Would we align with the worldview of the activist Fireflies, or militant FEDRA, or something new?
“The apocalypse, I think, both reveals our humanity and our inhumanity,” Stutzky said. “It doesn’t get more basic or fundamental than that.”
Apocalypse stories help us know ourselves better
Over a decade ago, Stutzky knew he wanted to teach a class on the way people behaved in disasters. To grab students’ attention, he turned it into a weeks-long simulation of a zombie uprising.
Students were separated into survivor groups, strewn across campus, and routinely tasked with making difficult choices. If someone attempted to join their group, how would they respond – protect their existing group or show compassion? How would they find food, medicine and other supplies? Would they disregard the government’s emergency broadcasts and rely only on each other? And if they do run into an infected person, who’s going to kill them?
There was something terrifying about the course – Stutzky’s colleague would paint some actors like zombies with convincing horror makeup – but thrilling, too. Students came for zombies but stayed for the chance to learn more about themselves and their knee-jerk reactions to catastrophe, Stutzky said.
“People want to know, ‘how would I be if everything else was stripped away, how would I respond? What person am I, really, when it comes down to that?’” Stutzky said.
There’s a part of us that yearns for the pre-digital age, too, even those of us who’ve never known a life offline, said Tony M. Vinci, an associate professor at Ohio University whose research includes post-apocalyptic narratives.
“Almost everyone I know is starving for an unmediated connection – like two people, digging their hands in the dirt, eating strawberries,” Vinci said, nodding to the third episode of “The Last of Us,” which included a scene of couple Bill and Frank delighting in the simple joys of fresh fruit.
Even when apocalypses are awful to look at or, god forbid, live in, they’re often kind of awe-inspiring, too – we’re terrified of the calamitous, and yet we can’t look away from it when it’s in front of us, said Kate Bossert, an associate professor at Notre Dame of Maryland University who teaches a course on doomsday literature.
The desolate landscapes of “The Last of Us,” with its shelled cities and the grotesque beauty of the bodies overtaken by the Cordyceps infection, are particularly gripping, just as the zombie gore of “The Walking Dead” and the pastoral calm of “Station Eleven” were before it.
“Part of it is fascination with the spectacular,” Bossert said. “Who doesn’t want to stop and rubberneck?”
Our fascination dates back centuries and is rooted in reality
Many cultures have “apocalyptic myths” that date back to ancient times, including the concept of Ragnarök in Norse mythology and the Bible’s Book of Revelation. These myths were often about “rebirth after the destruction of the old world,” said Diletta De Cristofaro, research fellow at Northumbria University and author of “The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel: Critical Temporalities and the End Times.”
“Humans have been fascinated with the end of the world since forever,” De Cristofaro said.
Stories set after the world ends also often assign villains a face and name, offering viewers something tangible to wrap their heads around.
“(Post-apocalyptic storytelling) takes the unknown and makes it very physical and very visible, in ways that actually are not always true to life,” Bossert said. “Narratives that pinpoint the thing we’re afraid of, there’s almost a comfort in that.”
Contemporary narratives of apocalypse often “do away with this hope of rebirth” and paint a bleaker picture, she said, pointing to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” a mostly hopeless tale of a man trying to keep his young son alive after a cataclysmic event. Stories like “The Last of Us,” whose apocalyptic event is partly brought on by climate change, function almost as cautionary tales of what our world could look like if we remain set in our ways.
“What these narratives are interested in is not just human resilience and survival but ultimately questioning the very world they imagined destroyed,” De Cristofaro said.
Versions of the apocalypse have already happened in our world, Vinci pointed out: The arrival of Christopher Columbus and subsequent European colonizers resulted in the mass murder of Indigenous people in North America. The transatlantic slave trade killed millions of Africans who were forcibly taken from their homes. Natural (and unnatural) disasters, from historic storms to catastrophic train derailments to devastating pandemics, are not as far away from reality as they seem onscreen.
“We live in a world where the apocalypse has already happened,” Vinci said. “This is why this is important. Real people have already suffered this.”
In the years since Stutzky’s course on surviving the zombie apocalypse was last offered, students and faculty at his university experienced a mass shooting in which three students were killed. In hindsight, his course on survival seems less fantastical, he said.
“As I look across what’s happening in the world, there’s almost a certain foreboding that we could probably fairly quickly move to an apocalyptic situation in our future while we’re still living here,” he said. “People may have that shadow in the background.”
Post-apocalyptic stories can show a better world
Truly innovative stories can show us a better way of being, Vinci said.
In “The Last of Us,” the community oasis of Jackson, Wyoming, is a society where most resources and responsibilities are shared, the opposite of the military-run quarantine zones where food is rationed and resistors are hanged. Ellie represents a potentially brighter future where the world-ending Cordyceps infection could be cured and society might be rebuilt.
“Once all the other stuff’s been stripped away, (it grants characters) this choice to say, ‘this is what we as a society value, we’re gonna rebuild around these shared values,’” Bossert said. “If it was all just death and dying, I don’t think we’d keep watching.”
These narratives encourage audiences to critically consider the world in which they live, De Cristofaro. Would they support the Fireflies, a militant group who dreams of restoring democracy, or would they consider building a completely new society?
“By imagining the end of the world as we know it, it helps us question this world,” De Cristofaro said. “These narratives return us to a blank slate – no infrastructures, no governments.”
By the end of the first season of “The Last of Us,” Joel decides the future of humanity when he steals Ellie back from the Fireflies, killing the people who could have engineered a cure from her brain. Saving Ellie doesn’t upend the rule of the military tyrants who run quarantine zones, nor does it repair the world Ellie’s generation will inherit. Viewers will have to wait until the second season to see the consequences of Joel’s desperate act of love.