Warning: This article contains spoilers. Watch the video version.
HBO’s The Last of Us, a television show based on the video games of the same name, has received near universal acclaim. The show’s Rotten Tomatoes scores hover around 96 percent from critics and 89 percent from audiences, and based on its viewership numbers, it’s a verifiable hit for HBO, drawing 8.2 million watchers when its final episode aired against the Oscars.
And yet the show has attracted some outspoken detractors. Visit any message board or discussion thread and there were people complaining about the absurdity of the premise, the slow pacing, the perceived wokeness, and, as always, the “plot holes.”
My question is, why? Why are they so angry about a show beloved by so many? And how did The Last of Us succeed in spite of them?
Let’s be real. The true problem is the show’s popularity. Anytime a piece of media becomes excessively popular, it tends to gain a vocal minority of haters. That’s just how we humans are. But these haters can still teach us lessons about how stories often succeed despite their faults.
Let’s start by breaking down the issues I brought up earlier:
The absurd premise: You’re watching a show about mushroom zombies. If you can’t suspend your disbelief a bit, I don’t know what to tell you.
Slow pacing: Personal preference. Some people love a slow burn, others don’t, which is why writers should write for their niche unapologetically.
Wokeness: Woke has become a charged word. My understanding is that those who hate wokeness are talking about “forced” representation of marginalized groups, that is, shoehorning diversity into media to boost profits and/or gain attention. That said, it’s vital to a free and equal society that we’re allowed to tell different stories for different people. The consequence is that not every story is made for you, but these stories can still help you understand the people with whom you share the world. I recommend giving them an honest, open-minded shot to find out if they succeed or fail on their own merits.
Plot Holes: Finally, a critical take I agree with! Let’s examine a rather large plot hole and determine whether the show deserves this criticism.
The plot hole occurs at the beginning of episode 2. The government in Indonesia calls in a mycologist, or fungus scientist, to assess the threat now that a fungus called Cordyceps has adapted to warmer temperatures and started infecting humans. Here’s the translated dialogue:
Officer: We brought you here to help us keep this from spreading. We need a vaccine or a medicine.
Mycologist: I have spent my life studying these things. So please listen carefully. There is no medicine. There is no vaccine.
Officer: So what do we do?
Mycologist: Bomb. Start bombing. Bomb this city … and everyone in it. [Begins weeping.] Excuse me, if someone could please drive me home, I would like to be with my family.
The mycologist realizes after assessing a single case that the world is about to end (and suggests a rather aggressive course of action), even though the real Cordyceps has not completely wiped out Earth’s insect populations. So, that’s already a bit of a leap. Also, if this fungal catastrophe was so dangerous and imminent, why not prepare for it? Most real scientists are currently shouting from the rooftops about climate change, microplastics, and the other existential threats facing humanity. If she knew we were standing on the precipice of a world-ending zombie outbreak, she could have at least made a pamphlet or something.
These kinds of plot holes can create obvious problems within a story because too many logical inconsistencies add up to make the storyteller seem lazy or diminish verisimilitude, a five-dollar word for a simple concept: truth. It’s the impression that we’re seeing something real, even if we know it never happened—the warm, fuzzy feeling we get from good stories, which convinces us we’re watching real people make real choices.
Every plot hole risks breaking that spell, but I believe these inconsistencies get more negative press than they deserve. Do plot holes really ruin stories? Or do people usually latch onto plot holes after they’ve decided they don’t like what they’re seeing? I think it’s the latter, and here’s why: every story contains screw-ups. Storytellers are human, and humans make mistakes. When someone tries to explain to me that a story is, in their opinion, “perfect,” all that tells me is that they might be interested in a timeshare on lovely, scenic Mars.
Some people get too caught up in pointing out plot holes when every story has them. If a story does enough other things right, these minor mistakes are not a big deal. In fact, if you’re enjoying the story, you’ll usually overlook them on autopilot. This is why it’s so important to get the fundamentals of storytelling right. Spin a solid yarn and most people won’t care about a few small holes.
So, here’s what to focus on instead of cleaning up every plot hole: character.
Characters drive stories. Without characters acting and reacting, there would be no plot to find holes in. If you get the big-picture stuff like your characters right, you won’t need to worry about paving over plot holes because most people will do it on their own. And those who refuse to, those who obsess and nitpick over every little thing—they weren’t your audience anyway. They probably decided not to like your story before it even started.
Back to The Last of Us, which is brimming with characters who are morally gray and deeply flawed. They’re bad people by modern standards. But, as with all good stories, their flaws merely serve as a starting point. For example, several of these “people” are so certain that the world is bad that they use it as an excuse to behave badly themselves. As the story progresses, these flaws start to bend and eventually break under the weight of conflict until, finally, the characters are forced to change. And yet the protagonist, Joel, can’t seem to escape who he really is.
Couple these character shifts with the bleakness of the story’s world, with the intricate brutality of a post-apocalyptic future that doesn’t seem too far from our own, and you have a recipe for a simple, addictive emotion: hope. The way the show portrays the hopefulness of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity is nothing short of heartbreaking, and I believe that’s why so many people kept tuning in, night after night.
Like its characters, The Last of Us is flawed—but so are we, and sometimes, flaws show us a more complete and realistic portrayal of the truth. So, don’t worry about writing the “perfect” story. Write your story, flaws and all. And try to ignore the haters.