Created for TV by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann, The Last of Us has set records for HBO, becoming one of the network’s most-watched series premieres ever. From the jump, the adaptation has won over both long-time fans of the game series and newcomers to Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie’s (Bella Ramsey) story alike.
Twenty years after an infection born of mutated Cordyceps fungus has caused a world-ravaging pandemic, smuggler Joel is tasked with escorting teenage Ellie across the post-apocalyptic United States. As Joel finds out, Ellie was bitten by an Infected, but hasn’t turned, and that means the teen could hold the answer to a cure.
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The only problem — side from Clickers, anyway — is that viewers are so accustomed to full-season drops a la Netflix, which makes waiting for a new episode of The Last of Us to drop on Sundays a real challenge. Looking to fill the long wait with other post-apocalyptic escort missions and “chosen one” fare? These five series and movies can help.
Station Eleven (2021)
Based on Emily St. John Mandel’s bestselling 2014 novel of the same name, Station Eleven finally made the jump to the screen in 2021 — and the timing couldn’t have been more serendipitous. After all, in her novel the author traces the lead-up, handling, and fallout of a pandemic with scary accuracy. In the same way many folks rushed to watch Contagion in early 2020, amid the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, readers revisited Station Eleven.
The fascinating, collective desire to take in pandemic fiction aside, the HBO Max series is a must-watch show for many reasons. First, there’s the top-notch cast, which includes Mackenzie Davis (Terminator: Dark Fate), Lori Petty (Orange Is the New Black), Gael García Bernal (Werewolf by Night) and Emmy-nominated Himesh Patel (Don’t Look Up).
For fans of The Last of Us, the story will also hold appeal: set 20 years after a flu pandemic caused the collapse of civilization, a troupe of survivors travels North America, performing plays and keeping art alive. The troupe comes across a violent cult, led by a man who, unknowingly, has a connection to a member of the Traveling Symphony; to underscore these links, Station Eleven juggles multiple timelines and threads, all of it culminating into a satisfying, slow-burn tale.
The Road (2009)
Based on Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Road tells a grim, wrenching tale of a nameless father and son traveling the ash-laden wasteland that is America. McCarthy’s writing — sparse but lyrical, undecorated yet cutting — inspired Neil Druckmann’s conception of The Last of Us games. The hard truths, harrowing trek, and feeling that the man and child can’t trust anyone else — all of it aligns with Joel and Ellie’s story.
In The Road, the man (Viggo Mortensen), who’s suffering from a cough, teaches the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) how to survive in the unrelenting ruthlessness of their world. He tells his son that they’re the “good guys,” tasked with “carrying the fire” — a kind of hope, sure, but also a glimmer of humanity itself, especially in contrast to the aimless, roaming gangs of assailants and cannibals who scour the waste for prey. Although the film adaptation isn’t as searing as McCarthy’s book, it’s still a worthwhile — albeit wrenching — watch.
Children of Men (2006)
More action-thriller than raw, slow-burn meditation (see the previous two entries), this film is based on P.D. James’ 1992 novel The Children of Men. Set in the (now) near-future, Children of Men spotlights a world changed by two decades of human infertility. Without new generations, society is on the brink of collapse. In the face of war and global economic strife, asylum seekers travel to countries like the U.K., which have become police states that arrest and execute refugees. In many ways, the world is shaped by cruelty.
There are certainly echoes of The Last of Us’ military-operated Quarantine Zones here. And while he’s a civil servant, not a smuggler, Theo (Clive Owen) does find himself at the center of a world-changing escort mission. After being kidnapped by a militant immigrant-rights group led by his estranged wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), Theo is tasked with acquiring transit papers for Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a refugee Julian is seemingly helping.
Eventually, Kee tells Theo she’s pregnant — the only pregnant person in the world — and that Julian had wanted to bring her to a secretive scientific group looking to cure humanity’s infertility. But Kee’s unborn child has many interested parties, and it becomes Theo’s responsibility to do what’s right.
The third installment in the Wolverine trilogy, Logan presents a world that’s hostile to mutantkind. In fact, no known mutants have been born in over two decades. For the most part, the X-Men have been wiped out, too. An aged Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), whose healing factor is failing, is tasked with protecting Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). With the help of fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan keeps the former Professor X hidden; the X-mentor’s growing dementia has caused him to have destructive (and fatal) telepathic outbursts.
The apocolypic-meets-Western setting of James Mangold’s film is enough to draw comparisons to The Last of Us, but it also features a great surrogate father-kid relationship at its core. Logan, despite his reticence, must escort Laura (Dafne Keen), a young girl with Wolverine-like mutant abilities, to a safe haven on the Canadian border. While Laura may not be a cure to the world’s issues a la Ellie, she is a glimmer of hope for a future that includes mutantkind. Plus, between the brutal action sequences and emotional ending, Logan remains a must-watch movie for Marvel fans and newbies alike.
Set in 1930s America, Carnivàle was a tragically short-lived series on HBO that ran for just two seasons. Created by Daniel Knauf, the ensemble show uses the Dust Bowl and Great Depression as a bleak backdrop for the stories of members of a traveling carnival. But Carnivàle isn’t just a character-driven show. It also has a surprisingly deep mythos and harnesses surreal elements to depict a centuries-long struggle between good and evil — and between free will and fate.
Two of the show’s characters, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) and Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), encapsulate this battle between good versus evil. Brother Justin, who amasses a cult-like following, clearly has connections to something dark, while, in the pilot episode, Ben discovers that he has the ability to revive what’s dead — at the expense of another living thing, that is. While some of the story’s structure has more in common with The Last of Us Part 2, the show’s sadness — which unfurls slowly — feels akin to some of the game’s more raw, despairing moments. Just keep in mind: viewers who’re looking for happy ending should try a different genre.
Y: The Last Man (2021)
In a crowded field of releases, Y: The Last Man didn’t get enough attention from viewers while it was airing. The first season debuted on FX, with next-day streaming available via Hulu. Unfortunately, this thoughtful adaptation of the fan-favorite comic by Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra was canceled after just 10 episodes. But that quick cancelation doesn’t speak to the series’ quality — more likely, it’s just another victim of the algorithm-driven streaming age.
Developed for TV by showrunner Eliza Clark (Extant), Y: The Last Man centers on a post-apocalyptic version of our world in which a mysterious event wipes out every mammal with a Y chromosome — except Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer) and his pet monkey, Ampersand. Secret service member Agent 355 (Ashley Romans) becomes Yorick’s bodyguard, as he tries to reach his mother, now-U.S. President Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane).
The show’s creators have also spoken out about how chromosomes do not equal one’s gender, acknowledging — publicly and on screen — that gender is diverse. Thanks to these welcome updates to the source material, the impressive ensemble cast, and the engaging world-building, Y: The Last Man is a must-watch show for fans of The Last of Us — even if it’s only 10 episodes.
Years and Years (2020)
Although it doesn’t focus on a post-apocalyptic escort mission across a dangerous landscape, the BBC and HBO co-production Years and Years fits well into this list thanks to its superb — almost uncanny — world building. The premise of Russell T Davies’ (It’s a Sin) dystopian sci-fi drama is straightforward enough: the six-episode miniseries follows the Lyons family between the years of 2019 and 2034. But what’s happening around the Lyons family is what’s so gripping.
The family members not only undergo personal change and struggles, but bear witness to world-changing events — like climate crisis-driven disasters and an outpouring of climate refugees — as well as the rise of Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a British celebrity businesswoman who becomes a nation-dividing extremist politician. If any of this sounds uncomfortably familiar, well, that’s where the show’s strength lies; it creates a haunting sci-fi parable out of very real, of-the-moment issues without feeling stale.
Bolstered by an ensemble cast that includes Russell Tovey (Looking), Rory Kinnear (Black Mirror), T'Nia Miller (The Haunting of Bly Manor), Ruth Madeley (The Rook), Anne Reid (The Mother), and Jessica Hynes (Paddington 2), Years and Years perfectly captures humanity’s general helplessness-driven complacency as the world hurdles toward a searing, dystopian downfall.
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