In the past year, it’s been difficult to binge television series in their first season because it’s become so common for audiences to lose beloved series quickly, if not within a month of their premiere. There are some channels, like HBO, that give creators the freedom to adapt stories and give them room to breathe; this allows audiences to grow every week if the word-of-mouth becomes strong enough. This is what happened earlier this year with HBO’s adaptation of the critically-acclaimed video game, The Last of Us, starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey.
The Last of Us managed to grow in audience strength every week, outpacing even some of the all-time great HBO series. At the center of the adaptation is co-creator Craig Mazin; HBO fans will recall Mazin’s stellar work a few years back on the Emmy-winner series Chernobyl. Mazin wrote or co-wrote eight out of the nine episodes of the first season of The Last of Us, only not putting his pen to the page for the seventh episode, which was written by co-creator [and creator of the video game] Neil Druckmann. The series explores the journey that a man goes on with a young girl who could hold the secret to begin reversing the dystopian society they now live in after a brutal Infection created havoc on the planet 20 years prior. The journey is enlightening and devastating, as audiences were challenged with hard truths and decisions made by the characters. The series was renewed quickly to come back for a second season after viewership grew weekly as word traveled about the series.
I spoke to Mazin about the inception of the adaptation and his early conversations with Neil Druckmann, the type of love that exists around the world and the safety it can provide, and the mortality of man in relation to destruction and creation.
[Editor’s note: this conversation took place before the ongoing Writers Guild strike began]
Tyler Doster: What early conversations with [creator of the game] Neil [Druckmann] were like regarding the game and its adaptation that she presented, and if there were any immediate ideas that you pitched that you thought should be included.
Craig Mazin: I mean, initially,I think I started just by talking about why I was passionate about the game. I think that when we start talking a little too soon about plans, it can get a little intimidating and it also starts to lure people into the weeds a little too quickly. I mean, sometimes all I want to do is just talk about why I love something. And if you hear why somebody loves it, you can at least start to trust the basis upon which they’re about to make a lot of decisions. And the basis upon which they’re about to propose changes or adaptations. So the early conversations were really about that, just about how much I loved it and why I loved it. I think early on I said the biggest change that I foresee making are changes that are directly related to the fact that we don’t have gameplay.
And so there are sections that I think we would be best off altering because the passive television experience is different. And Neil, to his credit, not only was open to those things, but he had his own things that he wanted to talk about, specifically the ability to change perspective because he was always locked into Joel’s perspective or Ellie’s perspective, and the ability to move around and meet other people, flesh out some of the bad guys, so to speak, give a little bit of dimensionality to the people out there. I think all of that appealed to him. Those were the early conversations.
TD: What was the most difficult hurdle in terms of adapting this video game into one nine-episode season of television?
CM: Well, truthfully, the biggest hurdle was doing it. One of the things that video games can do that it’s hard for us to do in live action, build environments, change environments, move beyond environments. It’s a lot easier for us to do other things, like for instance, characters taking off coats and brushing their hair. It’s really interesting the ways that we each have our own benefits and costs. But following the story of the show where people are in these extraordinary environments and then they leave them and do not return is a difficult thing to do as a production. Generally speaking, if you build some large thing, for instance, a quarantine zone, you’re going to want to stay there for a bunch of episodes to justify the cost of it all. And we didn’t, we left. We built the town of Jackson and then we left. We rolled up into Kansas City, we built this big cul-de-sac and then we left.
We created a town for Bill and Frank to live in, and then we left. And this was a huge challenge. So the challenge of having the show be at the level we wanted to be at in terms of production value while still maintaining that storyline, that was hard to do. And it’s funny, a lot of people think that the hardest part of adapting a video game is dealing with the elimination of gameplay. It’s actually, somehow, accommodating all the things that video games do really well into a format that we sometimes struggle with.
TD: The world building is so familiar yet original, and I think that is a large part to, of course, you and John Paino’s work as production designer. And when I spoke to him earlier this year, we kind of touched on that. Since you mentioned John’s building and constructions of these zones, do you think that gave everyone a more lived in experience that this was real?
CM: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it’s something that I took away from Chernobyl actually and the work that Luke Hull did there, the idea that you always want to give the actors a space to play in that is real. And so part of what we had to do, John building with our art director, Don Macaulay, and then working with Alex Wong, our visual effects supervisor, to sort of say, okay, where does reality stop and where does set extension VFX take over? That’s a lot of the science behind this. But the creative aspect of it is to give our characters as much as they can to touch and feel and stand on and move through. And we knew if the vision here is that they are supposed to walk from this place to this place consecutively, we need to create that for them. We’re not big on… Wherever we can if we can limit the amount of blue screen. And we definitely don’t do anything like the volume. I mean, we really are committed to dressing as much as we can in camera, doing as much as we can in camera. And then extending from there.
TD: Just as a personal note, what does it feel like for you to be able to walk onto the set, specifically the cul-de-sac in episode five? How does that feel as a creator getting to walk onto the set?
CM: It’s pretty exciting, but Neil had a different experience than I did because Neil’s experience when he would walk onto these things sometimes is that he’d get very emotional because he had been living with them in this other way for so long, and here they were in three-dimensional. For me, I think when you are the boots on the ground guy trying to get everything to line up and work right, the primary emotion that I experienced when I walk onto a completed set like that is relief that we have something that’s great. Because the cul-de-sac, for instance, I was on the cul-de-sac when it was just dirt, it was nothing.
And then we walked around and sort of said, “Okay, here’s a house, a house, a house, a house.” Then the next step: walked in when the pavement is and the foundation’s okay. Then decide with our director [of episodes 4 and 5] Jeremy Webb, which of the houses are the Infected going to come out? Okay. That’s where that’s going to be, that’s where this is going to be, where do we put the cars? So much just math, a lot of math and planning and planning. So when you finally get to the day and everything is all dressed and beautiful, you feel like, okay, we’ve arrived at prom, but you’re still feeling the weight of the work that went into it, and you’re also aware that you’re not really there yet because there’s still work to be done in post that’s going to elevate it to an even more beautiful level. So I don’t have many moments where I have a kind of sense of, I don’t know what you’d call it, achievement as much as relief and just a sort of pleasure that we are on the right track.
TD: The opening episode just immediately breaks your heart just like the game does. Was it important for you to keep that original framework to propel the story forward for the rest of the season?
CM: Oh, yeah. It’s fundamental. I remember telling Nico Parker [who plays Sarah], “Look, you’re going to be in the show for about 20 minutes and everything that happens, everything that happens after those 20 minutes rests entirely on the point of your performance and what happens to you. I need to fall in love with you in 20 minutes. I need to fall in love with your relationship with your father in 20 minutes, and then I need you to absolutely devastate me at the end of those 20 minutes in such a way that it echoes forward and provides the believable emotional fuel for Joel for the rest of the show.”
And provides that fuel that then spills over into his relationship with Ellie. So Sarah’s death is everything. That is the trauma that begins everything for Joel. The entire world suffers trauma, everyone is suffering loss, but for the person that we are connected to, it’s Sarah’s death, that is the trauma. And Nico just, it’s funny, she used to beat herself up over little things. I would say, okay, Joel’s going to come through the door and just sort of notice and turn the TV off. And then she would do a take, and then she’d come up to me and say, “Oh, that was so dreadful. I’m dreadful.” And I’m like, “Shut the fuck up, you did a great job.” But in my mind, I’m like, oh man, is she going to be this hard on herself when it comes time for the death? And then no, for the death scene she was like, take one, we were all just broken. And I went up to her and I said, “You have to know that was good.” And she was like, “Yeah, that was pretty good.” (laughs)
I feel like she knew that was good, and that’s her talent and she’s just remarkable. And I’m telling you, this series, this season, following seasons, everything in my mind, honestly always, all of it in a weird way, goes back to her and what she does and how she dies in that moment.
TD: I believe that, too, just with the themes that come through with the rest of the season, it seems to rest solely on that experience with Joel and how it expands his life and what we see in other characters as well. Tess’s death is already so traumatizing. Why did you guys feel it was necessary to let us watch the kiss of death with that Infected? What were the discussions behind that and how did that come to fruition?
CM: We thought that there was something a little boring about… There’s something boring about a character sacrificing themselves. There’s a sacrifice on television every five seconds, which makes sense because sacrifice is one of the most beautiful things a person can do. The word sacred and the word sacrifice are directly connected, but it happens all the time. And what we didn’t want to show was a bunch of monsters running in and then she just gets grabbed and beaten up and blows them all up. It just felt weirdly unimportant. It seemed like Tess’s death had to be something that was as impactful as Anna Torv’s performance had been, or as that character had been created. I mean, we planned that before Anna was cast, but it just felt, as we watched Anna, it just felt more and more correct that something special had to happen. And by special, we meant particularly upsetting. And we were learning in this episode about how the Infected work.
And one of the things that I thought was important was to underscore that the Infection, the fungus, is not interested in killing you per se, it wants to infect you. So what happens if you just let it? What if you don’t fight at all? What if you simply allow it? And the method of transmission is to get these tendrils, these mycelium into you. And there was something very invasive about it, something very upsetting about it, and something about how it was perverting what had been an act of love and affection into something that was traumatizing and, in a sense, fatal.
But also implied that there was still a person in there, that there was this weird lower brain memory of what it meant to connect with somebody in that very intimate way. All of it made me feel very sick to my stomach, which was a good sign I think that we should probably do it. And listen, some people really hated it. It was controversial, and I think that’s okay. I don’t think everything in a genre where we see all sorts of things all the time… new things can be upsetting, but the point is it wasn’t gratuitous, not to us. It wasn’t gratuitous, it was purposeful. And it was nominated for best kiss at the MTV Movie Awards.
TD: It was!
CM: That I think is a sign that we must have done something right.
TD: Do you think that Tess’s acceptance of death and that destruction of life connects to one of the themes of the season, which is the recreation of life that it pushes forward?
CM: Yes. I think that Tess, we had written a little bit of a story for Tess that we didn’t end up shooting. It was a backstory that we’ve talked about before where Tess’s husband and her young son were Infected and she had to kill them. And this was in the very early days of the Infection, and she was able to kill her husband but she wasn’t able to kill her son, and she just locked him in the basement and left because she couldn’t do it. And there is something that has happened to her over the years where she’s become rather hardened and cynical and tough, but there is still a maternal sense in her. There is a sense that life can be nurtured and rediscovered and promoted, and it’s Ellie’s immunity that awakens us inside her. I mean, Joel has absolutely no interest. He doesn’t care. But Tess immediately does, even before she’s bitten, even before she needs Ellie’s immunity to mean something, she already wants it to mean something.
And that is very much about this kind of love, the kind of love that is about not only creating new life, but nurturing new life as opposed to this other kind of love, which is about protecting it at any cost.
TD: Speaking of protecting at any cost, that leads right into what I would like to discuss next, which is episode three, “Long, Long Time,” which was written by you.
I think it’s going to go down as one of the most emotional episodes of the decade. And I think it will also go down as an all time beacon of queer love and light. But I’d like to discuss one of the recurring themes of the episode is protection and the love we give and how attention is equal to the love we can give. And by showing that we are able to express our love and give it to someone who wants to receive it in a specific way. What about Bill and Frank’s story from the game led you into thinking about this specific theme of this episode?
CM: Well, Bill and Frank’s story in the game couldn’t be more different. For starters, we never really meet Frank in the game. When we meet him, he’s dangling legs from the ceiling. He’s hanged himself and he is left the world’s meanest suicide note for Bill to find. The point of the game’s version was that Bill and Frank’s relationship failed. And that Bill is a kind of cautionary tale for Joel. This is what you will become if you cannot let another person into your heart. And my feeling was we had an opportunity, because of perspective shift and what TV can do, to tell a completely different version of that story. And the point of this story was not that Bill is a dark harbinger of what Joel can become, but rather Bill is an expression of the best version that Joel can be.
Because Bill, by his nature, is closeted, not just sexually, but in every possible way. Even after everyone’s gone, he’s put a fence around his town. He’s just made his closet slightly larger, but he will not let anyone in. The people that are being rounded up on his street, they don’t even mention him because they probably never see him that much. He bunkered. He’s not closeted, he’s bunkered. And then in comes this guy who is the exact opposite, who is not closeted in any way and who wants to beautify and who wants to befriend and who wants to celebrate and feel good. And what’s interesting is that these are the two kinds of love that we present. These two men manage to find a balance with each other. And we understand they cannot survive without each other. They can’t. Frank won’t make it, he won’t.
And Bill will never truly live, but then they find each other and it balances. So we give the audience, I wanted to give the audience an opportunity to see success in this world. What does success look like and what does love over the course of time look like? Which is real love, I think, as opposed to infatuation and all the rest of it. And some people said, “Oh, what was the point of it all? Why do I go on that side trip?” Well, the point of it all is the life that Bill leads with Frank ultimately brings him to a place where he can write this note and leave it behind for Joel. And that note is what inspires Joel to take Ellie with him. That’s the change. If Frank doesn’t show up, Bill doesn’t write that note, and Joel just doesn’t go forward with Ellie. That’s the magic of that.
But mostly I think that when people say, like, “Oh, it was just this… It didn’t…” they were just being homophobic because they didn’t like guys kissing. That’s basically what that was. I don’t know how to put it, it was kind of pretty obvious to me what’s going on there.
TD: Absolutely. It definitely struck me immediately when I was watching the show. I noticed the parallel of Bill and Frank and Joel’s understanding of that protection leading him, especially towards the decision that he makes in the final moments. I think it weighs pretty heavily on him when he’s thinking about that kind of protection and what that means for love.
CM: Yes, no question. I mean that’s the tricky party. You almost wish that Frank had left a note, but it’s Bill who leaves the note. And Bill says basically, “Men like us are put on this planet for one purpose, and that is to protect the people we love at any cost than God help any motherfuckers who get in our way.” And that is the kind of thing that I think a lot of people, men in particular, respond to: the notion of Father as protector. It is a romantic notion. And since we are all men and women and non-binary, every human being has been fathered somehow even by someone who wasn’t there. We have, I think, an innate human longing for a father to protect us, and we find those father figures where we can, we admire them, but in extreme circumstances, what happens to the father when “God help any motherfuckers who stand in his way?” It can get much darker than we would ever want or hope.
And that’s the part of this that is, I think, so profound. That’s why I wanted to adapt the game in the first place. As much as I love the gameplay of The Last of Us, it’s the story that Neil wrote that has always resonated with me and resonated with God knows how many tens of millions of fans across the world and has led to about a thousand debates. And I think our show has just shoveled more coal into that fire and I think that’s great. I love talking about these things. I think they’re worth discussing.
TD: I definitely think it says something to see someone who has been shown love and the threat of it being taken away from them.
CM: Yeah. Particularly when it’s someone whose greatest and deepest life-defining wound was the loss of love. It is natural to close your heart off at that point. I think a lot of people do. I think grief is something that… there’s no practice for it. It is a horrible pain. And if you are a parent and your child is suffering or in pain or dies, that grief is indescribable. Neither of my children have died, but one of my children’s been very sick, and there’s been emergency surgeries, and it’s hard to put into words really. So when you have that and then someone comes along that matches the shape of the hole in you, what Joel is terrified of from the very moment, whether he realizes it or not, is that he’s going to start to want to be this child’s father. Because if he does, that means that she will be his daughter. And if she is his daughter, that means he can feel that pain again. And this entire storyline is about trauma, and it’s about to become about inherited trauma. And that is where it begins to get really, really sticky.
TD: While we’re having this discussion about love and what it can do to us: do you think, especially in this series, that love has the probability and possibility to fully blind us? Do you think that love can lead us towards violence when we feel it’s necessary?
CM: Unquestionably, I think that that’s the problem with love. The problem with love is it makes my kid, my father, my brother, worth more than yours. So that is a blinding, it’s a blinkering. It means, also, that my country is worth more than yours. Maybe the people that look like me are worth more than the people that look like you. Maybe the people that think like me are worth more than the people that think like you. Love is the basis of tribalism. It’s the basis of xenophobia. It’s the basis of racism. It’s the basis of selfishness. It is also the basis of beauty, art, sacrifice, generosity, nurturing. This is why it’s complicated. And the dissection of that is what this is all about. Trying to figure out how to keep what is best about love and not fall into the traps of what’s worse about it.
I mean, Kathleen says something to Henry in their confrontation that is true and connects directly to Joel’s feelings about Ellie, which is, in terms of Henry’s brother Sam, “Did you think he was worth everything?” Well, yeah, Henry did. And what’s so strange is that Kathleen doesn’t realize that she’s saying that her brother meant everything to her. Look what she’s done in pursuit of, it’s not justice. It’s not even vengeance at that point. It’s a kind of self soothing. It is a need to feel like you are still in control of the world around you when something horrible happens to you and the person you care about the most is not just taken from you, but taken from you violently.
That pursuit leads Kathleen and everyone around her to ruin. And all of it begins with Henry and his inability to see that one person’s life is not necessarily worth more than another’s, and this is the human condition. This is the problem we deal with. I don’t profess to have answers. I only suggest that we look at the problem. I think there’s no way to get better if we don’t start looking at the cause of the problem.
TD: So on one hand, we do see that love can blind us. On the other hand, do you think that love can save us and the people around us?
CM: Yes. Now, there is a salvation that I think is probably a higher kind than another. The physical salvation is something that I think we connect with maybe less than, for lack of a better word, spiritual salvation. Not to say your soul, as it relates to God, but rather as we relate to each other that if I put what you need first, then I can save both of us in a way, even if it costs me, but I save you. This is why parents sacrificing themselves for children is seen as beautiful. Tess sacrifices herself to save Ellie. And it is beautiful. Joel murders people to save Ellie, and I don’t think that’s beautiful. I think it’s impressive, and I think it’s very effective, but I don’t think it’s beautiful. So yes, there are different ways of going about this, but we know that in her own way, Ellie has saved Joel. He says it.
What Ellie doesn’t understand is that there are some pretty powerful forces within both of them. Things that led them to be attracted to each other as partners, spiritual partners, that are dangerous, and that even as they may criticize each other for the choices they make and the things they do, they are so very alike. And that’s where the cycle of violence sometimes is unstoppable. How to stop it, well, that’s the trick. But that’s something that we’re going to explore in seasons to come.
TD: Do you think that degradation and reconstruction are inevitable when it comes to society?
CM: Well, history certainly seems to indicate that. It’s hard for us to tell because we see time in these very slow stretches of tiny amounts. So we live our lives over the course of, if we’re lucky, 80 or 90 years. 80 or 90 years is not a relevant amount of time in the span of history. It’s irrelevant. So for instance, we live in the United States. We are constantly told it’s the greatest nation in the world, and it has been here for 250 years-ish, that’s nothing (laughs). There are bridges three times as old as that in Europe. So yeah, it seems to me that nature is entirely about life and death, that cycle. It applies to all things, both living and all things that are manifested by the living, and facing that is difficult because it’s facing our own mortality. And it’s interesting that it’s fungus that is there waiting when things start to fall apart. Fungi break it down and return it back to its basic elements so that it can be used to rebuild again as life, as structures, as things.
So yes, I think about this. I’m getting older. I’m 52, and sometimes now when I look at children, I notice how new they are. Do you know what I mean? I’m starting to notice.
CM: Wow, look at how… Yeah. I wonder what their tendons and ligaments look like compared to mine (laughs). They’re so new and they’re so vital and able and capable, and yet they too one day will succumb to everything that I’m succumbing to, which is, as you said, the degradation. Things must follow this path. And that is another kind of loss and grief that we have to deal with. Grieving of ourselves, the grief of the end of the things that we knew and relied on. It all goes away. It all goes away. And I think people generally tend to avoid thinking about it because it’s upsetting. But how do you not think about it?
One day people are going to be watching this conversation, or listening, I guess transcribing it, they’re going to be reading these words that we said, and we’re both going to be long gone.
I mean, I’ll be gone sooner, don’t worry. But it’ll be echoes of ghosts, and that’s fascinating to me. Just fascinating.
TD: Very much. Is there anything you’re able to discuss when it comes to any further seasons we’re progressing into, or even just season two?
CM: No, not really. But we are hard at work at it, and we have a plan. I think the important thing for people to know is that even though we see this show continuing beyond season two, there is a hard end in place. This is not going to be an ongoing series that generates many seasons. We are using seasons to tell the story that exists as we want to tell it, and it will then end as we want it to end.
Craig Mazin is Emmy-eligible in the category of Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (episode TBD), Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (episode TBD) and Outstanding Drama Series, all for The Last of Us.
Photo: Shane Harvey/HBO Liane Hentscher/HBO