Despite the progressive politics of early zombie films like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, modern narratives about zombies are often strikingly conservative, displaying a world that rewards rugged individualism and presents a pessimistic view of human nature. The recent HBO drama The Last of Us, based on the acclaimed 2013 video game of the same name, exemplifies this tendency.
The show takes place two decades after an outbreak of a zombifying fungal infection triggers global societal collapse. In this post-apocalyptic world, a fascist government violently maintains order within walled-off “quarantine zones,” while a brutal resistance group called the Fireflies strives to overthrow them. The Last of Us follows the cynical smuggler Joel (Pedro Pascal) and a teenager named Ellie (Bella Ramsey), who is immune to the fungus, on their treacherous journey to meet up with a team of Fireflies who believe they can use her to create a vaccine. As Joel and Ellie bond against the backdrop of a dog-eat-dog world where no one can be trusted, the show presents a largely right-wing vision in which the only path to redemption is through caring for one’s immediate kin. According to Neil Druckmann—the co-creator of the series as well as the game and its sequel, who spent his early childhood in a West Bank settlement—elements of The Last of Us are informed by the politics of Israel/Palestine.
On this week’s episode of On the Nose, editor-in-chief Arielle Angel, managing editor Nathan Goldman, fellow Dahlia Krutkovich, and contributor Hazem Fahmy discuss the politics of the show, its relationship to Israel/Palestine, and its evocations of the Holocaust. You can listen to the entire episode here, and check out a brief excerpt from the transcript below. (Note that this episode includes spoilers for the HBO series, as well as the game and its sequel, which will form the basis of future seasons of the show.)
Image courtesy of HBO
Nathan Goldman: It’s this very directly paternalistic view of the world, where the only possible site of meaning is taking care of your kin.
Arielle Angel: I just want to complicate some of this, in fairness to the show. As you pointed out, a lot of this kin, post-apocalypse, is chosen kin—because the biological kin, for the most part, is probably dead. And the second piece of this is that the only really functional society that we see at any point is a communist society. And it seems more matriarchally led—there’s a Black woman who’s democratically elected, but is in charge when we meet her. And there’s a moment where Joel says to his brother, who’s living on this Wyoming commune, “Oh, it’s like communism,” kind of in a pejorative way. And the brother’s like, “No, it isn’t.” And the woman is like, “Yes, it is exactly that!” It seems like this is the only societal structure that makes sense in the post-apocalypse.
Hazem Fahmy: It’s really interesting to me that the one community we see that is acting in this communal way is also so isolated, and maintains a notoriously violent border policy such that people in the area are terrified of them. And they add some really weird imagery going up to that, where this couple, who seem to be Indigenous folks, are on this frontier-esque Wyoming landscape. And when the people from the commune show up, they’re on horses with cowboy hats. It’s evoking this really intense border imagery. And as far as we know, they’re not really trying to reach out or open it up to any other survivors. They’re just bunkering down. The only reason they don’t kill Joel on the spot is that they know that he’s Tommy’s brother.
Dahlia Krutkovich: It’s a totally closed society. Joel reprimands his brother for not getting in contact with him, once they meet up—basically, “Why didn’t you answer my radio signal?”—and the brother goes, “We’re really trying not to advertise what we have going on here. What we have is our stuff.” And nobody is allowed in.
AA: I actually think there’s a salient connection to make between the Wyoming commune and the kibbutz system—the idea of a closed socialist unit that also very violently delineates between in and out. We know that the kibbutz system was very much a closed system, in that Mizrahim and certainly Palestinians were not allowed into this system where everybody was being cared for and everybody was sharing resources equally—and in fact, they were expropriated from. So this might be a bridge for us in connecting the politics of the show and Druckmann’s own background and experience growing up.