Based on the video game of the same name, the HBO series The Last of Us imagines a world ravaged by cordyceps, a real-world fungus that controls the motor functions of the organisms it infects. Set in an alternate 2023, 21 years after the initial infection, the show focuses on loner Joel (Pedro Pascal) and the spunky Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a teen who appears to be resistant to the fungus. Joel and Ellie set off on a cross-country journey to Wyoming, where the latter will be studied by doctors to possibly create a cure and the former will reconnect with his troubled younger brother.
The Last of Us has some of the characters you’d expect in an end-of-the-world series, including Bill, a survivalist portrayed with comical stoicism by Nick Offerman. Only one word can describe the look on Bill’s face when he emerges from his stately New England home, lowers his pistol, and pulls off his gas mask: relief. Not relief that his neighbors were still there, saved from the disaster that government officials had been warning them about, but quite the opposite: Bill’s relief comes from the fact that his neighbors have gone, evacuated to a quarantine zone while he hid in his heavily fortified safe room. With the entire town to himself, Bill indulges in his new life and gets what most doomsday preppers only dream of: an actual doomsday.
Unsurprisingly, The Last of Us presents a cynical view of humanity. Like most post-apocalyptic zombie stories, the series features people living by a “kill or be killed” credo, people using violence to maintain their social power, and graceless interactions. Most of the characters forsake solidarity, choosing instead to find security through selfishness.
Take the outcome of an ambush in the fourth episode, “Please Hold to My Hand.” After Joel and Ellie fend off attackers, a young marauder Bryan (Juan Magana) begs for mercy. Even as the camera stays with Ellie, who has been ordered to another room by Joel, we can still hear Bryan scream for mercy. “Mom! Mom! Mom!” he bellows, until he goes silent with a sickening thump, presumably Joel’s knife.
The show acknowledges the tragedy of Joel’s choice. Episode director Jimmy Webb pauses the action for Joel and Ellie to describe the dehumanizing effects of their decision. But the series offers no real alternatives. Like clean water and reliable food, grace has become a rare resource. Considering the centrality of grace in the Christian worldview, imagining a world without grace is terrifying, the rejection of our core beliefs.
However, the series’ third episode “Long, Long Time” offers a reprieve from the doom. Leaving Joel and Ellie, episode director Peter Hoar follows survivalist Bill and his unlikely romance. As a survivalist with little regard for humanity, Bill is better equipped than most to handle society’s collapse. A rocking montage set to “I’m Coming Home to Stay” by Fleetwood Mac shows Bill thriving in the apocalypse. He gleefully loots a hardware store, lines his city with deadly traps, and establishes a farm, complete with livestock. Over a meal of perfectly prepared steak and fresh vegetables, Bill watches on a monitor as a shotgun trap blows the head off a cordyceps. “It doesn’t get old,” he quips.
Bill’s supper is decidedly more lavish than most of the meals in The Last of Us, but there is a theme that each meal is meant to convey: survival. People eat alone and guarded, protecting their provisions. The most harrowing example appears in the first episode when a government agent (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) promises a rescued boy (Logan Pierce) that after giving him some medicine, “We’re gonna find you your favorite food to eat.” We soon learn that the medicine was actually poison, used to execute the infected child rather than expose the quarantine zone. When survival is a virtue, meals must be a solitary affair.
Unlike the others, Bill relishes his solitary suppers. He’s stockpiled his food and enjoys a level of comfort denied to nearly everyone else. And yet, a request for food convinces him to lower his guard. When an uninfected straggler named Frank (Murray Bartlett) falls into a pit outside his town, Bill has only one intention: get him out and away as fast as he can. “I’m letting you go, so go,” he barks after freeing Frank — as if that’s a kindness enough. But Frank seeks survival not through violence, but through connection. “I’m really hungry,” he tells Bill, his open arms and face pleading, “I haven’t eaten in two days.” Everything Bill believes, everything that has been confirmed by the attacks he’s seen on the news, tells him that he’s justified in hoarding his food, if not outright killing Frank. But instead, Bill chooses grace.
Bill enacts that grace by sharing a meal with Frank. That meal then blooms into a marriage — a tender relationship that lasts 16 years — through Frank’s debilitating illness and Bill’s stubbornness, and finally to the couple’s peaceful death together.
One might use the word “compromise” to describe Bill’s decision to let Frank into his life. Undoubtedly, Bill does change his ways, especially when Frank forges a friendship with Joel and fellow survivor Tess (Anna Torv). But “compromise” does not adequately describe the enrichment Frank and Bill provide for one another. Indeed, by extending grace to Frank, sharing his food, safety, and life, Bill gets more than security. Together, Bill and Frank don’t live a safe life. But they do live a life that’s more abundant.
In light of shows like The Last of Us, real-world doomsday preppers look pretty silly, amassing arms without the threat of cordyceps (which doesn’t infect humans in reality). But it’s not just the right-wing fringe who choose “survival” over grace, nor is it just the non-believers with no hope of resurrection. Even Christians, who claim to follow an innocent man who chose death over defending himself, would prefer to shore ourselves up against the threat of other people. Certainly, this includes the fear-mongering “Jesus Guns Babies” crowd; but progressive Christians are not immune to choosing survival over grace. Despite our belief in the power of community, we still defend ourselves against those who we believe threaten our principles, our hopes, or our wellbeing.
This attitude runs contrary to the teachings of Christ. From touching lepers to disregarding Pilate’s imperial power, Jesus prioritized sharing love over ensuring his own safety. The first church followed his example, as when Paul and Silas chose to remain in prison for the sake of their jailer.
This is what theologian Dorothee Söelle means when she describes the “collective meaning” of the word “Christ” in Theology for Skeptics: Reflections on God. For her, the name of Christ signifies not individual salvation, but “solidarity, hence suffering with, struggling with” others. “Jesus’ attitude toward life was that it cannot be possessed, hoarded, safeguarded.” In Soelle’s description, the life more abundant promised by Christ comes only through seeking grace instead of safety. Contrary to what so many post-apocalyptic stories imagine, Christianity insists that security is meaningless, partially because it leaves survivors with impoverished and lonely lives, not at all what the Creator intended for us.
Most episodes of The Last of Us feature a selfish dystopia devoid of hope and grace. But with the relationship of Bill and Frank, we see something different, a survivalist saved, not by his guns or provisions, but by grace. When he chooses to forego his individual salvation and finds solidarity with the suffering, starving Frank, he is given a richer life in the form of a rewarding relationship. Instead of security, he receives the blessing of community.