THE LAST OF US, Fungal Entanglements, and Theorizations of Disability Representation

by Anya Heise-von der Lippe

The Last of Us™ Remastered_20140809104128
Image by Néstor Carvajal, uploaded August 11, 2014, CC License.

Mainstream narratives rarely focus on “the promises of monsters” envisioned by feminist theory (see, for instance, Donna Haraway’s work) or disability theory’s reclaiming (for instance in Robert McRuer’s and Rosemary Garland-Thomson’s work) of concepts which historically carried negative connotations like “crip” or “freak,” but representations of disability in the context of horror media must also contend with the problem of how disability has been framed in horror texts. It is a longstanding convention that both visible disabilities and neurodivergence are associated with or even imagined as the basis of monstrosity and human villainy. To discuss disability in the framework of these texts, it is often necessary to read them against the grain and bring a disability-centered lens to the reading of characters that are constructed according to mainstream conflations of heroism and, perhaps more importantly, basic humanity with ablebodiedness and a neurotypical mindset. This narrow understanding of the disabled person as an other is, however, not a genre-specific problem, but reflects a much broader cultural understanding of disability as an experience outside of and in many ways incompatible with a narrow conceptualization of normality. The individualization of the cost and effort of maintaining one’s health and wellbeing in contemporary capitalist culture also includes an understanding of disability as not only avoidable through individual behaviors, like the adherence to specific health regimes, but also as an ultimately tragic fate instead of a common experience largely dependent on external factors like public health policies, sociodemographic factors, or genetic predispositions. Encounters with visibly disabled people are therefore, as Ato Quayson argues, frequently shaped by a sense of aesthetic nervousness that hampers interactions and ultimately leads to cultural as well as aesthetic forms of marginalization (see Quayson). 

The normalization of ablebodiedness shapes cultural knowledges and practices in ways that not only impact the perception and representation of people with disabilities. A disability-centered approach can, at least to an extent, challenge cultural scripts and highlight the ways in which culture constructs notions of normality. To read through the lens of Disability Justice it is, thus, necessary to look beyond simple representation regardless of whether people with disabilities are featured in the narrative. When disabled people appear in various media, we must, however, also discuss the ways in which they appear and whether their appearance avoids the constant repetition of ableist tropes and clichés around disability. Even texts that strive for more diverse forms of representation have the treacherous tendency to introduce people with disabilities as side characters whose deaths enhance the tragical suffering of the protagonists – and this is largely the case in The Last of Us. The show introduces characters with different disabilities – most prominently Sam, a young deaf boy with leukemia, portrayed by deaf actor Keivonn Woodard, in the episode “Endure and Survive”, and Frank, portrayed by Murray Bartlett, whose character arc includes a depiction of a degenerative illness and assisted suicide in the episode “Long, long time.” Both episodes end with the death of the disabled characters, leaving Ellie devastated because she could not save Sam, with whom she had begun to form a connection. 

In an increasingly hostile world, mainstream medializations of catastrophe and apocalypse, which hinge on reading disabled and other marginalized bodies largely as an afterthought, tend to imagine disability solely as a personal tragedy that would considerably hamper a person’s survival.

It is no coincidence that the disabled characters face intersecting forms of discrimination (based on racialization in Sam’s and homophobia in Frank’s case). In an increasingly hostile world, mainstream medializations of catastrophe and apocalypse, which hinge on reading disabled and other marginalized bodies largely as an afterthought, tend to imagine disability solely as a personal tragedy that would considerably hamper a person’s survival. These narratives are all too reminiscent of mainstream representations of disability as a fate that is worse than death (see in cartoons by Luo Jie and Mitchell Toy, for instance, the way the passing of Nobel laureate Stephen Hawking was largely framed as a blessing that freed him from his disabled body, rather than the loss of a brilliant scholar and fellow human being). This ableist bias becomes particularly obvious in post-apocalyptic narratives that foreground the survival of the fittest to an extent that it becomes almost unimaginable that people with disabilities might exist in less-than-perfect futures. Such a framing entirely underestimates the potential that disabled individuals and communities of care, which are often already in survival mode in current society, bring to the table. 

Those postapocalyptic narratives that introduce characters with disabilities often show them as victims of the situation who are unable to survive the battle for scarce resources and socio-political representation in a world that is not unlike our own, only more deadly and unjust. The Last of Us reinforces these tropes, as the series presents disability and chronic illness as death sentences – not because the characters could not survive the apocalypse (they have already done so successfully) but because the series’s central narrative (with its focus on Joel and Ellie) cannot imagine a future for them. Both “Long, long time” and “Endure and survive” show the difficulties of procuring a stable supply of medication for Sam’s leukemia and Frank’s degenerative condition under the combined threats of the zombie apocalypse and hostile groups of human survivors. While these might function as a thinly veiled allegory of a capitalist health care system that shifts the burden of care work and medical bills onto the individual and their private network of care, the untimely death of the disabled characters puts an end to the possibility of critical reflection on the ways in which disability is perceived and depicted. In this way the series privileges the central figure of the loner, whose driving motivators are revenge and despair, over any effort of community building. Characters that might stand for a sense of community are categorically killed off in every episode, underlining Joel’s fixation on Ellie as the only person worth saving and Ellie’s isolation as a posthuman hybrid who cannot trust anyone but Joel. In this construction, the death of the disabled characters is used as a plot element to enhance the suffering of the protagonists whose inability to help them will (at least briefly) haunt them. This representation of disability as fatal and community as futile aligns itself with a worldview that idolizes physical fitness and the privileged position of the white, able-bodied, heterosexual male (or occasionally “strong” female) as the standard of heroism.

To understand why this argument encompasses more than a critique of the usual cocktail of good intentions that end in bad representations of disability, it might be necessary to shift the gaze to nonhuman life and consider the ways in which the zombie fungus is introduced as an all-pervasive, rhizomatic structure that undermines hierarchies and ways of understanding the world alike. There are different critical routes which lead into this discussion, most prominently the recent interest in fungal entanglements, such as Anna Tsing’s work in The Mushroom at the End of the World, that highlights the necessity for a shift in the kind of stories we tell about the world. As Tsing argues, drawing on Ursula Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” to imagine possibilities of life in the ruins of late capitalism we need to shift our gaze away from the prevalent narratives of progress and ruin towards ways of narrating the world as an ongoing, multifaceted narrative. Tsing’s work follows mushrooms and mushroom hunters to highlight how their stories move away from the usual tales highlighting heroic success and towards an acknowledgement of the ongoing project of being in a world that is complex, unpredictable, and in which human life is entangled with multiple species and ecosystems. This kind of narrative not only presents a counter-model to the anthropocentrism of heroic narratives with the human at the top of a planetary hierarchy, but it also allows us to imagine multi-species networks of care and ways of being in the world that are not based on exploitation and eradication. 

Disability theory presents models to read such human-nonhuman entanglements, for instance in the work of Sunaura Taylor, who has explored the connections between disabled ecologies and the disabling effects of environmental destruction on the frequently already marginalized communities inhabiting these spaces. Climate justice and Disability Justice are, indeed, entangled categories and only narratives that move beyond the neoliberal capitalist model of progress (and inevitable ruin) will be able to imagine futures that do not end in ever-increasing violence and destruction.

While The Last of Us does not embrace this model of storytelling, glimpses of the possibility of a different kind of narrative are visible via the aesthetics and the structure of the series that often veers away from straightforward heroic narrative to explore sidelines, entanglements and, perhaps most importantly for the context of disability, narratives of power structures and the people who question and undermine them. On an aesthetic level, the series presents the human-fungal entanglement in interesting ways, for instance by showing what seems like a mural, a work of art, but is actually the skeleton of a human being that is grafted to the wall by the fungal growth with which it has fused (“When You’re Lost in the Darkness”). While the series’s aesthetics thus tease the potential of rhizomatic narrative, the series as a whole ultimately doesn’t cash in on these entangled aesthetics beyond acknowledging that the fungus exists and that it has radically changed the world. 

We have chosen to read The Last of Us as a series that allows us to raise questions of narratives around communities of care and Disability Justice in the sense imagined by disability theorist and activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and others. This is not so much a misreading as a conscious reading against the grain. Such a reading can do very exiting work in shifting the focus away from the interpretive framework of anthropocentrism, neoliberal politics, and the fight for hegemonic control, and towards the questions such a narrative raises about entangled futures of care and coexistence without which it is impossible to imagine life in the ruins of late capitalism. In a world in which, as disability activists have convincingly argued, disability no longer constitutes a marginalized position, such narratives are not only highly necessary but also present ways of imagining futures beyond doomerism. Perhaps the makers of mainstream horror media are not yet ready to go there, but at least we can keep reminding them of these possibilities. 

Works Cited

“Endure and Survive.” The Last of Us, written by Craig Mazin, season 1, episode 5, HBO, 15 Jan. 2023. Max,

Garland-Thomson, Rosemary. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. Columbia UP, 1997.

Haraway, Donna. “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others.” Cultural Studies, edited by Lawrence Grossberg et al., Routledge, 1992, pp. 295–337. 

“Long, Long Time.” The Last of Us, written by Craig Mazin, season 1, episode 3, HBO, 15 Jan. 2023. Max,

Luo Jie. “Stephen William Hawking, 1942–2018.” Pinterest, Accessed 18 Nov. 2023.

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York UP, 2006.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.  

Quayson, Ato. Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation. Columbia UP, 2007. 

Taylor, Sunaura. “Disabled Ecologies: Living with Impaired Landscapes.” YouTube, posted by Othering & Belonging Institute, 3 May 2019, 

Toy, Mitchell. “A Tribute to Hawking.” Know Your Meme, Literally Media, 16 Mar. 2018, Accessed 18 Nov. 2023.

Tsing, Anna Loewenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton UP, 2015. 

“When You’re Lost in the Darkness.” The Last of Us, written by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, season 1, episode 1, HBO, 15 Jan. 2023. Max,