Wallowing in Blood: THE LAST OF US Franchise and How Not to Imagine Otherwise

young girl
“The Last of Us Remastered” by Néstor Carvajal, August 11, 2014, CC License

By Geneveive Newman

“What would a world radically shaped by disabled knowledge, culture, love, and connection be like? Have we ever imagined this, not just as a cautionary tale or a scary story, but as a dream?” —Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, The Future Is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes, and Mourning Songs (1)

The world has not ended yet, but it will soon. Sarah (Nico Parker) is not dead yet, but she will be soon. Ellie (Bella Ramsey) has yet to be bitten, and Joel (Pedro Pascal) has yet to meet her, let alone develop his fatherly instincts for her as a surrogate daughter, which he will soon. Long before the television program’s primary diegesis, in a interview set in 1968, an epidemiologist (Dr. Newman, played by John Hannah) prophetically warns a live studio audience about the impending fungal apocalypse, delivering the following grim characterization: “Fungi seem harmless enough. Many species know otherwise. Because there are some fungi who seek not to kill but to control.… Viruses can make us ill, but fungi can alter our very minds” (“When You’re Lost in the Darkness”). The premise of The Last of Us franchise hinges on the concept of fungal invasion in which the Cordyceps brain infection (CBI) overtook the planet in the course of twenty-four hours. CBI rapidly infects humans who then, with remarkable speed and ferocity, attack other humans, spreading the infection to the vast majority of the global population’s brainstems. 

The latest iteration of the franchise is the HBO-produced television series (2023–present) that presents the fungal twist on the zombie apocalypse. The show picks up the major narrative beats of the first video game, The Last of Us, Part I (2013), while maintaining and delving deeper into the game’s character study framework. The Last of Us franchise, like so many other postapocalyptic media and texts, posits a dystopia that is essentially a reification of our current hierarchical, oppressive social and state structures. I argue that as we move into ever-increasing global crises, it is necessary to instead imagine worlds based on, rather than afraid of, rhizomatic thinking. Embracing Disability Justice and disabled knowledges opens world-making projects that oppose those structures that have gotten us to the point of endless pandemics, climate collapse, and a culture of death without mourning. Rhizomes, like mushrooms, may be a model for how to reverse course.

Early in the pandemonium of the outbreak, a soldier shoots Joel’s teen daughter, Sarah, and she dies in his arms. Smash cut to twenty years later, and Joel is introduced to his soon-to-be surrogate daughter, Ellie. Ellie is special—she is seemingly immune to CBI—and through a series of mishaps, Joel eventually takes on the role of her sole protector as they make their way across the US to the secret hospital of a revolutionary group, the Fireflies. Once there, Joel learns that in order to create a cure from Ellie’s immunity, the Firefly doctors will extract her spinal cord and brain, killing her in the process. The mission changes, and the first season, like the first game, ends with Joel lying to Ellie, telling her they were not able to create a cure. In reality, he has just killed his way through an entire makeshift hospital full of doctors, some of the few remaining trained medical professionals in the country, but he tells Ellie none of this as they drive back towards his brother’s compound. This ambivalence at the end of Part I establishes the foundation upon which the second part will be based. The first part of the story ends on broken trust, on Joel’s decision to refuse Ellie agency in the most significant possible way. Unable to imagine living without her, Joel refuses to let Ellie sacrifice herself for the greater good that could provide humanity with a cure. This ending sets the franchise up for future iterations that begin from a place of deep, abiding hurt, with nowhere to go but deeper into pain and suffering.

The second game, The Last of Us, Part II (2019), was more nihilistic and cruel than its predecessor. The 2023 television iteration of the franchise’s grim worldview does not just maintain the franchise’s tone, but also its political outlook and perceived stakes. The opening of the show differs significantly from the game in its initial framing, by adding the interview referenced above. In this interview, the script anthropomorphizes the fungal infection, referring to it as whorather than what, and characterizing its malicious intent—as seeking to control. The text sustains a long trajectory of anthropomorphizing the agents of debility, illness, and disability in humans through a new malevolent force: fungi. 

Representationally, this monster-making (with regard to the fruiting bodies of a large-scale rhizome) speaks more to a political anxiety around non-hierarchical social formations. Fungi, like most rhizomes, provide imaginative potential for how the world could look without hierarchies, especially those of dominance. They provide a map towards the disabled future that Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes in The Future Is Disabled as filled with joy and hope. This article considers Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work as a guide, a toolkit of sorts, to seeing through the ableist liberalism of The Last of Us series. My position essentially flips the narrative that the franchise develops over the course of its two games and the show, understanding mushrooms as neutral actors (as opposed to active antagonists) that nonetheless provide a template for how to think about networks and webs could form an optimistic disabled future. I posit that the monster to be feared in The Last of Us franchise is not so much the mushroom (zombified or otherwise), but the constructed future in which currently marginalized communities actively shape the world towards more just social systems, with an emphasis on both large and small communal obligation, responsibility, and care, and this future need not be frightening.

Temporal Context(s)

In 2019, between the releases of The Last of Us, Part I and The Last of Us, Part II, I wrote about the intersections of anthropocentrism, state formations, and the problematics of moralizing with regard to non-human entities for issue seven of Studies in the Fantastic. The article, “Fungal Zombies and Tentacular Thinking” was, in some ways, hopeful that the existence of a game like The Last of Us, Part I could provide, even through alternate reading strategies, different ways of thinking about multi-species co-mingling that allow for rhizomatic, community-oriented modes of engagement with each other and the world. On January 20, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first lab-confirmed case of the 2019 novel coronavirus (“COVID-19 Timeline”). The world shifted. 

This is not to say that marginalized communities have not for decades experienced the forms of disempowerment and threats to their safety that persist through this still-ongoing pandemic. Disabled people moved into the pandemic with knowledge and resources that were quickly essential for all people, regardless of comorbidities. The shift that I refer to here is less about the newness of the situation, and more about the severity. Further, I see this shift as encompassing the ways in which people who could previously think of disability as a far-off bogeyman were (and continue to be) confronted with ableism’s realities. Consider, for example, movements against wearing face masks in public spaces, including a 2024 legislative move in North Carolina to ban face masks in public without health and safety exemptions. 

This article is not about how the television adaptation of The Last of Us stands as an allegory for the way that the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in the U.S. Rather, I theorize that the show’s abiding grimness, an outgrowth of the second game in the franchise, serves as representation and reinforcement of the deep and persistent ableism inherent in late capitalism, which unfortunately was only exacerbated by the global disabling event of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. To be clear, the disregard for disabled life on interpersonal and structural-institutional levels is not new, and it was not invented as part of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, like so many structural sociohistorical systemic inequalities and oppressions, the pandemic made it exponentially worse. Further, it expanded the concept of prolonged illness and disability to segments of the population where they were previously unthinkable with the spread of conditions like “long COVID.” Additionally, as of the writing of this article in the summer of 2024, despite political statements from state officials to the contrary, the pandemic is ongoing. The insistence that it has passed a definitive end point represents, as I will explore, an ableist notion that discounts the forever-altered lives of the immunocompromised and other people who entered the pandemic disabled, as well as those made newly disabled.

Disability Justice and Ecocriticism, or, Where Do We Go from Here?

Disability Justice and climate activism are deeply intertwined and their praxis is thus inextricable. In January 2022, Dr. Sami Schalk posted on Twitter, emphasizing the need to listen to and act on the call made by Disability Justice activists and disabled people to “build accessible worlds” (qtd. in Piepzna-Samarasinha 13) so that all persons can survive the ongoing climate and health crises. In response to the criticism of her tweet, she further explained, “Disability is not a catastrophe to me. It’s just a fact of life.” Disability, and the nascent movement for Disability Justice, are not catastrophic. The ocean is getting hotter, and the consequences include “ocean acidification, sea-level rise and stronger and more frequent hurricanes” (“Confronting Climate”). As the ocean’s and the atmosphere’s temperatures rise, so do sea levels. Accordingly, climate disaster, including drought, flooding, and hurricanes, result in increased water-related disasters. 

To think of the world in terms of disability and ecological justice is to think the world as disabled first, and from there to embrace disabled knowledges as methods for addressing not only the current situation (pandemics, water disasters, droughts, rising temperatures, wildfires and smoke storms), but potential future crises as well (this could include more of the previous, and so many other disasters we have yet to experience).

Given that “water-related disasters have dominated the list of disasters over the past 50 years and account for 70 per cent of all deaths related to natural disasters” (“Water”), and with the linkages between disability and natural disaster, the vast majority of the population already is or will be disabled. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha poses the following question: “How does it change everything, to imagine and plan for a future where we are the majority—and not a terrible thing, but a source of possibility and power?” (14) To think of the world in terms of disability and ecological justice is to think the world as disabled first, and from there to embrace disabled knowledges as methods for addressing not only the current situation (pandemics, water disasters, droughts, rising temperatures, wildfires and smoke storms), but potential future crises as well (this could include more of the previous, and so many other disasters we have yet to experience). Put differently, “the world has [already] been cripped” (Piepzna-Samarasinha 14). What is left for us now is to imagine the world through disabled lifeways, largely in opposition to the imaginative frameworks provided by media like The Last of Us franchise.

The Lost Potential of The Last of Us Franchise

My argument in “Tentacular Thinking” hinged on the potential inherent in reading the environments and context of The Last of Us, Part I on their own merits. I dealt little with the narrative, leaning into the interactive and environmental storytelling in which the game engages, seeing it as a sandbox for imagining the world otherwise through an ecocritical framework. The story in the first Last of Us game, however, presents a character study rather than the kind of complex, winding narrative that allows for such imaginative work. In many ways (intentional or otherwise), however, Part II sees this potential and moves swiftly and thoroughly away from it, foreclosing the possibilities that the first game opens in favor of graphic, exhausting violence ,and what Rob Zacny calls a “morality play” about revenge and its folly. The specific moral overtones of Part II have yet to appear in the television series, which itself presents a character study much like Part I. 

The bleak, cruel unendingly grim worldview and politics of The Last of Us, Part II are omnipresent throughout the series, in everything from the development of Joel and Ellie as (less-than-)nuanced characters, to the “bury your queers” and “better dead than disabled” tropes that intersect in episode three, “Long, Long Time.” The episode details the relationship between gay men who meet after the apocalypse. One has been a doomsday preparation enthusiast (Bill, played by Nick Offerman) since before societal collapse, and the other (Frank, played by Murray Bartlett) has recently lost his cohort of survivors and needs a safe place to stay. We find out later that Frank has a degenerative disease that means that as their relationship progresses, his mobility is increasingly limited. As a result, he asks Bill to help him die, and Bill kills himself soon after. All of this is told in flashback before the show’s protagonists reach the compound.

Where We Were, Where We Are

The Last of Us franchise has never been especially cheery, but what cis-heterosexual, white, abled imagining of the world after the end ever is? Put differently, Neil Druckmann’s Last of Us franchise lacks the imaginative potential of so many radical and increasingly mainstream leftists throughout the 2010–20s. As is clear through the series, the concept of defunding the police in radical, revolutionary, communal conceptions of sociality is shown to be anathema to a prescribed, yet deeply unscientific, notion of “human nature.” Ellie and Joel pass through dystopian militarized zones and decimated former settlements, signaling a major disconnect between the world that was and the world as it is post-collapse. Thus far, only the commune, which is a collectivist community lead by a Black woman (Maria, played by Rutina Wesley) is successful. A collapse may come in season two of the series, but the second season has only just begun filming as of this writing, with a debut scheduled for 2025. This commune, however, originates in a manifest destiny–style, conflict-free mythology; the show acknowledges that native folks exist (via a brief conversation between the protagonists and Marlon [Graham Greene] and Florence [Elaine Miles], a native couple who warn them in episode six, “Kin,” of trouble on the horizon), and then quickly dismisses them in favor of the settler-colonial framework that establishes equitable, communal living for many.

Returning to Part II, the game is entrenched in a ruthlessness that games journalists, especially those journalists invested in a radical politics, actively criticized. The first game, according to Rob Zacny, “ended on a grim, ambivalent note. What had begun as a quest to save the world ended in a massacre that denied salvation. This was the brutal, but effective, payoff to a game about the deepening bond between the mercenary Joel Miller and the young woman he was assigned to protect, Ellie.” Where the first game earns this grim ending in terms of the development of complex, nuanced characters over the course of Part I, the same cannot be said for Part II. As Zacny describes,

Even before it begins trying to humanize the people you are busy killing, The Last of Us 2 is a game of squalid cruelty. It’s not just the fact that you torture and kill people even as they plead with you to spare them, or the incredibly detailed destruction of faces and bodies that happens with shocking regularity throughout this game. It is also the growing lack of justification. Nobody ever reconsiders their quest for vengeance. Everyone acts under a kind of vindictive compulsion that goes little remarked and unexamined.     

Zacny closes out his review by saying that the sequel “sets out to surpass its predecessor, but the only meaningful contrast between them is in its even more oppressive bleakness and violence. It digs two graves, fills them with blood, and then just fucking wallows in them.” “Two graves” here has a double meaning. First, the reference to Confucian concept of digging two graves in the pursuit of revenge is a statement on revenge as inherently destructive of the self. 

      More to the point of the franchise though, in Part II, the player alternates between two main protagonists, a move that might have, in another game, provided some degree of nuance, complication, and moral ambiguity to the story. Instead, the game pits an older Ellie (voiced by Ashley Johnson) in a revenge quest against Abby (voiced by Laura Bailey). We find out over the course of the second game that Abby’s father was among the surgeons that Joel massacred at the end of Part I, for which Abby kills Joel early in Part II. This sends Ellie on a revenge quest of her own, with both women seeking retribution for their father figures’ deaths. As with so many texts in the horror genre, this story may position women player-characters, but it does so to tell a story about men and masculinity. Further, as Zacny points out, there is little in the narrative beyond the simple moral judgements that the game asks the player to make against the protagonists, judgments that the game then foists onto the player; after all, the player is responsible for controlling these characters. 

      There may be no meaningful way to push back against a narrative on a minimally interactive trajectory in the way that Part II is, but the interactive elements of controlling a character while she beats human bodies beyond recognition allow little room for distance from the strict moral lines that the game draws. The Last of Us, Part II establishes a world and an experience in which there is no space, imaginative or otherwise, to think of a better world. Rather than contending with the ways in which the world might be imagined to function differently, the emphasis on gratuitous violence restricts our ability to think about community care from a Disability Justice perspective that would see an end to this kind of physical harm.

Disability Justice and Horror Theory, Forever Searching

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes the networks of knowledge and un/know-ability in Disability Justice in a parenthetical: “Being a disabled writer also means writing knowing that someone has probably written what you’ve said before—it’s just lost in a zine from twenty years ago, a crip first-gen website that didn’t get renewed, an out of print book” (20). I write this article with a sense of certainty that someone has written about Disability Justice, horror, zombies, rhizomes, and ecocriticism before. The primary text on horror and disability remains Angela M. Smith’s 2011 text, Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema. Most of the work done since, including through the COVID-19 pandemic, comes in the form of journalistic pieces, blog posts, and journal articles,1 many of which rely on Julia Kristeva’s 1980 theory of abjection from Powers of Horror and its 1993 update, Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine. This is not to say that the texts mentioned do not have merit; rather, the Disability Justice text that we need for a world in the midst of constant pandemics, climate crisis, and mounting fascist movements has yet to be made widely available.

To take a turn of phrase from Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha: disabled scholars and Disability Justice activists have the skills and imagination the world needs, and we need to share them.


1. For examples of each in turn, see Lopez’s “Brief History of Disability in Horror,” Reid’s “Monstrous Misrepresentation,” and Hall’s “Horrible Heroes” in the Works Cited.

Works Cited

“Confronting Climate.” Ocean Conservancy, oceanconservancy.org/climate. Accessed 8 June 2023.

“COVID-19 Timeline.” David J. Sencer CDC MuseumU.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 15 Mar. 2023,www.cdc.gov/museum/timeline/covid19.html.

Hall, Melinda. “Horrible Heroes: Liberating Alternative Visions of Disability in Horror.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1, winter 2016, doi: 10.18061/dsq.v36i1.3258.

“Kin.” The Last of Us, written by Craig Mazin, season 1, episode 6, HBO, 19 Feb. 2023. Max, www.max.com/shows/last-of-us/93ba22b1-833e-47ba-ae94-8ee7b9eefa9a.

“Long, Long Time.” The Last of Us, written by Craig Mazin, season 1, episode 3, HBO, 29 Jan. 2023. Max, www.max.com/shows/last-of-us/93ba22b1-833e-47ba-ae94-8ee7b9eefa9a.

Lopez, Kristen. “A Brief History of Disability in Horror: From Freaks to The Shape of Water.” Fangoria, 26 Mar. 2021, www.fangoria.com/original/a-brief-history-of-disability-in-horror.

Newman, Genevieve. “Fungal Zombies and Tentacular Thinking: The Chthonic Mother in the Game The Last of Us.” Studies in the Fantastic, no. 7, summer/fall 2019, pp. 39–50. Project MUSE, doi: 10.1353/sif.2019.0003.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. The Future Is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes, and Mourning Songs. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022.

Reid, Lindsey. “Monstrous Misrepresentation: Disabilities in the Horror Genre.” UAB Institute for Human Rights Blog, U of Alabama at Birmingham, 13 Aug. 2019,  sites.uab.edu/humanrights/2019/08/13/monstrous-misrepresentation-disabilities-in-the-horror-genre.

 “Water – at the Center of the Climate Crisis.” United Nationswww.un.org/en/climatechange/science/climate-issues/water. Accessed 8 June 2023.

“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, www.max.com/shows/last-of-us/93ba22b1-833e-47ba-ae94-8ee7b9eefa9a.

Zacny, Rob. “The Last of Us, Part II Is a Grim and Bloody Spectacle, but a Poor Sequel.” Vice, 12 June 2020, www.vice.com/en/article/wxqnxy/last-of-us-part-2-review.