Good art lends itself to any number of interpretations, which presents those who interpret art with a conundrum. Suppose an artistic product doesn’t bludgeon you with a laboriously didactic narrative, thereby rendering the work worthy of analysis. Can any reading into it be anything other than a subjective endeavor? Can that exercise in exegesis ever say more about the art than it does about the reviewer? To survey a deep dive into HBO’s fantastic reimagining of the video-game series “The Last of Us” from Politico magazine’s Joanna Weiss, the answer to both questions is a definitive no.
Weiss’s ideologically mission-oriented essay explores the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction, identifying in The Last of Us a departure from the thematic elements that typify its progenitors in this category. This show, and the digital properties upon which it is closely based, exposes “how our anxieties about government have changed.” In the 20th century and even into the early 2000s, Weiss contends, government is an obstacle before the story’s protagonists when it isn’t an outright adversary. The Last of Us strays from the well-trodden path insofar as government in this story reflects our understanding of—and apprehension over—government’s limits. It is, the headline reads, a “zombie show for the post-Covid era.”
First, what’s with this “we” stuff? The polling on the issues that Weiss discusses doesn’t exactly support her thesis. Early on in the pandemic, polling suggested Americans were generally comfortable weighing the urgency of the pandemic against its temporary threat to civil liberties, and most sided with safety over freedom. But as the threat from the virus receded while suffocating, ubiquitous pandemic-related contingency measures persisted, that began to change.
Advocates for a perpetual war footing mourned the degree to which “America’s individualist bent” had reasserted itself, undermining the collective struggle against the virus. The alacrity with which governments at all levels sloughed off Covid restrictions in late 2021, after the political consequences associated with them became tangible, suggests, as a skeptical New York Times profile of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis noted, that politicians who privileged liberty over safety “plainly won the political argument on Covid.” In January, Gallup found that Americans cited “government,” for the seventh straight year, as the biggest problem facing the country. Such dissatisfaction had jumped six points from December alone. If that had anything to do with government’s response to Covid, it’s reasonable to expect to see “Covid” appear on that list of problems. It doesn’t.
Weiss’s conceptual approach to dissecting this story is revealing in other, infinitely more disturbing ways. Having set the stage for her belief that an extinction-level event resulting from climate change makes the case for bigger government, she apparently feels compelled to defend its excesses.
“FEDRA, the FEMA-like agency, is loathed as a fascist entity,” she observes. “But it’s cruel not because of some master plan but because it’s overwhelmed.” The author notes that this cruelty sometimes manifests in the mass murder of defenseless civilians, but only out of sheer desperation. That’s an argument that can be made in the defense of any imperious government acting supposedly in defense of its ideological interests. Indeed, Stalinist sympathizers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and George Bernard Shaw did just that. What were the Soviets supposed to do, what with all the wreckers, saboteurs, and right deviationists about?
Weiss descends into this reflection on the psychology of breaking a few eggs when she ponders the origins of the fungal plague that serves as the backdrop for HBO’s series. When the pathogen is first discovered, one local official grimly concludes that it is necessary to “bomb this city and everyone in it.” That, Weiss said, is “a bleak reference to climate change, which has no easy fix, no singular savior, no policy or strategy to reset the clock.” That’s a chillingly bloodless way to put it. But what other options are there? The alternative to the vaporization of tens of thousands of people is the kind of collectivism she believes represents humanity’s only chance at salvation, and people are just hardwired against that sort of thing.
“Humankind’s only chance is cooperation and mutual trust, which sometimes feels like it has a snowball’s chance in hell,” Weiss writes. The “scariest thing” about this and other similar doomsday scenarios “is the feeling that there’s nobody to save us.” That certainly does not describe the ruggedly—even perhaps pathologically—individualist characters that appear periodically throughout this story, for whom self-reliance is a virtue denied them by public-sector intemperance. But even a charitable interpretation of Weiss’s observation leaves us with a misapprehension about what “cooperation and mutual trust” are in a free society.
“If there’s a message about government embedded in there, maybe it’s that, in the absence of a system to plug into—either a cruel totalitarian state or a deeply incompetent bureaucracy—people will have no choice but to work together to survive,” Weiss concludes. That, to her, is science fictional, but only because it is wildly hopeful. That’s a bizarre misreading of not only the American social compact but how the nation responded to the Covid crisis.
Weiss reads into the human condition and the American system, which harnesses rather than fights mankind’s immutably competitive nature, the notion that they discourage collaborative and altruistic pursuits. Ours is a system of voluntarily cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships in which “trust” is a function of distinct but clearly understood incentive structures. Covid affirmed the virtues of this when, early in the pandemic, Americans embraced conventions that closed much of society for the benefit of what we knew at the time were the nation’s most vulnerable populations. These conventions did not need to be enforced with police powers until the rationale for voluntary self-deprivation began to erode.
What does any of this have to do with The Last of Us? Nothing, save for the degree to which its viewers project themselves onto it. To Weiss, this property is a subtle attack on American individualism and an advertisement for collectivist politics. To others, such as New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, it’s a right-wing fever dream that promotes anti-government paranoia. She adds that the show strives for but ultimately falls short of redemption only (SPOILERS) because its creators opted to explore the homosexuality of one of the story’s characters.
The narrative lends itself to a panoply of interpretations. That is not just a mark of how compelling it is, but also an indication that it is art and not an exercise in moral instruction. And maybe all you need to know is that it’s good, even if the hot takes it inspires are not.