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Dare you ever order mushroom risotto again? The Last of Us, with its pandemic cordyceps infection that destroys much of the world as we know it, has given HBO Max another monster hit, and thrilled fans of the original game, newcomers and critics alike. Music was a key part of the video game’s story, so how did this translate to the show’s first season?
The Opening Titles
The sparse, haunting music that plays over the opening titles – and the score that’s used for much of the show’s first season – was composed by Argentinian Gustavo Santaolalla, who also composed the music for The Last of Us game. He started playing the guitar at five, writing his own songs at the age of 10, and then signed his first record deal at 16.
Santaolalla won back-to-back Oscars for his work on Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Babel (2006), and he also won a BAFTA for the latter, together with one for The Motorcycle Diaries. His theme for The Last of Us is characterised by his use of the folk string instrument, the ronroco, an Andean instrument that resembles a lute.
His music for both the game and the series responds to who Ellie and Joel are as characters. ‘When I did the game, I wanted two sounds: one sound that is more towards the feminine side, and one that is more viral and masculine’, he told IndieWire. ‘The ronroco gave me that connection with Ellie, and the six-string, the Fender vintage bass, gave me the sound of that more masculine, lower world.’
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
The series starts in 2003 with main characters Joel (Pedro Pascal), his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) and Joel’s daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker) having, it turns out, their last normal day together. All too soon, the mass cordyceps infection hits, turning even their elderly neighbour into a monster and causing carnage. The three try to escape in Joel’s truck, but their flight ends in tragedy when a state trooper shoots Sarah and she dies in her father’s arms.
The action then cuts to the Quarantine Zone (QZ) in Boston two decades later, with those who have managed to survive the plague which ravaged the globe scratching out a tough existence, brutally overseen by the authoritarian Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA). Joel and his partner Tess (Anna Torv) are tasked by Marlene (Merle Dandridge, reprising her role from the game), the leader of a nationwide rebellion called the Fireflies, to take teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to another group of Fireflies in the QZ in Massachusetts. Why? Because Ellie seems to be immune to the cordyceps infection. Could she be the key to a vaccine that would change the world?
Music as a theme and a vital story element is introduced early on – Joel and Tess receive messages from their friends Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) via a radio, coded by decade. Songs from the 60s mean they have nothing new to trade; 70s music flags that there’s new stock available and 80s music? Trouble. Depeche Mode’s ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ plays at the very end of the first episode and out over the credits after Ellie, Joel and Tess have left the QZ – setting a suitably ominous tone for what lies ahead. Namely, not only avoiding The Infected, but also dealing with bands of survivors who might be even worse.
Director Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) revealed to The Hollywood Reporter that the track was, in fact, his wife’s suggestion.
‘My wife has an encyclopaedic knowledge of 1980s music. I said, I need it to be a song that I kind of know but I haven’t heard in a long time. One that hasn’t been beaten to death. And I needed it to have context. I needed it to be meaningful. I needed [it to] be foreboding and, ideally, without being super on the nose, give me a comment. I needed to start a particular way so we can show that radio turning on. And then she was like: ‘Never Let Me Down Again.’’
Safe to say, not only was it a great choice, but it kicked off a lasting family connection with the song – Mazin’s daughter, Jessica, reprises it at the end of episode six, the aptly-titled ‘Kin’. A female vocal on the track reflects the fact that Ellie now has to save Joel, reversing the relationship they’ve had thus far in the series, where he’s been protecting her.
Long, Long Time
Episode three, meanwhile, stunned fans and critics alike with a masterclass in storytelling and character creation, fleshing out the game’s background characters Bill and Frank. Plus, this largely standalone episode focusing on Bill and Frank’s relationship did for Linda Ronstadt what Stranger Things did for Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up that Hill’.
There’s a flashback to 2003-era Bill, a full-on prepper whose plans are finally coming to fruition as the rest of his town is herded up by FEDRA and transported to a QZ. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘I’m Coming Home to Stay’ scores a montage as he breaks into a store and a natural gas plant to get his new life fully up and running, while ‘White Room’ by Cream plays out as Bill enjoys a very fancy home-cooked meal, happily all alone.
The emotional drama kicks in, however, when Bill discovers Frank, who has fallen into one of his traps. Initially suspicious, Bill is persuaded to offer Frank a meal; after dinner, Frank, spotting Bill’s piano, bashes out a rough version of Linda Ronstadt’s Grammy-nominated ballad from 1970, ‘Long Long Time’. Bill takes over and a decades-long relationship begins. At the end of this heart-breaking episode, Ronstadt’s version plays out, as Joel and Ellie drive away from Bill and Frank’s house.
‘We had this idea that Bill and Frank would connect over a song. That would be the thing that would essentially lead Frank to feel differently about Bill, to not just go “oh, I see what’s going on with this guy,” but also to want him’, director Craig Mazin revealed on HBO’s The Last of Us podcast.
And as for why they chose which character to start singing the song, ‘it was an interesting rotation of expectations. You might think Frank feels like the kind of guy that would be really good at the piano and have a beautiful voice, and he’s absolute shit at piano — by the way, Murray Bartley is great at the piano and has an excellent voice, which is why he was so funny doing an impression of a terrible player with a terrible voice.’
Road Trips & Merry Go Rounds
When the world effectively stopped in 2003, it means your music choices are somewhat curtailed, but Ellie’s introduced to a country classic as she and Joel travel in the truck together: ‘Alone and Forsaken’ by Hank Williams & The Drifting Cowboys, on a tape she finds in the back.
The track plays out as the pair travel through eerily deserted and decayed landscapes, populated only by herds of buffalo and abandoned cars.
Episode seven was another stand-alone, also centring music, which delved into Ellie’s backstory as a FEDRA trainee and her friendship with Riley (Storm Reid), who has disappeared to join the Fireflies. The two share a magical adventure together after dark, exploring a long-forgotten mall before tragedy – and one of The Infected – strikes.
In the opening scene, Ellie is sporting a Walkman and listening to Pearl Jam’s ‘All or None’. Classic 80s tracks then come to the fore again, with A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ providing the ideal soundtrack to her being shown ‘the Four Wonders of the Mall’ by Riley, including, gasp, ‘ELECTRIC STAIRS??’
Note to self: enjoy escalators, they’re joyous (and Riley didn’t even count them as one of her ‘four wonders’!)
Our pick of episode seven’s tracks, though, has to be the ethereal version of The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’, which plays as the two have a glittering, magical ride on a carousel.
The girls also dance around to Etta James’ ‘I Got You Babe’ in an abandoned Hallowe’en store – the music that’s been left behind seems few and far between, so teens such as Ellie and Riley listen to a mash up of music from across the decades without worrying about whether or not it’s cool.
The Season 1 Finale
There’s another little A-ha Easter egg in the finale – Anna (the game’s original Ellie actor Ashley Johnson) is about to give birth to Ellie in a flashback at the start. The Last of Us co-creator Neil Druckmann confirmed via Twitter that the song Anna sings to her newborn daughter is ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ – a call-back to the A-ha cassette tape we spotted on Ellie’s bedside table in episode seven.
Other than that, it’s all action all the way, as Joel and his ward finally reach their destination. But when Joel realises what the Fireflies intend to do to Ellie in order to try to create a vaccine, all hell breaks loose, and he takes matters very much into his own hands.
Interestingly for such an extended battle sequence, the sound of gunfire is knocked right back, and the soundtrack is minimal and sombre, rather than the high-octane action music you’d more usually expect.
The Last of Us soundtrack might have used needle drops and music sparingly across its first season, but each one was perfectly chosen, and we’re betting that fans will be re-watching each episode as many times as they’ve replayed the game, as they eagerly wait for season two.
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