HBO’s The Last of Us has amassed so much success for so many different reasons. One of these is how easy it is to match a scene from the show to its game analog. Of course, there have been distinct changes, and it’s these changes that also contribute to such an engaged audience. Aspects of the show that stray from what we anticipate contribute to the sheer horror that it cultivates. These make it generally more terrifying to watch than the game is to play. This is especially true with how the series depicts FEDRA.
The nuance to these FEDRA changes is that they may not be changes at all based on the concept of the game. Rather, as is the case with other translational aspects of the adaptation, they are expansions of the source material. FEDRA, like with Joel and Tess’s relationship, required more intentional fleshing out to raise the stakes of the series’ storytelling.
As a reminder, FEDRA is a reduced form of government that effectively operates through different branches in different quarantine zones throughout the USA. As the central government dissolved after Outbreak Day, FEDRA assumed control. Without answering to any higher power, their acts of depravity and violence go unchecked. The series adaptation has used this blueprint to construct an austere, authoritarian body in The Last of Us that doesn’t have anything material to do with the fungal infection. They have thus made it into one of the most unnerving facets of the show. The creators have been able to do this in part by allowing some of the most merciless parts of history to repeat itself.
As soon as the show transitions from Outbreak Day to 20 years later, we see the violence of FEDRA. Instead of seeing Joel waking up on a couch, a child with clunky, worn out sneakers walks up to the walls of the quarantine zone; the signs of infection are clear. Once FEDRA receives confirmation from the diagnostic scanner that the child is infected, a soldier sticks a syringe in his arm with the promise of his favorite food and toys. We next see Joel as he dumps the small body into a firepit in the QZ as his assigned work duty. The routine aspect of this travesty is what is most frightening. It recalls the mandatory labor of concentration camps, victims forced to dispose of bodies of other victims. The historical allusions don’t stop there.
Mere moments later, as Joel finishes his shift for the day, he joins a crowd of people. In front of the crowd, three QZ inhabitants stand on a platform, each with their wrists tied behind their backs, three nooses dangling before them. A FEDRA officer is blasting the transgressors’ violations through a bullhorn. They never show us the hanging itself, but the fear-mongering is on full display. The lack of shock on Joel’s face doesn’t undermine it at all, nor does him walking immediately to a different FEDRA officer for bargaining. This is normal to him, and he believes resistance is futile.
In episode three, Ellie goes against Joel’s wishes and leads the way down a road to a grassless stretch of Earth littered with segmented skeletons. The introduction to Bill’s town takes place in a flashback, a few days after Outbreak Day, when FEDRA soldiers began to transport uninfected residents to quarantine zones. Joel tells Ellie, “[…] Told you you were going to a QZ and you were… if there was room.” If you look closer at the patch of land, there is more than just bones. We see suitcases, tattered articles of clothing, even a guitar case. The images immediately recall the Holocaust Museum in DC, with rooms filled with shoes and other items left behind at death camps.
When Ellie asks why, Joel tells her “Dead people can’t be infected.” The look on her face is heartbreaking — she who has lived her entire life in a post-apocalyptic world, who had never seen the pristine white-picket fences and wooden front doors unmarked by FEDRA’s spray paint.. The visual manifestation of FEDRA’s horrifying acts — of the people who have raised her and educated her from birth — is more harrowing to her than stabbing an infected person in the eye, which she does with ease just five minutes before.
In episode four and five, however, FEDRA’s sinister lore blows wide open in Kansas City. The two episodes contain the most original content of the entire show, with a drastic reshaping of Sam and Henry’s segment of the canon. As Joel and Ellie arrive in Kansas City, we learn that the local resistance (separate from the Fireflies) has liberated the city from FEDRA. The resistance leader is Kathleen, an original character played by none other than Melanie Lynskey. KC FEDRA has a reputation that even reached Joel in Boston. “Monsters, savages, you heard right. Raping, torturing, and murdering people for 20 years. You know what happens when you do that to people? The moment they get a chance, they do it right back to you.”
Despite the resistance’s victory, Kathleen has a vendetta against FEDRA collaborators. Those people sold out resistance members like her brother for leverage. This is again a deeper depiction of how FEDRA abused its power to pin innocent civilians against each other. In this case, it was so that Henry could maintain Sam’s access to the chemotherapy treatment. This portion of the FEDRA story alludes further to authoritarian regimes in the ways that lamentable conditions force civilians to turn on each other, breaking the resistance, and falling victim to the ruling part as a means of survival.
Ultimately, HBO’s The Last of Us houses the chilling echoes of our world’s violent history, mitigating the horror of flesh-eating zombies. Those with a true grasp of the story understand that it has little to do with fungus or an apocalypse. Instead, the story uses those conditions as a vehicle to meditate on humanity — how it can rise up in some cases or break down in others. Could we really call a microorganism evil when its biological imperative is to survive and multiply, just the same as humans? Instead, these new, much scarier perspectives of FEDRA redistribute the antagonism of The Last of Us, giving viewers greater pause when asked to consider the evil at play.
HBO’s The Last of Us airs every Sunday.