What The Last of Us Season 2 Castings Reveal About The Show’s Timeline

The latest cast announcements for The Last of Us season 2 suggests how the show can deal with major events from the game.

Merle Dandridge and Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us season 1.
Photo: Liane Hentscher | HBO

This article contains major spoilers from The Last of Us Part II and will therefore spoil HBO’s The Last of Us season 2.

The recent cast announcements for The Last of Us has fans of HBO’s Emmy Award-winning drama speculating about how the upcoming sophomore season will approach the divisive central story of Naughty Dog’s 2021 video game, The Last of Us Part II. When it comes to the sequel’s shocking inciting event, players familiar with the post-apocalyptic game’s story are split into two camps as we trudge, Joel and Ellie-style, towards the show’s 2025 return.

HBO’s The Last of Us finished its first season identical to the original game’s ending. Hardened smuggler Joel Miller massacres his way through a Utah hospital to save his unconscious surrogate daughter Ellie from being killed for a cure to the fungal zombie pandemic. Pedro Pascal was deservedly praised for the emotional performance he gave as Joel in all of his affected misanthropy, his pragmatic approach to violence, and his deep vulnerability and trauma. Not enough to be Ellie’s dad in The Last of Us and Grogu’s dad in The Mandalorian, Pascal is the Internet’s dad, too, and as such, his multitudes of fans will follow him everywhere.

And that could be a big risk for what’s to come in the second season of The Last of Us, currently filming in Vancouver, Canada.

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Four new cast members were revealed alongside descriptions of their characters, names that are certainly familiar to players of the video game sequel. Danny Ramirez (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) plays a loyal soldier named Manny, Tati Gabrielle (You, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) plays medic Nora, Spencer Lord (Riverdale) is Owen, a conflicted soldier torn between love and obligation, and Ariela Barer (How to Blow Up a Pipeline) is Mel, a surgeon and rebound girlfriend to Owen. The official press release’s character descriptions hint at emotional turmoil in the season ahead, all but guaranteeing these four people will be introduced similarly to their game counterparts – very early in the second season.

All four characters are following team leader Abby, played onscreen by Justified’s Kaitlyn Dever, as she seeks out the man who killed her father, a Firefly doctor shot dead in his operating room as he was about to make a breakthrough vaccine against Cordyceps. Abby’s quest for revenge leads her to the isolated Jackson, Wyoming community and bad luck (or karmic fate) leads Joel right into Abby and her friends’ hands during the game’s first act.

Joel pays for his violent misdeeds with his life, to the horror of Ellie, who is held down and forced to watch Joel get beaten to death by Abby.

When huge narrative details were leaked ahead of The Last of Us Part 2’s release date, many fans reacted to Joel’s death with Twitter outrage, review bombing, and even death threats against several voice actors and game creator and Naughty Dog president Neil Druckmann. Though the sting of Joel’s gruesome death has faded since the game’s initial release, a huge new audience of unsuspecting TV fans are about to watch Pedro Pascal get his head smashed in on an HBO show for the second time. 

This time, however, Pascal isn’t one guest actor in a large ensemble, as he was when he played Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones. Pedro Pascal is the biggest name in The Last of Us cast and brings with him supernova-sized star power. Will showrunner Craig Mazin stay true to the game’s story, as he was in season one, or will the sophomore season make some structural changes to keep Joel (and Pascal’s fanbase) alive for as long as possible? 

Some fan theories place Joel’s death around episode two, after a little time getting our bearings alongside Joel and Ellie in Jackson’s community of survivors. After all, there’s Ellie’s new crew to meet, too, and those actors were also recently announced. Ellie’s closest friends are her love interest Dina (Isabela Merced) and Jesse (Beef’s Young Mazino), a smart but green patrolman who’s learned some skills from Joel. In the wake of Joel’s death, the three young adults grow closer as they travel to Seattle to find and kill Abby and her former Fireflies. Meanwhile, Abby’s time post-Jackson follows the Western Liberation Front (the WLF or “Wolves,” for short) paramilitary soldier through a war-torn Seattle and runs concurrently alongside Ellie’s adventures. Yeet Abby doesn’t become the “main”’ point-of-view character until the game’s midpoint, when players see the preceding three days in Seattle from Abby’s perspective.

While a game can sideline Ellie for several hours as people play as Abby, the TV show can’t really keep its Ellie, nor star Bella Ramsey, offscreen for the bulk of a season. The unique dual narratives of The Last of Us Part II has some fans guessing that Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann will instead have season two show the events of the game – including story-critical flashbacks – in chronological order for both Abby and Ellie, perhaps alternating focus each episode, similar to Rick and Michonne’s converging stories in The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live

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This would place Joel’s death towards the season finale, which would require significant padding of the season’s events, particularly for action sequences. And while there were definitely deleted elements from the game, like Joel’s love interest in Jackson and more WLF in-fighting, it’s not enough material to be noteworthy. 

This isn’t to say that Craig Mazin hasn’t been able to create some incredible original stories within Naughty Dog’s fungus-filled sandbox. Bill and Frank were minor characters in the first videogame, but their sweet and sad love story in the episode “Long, Long Time” could make even the most hardened soul ugly-cry. 

The second season of The Last of Us has also added film and TV veteran Catherine O’Hara to the cast for three episodes as an original character named Gail, whose character description has been kept secret. Fans overwhelmingly concur that O’Hara could be the unnamed prophet leader of the Seraphites, a mysterious, popular cult that fights the WLF for control of Seattle. The older woman, killed in WLF captivity before the events of the game, was a fierce protective figure in her community during the outbreak and subsequent fall of FEDRA, whose visions and religious teachings inspired new recruits to take up weapons in her name. 

But O’Hara could also be playing a WLF leader or even a figure in The Last of Us Part II’s best missable mini-story, the tale of Boris Legasov and the dramatic end of the Hillcrest neighborhood. (Surely the creator of Chernobyl won’t miss a chance to make a reference to another Legasov!) All that fans and critics can agree on is that after seeing Nick Offerman in his award-winning performance as Bill, Craig Mazin enjoys comedic actors showcasing their dramatic talents. So viewers at least know not to expect Schitt’s Creek’s Moira Rose renting a motel room to Ellie and Dina on their way to Seattle. 

Still, some fan theories are so full of copium, theories abound where Joel doesn’t die at all. Instead, another member of Ellie’s extended family dies instead, like Jesse or his brother Tommy – which is wildly unlikely as actor Gabriel Luna is posting frequent Instagram pics from the Vancouver sets. And while no one, least of all Pedro Pascal fans and, most assuredly, HBO corporate shareholders financially invested in The Last of Us, wants to say goodbye to the charismatic star so soon after the show’s massively successful first season, Joel was not intended to be the main character of The Last of Us.

Delaying Joel’s death would negate much of The Last of Us Part II’s themes of hate, guilt, and forgiveness. Without Joel’s death to drive Ellie’s story into action, The Last of Us would need so much new material, it’d be more fan fiction than adaptation. Given the recent flurry of casting news, it seems most probable that while The Last of Us may make some narrative departures from the game’s story, the most important event from the game will have to play out as it originally did: nasty, brutish, and way sooner than anyone who loved rooting for Joel and Ellie would have liked.

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