Cargo Cult Bonus Content: The Last Of Us
These episodes represent a seeming divergence from the point of the two seasons of Cargo Cult. Our podcast focuses principally on movies from the past and the cultural energies they represent to the wide world of transportation. It's a nostalgic load.
HBO's The Last of Us is not only a television show but one produced in the now, set in a dystopian post-pandemic future, and based on a wildly popular video game. Furthermore, it is not a reclamation project of something remembered vaguely or without context but instead is a cultural phenomenon that has cemented its two leads as bonafide international stars. In short, it's as close to a water-cooler show as is possible in this time of multitudinous options.
You don't need reminding; it is all around you. Not a lick of the nostalgic notions usually found in Cargo Cult, right? And yet, it feels right in line with the world we have been talking about over the past few months. It's a road movie, it's a hero's (and heroine's) journey, and it provides a window into the world from which it was created.
Set 20 years after a planet altering fungal pandemic,The Last of Us follows the grizzled, embittered Joel (Pedro Pascale) and his tough charge Ellie (Bella Ramsay) from Boston to The Pacific Northwest. Never fully recovered from the death of his daughter, Joel must transport Ellie across hostile country, because the troubled teen may hold the key to mankind's salvation. It is a world still suffering from the effects of an insidious infection that turns humans into howling, clicking mushrooms with their only intent to spread their lifecycle. And if that weren't enough, those aren't even the true monsters. Entrenched fascists, vengeful revolutionaries, creepy cultists, and vicious raiders provide as big an obstacle as blocked highways, inclement weather, or a hoard of brainless fungi . Allies are few, unreliable, and quickly removed from the board. The best of us are gone, and all that remains is the last of us.
Now, that I put it like that, it makes a lot of sense for Cargo Cult.
But the real connective point of Cargo Cult to The Last of Us, and one we didn't realize until the show began to hurtle towards its shattering conclusion, was the exploration of how human beings believe movement transforms. Geographically, emotionally, physically.
The proof seems to be in the action. Geography and what is contained in those surroundings change us. As simple a thing as an elevation, a vista, or a region's flora can transform the way we breathe and feel about the world around us. Fortunes have changed and lives have been extended by what a different locale offers both in its earth and air. It did not take a long time for our species to figure this out. We breathe the fresh air and are saved, or we find gold in "them thar" hills and are enriched. Therefore, when we want to become something new, we use this knowledge of external change to enact internal change. To begin the world anew, we know we must begin in a new world. Go West, Young Man.
And that is where The Last of Us Begins, albeit with its man not so young. Joel and longtime partner Tess (a terrific Anna Torv) have reached the end-of-the-line in a repressive Boston. With limited freedom in a city run by the militant FEDRA, the one-time lovers are hunting for a truck part that will transport them out west and possibly into the company of Joel's brother Tommy. But other forces seek the same engine replacement, and quickly it becomes apparent that exit from the city will require a compromise with the revolutionary Fireflies. Those would be liberators have a deal for the couple: transport the difficult teenager Ellie to a group of waiting Fireflies. Do that, and they can head out anywhere they please. Become anyone they please.
That is, to boil it down to its most basic structure, a road movie. You'll have to watch the show and listen to these episodes to better understand what is being explored. That being said, keep in mind this show arrives on its platform with this country in the midst of one of its great existential crises. For many citizens, there is a growing belief that avenues for transformation and reinvention are rapidly closing off. That is seismic, because it cuts us off from the very ephemeral objective that provides the engine of how we perceive ourselves. Lose a belief in reinvention, and you lose The American Dream. That distant destination, despite our capitalist foundations, is not lottery sized wealth. It is to move forward with the past receding into the rearview mirror. To become the best version of ourselves. But the perceived recent lack of new frontiers, fresh destinations, and promises of new identities have deprived many of the hope that they can begin the world anew.
This is a combination of progress and exhaustion. Information technology and its ability to rapidly disseminate prevent any escape from who you were. Our previous actions never go away, the past can be summoned rapidly into the present, and forever fix our futures. Our wounds, our victimhood, our transgressions, our resentments, and our regrets are posted, displayed, and jammed into our faces. Our narrative, which was always fragile and in many cases took a lifetime to master, is now out in the ether, outside of our control and threatened by an onslaught of others who seek to sweep it into their own stories. And no frontier, static arrest of data, darkness retreat, or even time in the wilderness seems to present an opportunity to begin the world anew. Bruce Wayne's Clean Slate is a fictional gadget and only available to Selena Kyle.
For many in the country, they see a world of only atonement not redemption. An exhausting slog of confrontations, stalemate, and stasis. In despair, they see the only reset left as the apocalypse. Their last great hope is a conflagration to wipe their slate clean. Storm the capitol, take the city, overthrow the oppressors. Do that, and they will no longer be victim, wounded, transgressor, resentful, or regretful. Instead, their sins are washed away, and they are returned to a purer, truer self. Their best self. That is a self that can still become what they always dreamed they would be. Moving confidently in that time transport of the American Dream: the future is a brand new interstate and the potholes of our failings fade into the distance.
Amidst its examinations of parental, sibling, and fraternal relationships, The Last of Us subversively challenges that illusion of the end-of-days being the beginning of the new us. The world it creates has the majority of the population trapped inside an insidious rage-inducing neural network. Those that remain seek survival in a world where dangers abound. That certainly appears to be an apocalypse. But rather than become new versions of themselves, those that remain discover a core that was always there. Either moral foundations are reinforced or darker purposes are unfolded. It is not so much an apocalypse but a revelation. Perhaps, we always were the person we wanted to be, but society for both good and ill prevented that becoming.
And that is the inherent brilliance of the series. It is delivering traditional on-the-nose messages about forging bonds with others, but all the while, it lays a growing case that we are who we are unless we change that from within.
Enjoy this bonus content, and let us know what you think.