If you spend any time at all on social media, ignoring the buzz surrounding HBO Max’s hit series The Last of Us is impossible. Like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things before it, this genre show has quickly become a modern-day watercooler series — and it’s one that’s got teens and tweens talking too. That’s thanks to the series being based on an award-winning video game and starring Pedro Pascal (who has been affectionately dubbed the internet’s daddy ), as well as rising star Bella Ramsey. With that in mind, there’s a good chance your tween is begging you to let them watch The Last of Us, but there are a few things you need to know before handing over your HBO Max password.
Set 20 years after a mutated form of the cordyceps fungus began infecting people (creating what are essentially mushroom zombies), Joel (Pascal) is tasked with ferrying 14-year-old Ellie (Ramsey) across a post-apocalyptic United States. As far as anyone knows, Ellie is the first and only person to survive being bitten by one of the infected without becoming infected herself. With her blood possibly offering up clues on how to stop the spread of the infection, keeping her safe becomes Joel’s mission.
Along the way, the characters face all manner of danger, both from the infected and people who have embraced their darkest impulses in the wake of civilization crumbling. This leads to plenty of violence, some gore, and a whole lot of bleakness. Teens who have already played the PlayStation game on which the show is based or who have streamed shows like The Walking Dead should be OK, but parents of tweens might want to be a bit more cautious.
What’s the age rating for The Last of Us?
HBO Max Rating: TV-MA
Common Sense: 16+
The Last of Us earns its TV-MA rating for violence, language, and the show’s overall tone. It’s worth noting that co-showrunner Craig Mazin is also behind the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, which was praised for its anxiety-inducing realism. He infuses his zombie series with a similar sense of dread that tweens might not be prepared to handle.
In the show’s first episode, a 14-year-old graphically dies onscreen, while a younger child is killed offscreen and tossed into a fire. Things only get darker from there. Joel and Ellie are often faced with difficult decisions that lead them to kill both the infected and non-infected alike.
The series also features assisted suicide and mentions a past suicide attempt. Add in the body horror (fungi sprout out of the bodies of the infected) and the graphic death scenes, and it becomes clear that most members of the 13 and under set are unlikely to be prepared for such a dark series just yet.
How scary is The Last of Us?
Overall, The Last of Us isn’t interested in scaring the audience in the traditional sense. For a zombie show, it’s low on jump scares, and it mostly avoids gratuitous violence. The infected aren’t pleasant to look at, and seeing fungi sprout from their bodies or spill out of their mouth could lead to nightmares for the younger set. But on the whole, it’s not overtly scary.
However, the series is heartbreaking. At its core, it’s a story of grief, and the themes of sadness and depression are ever-present. Even though it’s a show with zombies and a post-apocalyptic landscape, it’s the weepiest show this side of This Is Us.
For tweens, the constant darkness could feel oppressive. If you do decide to co-watch the show with your kids, it’s a good idea to warn them ahead of time that the series isn’t as fun as the memes and clips make it appear. Plenty of heavy topics are tackled in the first season, and while they’re all handled gracefully, the show is geared toward an older audience.
How do I know if my tween is ready to watch The Last of Us?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to deciding what kids are ready to watch and when. No one knows your tween better than you do, and if you feel they can handle the show’s heavy themes, then co-viewing it with them might be the way to go.
Even though it is a dark show, The Last of Us also features moving LGBTQ+ stories, a positive message about found families, and a realistic depiction of grief that might help tweens who have gone through a big loss. Still, for most tweens — especially those just beginning to dip their toes into the horror genre — The Last of Us isn’t appropriate viewing, even though it’s always thoughtful in how it approaches difficult topics.
Instead, try steering your younger horror fans toward shows like Stranger Things, Locke & Key, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer before they make the jump to a show as intense as The Last of Us.