When Did We Start Killing This Many Kids On Television?
Almost every episode of The Last of Us, it’s the same thing: Meet a kid. Love their face. Learn their backstory. Watch them die.
We’re all having fun with The Last of Us, right? It stars daddy du jour Pedro Pascal. Bella Ramsey’s Ellie has the kind of quick tongue we wished we had at 14. And by comparison, their pandemic makes ours seem JV. But I have one question:
When did we start killing this many kids on television?
To be fair, when it comes to onscreen violence, I am soft, and The Last of Us is my first zombie show. I’m learning that, dietwise, zombies are about as discerning as 21-year-old me in McDonald’s at 2 a.m. They’ll eat whatever. Sometimes, that includes kids. But this is not just a show where children die in bursts of graphic visual violence. This is a show that has found the lowest key in the octave of heartstring-tugging — dead kids — and just keeps smashing it.
First, a body count.
Teenage Sarah is machine-gunned to death by a soldier. She bleeds out in the arms of her father, Joel. It’s a horrific death scene, one that caught me unaware for two reasons. One: The show asks viewers to invest nearly an hour in Sarah, in the pilot, which tricks our TV brains into thinking this is someone who will be around a while. Two: I hadn’t yet learned that kids are never safe on The Last of Us. This first kill didn’t teach me that, either. I assumed I was weathering this violence in service of the hero’s origin story, and that the worst was behind me.
We flash forward 20 years. Our first glimpse of ravaged, rusting post apocalyptic America comes via a child of maybe 8, who has trekked alone to Boston, seeking safety. An agent there tells the child she’s going to get them their favorite food, new clothes, toys — then she has them executed via intravenous injection. We stick around to see a hardened Joel swing the child’s little body onto a pile, for burning.
We linger on a baby in the arms of its mother, close on the blanket wrapped around it. Mother and baby are being carted off to what we understand will be a mass execution. Later in the episode, Joel and Ellie come across a giant grave, and we see a scrap of the blanket flapping from a tiny skeleton.
We get a break from kid killing, unless you count a kid doing the killing — Ellie shoots a man as he weeps and begs her to think of his mother.
We meet 6-year-old Sam, who with his big eyes and painted-on superhero mask couldn’t be much more adorable. He and his older brother/guardian, Henry (Lamar Johnson), are on the run from rebel leader Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey). When Kathleen finally tracks them down, and Henry begs her to spare Sam, she responds: “Did you ever stop to think that maybe he was supposed to die?”
“He’s just a f*cking kid!” Henry protests.
“Well, kids die, Henry,” Kathleen shoots back. “They die — all the time.”
So will Sam, of course, though the show drags it out. Kathleen nearly shoots Sam — he escapes. A zombie traps him beneath a car — he escapes. It turns out the zombie bit him — but wait, Ellie tries to save him with her cure-blood; maybe he’ll escape. In the end, he is infected. Henry shoots him in the head, then kills himself.
We see a younger Ellie with her best friend/crush, Storm Reid’s Riley, romping around a mall. Their romance is portrayed with pitch-perfect preteen awkwardness, but who can focus on that when we all know a zombie will awaken down the concourse and kill Riley? Luckily, by this episode, I was hip to The Last of Us’ game. At times, I physically turned my head away to avoid investing in Riley. I had stopped watching a show and started bracing for trauma.
A cannibal-pedophile pastor slaps a little girl off her chair. Later, he tries to rape and kill Ellie, shouting as she struggles: “Don’t you get it? The fighting is the part I like best!”
I was eating nachos. Desensitization complete.
Picking kids off, abandoning the aftermath, and inching toward Utah? That’s not storytelling. That’s torture porn with a premium budget.
The word “desensitization,” when it comes to pop culture, carries a whiff of the outdated. It conjures baby boomer parents driving their kids to school, waxing scandalized over Mortal Kombat and Marilyn Manson. There’s a sense that it’s no longer a problem in the age of prestige TV, when characters are layered and episode times can flex to probe deep into trauma. The general thinking is that art is as close to life as it’s ever been, and that if violence is shown realistically, it carries some inherent merit.
Without intending to, I’m sure, The Last of Us completely debunks this thinking. It has all the external markers of a show you can trust to do violence right: It’s gorgeously designed. The writing is human. The performances are wrenching, as they tend to be when you pay great actors to do hopeless things. But plotwise, nothing really builds. The virus is as potent 20 years into the story as it was on Night One, and Joel and Ellie’s mission to get west and find a cure is slow. Emotionally manipulative vignettes stand in for stakes and suspense, and a disproportionate amount of them focus on children. Almost every episode, it’s the same thing: Meet a kid. Find them relatable. Love their face; grieve their hardship backstory. Now stomach them dying in front of you. Show’s done; see you next week, when a new kid will die. We won’t mention this one again.
I know The Last of Us is based on a beloved game, and that its creators are prioritizing faith to its IP for the fans. But every show — especially a show with such an enormous push behind it — has a responsibility to storytell for all. This is where The Last of Us fails. Picking kids off, abandoning the aftermath, and inching toward Utah? That’s not storytelling. That’s torture porn with a premium budget.
There is nothing brave about unflinching death scenes if you flinch away from all that comes after.
Contrast The Last of Us with the nuanced child killing in WandaVision or even with the attention paid to one tragic young death in Netflix’s Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal. That documentary lingers on the kaleidoscopic aftermath of the accident that killed Mallory Beach, exploring the effects on not just Beach’s parents but also her friends, her friends’ parents, and her haunted ex-boyfriend. Yes, Beach was a real person, and the characters on The Last of Us are not. But other art proves it: There is nothing brave about unflinching death scenes if you flinch away from all that comes after.
What makes The Last of Us most unnerving, of course, is its success. A smash hit that anesthetizes us to kids dying is ill-timed. Right now, suicide attempts and deaths are up among teens. As Jon Stewart recently reminded the world in this viral clip, gun violence is the leading cause of death for American children and teens. For two decades, instead of going all out to stop school shootings or police violence, we have learned to metabolize such incidents — and the visual proof of them. On this one, the boomers were prescient — there has been an undeniable shift in our sensitivity. The Last of Us proves the numbness carries over into our leisure time.
Today, the Gen Xers and millennials who sat through those rants aren’t the kids in the rear-facing backseat. We’re the parents. And for the past several weeks, millions of us have been wound down our weekends with a glass of wine, a bowl of popcorn, and a prestige drama that annihilates babies. We’re not flipping out about the violence; if anything, we’re talking awards buzz.
With just one episode of The Last of Us left to air, I keep hearing those Episode 5 words. Kids die all the time. There’s something honest about the line — but what exactly is it trying to say? Maybe it’s a nod to internal misgivings among the show’s creators about how far they’re going. Maybe it’s supposed to be catharsis for viewers who have dealt with the death of a child.
Or maybe it acknowledges the standard we’ve come to accept in real life. Because it’s true that kids die. And today they die from violence more frequently than ever. Perhaps this show’s wanton wasting is supposed to be a challenge: If you don’t like these fake deaths, I’ve got bad news about the real America. There’s truth in that, too, and I’m not saying art should refrain from confronting the truth. I’m just saying it should do so in a way that makes us feel more, not less.
Megan Angelo is the author of the novel Followers. She has written for The New York Times, Glamour, and ELLE, among other publications.