In the third episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, a survivalist named Bill finds a man trapped in the hole he has dug on his property. Terrified that the intruder is infected with the fungus sweeping the globe and turning human hosts into vampiric zombies, Bill points a gun at the man and demands to know if he’s armed.
At first, the man wonders whether he should lie and say yes. Instead, he tells the truth and introduces himself as Frank, saying he hasn’t eaten in two days and needs food. Though Bill is suspicious (as are we, the viewer), he reluctantly invites Frank into his home.
Bill (played by Nick Offerman) offers a hot meal and a shower to Frank (played by Murray Bartlett)—and ultimately, the two fall in love, leading to a nearly two-decade romance in the midst of an apocalypse. The lesson of the story is clear: Before Frank, Bill was only surviving. By choosing to trust Frank, he found a reason to live.
There’s a reason—beyond the incredible production value—why HBO’s new series is such a hit, with 18 million viewers tuning in to the debut episode in the first week alone. The show’s plot—about a global pandemic that hits Jakarta in 2003 and takes down humanity in a matter of days—has echoes of real life. We enjoy seeing how characters cope when they’re up against an even more terrifying disease than the one we’ve all just endured.
But there’s something deeper going on that has to do with our collective yearning to live in a society where we rely on and trust one another. Those living in the hellscape of this HBO show seem to have more of those virtues than we do.
This is, of course, out of necessity. As in every dystopian story, the characters in The Last of Us have no choice because their survival is always at stake.
Until well into the nineteenth century, this was the usual state of all human societies. People were forced to trust each other and forge social bonds to survive a dangerous world.
In his 2019 book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Yale physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis writes, “For most of our history as a species, up until about two centuries ago, humans all lived on the edge of death.” This reality has radically shifted with the advent of modern technology, relative material abundance, stable governance, and social services, which have allowed people to live longer, more prosperous lives—while relying less on help or financial support from their communities.
These days, in many prosperous U.S. coastal cities, it would be considered bizarre simply to ring your neighbor’s door to ask for salt or flour.
But not everywhere in the world has the luxury of Amazon Prime. And in those places, you can still see this need for survival that forges strong social bonds.
Last year I visited Malaysia, a developing country where the average income is only about $11,000 per year. Inequality is pervasive. I observed glittering skyscrapers three blocks away from residential wooden huts.
Housing is often makeshift and overcrowded, with many families living in small, cramped dwellings made of corrugated metal, wooden planks, and even cardboard. Many homes in the poorest areas have battered and worn-down cement flooring. No carpet, no hardwood, no ceramic tiles. Just cement.
And yet social capital is high. People in the community regularly drop by to socialize, offer support, and deliver food to one another. I witnessed a nine-year-old boy regularly check in on his elderly neighbors to feed their dogs, sweep their patio, and run their errands.
In contrast, Americans have been slowly descending into dysfunction and alienation—a problem made worse by the decline of organized religion, the breakdown of the family, and, of course, the recent lockdowns.
Many people are aware that Americans’ trust in scientists, police officers, the media, and institutions in general has declined. This is true especially among the young. Seventy-three percent of Americans under 30 believe people “just look out for themselves” most of the time, compared with only 48 percent of Americans over 65. Similarly, 60 percent of Americans under 30 believe most people “can’t be trusted,” compared with 29 percent of Americans over 65. A study from Pew reports that “most young adults in the U.S. see others as selfish, exploitative, and untrustworthy.” Meanwhile, a shocking 2019 survey from YouGov found that one in five millennials reported having zero friends.
By contrast, in 1972, about half of Americans believed “most people can be trusted.” Today, that figure has dropped to 30 percent.
In a widely cited 2000 paper, the sociologist Diego Gambetta observed that in the ancestral environment, where early human communities lived as hunter-gatherers, trust and friendship were much more intertwined. He noted that modern society has reduced how much we rely on our friends in order to stay alive, writing that “We are free not to depend on them.”
These days, we tend to believe that someone must earn our trust before we can enter into a relationship with them. But that’s upside down. Trust is not a precondition for cooperation; cooperation is a precondition for trust.
Dependence is how we come to know who we can truly count on. It is only in times of dire need that we learn this.
Post-apocalyptic tales are stories about trust disguised as stories about disaster. As fun as it is to watch people battle fungus-infected zombies, it’s even more thrilling to see paranoid people forced to trust one another—and even discover they were right to do so.
We don’t want to live in a dystopia, but we do long for a world where people can overcome their feelings of alienation, inauthenticity, fear, and isolation.
HBO’s new show hints at the possibility of this world. Simply put, The Last of Us reveals the best of us.
Are you watching ‘The Last of Us’? What do you think? Tell us in the comments.
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