In the post-apocalypse HBO drama “The Last of Us,” Wyoming is a refuge from a deadly fungal plague. For those who want to survive the end of the world, Wyoming seems like a natural haven: Its wide-open spaces jut out in all directions, making it easy to see threats from a distance, and there’s lots of running room. If you had to be in a zombie apocalypse, I can’t think of a better place to be. Wyoming doesn’t have big cities or a lot of people, never has and maybe never will. Here, the “Infected” — the so-called Runners, Clickers and Bloaters — could search for prey for years without success.

“The Last of Us” continues a long tradition of casting The West™ as a place of hope. From the Westerns of old Hollywood to the current smash-hit series “Yellowstone,” the West symbolizes a new start, a respite for those tired of city life and a safe harbor for anyone on the run from authority. 

In “The Last of Us,” Wyoming is a refuge not only from fungal assailants but also from fascism. FEDRA, the military authority that filled the national power vacuum after the plague broke out in 2003, kills innocent people and violently suppresses opposition. Those disillusioned by FEDRA join the Fireflies, a group of freedom-fighting anarchists headquartered near Jackson. Scientists with the Fireflies want to study Ellie, a tenacious 14-year-old girl in the Boston quarantine zone, because they believe her immunity to the fungus is key to humanity’s future. Ellie is played by Bella Ramsey, who embodies the sticky space between childhood and the hardened adulthood required in the world of “The Last of Us.” Ellie’s traveling companion, Joel, played by Pedro Pascal, is mourning the loss of his daughter and the loss of his own humanity in the years since. Together, Ellie and Joel must make it to Wyoming.

In real-life Jackson, only the exorbitantly wealthy can find a safe haven.

When they finally reach the state, Ellie and Joel, desperate for shelter, break into an Indigenous couple’s cabin. Marlon and Florence, played by Graham Greene and Elaine Miles, make soup for the interlopers even as Joel holds them at gunpoint, cracking jokes and remaining amiable despite the dire situation. They’ve been living in the cabin since well before the outbreak, and they don’t care to know about the outside world — or the Fireflies. They warn Ellie and Joel of the dangers to the West, toward Jackson. 

Ellie and Joel, ignoring the couple’s warning, eventually arrive at a fort inhabited by post-apocalyptic cowboys. The Jackson of “The Last of Us” is an oasis of communal living, whose 300 residents share the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning and maintaining the town. They enjoy electricity, a movie theater and a saloon, and they even celebrate Christmas, a bygone holiday for most, in relative safety and comfort. The Jackson community has figured out what they need to survive their world’s fungal-themed zombie apocalypse: each other.

This Jackson is a comforting fantasy, not only in contrast with the nightmarish landscape of “The Last of Us” but also compared to the cruel realities of today. The real Jackson is one of the most economically stratified places in the country. It is the largest town in Teton County, where in 2021 the average income sits around $300,000. In real-life Jackson, only the exorbitantly wealthy can find a safe haven. 

Other Wyoming residents see Jackson as a place apart from the rest of the state. They jeer at its expensive representation of The West™, at the billionaires who play cowboy while working-class people have to commute to Idaho to find affordable housing. The idyllic Jackson of “The Last of Us” is exclusive, too: The residents obey strict rules of secrecy, reasoning that if word of their safety and prosperity ever spreads, Jackson would be overrun with refugees. While the townspeople are generous to one another, they choose to sequester themselves from the danger and violence around them. 

Throughout “The Last of Us,” characters struggle with the consequences of their choices. When Joel kills others to protect Ellie, what happens is not brushed away; we hear pieces of dialogue that humanize his victims and lead us to consider the grief of their families and loved ones. The fictional Jackson offers respite to those lucky enough to get in, but neither we nor they are allowed to forget that outside its walls, the human world is being consumed by fungus.

Present-day Jackson is slowly banishing those who can’t afford to be there, revealing something dark in the bellies and minds of those who settle the land. Its surrounding mountains, those huge rock pillars that cause the heart to slow and the lungs to swell, make it an excellent place to hide — to escape from danger, or to hide from consequences.

We all make choices; sometimes they bring about the end of a world.  

This piece was originally published in High Country News.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a writer and audio journalist who’s an editorial intern for the Indigenous Affairs desk at High Country News. She’s Arapaho and Shoshone and writes about racism, rurality, and...

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  1. Like Jackson Hole, “The Last of Us” is designed to sell things while pretending to be something it’s not. Taylar Dawn Stagner’s take on the TV show and Jackson Hole is all the more interesting as it comes from a woman who is Arapaho and Shoshone.

    Paleo-Indian presence in NW Wyoming dates back more than 11,000 years. The tribes who frequented the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem region included the Bannock, Gros Ventre, Crow, Blackfeet, Flathead, Shoshone, and Nez Perce. The Shoshone group known as the Sheepeaters seldom left. Good luck finding a native American descendant in Jackson Hole who owns a home here.

    Native Americans were pushed out of Yellowstone by the government after the park was established in 1872. Jackson Hole’s Stephen Leek was involved in one of the last massacres of native people in Teton County back in 1895. Leek’s Canyon off of Snow King is named after him. The NIMBYs who pushed indigenous Americans out of Northwest Wyoming were foreshadowing today’s NIMBYs of Jackson Hole.

    Elder community members in Teton County have been enacting policies for decades that resulted the displacement of long-time valley locals. Housing for tourists and wealthy 2nd-homeowners was the priority. Viewsheds were more important than protecting housing opportunities for blue-collar locals. History repeats itself. It will again.

    Our community is 30% Latino. They give their blood, sweat and tears to this community, they raise children here, and they enrich it far more than any tourist or 2nd homeowner. We will throw them out before they become a burden.

    Jackson’s inconsequential problems get far more attention from Jackson’s residents than the serious issues faced by most Wyoming residents, or Jackson’s blue collar workers. Many of our residents comes across like Gwyneth Paltrow distraught over her inability to find a good bikini wax in Paris. It’s why we spent $33 million on a climbing wall instead of housing.

    It was nice to a native American voice chime in.

  2. Well said Taylar. Thanks for educating us about the choices we make having consequences as well as the real divide is between those who have and those who don’t. Wyoming offers opportunities for all to thrive, but those opportunities are lost when true community is lost.

  3. Consider this and see if it fits better. Turn it around and see that Jackson is home to the virus and ordinary people are trying to keep the people in Jackson from going back to either coast. The logistics would be terrible but , “the drift would be $”

  4. Jackson is NOT Wyoming. It is a world apart made up of displaced Hollywood, New York City and other left wing elites. A look at current real estate shows the cheapest listing is over $1million and uninhabitable – a tear down. Welcome to NY west or LA east.
    REAL Wyoming is REAL people working, caring, playing and being part of a community. It is not about who has the biggest ranch or mansion. It’s about Wyoming values. It’s what humans long for.
    Yes, stand on your own 2 feet. Take care of yourself and your family. And support those around you and those in real need. Care for the land as we always have. Not because some DC bureaucrat or politician tells us to – but because we value our God given land.
    Wyoming deserves its place in the community of quality life. To all of you that read this and agree – thank you for being you.

    1. Mark… Sorry to hear you think only the rest of Wyoming has real people who stand on their own two feet. I have lived in Jackson, in a home, I can vacuum from one outlet for almost 25 years. We have worked many jobs to be able to live here. Please do not stereotype us and other families that work very hard to live here. It is harder to have a voice here because the few big developers like rich conservative ranchers and other rich conservative families like the Friess family run to Cheyenne to buy a community punishing bill if they don’t get their way. Cheyenne legislators are chipping away at our capability to protect our blue color workers through local decisions. Cheyenne depends on rich conservative families in Jackson who funnel money to their campaigns to weaken the little guy’s voice here in the Hole. We want to protect our environment and working families. Diminished local control hurts our hard working families trying to raise our children. Diminished local control shrinks our open spaces and reduces wildlife viability. Whether it is to build a private bible school campus on once protected land or ranchers wanting to build mc mansions on land that supplies ground water to hard working towns down stream… These are not lefties or liberals doing this. Please don’t misrepresent us. Have a great weekend Mark. 🍻

    2. God given land? I believe God gave the land to the indigenous Indians, not the homesteaders who came in and took it for free. Happy to hear that the US Government (i.e. taxpayers from states who actually pay taxes) is bailing the ranchers out one more time because they have had a bad year with bad weather. Thank goodness we try and keep coal safe when the Capitalist system adored by the state says to let the ‘invisible hand’ move on to renewables. So while the state talks the talk of helping ourselves and our families, we live in one of the most subsidized states where our legislator from Fremont Country told pregnant women to ‘man up’ and take care of their own health care. Come visit the place before you make such broad assumptions and so many negative comments. My grandmother was a settler in Wyoming in the 1920s. I am not from NY or LA