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.
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.