By Michael Truscello
Like many Albertans, I was thrilled when HBO announced it would be filming The Last of Us TV adaptation in Alberta in 2021. It was the largest television production in Canadian history, and it became a huge critical and commercial hit when released in 2023. This success is at least in part because of the excellent Alberta crews who worked on the show. But watching a post-apocalyptic work of fiction set in places you know almost necessitates a consideration of the overlap between reality and fiction, territory and map.
Alberta is already known as the most reactionary province in Canada, thanks to almost 50 consecutive years of conservative rule. In fact, Alberta is often called Florida North or Texas North, because of its mixture of social conservatives and the domineering presence of Canada’s oil and gas industry. The Canadian satirical website The Beaverton wasted no time connecting Alberta’s political reputation with its selection as the location for a post-apocalyptic story:
There’s a certain irony to this justifiable mockery: When Hollywood first arrived in Alberta in 1917, only 12 years after Alberta became a province and almost 40 years following the signing of Treaty Seven,[i]filmmakers chose this location for its natural beauty. As Mary Graham writes in her fascinating recent book A Stunning Backdrop: Alberta in the Movies, 1917-1960, American filmmakers came to Alberta in the early days of cinema “for the realism of the wilderness landscapes,” “to work with Indigenous Peoples,” and for “the unique and talented film tradespeople” (6-7). Early films shot in Alberta often conformed to the genre of “Northwest ‘Mellers” (melodramas), which Graham describes as “similar to Westerns, with codes of other genres tossed in; a strange blending of realism, conveyed through natural settings, romanticism, improbable plot, and over-exaggerated characters, all with a tentative swipe at historical accuracy” (10). Without question, Alberta contains many locations of unparalleled natural beauty: from the resort towns of Banff and Canmore to the pristine locales of Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and Lake Minnewanka. Alberta on film in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s was the American fantasy of unspoiled landscapes and snow.
This was a colonial fantasy, to be sure. American filmmakers employed Indigenous “populations as cast members and extras, horse wranglers, mountain guides, and location scouts,” and the First Nations in Alberta were seen by American filmmakers—such as Thomas Ince of Bison Motion Pictures and directors who worked for him, including Reginald Barker, Lynn Reynolds, John Ford, and Burton George—as “somewhat less hostile and less militant than their American counterparts” (51), despite the Canadian state’s active pursuit of genocidal extermination.
The transformation of Alberta in real life, environmentally and socially, from a popular location for Northwest ‘Mellers in which American filmmakers could depict humans “pitted against the mighty forces of a vast and sometimes inhospitable and unforgiving but terribly beautiful ‘nature,’ both in the film plots, and in the tremendous work involved to capture the spectacular scenery” (64) to a setting so appropriate for filming a post-apocalytpic video game that satirists almost shame themselves when producing easy punchlines is a transformation of shocking continuity and tragic simplicity. The Last of Us filming locations are now “Instagram hotspots,” democratized spectacle from an ultra-conservative petrostate whose per capita greenhouse gas emissions are three times the national average because of the oil and gas industry.
Take, for example, the almost-immediately iconic episode, “Long, Long Time,” episode three of The Last of Us. Actors Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett play a gay couple who meet in the context of the apocalypse aftermath, when trust between humans is severely tested by circumstances. The episode follows their relationship and demise in a suburban-cum-bucolic setting where Offerman’s survivalist character has fortified his home. The episode was shot in a neighbourhood abandoned because of a massive flood in the summer of 2013, perhaps the worst flood in the history of the province:
The location is Beachwood Estates in High River, Alberta. This is a small neighborhood built between 1990 and 2002, though in 2013, the province was hit by a devastating flood that forced many Albertans to abandon their homes. Recognizing the location was no longer safe, the province purchased the 94 properties in the flood plain and relocated the residents.
Since then, the neighborhood has been abandoned. YouTuber Seth Lawless took a trip there in 2017 and explored it in a video aptly titled, “The Creepiest Neighborhood in the World.”
Five people were killed and 100,000 were displaced by the flooding. The town of High River had to evacuate all of its 13,000 citizens, including an evacuation of the evacuation centres. Other affected areas, including Calgary, Canmore, and Banff, experienced rainfall “levels as high as ten times that of a normal summer’s entire rainfall.” In downtown Calgary, where the headquarters for several large oil and gas corporations are located, an estimated 4,000 businesses and 3,000 buildings were affected by the flooding. Scientists made it clear that the floods were a harbinger of “life-altering storms” that “will become more common as the climate warms.”
In episode 6 of The Last of Us, the central characters, Joel and Ellie, visit the settlement of Jackson, which was filmed in the wealthy resort town of Canmore. Jackson is a commune.
Much like the cruel irony of a romantic subplot being filmed in a neighbourhood abandoned because of historic flooding, the use of Canmore as the location of a fictional commune also evokes a sense of dramatic irony. The average house price in Canmore today is $1.3 million. By comparison, the average house prices in Alberta’s two major cities, Calgary and Edmonton, are $509,000 and $420,000, respectively. Canmore is appealing to the rich for many reasons, one of which is the spectacular view from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Unlike Banff, which requires homeowners to work in Banff National Park, Canmore allows one to live just outside the Park and within a 20-minute drive of Banff without being employed within the Park. To imagine communal living on film using the location of a gentrified resort town compels viewers (in the know) to consider the beauty and possibility of social orders capitalism has cordoned off for the ruling class and its ecocidal economic system.
A pivotal episode of The Last of Us, in which we experience a defining moment in Ellie’s life, was filmed in the Northland Mall of Calgary. Showrunner Craig Mazin explained the good fortune of the production:
“We got kind of lucky, to an extent. There is a mall in Calgary that was scheduled for demolition, so on the one hand it was great because they basically said ‘you can do whatever you want! You can break up the floors, you can gack up the whole place with mud and vines and everything and you have the run of it for as long as you want for shooting.”
Episode 7 of The Last of Us exploits the existence of a dead mall to tell the story of a burgeoning post-apocalyptic love organized by a nostalgic fantasy of the consumerist past. Viewers are supposed to witness the pre-apocalypse consumer landscape with a sense of homesickness: This is what Ellie never experienced.
This episode combines the progressive and sentimental (a love affair between two women cut short by the apocalypse) with the reactionary (wistful remembrance of an economic system that was literally killing most life on earth before the fungus finished the job). Production designer John Paino described his own nostalgia for the malling of America: “I’m a child of the ’70s, and the mall was a temple. The size of 10 football fields. I’d spend a lot of time there and in the video arcade. So, we were hoping to find something like that.”
The retail apocalypse of which this dead mall is a small component has been ongoing for several years. As reported in late 2020, more than half of mall-based department stores in the United States were expected to close by the end of 2021. Between 2011 and 2020, US department stores lost approximately 500,000 employees. A combination of online retailing (i.e. Amazon) and the 2007 Great Recession that decimated working people have contributed to the collapse of the shopping mall. By the end of 2022, US manufacturing orders from China were down by 40%.
Alberta retail was not immune to the global pressures on the shopping mall. A combination of the 2007 recession, plunging oil prices in 2014, the pressure of online retail, and the covid-19 pandemic have had a negative impact on Alberta retail, but Alberta is a place in which capitalist fantasies always triumph over reason, and the government remains a hostage of a twilight industry. The Northland Mall featured in The Last of Us is being refurbished to reopen as an open air shopping centre called, simply, Northland.
Much of The Last of Us was filmed in and around the city of Calgary, including on the university campus where I work. I won’t lie: That was cool. My office is in the building behind Joel and Ellie:
That’s Mount Royal University, one of two Calgary post-secondary educational institutions to provide filming locations for episode 6. The vines and other debris are vfx, in case you are wondering what the campus normally looks like. The MRU campus is often ranked among the most beautiful in Canada.
Behind Joel in this shot is the MRU campus Starbucks, dressed down by the HBO production:
I wonder if HBO asked for money from Starbucks to retain some of its advertising, and Starbucks declined. Elsewhere in the show, the remnants of the consumer society are presented as nostalgic totems.
University campuses featured on film and television are often depicted as distinguished places that either were or continue to be places of importance. As a signifier for post-apocalyptic conditions, a deserted and defiled university campus can register as a symbol of lost learning; of course, it can also represent a revolutionary beginning based on the discontinued reproduction of the reactionary social order. The United Conservative Party of Alberta, currently the governing party reigning historic levels of austerity onto Alberta universities, is definitely not slashing post-secondary budgets for a revolutionary new beginning.
Alberta is being transformed into a far-right libertarian nightmare, and Calgary is a city that is now the second-most unequal city in Canada. Last year, Calgary experienced a 44% increase in hate crimes, statistics that parallel the rise of the far right across North America. Calgary, which was established as a North-West Mounted Police fort in 1875, is also a city where reports of sexual assault jumped 21% last year. This status as a bastion of far-right ideology was not a foregone conclusion for the city. In the first half of the twentieth century, Calgary and Edmonton were considered by some to be “workers’ towns.” But more than 50 years of oil money and social conservatism has created a province in which a wealthy minority has weaponized a militant far-right minority to protect an industry playing an outsized role in the sixth mass extinction event in the history of the planet.
When I see Joel and Ellie riding a horse across the MRU campus, punctuated by sandbags and weeds, I am reminded of how much Alberta under a seemingly never-ending conservative reign continues to resemble the society that killed the world and not the revolutionary new beginning.
The Last of Us, for its part, adapts the “dadification” of games from a decade ago into what might be the apotheosis of this paternalistic form because of the casting of Pedro Pascal, who is now routinely described as the “Internet’s Daddy,” thanks to his concomitant hit roles as Joel and The Mandalorian. Far from being a paternalistic show, however, The Last of Us offers glimpses of utopian alternatives to capitalism while also warning against putting revolutionary hopes in the singular hands of a father figure (no matter how ridiculously charismatic he may be) or the authoritarian assuredness of the local vanguard (in episode 8, Ellie encounters David, James, and the local evangelical cannibals).
In addition to the commune in Jackson discussed above, The Last of Us betrays at least an awareness of revolutionary ideologies and the language games that surround them. As Riley stewards Ellie to their final meeting in the dead mall of the Boston Quarantine Zone, Riley, now identified as a member of the Fireflies revolutionary militia, tells Ellie that Fireflies flashlights are superior, which leads to this exchange:
Ellie was being trained by the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA), a bureaucratic component of the totalitarian remains of the US government, but she rejects a future with FEDRA. The Fireflies are a form of resistance to FEDRA, but they also represent, we learn later in Season One, an existential threat to Ellie, because of their plans to experiment on her in search of a vaccine for the fungus. The personal and the political combine with often deadly consequences.
And this is something The Last of Us does well: It represents the confusion of ideological sides in the context of a world dominated by totalitarian forces and without the distinctions often portrayed by radical thinkers as obvious signifiers of rulers and ruled. For example, there are several working-class characters in the show, including Joel, but allegiances are exceedingly difficult to determine, and the betrayal of Ellie by Joel complicates an intimate comradery. Some characters, such as Ellie, are choosing sides during formative personal experiences, as people often do in real life.
[i] “Between 1870 and 1877, Plains First Nations negotiated seven treaties with the Canadian government. These First Nations understood treaties as alliances of peace, friendship and mutual support. Treaties, they believed, would ensure their survival and security in an uncertain future.
The Canadian government understood treaties differently. In the government’s view, treaties were a means of acquiring land for a transcontinental railway, settlement and agriculture. In the case of Treaty 7, these different understandings resulted in inconsistency between the oral and written versions of the treaty.” – Canadian Museum of History
Author bio: Michael Truscello, Ph.D., is an associate professor in English and General Education at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. He is the author of Infrastructural Brutalism: Art and the Necropolitics of Infrastructure (MIT Press, 2020) and co-editor with Ajamu Nangwaya of Why Don’t The Poor Rise Up? Organizing the Twenty-First Century Resistance (AK Press, 2017). His recent publications on petrocultures have appeared as chapters in Petrocultures: Oil, Culture, Politics (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2017), Interrogating the Anthropocene: Ecology, Aesthetics, Pedagogy, and the Future in Question (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and Fueling Culture (Fordham UP, 2017). He directed the film Capitalism Is The Crisis: Radical Politics in the Age of Austerity (2011). He acknowledges that he lives and works on Treaty 7 territory, the ancestral and traditional territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy: Kainai, Piikani and Siksika as well as the Tsuu T’ina First Nation and Stoney Nakoda First Nation.