HBO’s The Last of Us is the first of its kind—an adaptation of a video game that’s actually, um, good. The series, based on a pair of video games that have been heralded as the Lawrence of Arabia of the medium, is a zombie-apocalypse nightmare that deviates from the Walking Dead tropes of a collapsed civilization by showing instead what happens when society tries its dangedest to hang on under world-altering circumstances. These zombies are neither viral nor mystical—they’re the product of a fungal infection that turns anyone exposed into a host-carrier that seeks only to spread to (and/or eat) those around them.
The first thirty minutes of the pilot episode, which aired on Sunday, shows the unfolding of the 2003 fungal outbreak through the eyes of a teenage girl named Sarah who lives in Austin (or, at least, a TV version of Austin that looks suspiciously like Alberta, Canada). As she attempts to find her dad, Joel (played by onetime San Antonian Pedro Pascal), and uncle, Tommy (Austin native Gabriel Luna), the institutions of society begin to fall around her. Eventually, the trio pack into a pickup truck in an attempt to get out of town.
The show’s version of Austin doesn’t do a great job of handling the apocalypse. The city’s traffic becomes downright oppressive, presaging what twenty years of development would do to the highways even absent an explosion of mutant mushroom people. When Joel and Tommy get back onto city roads, however, it’s no better—locals flood the street like it’s Halloween on Dirty Sixth, which turns out to be a poor choice when the military starts driving armored vehicles and shooting without asking questions. Even the laid-back neighborliness the city once prided itself on turns out to be a trap—when Sarah attempts to help an elderly, disabled neighbor, she learns that the zombie infestation can turn even a sweet old-timer who is primarily spoon-fed into a raging killing machine. Ultimately, via a jump cut forward twenty years, we learn that Joel and his surviving family abandoned the city in favor of the cozy confines of the Boston quarantine zone.
According to The Last of Us’s co-showrunner, Craig Mazin (fun fact: he was Ted Cruz’s college roommate!), the series will hew closely to the story of the games, without taking wild detours to explore the wider world where characters outside of the established protagonists live. Thus, we are unlikely to get an update on what a 2023 version of Austin that has spent the past two decades being invaded by zombies would look like. (We’ll just assume they drive Teslas and paint their giant, newly built houses black for some reason.) You’ll also never know how, say, Amarillo, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, or San Antonio fared when the fungal spores began turning Texans into diseased monsters seeking only to devour and/or infect those around them—unless, of course, you read our speculation below, ranking these cities from best to worst in the event of a Last of Us–style apocalypse!
Houston has the worst traffic in Texas and a giant barrier called the Gulf of Mexico to keep people trapped. Hug your loved ones tight if the zombie apocalypse hits Houston—you’ll be dining on their flesh in a few hours.
Even in normal times, civilization in Dallas seems like it’s often just a few hours away from descending into lawlessness—ask anyone who’s committed the grave offense of actually driving the speed limit on the tollway! Accordingly, we don’t feel great about the survival chances of those in the heart of the Metroplex once the military starts rolling into town. The 2003 Austin that appeared on the show was still largely a town of stoners and students; Dallas would be more likely to start shooting back. We’re unlikely to know for sure, but the odds seem pretty good that the Dallas that exists in The Last of Us’s 2023 universe barely exists at all, after a few days of skirmishes between locals, an encroaching military dictatorship, and zombified mushroom people. You had a good run, Dallas.
3. San Antonio
The San Antonio of 2003 would probably fare similarly to the Austin that appears on The Last of Us, but residents would have an even harder time getting out of town. The city’s population was nearly double the capital’s, and its infamously jumbled traffic patterns would be a real problem for anyone looking to escape to the Hill Country. San Antonio does, however, have a tradition of being a last bastion for the besieged, so we’ll honor that by saying that we expect, even in the event of a zombie apocalypse, there to be some folks hunkered down at the Alamo, cosplaying as Davy Crockett and enjoying their final tacos before infection and/or a plane from Lackland Air Force Base puts an end to whatever last-stand dreams they’re living out.
2. El Paso
As Joel, Tommy, and Sarah plan their escape from Austin in the pilot, they discuss where to go. “Mexico,” Joel considers aloud. El Paso, however, would show the folly of that plan—there’s virtually no demarcation between the American side of the border and Mexico, and any infected people sporing up in the Sun City are also likely to be munching on their friends and family in Juárez. Furthermore, El Paso’s proximity to Fort Bliss means that the military response that proves to be as destructive on the show as the zombies would likely be even more pronounced. Maybe there’s some civilization out in the mountains, but it’s just as likely that those hills would be a staging ground for troops who would shoot your family as soon as look at ’em.
West Texas is sparsely populated, which means that a zombie outbreak that can turn Austin into a nightmare of neighbors chewing on one another’s jugulars within a matter of hours could go largely unnoticed on the outskirts of a place like Amarillo. There are probably more sirens than usual, and anyone watching television is likely to learn that something weird is going on in New York and Washington, D.C., at least until the broadcast cuts out. Still, where Interstate 35 and U.S. 290 might be clogged with cars trying to get out of town, the traffic near Amarillo is much more likely to comprise people looking to find a safe, remote place to stop. Inside of city limits, things might be intense, but a West Texas city with fewer than 200,000 residents and lots of open space outside of town is a pretty good place to find yourself when the fungi starts controlling the minds of anyone unfortunate enough to inhale their spores.
Ultimately: a zombie apocalypse would be a real bummer for any but the most remote and rural Texans—and before too long, it’d start to suck for them too. (COVID came for rural areas, too, after all.) Here’s hoping we can continue to merely enjoy these zombie nightmares on Sunday nights on HBO and not try to live through them—as anyone who’s played through the games can spoil for you, this kind of apocalypse doesn’t tend to end well for anyone.