How HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ Created a Scarily Perfect Mall Dystopia

TheWrap magazine: “It gave us the chance to make a great date-night episode, but of course we are in the world of ‘The Last of Us,’ so nothing’s always great,” production designer John Paino says

"The Last of Us" production still
Bella Ramsey (center) in "The Last of Us" (HBO)

A version of this story about the production design of “The Last of Us” first ran in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

If HBO’s “The Last of Us” accomplishes anything as well as conveying the tension and dread of post apocalyptic society and zombies, it is distilling the messy, heartsick pangs of first love. While the devastating third episode of the series depicts a same-sex romance for the ages, the show’s seventh episode, “Left Behind,” also explores this territory, swapping an older couple with a much younger one in the friends-with-potential stage. Through flashbacks, the episode tells the story of Ellie (Bella Ramsey) sneaking out of her boarding school dorm to go on an outside adventure with mega-crush and military rebel Riley (Storm Reid).

The adventure? Traversing an honest-to-goodness retro mall designed by John Paino, which Ellie describes wistfully as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Said Paino: “It’s one of the few times you get to step out of the world of everything being dessicated, falling apart. Ellie has never seen lingerie. She’s never seen neon lights. It gave us the chance to make a great date-night episode. But of course we are in the world of ‘The Last of Us,’ so nothing’s always great. And beauty doesn’t last.”

A production still from “Left Behind” (HBO)

Paino and his team found a shuttered mall in Calgary’s Northland Village that had the right bones for this rite-of-passage sequence, which also serves as the origin story for the mysterious bite scar on Ellie’s arm that did not infect her. “(The mall) was completely vacated and ready for the wrecking ball,” said Paino, whose team had to essentially build an entire mall and tear it down slowly to give the appearance of abandonment. They populated the space with both fictitious stores and real ones (Victoria’s Secret is especially notable), and even some fun Easter eggs. (Watch for the name on the photo booth where Ellie and Riley take pics.)

A production still from “Left Behind” (HBO)

“All of the stores had to be created from scratch and had to be correct as a design from 20 years ago,” added Paino, who received Emmy nominations for his work on such acclaimed recent series as “Big Little Lies” and “The Morning Show.” “In the pinball arcade, we had to rebuild a lot of video consoles because of issues with frame rate and whatnot, and all the software had to be updated. We brought in all of the lights and the Ferris wheel as well.”

The interior of the mall set also needed some TLC combined with reverse engineering to represent its descent into dilapidation. “Some things we made look decrepit right off the bat, but it’s hard to get carpenters to build things crooked,” he said. “We built pretty straightforward, and often our last layers of paint and wallpaper and molding were pulled out and distressed.” That includes a cheekily used pop-up Halloween store written into the script, which set the stage for the more tragic events of the episode. “We wanted to have that ethos of something that could seem temporary but also kind of corny, too,” Paino said, stressing the theme of innocence and discovery coursing through Ellie and Riley.

Paino credits co-creator Craig Mazin for his tasteful, forthright style that doesn’t tip too many hats, especially politically, but as a Season 2 challenge, it wouldn’t be scoffed at to ramp up some design-forward visual commentary. “I’m a sucker for putting in iconography, but we shied away from that. We certainly had some stuff where we went past some billboards that were broken down and things like that, but we didn’t really embrace it. That’s not the tone that Craig wants to go by, and I totally understand it, but I’m a sucker for it and I’d love to do more of that.” [laughs].”

Read more from the Drama Series issue here.