The following is a recap and review of the first episode of HBO’s The Last of Us. Expect story spoilers.
The Last of Us is my favorite video game ever made. I hold it in the highest regard as one of my favorite stories. The game, and its sequel too, is a heart-wrenching, fully absorbing masterpiece that does a lot with the zombie genre. Now HBO has decided to have it adapted into a television series. The show is created by one of the game’s creative directors, Neil Druckmann, as well as the creator of HBO’s incredible Chernobyl series, Craig Mazin, and it features a stellar cast from top to bottom with actors such as Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian), Anna Torv (Fringe), Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones), and others.
In the series premiere, they properly establish the context for the zombie-like outbreak with a 1960s talk show scene, which features epidemiologists (one of them played by The Mummy’s John Hannah) discussing the prospect of a pandemic. One of them notes the possibility that as the world may get warmer, fungi mutations may end up affecting humans. In the world of the show, he’s exactly right. As gamers know, this show isn’t about bacteria or classic zombie viruses, in the world of The Last Of Us the deadly undead are overtaken by a mutation of a parasitic Cordyceps mutation, which grows wildly on your body, feeds on you, and takes over control. It is a really interesting scene because as Hannah’s character describes it, you can see the audience be wrapped up in his explanation, almost as if they themselves are not just worried but are overtaken like the human puppets that he’s talking about. An outrageously good scene that does a lot of legwork for the show in explaining what makes its outbreak unique. In the game, most of this is explained in a title sequence, if I remember correctly, and in HBO’s title sequence we see the effects of such a Cordyceps outbreak. It overtakes the world, it overtakes the human body, and it makes you question if what you’re seeing is really that or just human beings or buildings. It’s excellent, especially so when paired with Gustavo Santaolalla’s iconic theme from the game, which is a theme that is used just enough here without going overboard.
On the other side of it, we are in 2003 on outbreak day. None of the characters know it yet, of course. Now, in the game, these scenes are set in 2013, but the show has changed that so that its later time jump will make it so that the show is set in the here and now. Also, unlike the game, we spend an entire day in the world prior to the total fungi mass destruction, and there are some really fascinating additions. Pedro Pascal’s Joel and his daughter, Nico Parker’s Sarah, get to build a bond that makes later scenes even more heart-breaking, but the show also does a good job of placing you in the shoes of Sarah. This is easier to do in the video game, where you control characters, but it takes a little bit more work here. Mazin and Druckmann, who wrote the episode, have included several lines of dialogue that have been lifted directly from the game, but their additions include some fun banter between father and daughter. We also get to see Sarah see the first signs of the outbreak throughout her day both in school, out to fix her father’s watch (in the show, it isn’t his only present. We also see a DVD copy of his favorite film franchise, which gamers first heard about in The Last of Us: Part II), and in her neighbor’s house.
The scene in her neighbor’s house establishes the horror of the fungi parasitic zombie infection, as we see an elderly woman, just out of focus, twitching and with her mouth agape. It is absolutely horrifying and helps to set the stakes in the later scene when the outbreak has reached Texas fully. That’s also when the visual language of the game takes control. Joel, Sarah, and his brother Tommy (played by Gabriel Luna, who sounds a lot like the video game character here), who we get some interesting background information on in this episode, drive away from their home, deny other people to come on board their car, and frantically drive towards safety with no luck in sight. Eventually, the car is sidelined (the citywide outbreak here is horrifying and intense, and it is also beefed up on the show. Instead of a car crashing into them, they get into a crash because of a plane), Sarah is injured, and she and Joel are separated from Tommy.
What follows is beat for beat exactly what happens in the game. Joel carries Sarah and runs away from danger. When they are almost caught, a soldier shoots an infected and saves them. They are safe but only for a moment. Joel makes sure that the soldier knows that Sarah’s ankle is broken and that they are not infected, but the soldier follows his inhumane orders and fires upon them. Before the soldier can finish the job, Tommy comes along and saves Joel’s life. But only Joel. Sarah was shot in her stomach, she is dying, and she and Joel are helpless. Sarah dies in her father’s arms. It is a parent’s worst nightmare and one of the most traumatic and affecting video game openers ever. Mazin, who also directed the episode, relies on the visual language of the game here — basically shot for shot — but he gets the job done. The outbreak is intense, scary, and overwhelming. And Sarah’s death has all the emotional power it has in the game.
That’s when we jump ahead twenty years, just like in the game. These first scenes in the totally fungi-impacted post-apocalyptic Boston are also probably the ones that could have been a little bit tighter. 80 minutes is a lot for a series premiere, and they could’ve probably cut ten minutes to make it a little bit tighter. Though, as it is, it is a really good piece of character and world-building that should help to make new viewers cling to these characters if they choose to stick with the show. These scenes in Boston also feature a lot of changes from the game, and the episode as a whole feels much more patient. Anna Torv’s first scene as Tess, where she’s been jumped and is explaining that she won’t tell Joel, does a lot to establish Joel, now a hard smuggler, as a different person twenty years later. Colder, harder, meaner. People now fear the man who had put his shirt on inside out in his first scene of the episode. The sequence which features a young boy being tested for infection and then later ends with him dead on the back of a truck also does this. Where others refuse to carry his body onto a pyre with other dead people, Joel just does it, and to have Pascal carry another kid just mere scenes after carrying Nico Parker is a good way of highlighting his character’s development. It also establishes the military quarantine zone that Joel lives in and the way in which they dispose of people. In fact, I think the show perhaps introduces this element even more clearly than the game did with how the ‘terrorist’ organization the Fireflies sees FEDRA, the military, as a dangerous dictatorship.
Like in the game, but done so without a big chase scene and shootout, Joel and Tess eventually come upon an injured Firefly, Marlene (played by Merle Dandridge, the voice actress from the game), and are offered a deal. If they smuggle Bella Ramsey’s Ellie out of the quarantine zone safely and get her to a group of Fireflies at a Boston statehouse, they will get all of the firepower and supplies they desire. I should also mention that an earlier scene between Marlene and Ellie establishes the extent to which they are familiar with one another. There is also a namedrop that fans of the games will have immediately picked up on — Riley. The story that involves her will be told in this show, supposedly, and, in case you’re making your way through the games right now, this story can be played in the story DLC entitled The Last of Us: Left Behind.
Anyway, after they agree to take Ellie to safety, the episode mostly goes where the game went. Joel and Tess take Ellie outside at night, but they are seen and tested, and Ellie is revealed to have been infected. But her wound is three-weeks-old. It hasn’t further mutated. It becomes clear why the Fireflies need her. She could be immune and thus the key to fixing things once and for all. Mazin does do something really good and novel here, though. When the FEDRA soldier is threatening to shoot them then and there, you can see the trauma and animalistic instincts in Joel’s — Pedro Pascal’s — eyes. The quick cut to and back from Joel and Sarah earlier is a great way of highlighting the pain that sits inside him. It isn’t the only great character work here. Ellie’s reaction when compared to Sarah’s reaction to seeing Joel take down the old woman is startlingly different. Sarah was horrified, and Ellie is fascinated.
As the episode comes to a close, and Joel, Tess, and Ellie leave the QZ, we hear dangerous screams from the distance, and a 1980s song on the radio, which, as Ellie deduced earlier, means trouble. The song is Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again,” and that was almost definitely not just a random song. The lyrics do tell an interesting story. The song goes “I’m taking a ride with my best friend,” which could be a reference to the game’s Lone Wolf and Cub-like story of a duo traversing post-apocalyptic America, and the title of the song could be a reference to Joel’s heartache. How he would never let someone he cares about down again. Of course, the aforementioned lyric is actually a reference to drug use, so, I guess, you could say that it is also pretty apt for the central relationship in the show — as their relationship is good but potentially dangerous.
I think the episode as a whole is quite strong. As I said, it could’ve been a little bit tighter, but I think the character and world-building here are invaluable for new viewers. While there are quite a few scenes that rely almost entirely on the game’s visual language — almost shot for shot — I am actually more than okay with it. I think Mazin and Druckmann handle that troublesome balancing act of wanting to respect the truth of the source material and building on it really well. I’m also so pleased with what the HBO budget does for the show. The production design is impeccable, and it fully feels like you’ve been thrown into the world of the game. It also helps that the performances are really strong. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey start out really well here, and the supporting performances from Anna Torv and Gabriel Luna echo their video game counterparts in satisfying ways. This is, on the whole, an exceptionally good start to the show that makes me hopeful that this show could ultimately live up to the masterful games that mean so much to me.
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.