‘The Last of Us’ Episode 1: When You’re Lost in the Darkness

HBO’s The Last of Us has officially arrived and its first episode, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” has fully lived up to and exceeded the expectations that have laid on it. Here is a breakdown of what was seen in the episode and how it may impact the season going forward. Please be advised that this may contain spoilers.

The episode opens in 1968 during the taping of some type of television interview show as the host is interviewing two epidemiologists about the possibility of a future pandemic and one begins to raise the alarm about a possible fungal pandemic for which humanity would be powerless to stop. He lauds the positive possibilities of fungi but also warns of the potential dangers if one were to mutate and be able to infect humans. His colleague notes that this would be impossible but the alarmist notes that if the Earth’s temperature were to rise and make the conditions ideal for a fungal strain to survive in a human, then we would lose. This opening scene then leads into the credits which proves once again that HBO is the undisputed champion of crafting a memorable credit sequence and is even similar to the credit sequence found in the original game with the original music from composer Gustavo Santaolalla.

The story then moves forward to 2003 as we meet Joel and Sarah on his birthday and his daughter makes him a special birthday breakfast. It is a very touching moment as the whole family, including Joel’s brother Tommy, arrives to begin mooching from the breakfast nook. As they begin to discuss their current contracting job, a news bulletin warns of ongoing disturbances in Jakarta but this bulletin is quickly dismissed as Joel and Tommy believe their corner of the world is unaffected by these instances. As Sarah quietly makes her way through her day, there are hints that something is askew and coming to shake up their world; she notices a classmate is starting to twitch wildly, there is an uptick in police vehicles and is even directed to exit a store following its abrupt closure due to reports of violence in the area. However, the tipping point comes when she is visiting her elderly neighbors and unbeknownst to Sarah, her wheelchair bound friend, Mrs. Adler, begins moving her arms and twitching violently much to the alarm of the family dog. Pro tip; when a dog starts growling and staring straight ahead for no apparent reason, be on guard. 

In this first episode, The Last of Us has excelled in punctuating the tense moments with deeply personal moments as the next scene shows Sarah gifting her father with a repaired watch. It is a scene lifted straight from the game with even some dialogue making its way to actors Nico Parker and Pedro Pascal. Those familiar with game’s prologue will immediately the beats as the scene then transitions to Sarah finding her neighbors being attacked by a seemingly reanimated Mrs. Adler as tendrils protrude from her mouth until Joel and Tommy arrive back home to get Sarah out of town. Joel is forced to kill Mrs. Adler in brutal fashion before she can attack them and the family now has to flee. This is another moment lifted directly from the game as the camera places its perspective directly in that of Sarah as we see all sorts of chaos from the backseat of this pickup truck; stranded families, clogged highways, people panicking and utters chaos as the outbreak is in full swing and is completely unstoppable. The most tension filled moment is when Sarah sees that a jet airliner is falling out of the sky and about to crash into their town and causes their truck to crash and Sarah to become injured. During the chaos, Tommy is separated from Joel and Sarah as father and daughter attempt to run for safety but run into the military. Normally this would be a welcome sight but those familiar with the game are still unprepared for what comes next. Through the crackle of the soldier’s radio, he receives a set of terrible orders and turns his rifle onto Joel and Sarah as they fall down a ridge and Joel sees every parent’s nightmare; his daughter mortally wounded and being powerless to save her. It is a truly heartbreaking moment for this series and Nico Parker’s performance sells her pain and is reflected back onto Pascal in a way that the game simply cannot attain. This is a moment that will shape Joel and his decisions for the rest of his life. 

Series creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin stated that they do not wish to make filler content to provide context for Joel’s 20 years following this moment but it opens on the Boston Quarantine Zone and the not-so safe haven this former great city provides to the survivors of the pandemic. The reminders of this bleak still persevere even after Sarah’s death; a young child is found by federal, also known as FEDRA, soldiers but is found to be infected and immediately euthanized. We catch up with Joel on a horrible work detail where he is moving bodies into a burn pit and it is here that we catch a glimpse of the child who was recently euthanized but Joel is so turned off to his emotions that he is able to pick up this unnamed child and toss him into the pit when his coworker is so overcome that she cannot help him. Joel participates in this work to be paid in ration cards but makes a side hustle as a pusher for painkillers and it is evident that he has lived in this quarantine zone for a long time as he is on familiar if shaky ground with his customer. It is clear from this transaction that Joel is desperately trying to get out of the Zone as he has not heard from his brother in some time after he migrated to Wyoming. 

It is a long time before we are introduced to Ellie and as we meet her, she is chained to a radiator in an unknown location somewhere in Boston under the protection of the Fireflies, a national resistance network seeking to find a cure to the infection and restore democracy. Bella Ramsey’s sassiness is on full display as she has grown visibly furious at being chained up for several days now at this point and releases a long string of swear words at her captor. Around the 35-to-40-minute mark, Joel’s partner Tess is finally introduced and is in rough shape after having suffered through a beating after being held up by another smuggler named Robert who seems to have stolen merchandise from her and Joel. This encounter is interrupted by FEDRA soldiers skirmishing with the Fireflies but their war is struggling. They are losing soldiers daily and their recruiting efforts seem fruitless. There is even a moment where Joel is interacting with a stranger who begins to utter the Fireflies slogan but is interrupted when he threatens to break this man’s jaw. There are conflicting views on the Fireflies and their tactics by both civilians and FEDRA soldiers and the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene is forced to bring Ellie across the country. 

Joel and Tess then resolve to get their merchandise back and have to travel through the underground of Boston and instead find Robert and several Fireflies killed in a gunfight over the stolen goods. Also among the carnage is a wounded Marlene who is forced to abandon her previous objective of escorting Ellie across the county and has to task Joel and Tess to at least escort the young girl to a rendezvous point so other Fireflies can resume the journey. Joel and Ellie meet for the first time when the young girl attempts to swipe at Joel using her trusty switchblade but is quickly thwarted when he casually tosses her into a wall and slides her blade across the floor. This brief interaction showcases Ellie’s inexperience in combat but also Joel’s physicality and usefulness as a blunt instrument. As this ragtag group move to the edge of the Boston Zone, Ellie remarks that she has never been that close to the edge of the Zone and even looks around in complete wonder when she makes her way past the wall. They are immediately discovered by the same FEDRA soldier who purchased pills from Joel and they are about to be turned in for hanging until Ellie stabs the soldier in the leg and Joel brutally finishes him off. Joel is plagued by the flashback of when he lost his daughter in a similar fashion and his animal instinct takes over in an effort to avoid repeating that tragic moment. 

The episode’s final moments show Ellie explaining to Joel and Tess that she is somehow immune to the fungal infection after being bitten but as they are wondering what to do about her, they realize their time is short and are forced to move beyond the fence and into the bombed-out ruins that used to be Boston. As they move further into uncertainty, the horrifying sounds of Clickers, the blind infected who hunt their prey using sound, are heard as they move down the street. While the first episode does well to fully immerse viewers in this world, it does even better to expand on the familiar notes of its incredible source material. More context is given for Joel and Tommy’s relationship, Sarah is fleshed out in a way that a brief video game prologue could not accomplish, the struggle of the Fireflies is more apparent, Tess is shown to be a lover to Joel in addition to being a business partner and details of Ellie’s initial captivity are finally shown. There are still several mysteries to unpack over the course of the next eight episodes but they are shaping up well as The Last of Us is already proving to be the best video game adaptation ever made. 

Featured Image Credit: HBO

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