The Last of Us HBO Episode 1 - When You're Lost in the Darkness

by 
 | January 19, 2023

It’s been ten years since the release of The Last of Us video game from Naughty Dog. It has a story lauded in the video game community as one of the, if not the best, in video game history. I am one of the people who agree with that statement. This new adaptation is a TV series helmed by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckman (the director of the original game). And with these two in charge, I have high hopes for the series.

Before I get started, I’d like to remind everyone that the Watching Now: The Last of Us podcast, The Rest of Us, from our very own Lily, Erika, and Nick, is available wherever you get your podcasts on Tuesdays and on Youtube on Wednesdays. They’ll be breaking down in detail the harrowing, heartfelt, optimistic, desperate story of our heroes(?) as we progress through the series.

Exposition

We open into a 1968 talk show with one Jimmy Kimmel-like host barely keeping a straight face whilst talking to a curmudgeonly scientist talking about an impending viral pandemic. We know! We’ve just been through one. 

The other panelist, Dr. Neumann (John Hannah), supports the theory but, instead, posits that fungal infections such as cordyceps (dum dum dummmmmmm) are the bigger threat. The audience laughs it off but is soon stunned into silence as Neumann explains the frightening truth that the fungus could evolve to be able to control a human’s body like a marionette. Freaky right? It certainly wiped that smarmy smirk from that douchebag host.

Roll credits. And the credits are exactly what you would expect from an HBO show. All of their openings have similar visuals to Game of Thrones. However, we do get the iconic The Last of Us theme by the brilliant Gustavo Santaolalla, which I was really excited about. 

Outbreak Day

Joel carries an injured Sarah to safety
Meet the Millers

Thirty-six years later, a curtain is blowing in the wind, calling back to the Main Menu of the video game. The setting is Austin, TX, in the house of the Miller family: Joel (Pedro Pascal), the father of Sarah (Nico Parker), a girl of around 12 years old, and Tommy (Gabriel Luna), Joel’s brother who works with him in construction.

Sarah makes breakfast, ensuring that orange juice takes precedence over coffee for nutritional purposes before Joel and Tommy drop her at school. After class, she ventures into town to have Joel’s watch repaired for his birthday. It’s during this sequence that you notice small details that all is not as it seems. A visibly shaken shopkeeper ushers Sarah out before closing time (rude).

Sarah visits the elderly Adler family next door. This is where I became entirely unnerved. Not only were the Adlers making raisin cookies (urgh), Nana Adler, who had been previously catatonic, convulsed violently before settling back in her wheelchair like nothing had happened. But the dog knew something had happened. We all know dogs know when shit’s about to go down.

Fast forward to later in the evening, and Joel and Sarah share a nice moment between father and daughter, celebrating his birthday with his newly repaired watch and one of his favourite movies. Sarah falls asleep and is put to bed after Joel receives a phone call to bail his brother from jail.

Sarah is awoken to an empty house and the Adler’s dog scratching at the door. When she attempts to take it back to its owners, she notices that the door is ajar. Committing the first cardinal sin of horror, Sarah enters the house to find a bloodbath. And… wait… Nana? What have you got in your mouth? OH MY GOD, IT’S MOVING. EW EW EW EW EW! Run away!

Nana Adler has tendrils of fungus protruding from her mouth
Ewwwwwwwwww

Exiting the house, she’s greeted by Joel and Tommy, who promptly whack Nana Adler in the head and drive off, attempting to evacuate Austin. What happens next is cut almost exactly from the game, and it’s awesome! They travel north into a small town while the world goes to hell around them.

A plane crash (which looked epic) wrecks Joel’s car and injures Sarah’s ankle, meaning that they’ll have to continue on foot. Joel and Sarah duck down an alley, where they’re met with a boatload of people feeding on other people. One notices them, and it’s one too many. It bolts after them like a zombie from Train to Busan through a restaurant before being put down by army personnel. Phew. Safety?

Nope.

The saviour turns into an enemy. He opens fire on Joel and Sarah before Tommy shows up and kills him. But the worst has been done. Sarah has been murdered, and Joel is completely and utterly broken. There is only despair and tears (for me and Joel). Pedro Pascal and Nico Parker do a terrific job with this seminal scene from the game. It is acted perfectly.

20 Years Later

Twenty years later, we are reunited with an older and wearier Joel, burning bodies for work in the Boston Quarantine Zone (QZ). One of those bodies is a child who had been killed by FEDRA, the ruling military force, upon entering the QZ, having been identified as infected. Joel throws the bodies into the fire with little emotion.

FEDRA information on infection and incubation rates
So can they chop off my foot after an hour, and I’ll be ok but one-legged?

We’re introduced to Tess (Anna Torv), who is talking to Robert, an all-around weasel who has stolen money and supplies from Tess and Joel. Tess has been badly beaten by Robert’s goons, but Tess is damn tough. She’s taken a beating and remains cool, calm, and collected. And she’s pretty damn intimidating even though she’s outnumbered three to one!

Tess is let go but, unfortunately, runs straight into civil unrest between FEDRA and the Fireflies, a freedom fighter (or terrorist group, depending on your point of view) operating in the Boston QZ. They have the motto, “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.”  It’s where we get the episode title from, framing the Fireflies as the hope for people. 

Cut to a young girl (Bella Ramsey) imprisoned by the Fireflies. She says her name is Veronica, an obvious mislead for her captors. The girl is precocious, feisty, and swears more than I do after stepping on LEGO

Tess and Joel make their way through the day, eventually reconvening at their apartment. Joel has lost contact with Tommy, and he and Tess have been trying to scrape together enough ration cards and supplies to leave the city to find him. Little snag, though: Robert stole the car battery they had counted on. In the game, Robert had stolen guns from Joel and Tess but having him steal something necessary to check on Tommy seems more impactful. They resolve to get the battery back from Robert by any means necessary.

Back with the captive girl, we’re introduced to Marlene (Merle Dandridge, who voiced the same character in the video game!), the leader of the Fireflies. Marlene knows that the girl she has imprisoned is called Ellie, someone she has a history with. It’s one of the reasons she’s not been killed. The other reason is that she’s important. So important, Marlene decides to leave Boston with her for a place out West.

An infected encrusted to the wall, the fungus spreading outwards from there
This place could do with a little spring clean if you ask me

Joel and Tess travel through the sewers to try to get the jump on Robert, who they’ve managed to determine the location of. After fumbling around in the dark, the horrific sight of an infected plastered to the wall by fungus is found. In the games, this would usually mean the presence of spores, a vector of the fungus. But in the HBO series, spores are not a thing and are replaced by the horrific tendrils like from Nana Adler. Again, I say eww!

Forces converge, and our characters all meet, apart from Robert. He’s dead as a result of trying to steal from Marlene. In the battle, Marlene is injured and unable to effectively smuggle Ellie from the QZ, so somehow (and too easily), she convinces Joel and Tess to do it on the promise of any supplies they need at a secondary location. Surely these guys have been around long enough that they would ask for some payment up-front!

Ellie tries to get to know Joel but is met with resistance. Under cover of night, Joel, Tess, and Ellie set off for the outside.

Ellie and Tess hide from FEDRA patrols on the outside of the QZ
Extreme Hide and Seek

They have a few close calls before being captured by a familiar FEDRA agent. Doing things “by the book,” he tests them all for cordyceps. As the results are being rendered for Ellie, she attacks the FEDRA agent. Having flashbacks to Sarah’s death, Joel snaps and brutally beats the crap out of the agent. Tess then draws Joel’s attention to the results of the test. Ellie is infected. But, apparently, and incomprehensibly, over three weeks ago, outside of the incubation period of the fungus. Could she be immune?

The gang walks deeper into the city as a frightening clicking scream echoes in the air around them amongst the falling rain. 

Verdict

A really promising start to the series. The show made me care for Sarah much more than I did in the video game, which made it all the more devastating when she was struck down. The moments of horror give me a feeling of optimism for future episodes. We’re basically only just through the prologue of the game, so the gnarly stuff is yet to come. Most deviations from the game so far have been to the benefit of the show, but I’ll wait and see whether the series can recapture those atmospheric moments in gas masks in a different way. 

But those deviations have been relatively few and far between. Some of the scenes are almost frame by frame identical to the game, like the car journey whilst escaping Austin and the very last shot of Tess, Joel, and Ellie walking into the Boston wilds with the two skyscrapers in the distance, one leaning on the other. It’s unlike any other video game to movie, or TV show adaptation that I’ve ever seen. I am extremely excited about what’s to come.

9/10

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