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‘The Last of Us’ Premiere Recap: Welcome to the Apocalypse

When it was released as a PlayStation 3 game in the summer of 2013, The Last of Us drew breathless praise from reviewers, but that’s not particularly unusual. Games — like movies, books, TV shows, and so on — often earn rave reviews only to be displaced before long by the next new thing. But that wasn’t the case with The Last of Us. The game’s reputation grew over the years, in large part because of writer Neil Druckmann’s gripping, moving story; the unnervingly plausible postapocalyptic world of scarce resources in which it takes place; and a pair of memorable central characters: Ellie, a teenager with the ability to resist the fungal infection that’s turned much of the world’s population into zombielike creatures, and Joel, the hardened smuggler charged with transporting her across an American wasteland.

The Last of Us became a gold standard for game storytelling, which in theory makes it easier to adapt than most games. But, even putting aside the intimidating list of video-game adaptations that just didn’t work — a collection of titles that stretches back to Super Mario Bros. in 1993 and ranges from the merely forgettable to the awful — it also makes an adaptation kind of daunting. With a game this respected there’s added pressure not to screw it up.

From the start, it’s apparent that HBO’s The Last of Us, whose first season adapts the game into nine episodes, doesn’t want to screw it up. Co-created by Druckmann and Craig Mazin (whose most recent series, Chernobyl, depicted a different sort of catastrophe), its guiding philosophy seems to be not to throw out what worked about the game, from the story to the spare, guitar-driven Gustavo Santaolalla score. But the show also feels like its own creation, in large part because the series, and its well-chosen cast, emphasize the emotions at the heart of the game, including an interest in what place morality has in a brutal postapocalyptic world and a sense that it is connections between people that make life meaningful, even when surrounded by monsters. Anyone who doesn’t know better might struggle to figure out which came first: the show or the game.

The series begins in a slightly different place, opening with a scene set at the taping of a talk show in 1968 in which a smug interviewer talks to two scientists. One suggests we should begin worrying about a global pandemic accelerated by international travel patterns that have made distance and borders irrelevant. (Sounds familiar.) The other warns of a different sort of plague, one in which humans might become prey to brain-controlling fungi that could turn the population into “billions of puppets with poisoned minds permanently fixed on one unifying goal: to spread the infection to every human alive by any means necessary.”

That sounds like foreshadowing, so there’s reason to worry when the episode flashes forward to September 26, 2003, though not the 2003 we experienced in our world. Yes, George W. Bush is still president, those who use cell phones wrap them in leather cases for protection, and DVDs rule home viewing. But a sense of peril thickens as the day progresses. And, after night falls, that ominousness takes an apocalyptic turn.

The day begins well enough for Sarah, an Austin, Texas, teen. It’s her father Joel’s (Pedro Pascal) birthday, and she has plans for the two of them, starting with a nice breakfast. (Well, nice enough. There’s an issue with some shell bits in the egg.) It’s clearly not the first time Sarah has fended for herself or played parent to her single dad. And when he tells her that he and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) will need to work a double shift to keep the construction project on schedule, she’s disappointed but not surprised.

Sarah’s a good kid. She takes the time to have her father’s watch repaired for his birthday, knowing he’d never do it himself. True, she uses his money, but that’s not that big of a deal. It’s a nice gesture, though she does start to grow a little worried when one of the shop owners whisks her out because they have to close early for unexplained reasons. (Could the sirens she’s been hearing all day have something to do with it?) And she’s helpful with the Adlers, the family next door with the nice dog and a senile, wheelchair-bound mother named Connie who never talks. Sarah doesn’t even roll her eyes when Mrs. Adler tells her, “People out there need to get right with Jesus.”

Sarah doesn’t freak out when, after falling asleep on the couch watching the action movie Curtis and Viper 2 with her father, she wakes up alone, Joel having had to leave to bail out Tommy, who’s gotten into a fight at a bar. Tommy’s been locked up before, but this is different. He was just reacting to some out-of-control guy acting crazy. Sarah does freak out, however, when the Adlers’ dog shows up at her house and she finds Connie gnawing on a body inside the house next door. That might have been her fate too if Joel hadn’t shown up in time to knock the newly agile Connie out with a wrench.

“When You’re Lost in the Darkness” has to this point been slowly raising the temperature. It’s here that it begins to boil over. What follows is a mad rush to escape to, well, anywhere. After Sarah joins Joel and Tommy in a pick-up with a quarter tank of gas, the three speed across the outskirts of Austin only to find the highway choked with traffic and the fields filled with soldiers. Making their way downtown, they find a different sort of chaos. A plane crashes into streets already filled with those fleeing an unseen threat. Then, while carrying Sarah, who’s twisted her ankle, Joel sees what he’s up against: swift, berserk, zombielike humans in the thrall of the cordyceps fungi that have overtaken their brains, making them intent on attacking everyone they see and spreading the infection. (See, that 1968 scientist knew what he was talking about.)

But it’s not the creatures that prove to be the greatest threat. When Joel and Sarah encounter a soldier, it quickly becomes apparent he’s going to kill them, presumably acting on orders to take extreme measures to contain the spread of the infection. Tommy arrives in time to take him out, but not before the soldier peppers Joel and Tommy with a spray of bullets, grazing Joel but fatally wounding Sarah, who dies in Joel’s arms.

It’s a moment that doubles as a warning: This show will break your heart.

And when the episode then flashes forward 20 years, Joel is still heartbroken and the world has only grown crueler. How cruel? The opening scene follows a girl who, apparently miraculously, shows up on the outskirts of a devastated Boston, now the Boston Quarantine Zone, overseen by an authoritarian organization called FEDRA (short for “Federal Disaster Response Agency”). They’ve kept Boston safe by enacting strict protocol measures and making sure no one carrying the infection makes it within city limits. There’s kindness in the way the soldier tells the girl, “What if I told you that after we gave you some medicine, we’re going to find you your favorite food to eat?” but it’s a lie. When we next see the kid, she’s another body to be tossed on the fire.

It’s Joel who does the tossing. Like the other civilians in Boston, he works odd jobs to survive, whether burning bodies or cleaning the sewer. He also has connections and makes extra money on the side selling opioids to a soldier with whom he’s grown friendly. There’s a purposefulness to what he does, however. He needs money to buy a working battery for a truck he’s procured to look for Tommy, who’s disappeared while traveling west. His last known location is somewhere in Wyoming, a Boston radio operator tells him before warning him not to attempt to find him. “There are worse things than Infected out there,” he tells him. “There are raiders. There are slavers.” (This, too, sounds like foreshadowing.)

Joel has a partner in this pursuit, a tough-talking woman named Tess (Anna Torv) who takes a pragmatic approach after she’s ripped off by a low-level black-market dealer, realizing she can either move on or start a conflict she can’t survive. Pragmatism drives them both. FEDRA may rule Boston, but an insurgent group called the Fireflies keeps challenging their authority. And while Joel and Tess’s sympathies might align more with the rebels, they’re more interested in surviving than dying for a cause. When Tess finds herself in the middle of a FEDRA-Firefly street fight, she does her best not to get involved. (She’s successful, but only after spending some time being interrogated by the cops, a seemingly familiar process.)

The Fireflies, however, might have the answer, not to the problem of FEDRA oppression but to the problem. They have a 14-year-old girl who calls herself Veronica locked in a room. And Veronica has survived an Infected bite for three weeks and shows no sign of turning. She’s not, we’ll later learn, named Veronica, but rather Ellie (Bella Ramsey). And Ellie’s not happy at all at being locked up by Marlene (Merle Dandridge, reprising her role from the game), the leader of the Fireflies. Ellie’s also unclear about where she comes from or why she’s been able to survive. But that doesn’t get in the way of her expressing her resentment with defiant sarcasm.

She’ll learn a bit about her past when she talks to Marlene, who claims to have placed her in the FEDRA school from which she escaped before being attacked by Infected. She also learns that Marlene does not like being called a terrorist, particularly when she knows she’s working for a greater purpose and Ellie is essential to the cause.

Meanwhile, Joel and Tess plot payback on the battery dealer who ripped them off, a pursuit that eventually brings them to Firefly headquarters, or what’s left of it. Marlene, Ellie, and only one other Firefly have survived a massacre, and, desperate to get Ellie to safety, Marlene hires Joel and Tess for the job (but only after a tense stand-off and a promise to get him a working car battery and more).

First, they return to Joel and Tess’s apartment, where Ellie gets to work trying to figure out what they’re all about and how they work. This includes, she quickly discerns, a code tied to a book of lists of No. 1 hits and some guys named Bill and Frank who send the hits of yesteryear Joel’s way as a signal. A ’70s song means they’ve got new stuff, a ’60s song means nothing new. And an ’80s song? That’s a big red “X.” But when Ellie tells a just-awakened Joel she heard a song about waking someone up before they go-go while he was sleeping, the look on his face tells her it’s trouble.

They don’t have long to think about it, however. Tess shows up and tells them it’s time to go. The journey is seemingly simple enough: bring Ellie to the old statehouse to rendezvous with a bunch of Fireflies who will take her elsewhere. Boston’s not that big a town. But the Boston of this 2023 has several obstacles that ours does not.

These include, of course, FEDRA soldiers, including Joel’s painkiller customer, who seems willing to bargain with them for their escape until Ellie stabs him before he can see she tests positive for infection, after which Joel murders him with his bare fists (after a brief flashback to Sarah) as Tess and Ellie look on. Then it’s time to go while, back at Joel and Tess’s place, the radio plays Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down,” a song from the ’80s. But by this point, they don’t need to be told they’re in trouble.

Infectious Bites

– R.I.P., Sarah. If you don’t know what’s coming, Sarah’s death feels a bit like — let’s word this vaguely in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet — what happens in Psycho. Wasn’t she our protagonist? She was not. But credit to Nico Parker (probably most familiar as the kid from Tim Burton’s Dumbo), whose performance makes it easy to love the character and easy to understand the hole she leaves in Joel’s heart.

– Parker may not be returning, but let’s take a moment to note how well cast the show is otherwise. Torv is convincingly tough (and almost unrecognizable). She plays Tess as a woman whose will to survive has almost, but not completely, overwritten her more tender instincts. Similarly, Pascal’s weariness conveys the price he’s paid to survive. He’s changed, but the change may have begun at the moment he kept driving past the family in need while attempting to flee Texas. If you know Bella Ramsey, it’s most likely for her turn as Lyanna Mormont on Game of Thrones, where her imperious air made her a breakout character without that much screen time. (She also recently starred in Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy.) She’s instantly winning without taking any shortcuts. Ellie doesn’t behave like a cute teen. She is insolent and annoying, but in a way that Ramsey makes charismatic and vulnerable. Ellie may talk tough, but Rasmey lets us hear the fear in her voice when she seeks reassurance by saying, “So we’re gonna be okay.”

– Joel turns 36 as the episode opens, making him 56 in 2023. Pedro Pascal is 47, so he more or less splits the difference age-wise.

– Most disturbing image: the Infected Tess and Joel describe as “done.” In the final phase, the human body just becomes a kind of wall hanging.

– The episode title is part of the Fireflies’ slogan: “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.” That doesn’t always work out for the Fireflies, though, and it’s likely the characters will head to some pretty dark places.

– Joel and Tess’s codebook is Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, a classic reference guide last updated, appropriately enough, in 2003. (It’s out of print, but you can find it on the Internet Archive.) The show’s cheating a bit. Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again,” from the group’s 1987 album Music for the Masses, never topped Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart, stalling out at No. 63. (It reached No. 22 in the U.K. and fared better on the U.S. dance charts. But it was a No. 1 hit in Denmark.) That doesn’t mean it’s not the perfect song with which to end the episode, however.

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