TV Review: HBO’s The Last of Us Episode 1, ‘When You Are Lost in the Darkness’

The TV adaptation of Naughty Dog’s video game series The Last of Us has finally premiered on January 15th on HBO Max, and its first episode didn’t disappoint. News outlets and reactions on social media indicate that the show was a success, pleasing both fans of the game and those new to the franchise. The numbers are proof: there were 4.7 million U.S. viewers, and according to Variety, The Last of Us has become the second largest debut for HBO in the last 13 years.

The Last of Us series is produced by Craig Mazin (who worked on Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (the man behind The Last of Us and Uncharted video games) with Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsay as Ellie.

The Boss Rush Network is also releasing weekly podcasts via Crossroads covering these episodes. We will post them at the bottom of each article. With all that being said, let’s dive right in!

Warning: This review contains spoilers. Also, trigger warning for death of children.

SYNOPSIS

It is 1968. Three men are sitting, smoking, and discussing a topic close to our heats: pandemics with a live studio audience. They are confident of mankind’s survival from viruses and bacteria; however, one scientist (John Hannah) warns of one spread by fungi. The crowd churns uncomfortably. He states that while currently existing invasive fungi only target species outside humans, he posed a scenario where climate change warms the planet, and the fungi evolve and adapt…with humans as a potentially new host.

We jump to 2003–a young girl named Sarah (Nico Parker) wakes her father for his birthday. Sarah is up and at ’em, cooking breakfast while Joel (Pedro Pascal) hobbles down the stairs. His brother Tommy (Gabriel Lung) arrives, ready to start the work day. Joel promises not too work too late and bring home a birthday cake. It’s a touching moment of a daughter caring for her father, and her hopes hinge on this promise.

Time flies by seamlessly in the following scenes. We see Sarah and Joel say hi to their neighbors, the Adlers, and Joel volunteers Sarah to visit them after school. We cut to Sarah taking some notes to class and then to her sneaking her father’s broken watch and some cash to a jewelers after school. All the while, we witness tiny snippets of panic on the news and emergency vehicles zipping down the streets.

As the jeweler fixes the watch, the man’s wife runs into the room, panicked. She demands that they close the store immediately. Sarah is filled with confusion as she takes the watch and is ushered out of the store. It doesn’t end there. During Sarah’s visit to the Adlers, we are fed a haunting moment where she looks at some DVDs, and the elderly woman, conveniently blurred out in the background, begins twitching. However, that visit comes and goes without incident, and Sarah stays up late waiting for her father who forgot to bring a cake home.

Hours pass. Sarah is asleep on the couch, and Joel receives a phone call from his brother to bail him out of jail…again. After Joel leaves, things go south. Sarah wakes up alone, and the neighbor’s dog paws at the door. The dog refuses to go near its owner’s home, and Sarah steps into a bloody scene.

The elderly woman is no longer in her wheelchair, but chewing on her daughter’s neck. Sarah runs out of the Adler’s house in time for Joel and Tommy to return. Something isn’t right, and now it’s time to run. Joel strikes the elderly Adler woman with a monkey wrench, further sending Sarah into a state of utter horror and shock. They drive off, hitting the now turned daughter and son (and you witness another neighbor shouting at them, likely wondering why they would do such a thing, only to be mauled and met with a grizzly fate).

Sarah gazes at the chaos as they drive to safety. A house is on fire. A family is screaming for help on the side of the road. Sarah tries to get answers from Joel in an exchange of panicked whispers. The trio make it to the freeway, only to see it backed up for miles. Tommy turns the vehicle around, hoping to cut around through a nearby town. The panic worsens are the streets narrow, people flood from theaters, and planes fly dangerously low (and crashes).

Credit: HBO

Their luck runs out, and they all must escape on foot. Tommy is separated from Joel and an injured Sarah. Joel picks up his daughter and rushes through the town. Zombie-like people are multiplying, and they run fast. One spots and pursues Joel. Right when he is about to catch up, a soldier shoots the “zombie”; however, he also receives orders to take out Joel and Sarah. Joel begs him–“We are not infected”.

In a flash, the gun fires, and the two tumble into the dirt. Tommy shoots the solider, but it’s too late. Sarah is mortally wounded, and she dies in Joel’s arms. Consumed by grief, Joel wraps his daughter in his blood soaked arms, and the scene goes black.

We are now transported to 2023, in a world much different than ours. An injured child shuffles up to the Boston Quarantine Zone, a section of the city that is walled off by concrete. The child is taken in, and during a medical check up, the FEDRA officers discover that he is infected by the Cordyceps fungus that has ravaged the world. The FEDRA officer soothes the child with promises of food and toys as they administer “medicine”.

The next scene contrasts greatly–grimy adults are dumping bodies into a massive fire. A new truck full of corpses arrive, one of which is the child. A female says that she couldn’t do it…turning to Joel who numbly does his job. From here, we see the grim life in the QZ (quarantine zone) where ration cards are coveted, and the military rules with an iron fist. Joel is seen sneaking off to trade pills for ration cards with a solider.

Tess is also introduced, a savvy and tough woman who is working on obtaining a car battery so that her and Joel could soon leave to find his brother, Tommy. However, the seller, Robert, tries to bite off more than he can chew and tries to sell it off to the Fireflies.

The Fireflies had graffitied their logo across the city. When you are lost in the darkness, look for the light. They are a rebellion group that are regarded as “terrorists” by FEDRA. We are introduced to them when we meet Ellie, a foul-mouthed teen who is chained up. Little is revealed about the Fireflies’ intentions with her; however, things comes to a head when the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene (Merle Dandridge), is injured after a scuffle with Robert.

Fun Fact: The actress that portrays Marlene is the same actress who performed the motion capture for the character in the video game.

Joel and Tess had tracked Robert down at the Firefly’s safe house. He is dead, and the car battery is useless. They meet Marlene, who bargains with the pair–transport Ellie to a group of Fireflies outside the quarantine zone, and she will provide them with whatever materials they need. Both Joel and Ellie object immediately; however, after Tess reminds Joel about their goal, he begrudingly agrees.

Fun Fact: In the video game, Joel had no intentions of leaving Boston QZ to find his brother. The scramble for car batteries brings the Fireflies and Joel together.

Marlene sits with Ellie and explains how important she is.
Credit: HBO

When night falls, Joel and Tess sneak Ellie outside the quarantine zone. We get our first look at a human who has completely been consumed by the Cordyceps–one that is plastered to the wall with mushrooms growing from every corner.

Before they go much further, the same officer that Joel was trading with catches them. The officer forces them to their knees and tests them for the infection. Right when he tests Ellie, she stabs him in the thigh. In a flash, Joel is reminded of the officer who shot his daughter. Suddenly, he is triggered and enraged, beating him to death.

Credit: HBO

This is where we meet the crux of the episode–Ellie tested positive for the infection. The twist is that her bite was over three weeks old, and she hadn’t turned, hinting at possible immunity. The scene pans out before two massive buildings that are near collapse. Joel’s radio plays an 80s song…a decade that is code for danger.

Credit: HBO

ANALYSIS

A lot was accomplished in the first episode of The Last of Us. Every minute was well-thought out, from the opening discussion with the scientists to the final song. I wanted to first touch base on the opening scene.

This was not found in the video game, and it serves such a deep purpose. Firstly, it level sets our common concern about pandemics. Especially after all we went through with COVID-19, this is extremely relatable. The twist is when John Hannah’s character expresses more concern over a fungal pandemic over viruses. It catches the host and audience off guard, almost in a comical way; however, Hannah expresses a real-life scenario that people in the 60s thought wouldn’t happen–global warming. Suddenly, everyone feels extremely uncomfortable, and the host moves on… This tactic was effective in making the content more relatable to a modern day audience and pokes holes in how we handle uneasy conversation. Also, the use of scientific examples and posing possible scenarios really separates this from any other zombie show or movie.

The next point of discussion involves Nico Parker’s stellar performance as Sarah. Right from the get-go, we key in on her close relationship with her father. They have quick, witty banter, and we get a sense that she keeps her father together, not the other way around. The show spends a good amount of time in Sarah’s shoes, which is what we don’t get in the game. For those that haven’t played The Last of Us could easily mistake Sarah as the protagonist we’d follow for the rest of the series. The choice to follow Sarah throughout the episode was excellent because as a child, we aren’t as tuned into the news or other current events as adults. I’m sure if we followed Joel or Tommy–we would expect to hear more about an impending pandemic.

Another key scene to highlight is the one of the unnamed child that seeks refuge at the Boston Quarantine Zone. This is also not found in the game, and yet, these are the scenes I’m pointing out. Why? This shows HBO’s ability to take liberties with the series appropriately. It does not detract from the original story, but sets the foundation and tone for this post-apocalyptic world. The FEDRA officer shows empathy, but in the background, we see the test flash red. The camera shows the audience the protocols and steps of a Cordyceps infection, and sadly, all infected needs to be eradicated.The death of a child is surely a triggering one for some, although HBO does not shy from this. However, I will say it was tastefully done.

There are key moments that solidify Joel’s character I wanted to highlight. Firstly, Joel has no problems doing his job and disposing the child’s body into the fire. I believe HBO chose a child because he had lost one twenty years ago…and his lack of emotion shows that he is, essentially, dead inside. This is not the same Joel we met. We also see this in his initial refusal to deal with Ellie. However, we see a parallel when the FEDRA officer is aiming his gun at Ellie at the end of the episode. It flashes back to his own daughter, and he beats the officer with unrelenting savagery.

Credit: HBO

As for Ellie, Bella didn’t hold back. Her take on Ellie brings more of an edge–with lots of swearing and sass. It may have come off as a little too strong for my liking; however, the show has yet to reveal the traumas she has already gone through at her age. I am very curious how Ellie will continue to develop in this series.

Lastly, I wanted to talk about the balance between new content and fidelity to the video game. There are several avenues a video game adaptation can make. I believe it is with the assistance of Neil Druckmann that they struck a fine balance. There are moments taken directly from the game, whether it was Sarah’s sassy line of coming up with money for Joel’s birthday present: “Drugs. I sell hard-core drugs” to the car scene and driving through the roads near Austin. I honestly felt like I was playing the game as Sarah in that car. And yet, there are plenty of times the show either cut, condensed, or added. What made those tweaks successful was the fact that everything seemed to be done mindfully and intentionally. We received more scenes with Sarah to tell the first legs of the story. Additional character interaction completes the setting and fills in little gaps that we would otherwise infer when playing the game. I really hope The Last of Us continues walking this fine line.

VERDICT

Rating: 5 out of 5.

These is not much else I can add that hasn’t been stated above. HBO’s The Last of Us remains faithful to the video game while adjusting content to provide the viewer with the best experience–whether they played the game or not. Episode one established the backdrop of this apocalyptic world and explains these new “zombies” in a more realistic way. Pandemic? We’re familiar. Cordyceps? That’s a real thing. Most importantly, Pedro Pascal and others firmly established their roles, and the foundation for Joel and Ellie’s relationship has been set. I can only hope they can continue this trajectory in the future episodes. See you next week!

What did you think of the first episode of HBO’s The Last of Us? What were some of your highlights and predictions for future episodes. Please share your thoughts with us on our Boss Rush Facebook Group or our Boss Rush Discord.


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Sources: HBO, Variety

Featured Image Source: HBO

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