We at PostApocalypticMedia have been waiting for episode 1 of HBO’s The Last of Us since it was announced! Right off the bat, I’ll say that it’s definitely worth the wait.
Below is a short spoiler-free review followed by a recap and review of the first episode in the HBO series (also available on Crave TV in Canada).
Brief Spoiler-Free Review
Based on the 2013 action-adventure game, The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic show that retains some of the best tropes of the genre but also manages to feel fresh and exciting. The pre-credits scene provided context to the premise and set the tone (think “self-inflicted doom”) in a poignant way, the intro is visually stunning, and the show itself is well-balanced in terms of pacing, emotional resonance, and action. If you’re also a Mandalorian fan hoping to see Pedro Pascal in another “Dad” role, he doesn’t disappoint (and this time, we get to see his face!). Finally, if you are a gamer and were worried the show would “ruin” the original, rest assured, as the first episode is a great adaptation of the source material!
If you’ve watched the first episode, check out my full recap and review below. Spoilers to follow!
Recap and Review
The pre-credit scene takes place in 1968 on a fictional talk show. After a brief mention of pandemics (which obviously hits differently than it would have three years ago), Jonathan from 1999’s The Mummy explains how certain fungal spores mutate and transmit from host to host.
He suggests that global warming could increase the viability of the fungi, allowing them to incubate in hosts with higher blood temperatures. This scene was excellent in both its environmentalist “we could have prevented this” commentary and how it pretty much explained what we needed to know about the infection going forward. As such, it negated the need for any “discovery” by the characters that would interrupt the pacing.
The episode takes place in two parts: 2003 and an alternate 2023.
In 2003, we meet Joel (Pedro Pascal), his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) (aged up a few years from being twelve in the game), and Joel’s brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna). Over the course of the day, we are shown how close Joel and Sarah are and how hard-working Joel is. We get hints that Joel has a military background (he was a Desert Storm vet, according to his bumper sticker) and that Tommy often needs his brother’s held to get him out of tough spots.
The show does a masterful job of building tension. We know from a) the show’s poster b) the premise and c) the game that the world is going to end, so the show focuses more on the father-daughter relationship, but it also drops hints, warnings, and odd occurrences throughout the day as to what is coming. This is masterfully done because the show is predicated on how we, the viewer, know what’s going to happen, so it’s fun to pick up on hints as to the developing circumstances before the characters understand what’s going on.
As such, when the sh*t does hit the fan, we are ready to jump into the action. The first scene where we see an infected human (Mrs. Adler), was gross and scary. The Last of Us is a great mesh of zombie and contagion horror, as it employs a creature-feature aspect that is almost more unnerving for being uncanny than for being gory. After Sarah escapes the older couple’s house, her dad shows up, and we’re given an immersive escape scene that was a definite call back to the game. The best thing about the truck scene is how the filmography shifts from us watching the characters react to something we understand (the infection) to pulling us into the same boat as the characters. Having the scenes filmed from the inside of the truck made us feel the helplessness and lack of control they felt.
Did I tear up when Sarah died? Okay, yes, just a little.
Moving forward to “today,” we find a world ravaged by fungal infection, chaos, and destruction. A small child enters the ruins of Boston, looking for refuge. He is given it, though we later find he was infected and thus “disposed of.” Joel is charged with placing the body into a communal pyre as one of many tasks he puts himself through to obtain ration cards (given out by Fedra, the operating government of the city). Fedra has a tight fist on the city’s citizens, though we aren’t given any insight into how their regime operates or who is in control.
We also find out Joel has a deal with one of the city cops to trade drugs for car parts. He obtains these drugs from a man who works at the radio station, where citizens pay to talk to loved ones in other parts of the country. Joel also learns from this man that Tommy hasn’t responded in three weeks. Convinced Tommy is in danger, Joel readies his go-bag stash in preparation to go looking for him in the wasteland.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Tess (Anna Torv), an apparently fearless woman whom we later learn is Joel’s partner. Tess is an absolute badass.
In addition to Joel’s plot, we meet a young girl chained up in a house (Bella Ramsey). Eventually, we find out that she is being held here by the Fireflies, a freedom fighter movement devoted to dismantling the hold Fedra has on the population. Marlene (Merle Dandridge), the leader, reveals that the girl, Ellie, is special (which, even if you haven’t played the games, I think you can guess means she’s immune to the fungal infection). She decides to take Ellie west.
Joel and Tess decide to take down Robert, a man who had promised them a car battery but reneged on the deal (and whose thugs had captured Tess earlier in the episode). When they arrive to kick his ass, they discover Marlene and Kim are already there with Ellie. They had been lied to about the battery as well. Given she is close to bleeding out, Marlene asks Joel and Tess to take Ellie to “the statehouse.” In exchange, she’ll arrange for Joel to have all he needs to rescue Tommy.
Joel and Tess agree, and Joel takes Ellie back to their house. Given how feisty and strong-willed Ellie was with both Marlene and Joel, we are also shown that Ellie is intelligent, having deciphered a smuggling code she finds in one of Joel’s books pretty much instantly.
They take a tunnel out of the city, running into Joel’s cop contact who decides to call them in. As he scans them, Ellie stabs him in the leg, though not before he reveals she has the virus in her system. When the cop turns his gun on Ellie, Joel has a flashback to when Sarah died. He tackles the man, beating him presumably to death.
The episode ends with 80s music, the smuggling code for trouble. In this case, a thematically-resonant “Never Let Me Down Again” by Depeche Mode.
This episode was an excellent beginning to a much-anticipated show. The post-apocalyptic setting was well-crafted, as we are only given glimpses of the destruction so far (which serves to tantalize), and the stakes, characters, and goals are clear.
As someone who played the original game, the show is a great balance of homages to the original source material and taking its own path. I’m interested to see how the show opens up the storyline from the game, and I’m sure we’ll also get some great horror scenes as well as more action.
Check the website every Monday for weekly recaps and reviews of all the episodes. The next episode airs on January 22 on HBO and Crave.