‘The Last Of Us’ Recap: Everything That Happened In First Episode Of HBO’s Videogame Adaptation

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of Sunday’s premiere episode of HBO’s The Last Of Us.

The Last of Us, HBO’s poignant adaption of the beloved 2013 survival horror game, is anything but dead on arrival. Like the game, widely praised for its emotional storytelling and rich characterization, the highly anticipated live-action series follows the harrowing post-apocalyptic journey of Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), a rugged survivor who lost his sense of humanity after suffering the loss of his daughter, and Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey) an orphaned teenager who potentially holds the key to curing the world from infection, as they travel across the dangerous terrain of the United States looking for any semblance of safety.  

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The first episode, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” directed by series showrunner Craig Mazin, who garnered critical acclaim for HBO’s haunting limited series Chernobyl, and written by the game’s writer/director Neil Druckmann, is a heart-wrenchingly impressive 80-minute debut that brilliantly expounds upon our main characters’ lives past and present, along with digging deep into the psychological effects of trauma that come with living in a post-pandemic world.

So let’s get into the first episode together, shall we?


When the show opens, it’s 1968. (No doubt a tongue-in-cheek reference to the debut year of legendary horror filmmaker George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.) Two epidemiologists, Dr. Neuman and Dr. Schoenheiss (played by Transplant’s John Hanna and Peacemaker’s Christopher Heyerdahl, respectively), are being interviewed by a talk show host (Silicon Valley’s Josh Brener) about the hypothetical contagiousness of incurable viruses that are thought to be nontransmissible to humans. Schoenheiss is more concerned about actual airborne pathogens that, if caught, could spread quickly via airplane travel and cause a global pandemic. (Hmm, where have we heard that one before?)  But Neuman, a little more conspiratorial, asks the audience to consider the effects that global warming could have on naturally occurring, non-threatening fungus by turning the fungi into a weapon that can dominate the entire human race with no hope for a cure. “There are some fungi that seek not to kill, but to control,” Neuman says in reference to the real-life zombie-like effects of Cordyceps on ants, in which the fungus, harmless to humans, takes over the bodies of dead ants and reanimates them indefinitely. The audience grows silent, and the host plays along with Neuman’s grim hypothetical situation by asking, what would happen to humanity if a non-threatening substance mutated into something deadly? Neuman simply turns to the camera and says, “we lose.”

Nothing to worry about at all, right? Right?!


Before the impending apocalypse resumes, a very ominous and melodic theme song composed by Gustavo Santaolalla plays over title credits that are reminiscent of the falling domino effects seen in the opening credits of other HBO hits like Game of Thrones and House of The Dragon, except here spores and fungus trails bloom. When the title cards end, we’re thrown into a relatively normal day in 2003 in Austin, Texas, during the post-9/11 height of Bush-era patriotism. (This is demonstrated throughout this section of the episode by showcasing the overpopulation of decorative American flags, a Gore/Liberman t-shirt, religious neighbors and even a photo of George W. Bush enshrined in a school classroom.) 

Here we are introduced to Sarah (Nico Parker), a sassy teen with a cheerful disposition who wants nothing more than to make a special birthday breakfast—while listening to Avril Lavigne’s “Tomorrow”—for her father Joel (played by Pascal, everyone’s favorite internet daddy). Over breakfast, the pair share formulaic—but funny—father-daughter quips. She makes him drink orange juice over coffee; he tells her that there’s too many eggshells in their scrambles. It’s cute, almost too cute. Which, of course, means we will soon have to brace ourselves for upcoming terror. As the pair get ready for the day ahead of them, they are joined by Joel’s brother and construction partner Tommy (Gabriel Luna), who rambles on about some difficult job that is going to occupy the majority of their day, meaning that Sarah won’t be able to really hang out with her dad as much as she thought. As they make arrangements for a birthday cake, an ominous news report from their kitchen radio mentions a mysterious outbreak in Jakarta. 

Later in the day, Sarah finishes school and heads to a local repair shop to fix up her dad’s favorite old watch as a birthday present. However, as Sarah makes small talk with the repairman, a flurry of cop cars and ambulances pass by the shop window, along with overhead sounds from rushing helicopter blades. Sarah is then pushed out of the shop once the watch is fixed by the shopkeeper’s wife, who is frantically adamant about ending work for the day. Because her father is still out on his construction job, Sarah goes over to spend some time with her neighbors, The Adlers, where a middle-aged couple, Connie and Danny, care for Nana, a sickly older woman. While doing her homework, Sarah feels a sense of unease coming from Nana’s direction as she sits unresponsive in the living room. For some reason, the Adlers’ dog won’t stop whining and growling at Nana. Sarah takes that as a sign to leave and heads back home to wait for her dad. 

Joel and Sarah’s quiet night of celebrations is disrupted when Tommy calls to ask his brother to bail him out of jail after defending a few bar patrons from a guy who suddenly started attacking people. Sarah, who fell asleep while watching a movie with her dad, wakes up in the middle of the night all alone to the loud sound of sirens, helicopters and pedestrian screams. Walking outside, Sarah is greeted by flashing lights and abnormal neighborhood chaos. Suddenly approached by the Adlers’ dog, she follows it back to their home only to find that Connie and Danny have become human hamburger meat for Nana, who gnaws at their flesh with a mouth full of a creepy batch of tendril-esque fungus strings. Sarah runs out to the front yard. And not a moment too soon, Tommy and Joel pull up in their truck, beat up Nana (sorry, Nana), load Sarah in the backseat, and put the pedal to the metal in the direction of the nearest highway. 

Tommy and Joel share what little they know about the rapidly unfolding situation as they drive past corpses, burning buildings and other confused escapees. “It’s not just the Adlers,” Tommy says. “They’re saying it’s a virus, some kind of parasite.”  Unfortunately for the crew, the highways are blocked and the military has started quarantine blockades along the town’s primary exits. Oh no, they’re trapped. Joel urges Tommy to go off-roading, but their hopeful attempt leads them to the downtown district, where everything has descended into pandemonium. Cars are crashing, buildings are burning and hordes of townsfolk run frantically through the streets while trying to dodge infected individuals. Suddenly, as Joel and Tommy try to escape the madness, a plane falls from the sky, releasing shrapnel that generates a large explosion that demolishes their truck. Despite blacking out and suffering great personal injury, we have not seen the last of them. (Sorry.) While Tommy surveys the impending chaos and bloodshed of the infected feasting on others, Joel tends to Sarah, whose broken ankle is a causality of the collapsing world around them. Joel, tasked with carrying Sarah, is split up from Tommy when one of the infected chases them through back alleys and doorways. Thankfully, a nearby military officer saves them by shooting the threat, but unfortunately, their moment of peace is short-lived. Due to the onset of paranoia and lack of knowledge about how the virus spreads, Joel and the injured Sarah are seen as targets. The officer is given orders to kill the two, even though they show no signs of infection. Joel attempts to plead with him, but Sarah is shot in the ensuing struggle. As a result, Sarah dies in Joel’s arms. Joel is left heartbroken and devastated. 


Cut to a twenty-year time jump that finally places us in present-day Boston in 2023. This new post-apocalyptic world is bleak. Amongst the rubble of dilapidated high rises and broken streets overgrown with vines and rust are the heavily fortified walls of the Boston quarantine zone (“QZ” for short). Here, the remaining police force, known as FEDRA, has morphed into violent and oppressive gun-toting overlords that mostly spend their time looking for survivors to join their regime to help stomp out their rebel adversaries known as the Fireflies (more on them later). As for regular citizens? Life is miserable. Survivors take chores burning dead bodies, sweeping streets and maintaining the town sewage, all for meager wages in the form of ration cards. Worst of all, if they don’t comply with the strict rules and confines of the QZ, they are jailed or hanged in a public execution. Zero chill. 

We also see that in the two-decade time jump, the surviving world has learned: Firstly, the disease is, in fact, a mutation of the parasitic fungus Cordyceps. It turns out Dr. Neuman was right!  Secondly, indications of infection include muscle spasms, coughing, slurred speech and mood change. And lastly, the rate of infection varies depending on which area of the body was bitten. It can set in as quickly as 5 mins to 24 hours. (This will come in handy later). 

Now that that’s been established, we catch up with a 56-year-old Joel sporting salt-and-pepper hair, vacant eyes, and a hardened disposition. In the QZ, he and his romantic partner, Tess (Anna Torv), work as top-notch smugglers selling pills to a guard that shares classified intel on supplies and ongoing tensions between FEDRA and the Fireflies. Joel is particularly interested in acquiring a car that the guard has access to, but because the battery is dead, his partner Tess has to make a risky deal for one with a different scummy smuggler named Robert. A fight ensues after Tess’s deal with Robert goes south when he reneges on his promise to secure a car battery, but it’s soon interrupted by an explosion of rocks caused by a nearby car bomb and gunfight spurred by the Fireflies against FEDRA. Later, Tess tells Joel the bad news about the car battery. We then find out how it relates to Joel’s depression and his current mission. Tommy has been missing for nearly a month after making a trek to Wyoming, and Joel, worried about him, wants to snag a vehicle to search for him. Joel, desperate for a battery and thirsty for vengeance against the lying Robert, plots to track down who he sold the previously claimed battery to instead and steal it back for themselves. 

Meanwhile, in a building occupied by Fireflies somewhere in the zone, we are introduced to a rowdy teenager named Ellie (Ramsey) chained to a radiator. The reason for this? She was found bitten after escaping a FEDRA military school. Nevertheless, the Fireflies scooped Ellie up and subjected her to numerous daily tests to determine if she was infected. After some time passes and Ellie remains unchanged, Marlene (Merle Dandridge, reprising her role from the video game series), the leader of the Boston Firefly faction, resigns herself to the fact that Ellie is fine. In fact, she thinks of Ellie’s inexplicable immunity as having “a greater purpose than any of us could have ever imagined,” she tells Ellie. Marlene devises a plan to take Ellie out of the QZ and head west to a place that could allegedly study her for an infection-resistant cure. The only problem with this plan is that it requires launching a series of incendiary attacks to cause a diversion, like the one that interrupted Tess and Robert earlier, to escape FEDRA successfully. 

Suddenly, Joel and Tess’ revenge plan for the battery leads them to the Firefly building, but when they arrive, they find Robert dead and a slew of injured Fireflies, one of them being Marlene. As it turns out, the Fireflies were the ones Robert decided to sell the battery to instead of Tess, but after discovering the battery’s corrosion, Marlene realized Robert was lying about the useless battery and refused the sale. Just moments before Joel and Tess’ arrival, a firefight ensued between Robert and the Fireflies that resulted not only in injuries and casualties but also alerted FEDRA to their secret base camp. This is a huge problem. 

Luckily for Marlene, when Joel bursts in looking for an enemy, all he found was an old friend of his brother. We find out that sometime in the twenty-year gap, Tommy joined the Fireflies, and this caused a major rift between the brothers that led to them splitting up over time. Marlene uses this strained connection to convince Joel and Tess to usher Ellie to the remaining Firefly faction near the Massachusetts State House outside the QZ. At first, Joel is reluctant as smuggling a teenager interferes with his plans to find Tommy. But Marlene assures him that if Ellie arrives safely to the State House, the Fireflies will give them all the supplies they need to find Tommy. Joel and Tess agree, but they make it clear that if Marlene is lying, they will kill Ellie. As you can guess, Ellie is understandably not thrilled by this situation. 

Cut to Joel and Tess’ apartment, where Ellie and Joel recoup and wait for the sun to go down while Tess is on a reconnaissance mission planning their moves to break outside the QZ walls unscathed. Curious about why Marlene would risk her life for Ellie, Joel half-jokingly asks, “You some kind of bigwig’s daughter or something?” To which Ellie coyly responds, “Something like that.”   

While Joel naps, Ellie discovers that Joel and his network of dealers use the songs on the radio to communicate messages. She finds that a song from the ‘60s means no luck in finding supplies, and a song from the ‘70s means they did find supplies, but she’s unsure what songs from the ‘80s signify. When Joel finally rouses from his sleep, Ellie plays a trick on him by falsely saying that his radio played Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” while he slept. Joel’s face, twisted in concern by this song choice, unintentionally indicates to Ellie that the ‘80s must mean trouble. Joel shows disdain at being outmaneuvered by a 14-year-old. 

Upon Tess’ arrival back at the apartment, the trio gear up and carefully sneak out to the restricted area bypassing numerous FEDRA patrols and searchlights. It’s a pretty tense situation considering that if they all get caught, it will mean automatic execution by hanging. Just as they reach the final edge of the zone that separates them from the free-roaming territory, they are spotted by an officer. Running on pure adrenaline, Joel tries to figure out a plan of attack; however, he realizes that the interrogating officer is the one he sells pills to. He begins to relax, if only for a moment. In the world’s biggest betrayal, Officer Pill-Popper treats them as hostiles. Despite their pleas for safe passage, he subjects them to infection testing via a handheld scanner. Green means you’re not infected and red means you’re infected. Joel and Tess pass the test with high marks, but Ellie, fearing her secret being exposed, stabs the officer, which causes him to draw his gun on them. Seeing the sight of a gun pointed at Ellie immediately reactivates Joel’s trauma from losing his daughter at the hands of a militant soldier. Entranced in a blind rage, Joel tackles the guard and beats his face into a bloody pulp. 

Meanwhile, Tess catches a glimpse of the blaring red scanner and aims to inflict harm on Ellie. Ellie insists that she’s not infected. Tess tries to get Joel’s attention, but he’s too far gone to really understand what is happening. Ellie then displays the bite wound on her arm that she claims is three weeks old. Tess doesn’t believe her. Joel is stuck thinking about his daughter. Ellie tries to explain her immunity, but Tess and Joel can hear more FEDRA soldiers coming their way. They’ll have to decide Ellie’s fate later. Joel snaps out of his stupor and leads the two through a fence to the crumbling capital city leading to the State House. 

As the trio walk into the freedom of the wild, unmanned terrain, we briefly return to Joel’s QZ apartment, where the radio turns on to play Depeche Mode’s 1987 hit “Never Let Me Down Again,” indicating that their mission to deliver Ellie is doomed.  What will fate have in store for Joel, Tess and Ellie in the next episode?

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