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‘The Last of Us’ Premiere Review: A loss, apocalypse, and hope

The first episode shows us the before and after of the Cordyceps infection and a possible way out.

Liane Hentscher/HBO

Warning: This review contains spoilers

The first The Last of Us game came out in 2013, but even then, most people should be familiar with apocalyptic sci-fi/horror lore. Even though we’ve had media like The Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, and The Walking Dead television universe, a virus that turns many humans into crazed zombies is incredibly far-fetched (and not scientifically possible, I hope?) However, the current global pandemic has put a different spin on things like that. What if the evolution of nature that we co-exist with (and, most times, take for granted) turns on us in a way we don’t understand and can’t combat. The first episode of The Last of Us’s television adaptation, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” begins with a warning during a talk show panel in 1968.

The discussion with “no cures” and “no treatments” might hit a little close to home as recently as two years ago. A scientist talks about fungus, alluding to the Cordyceps infection where it would be possible the sickness can invade human motor functions and eventually control them completely. Sounds terrifying, right? (it should). Well, the episode does its second of three shifts – moving us to 2003. Everything seems fine on the surface. We are introduced to Sarah (Nico Parker), her father Joel (Pedro Pascal), and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna). It is Joel’s birthday, and Sarah wants to do something nice for him, like going into town and fixing his watch.

This is where the build-up of something seeming off comes into play. There are a lot of sirens of ambulances and firetrucks going by. Low-level military planes are flying across the neighborhood. The wife of the watch clerk rushes Sarah out of the store due to some frantic news bulletins. There is an almost ominous piece of foreshadowing with a mute Ms. Adler at a neighbor's house – all taking place through Sarah’s eyes. It’s after she gives Joel the watch and he goes to try to bail out Tommy, where things all go to hell.

Writers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann add a little more story when the game picks up to show the audience how close Joel and Sarah are. There’s an impressive sequence right out of the game where all three characters try to drive out of town, and the camera is placed in the back seat. That way, you can see how manic the city has become as the infection takes over. Joel experiences the loss of his daughter due to a callous directive that a soldier orders. Even if you’ve played the game before, this scene hits close to the heart. It’s a moment that hardens Joel’s heart for years (understandably so).

Twenty years later, the world is in shambles. “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” becomes more interested in fortifying the human aspects of this new world. To show how dangerous this infection is, FEDRA (Federal Disaster Response Agency) wastes no time killing a child who somehow makes it to one of their settlements. (how sad is that?) Joel has to add the body to a burial plot to be burned. At this point, he’s haggard, looking for odd jobs that are given daily, and also plagued by nightmares of losing Sarah. He has a side gig selling drugs to a FEDRA soldier and is feared by various people within the quarantine zone.

While Joel has struck up a relationship with a woman named Tess (Anna Torv), his main focus is rescuing Tommy – who might be stuck in a tower in Wyoming. To do that, you got to have a truck, and to power that truck, you need a battery. Robert (Brendan Fletcher), an arms dealer, reveals himself as a grifter. Meanwhile, there’s a guerilla war between FEDRA and a rebellious group called the Fireflies. They continually attack the base and believe in restoring a way of life of democracy. They have somewhat of a point – why would someone want to live in a military base where they could be jailed and executed for any reason? However, Marlene (Merle Dandridge), head of the Fireflies, and Kim (Natasha Mumba) argue about their mission.

Well, it surrounds one girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) – a vulgar and self-assured young teenager that has every right to be mad to be handcuffed in a room. Marlene says, “you have a greater purpose than any of us could imagine.” Come to find out at the end of the episode; it’s a pretty damn big purpose. Ellie is shown to have immunity to the virus. Joel and Tess are tasked to take her to a Firefly outpost while on this rescue mission for Tommy. It was a nice touch to show Joel not allowing the same tragedy to happen again with Ellie. It will be a new experience for Ellie because, as she mentions, she’s “never been on the other side of the wall.” Joel’s hardened nature versus Ellie’s sarcastic, jokey personality will take us on a journey.

The first episode set the stage as far as where the narrative is going to go. Much of this episode is a direct translation from the game itself, but the actors bring it to the screen in a way that makes it come alive for both audiences. This 80-minute story struck a balance to show this new world's biological and political dangers.