The Last of Us series premiere review: “When You’re Lost in the Darkness”

The Last of Us. Photograph by Shane Harvey/HBO.
The Last of Us. Photograph by Shane Harvey/HBO. /

If there is anything Hollywood has proven to us time and time again, it’s that adapting video games into television and film is really difficult. But HBO has proven that it can be done successfully with its latest series, The Last of Us.

Already being called one of the greatest video game adaptations ever made, the post-apocalyptic series is all the evidence you need that these stories can make the jump successfully. The Last of Us is a labor of love crafted by people passionate about the game and the story. I think fans of the game will be very pleased with this show.

Spoilers ahead for The Last of Us Episode 1

The Last of Us series premiere sets the stage for the eventual pandemic with a flashback to a televised interview with two epidemiologists in 1968. They discuss the potential for a global pandemic and why it’s so terrifying (ha ha).

Most people fear disease stemming from microorganisms and bacteria, but one of the scientists points out that fungus is the real threat. He’s met with skeptical laughter from the studio audience and the host but continues to make his point.

What is LSD but a form of fungus? Some fungi do not seek to kill but to control, slowly taking over their host’s mind to create a sinister puppeteer/marionette kinship. The other scientist argues that people don’t need to worry. Fungi can’t survive in a host with a body temperature above 94 degrees, and they have no reason to evolve and adapt.

But what if the world warmed up? Then there would be a reason for the fungi to evolve. Cordyceps, for instance, could become capable of burrowing into human brains and controlling billions of people, permanently poisoning minds across the globe and spreading the infection by any means necessary. There are no treatments. No cures. If that happened, humanity would likely lose.

Happy birthday, Joel

We meet Joel (Pedro Pascal) and his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) in 2003. It’s fitting that this segment begins with a reference to the first game’s title screen: a close-up of a window. There is one noticeable change from the games; now they take place in 2003 and 2023, respectively, instead of 2013 and 2033.

It’s September 26, 2003, Joel’s birthday. He and Sarah are living in Austin, Texas, and Joel works as a contractor with his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna). While her dad works, Sarah attends school and hangs out with their neighbors, an elderly couple, and their caretaker, Mrs. Adler. On this particular day, Sarah detours to a shop in town to fix Joel’s watch for him as a birthday gift.

The shopkeeper’s wife interrupts the exchange in a panic, advising Sarah to hurry home. It’s one of the first signs that something is amiss. Then, when Sarah is at her neighbor’s house, her catatonic neighbor Connie starts convulsing. Sarah doesn’t notice, but their dog, Mercy, is highly disturbed.

That night, Sarah gifts Joel his fixed watch, and they watch a movie together. Tommy interrupts their bonding time with a phone call. He’s in jail and needs Joel to pick him up. Seeing as Sarah fell asleep during the movie, Joel opts to leave her at home while he goes to pick up Tommy, and that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Sarah wakes up a few hours later to sirens, jets, and all kinds of eerie and alarming noises outside. A panicked Mercy shows up at the door, leading Sarah to the Adler house to investigate. Connie has transformed into something horrific, killing her husband and Mrs. Adler. Terrified, Sarah retreats toward her house just as Joel returns with Tommy in tow. Connie comes charging at the trio and Joel beats her down with a wrench.

Once Tommy, Sarah, and Joel are in the truck, Joel reveals that whatever is happening to Connie is happening to people all over the city. News broadcasts are saying it’s a virus or parasite.

Let’s take a second to appreciate how this entire opening sequence was filmed, paying particular attention to the scenes in the truck. It’s almost identical to the opening of The Last of Us, and it was essential for the show to get this part right because it sets the tone for the rest of the story. I’m particularly impressed with everything filmed inside the truck, primarily from Sarah’s perspective. Joel tries to escape the city, and everything becomes increasingly chaotic everywhere they go until they crash and get separated. Choreographed to perfection with long, unbroken takes, the tension builds flawlessly.

Sarah hurts her ankle in the car crash and Joel is forced to carry her the rest of the way. Blocked off from Tommy, he and Joel agree to meet up again near the river. The father-daughter pair barely make it out of the city, deftly avoiding the infected. Just before they reach the river, they’re stopped by an armed soldier. Despite telling him they’re not infected, the soldier receives orders to shoot them anyway. He fires off several rounds, clipping Joel in the stomach and hitting Sarah. Before the guard can shoot them again, Tommy arrives and kills him. But it’s too late for Sarah.

Look for the light

In 2023, Joel is a smuggler in Boston’s quarantine zone, an area controlled by the last remnants of the United States government known as the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA). It’s all very dystopian. They round up people who try to desert the quarantine zone and kill them in public executions.

A rebel group known as the Fireflies, led by a woman named Marlene (Merle Dandridge), is actively trying to take down FEDRA. The Fireflies have a young girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in captivity for reasons unknown.

Admidst this, Joel is doing everything he can to get his hands on a car battery. He’s already paid for a truck by exchanging drugs and other hard-to-find resources, but the truck isn’t going to go far without a battery. As in 2003, Joel needs to find Tommy. He’s in contact with a guy who runs the local radio broadcasts to keep tabs on his brother, who apparently is out in Wyoming.

It’s been weeks since Joel last heard from Tommy, who usually doesn’t take more than a day or so to respond. Joel and his partner Tess (Anna Torv) plan to drive to the radio tower to look for him. But there’s a problem. An arms dealer named Robert was supposed to sell the battery to Joel and Tess but instead sold it to Marlene and the Fireflies. Joel and Tess are pissed. They plan to break into the Fireflies’ safehouse to get it back and kill Robert and his guys in the process.

Meanwhile, Ellie tries to escape from her chains. She notices graffiti on the wall: “When you’re lost in the darkness.” That’s also the title of the episode and the first half of the Fireflies’ slogan. The full quote is: “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.”

Marlene visits Ellie, revealing she knows who she is and her real name. Marlene is the one who enlisted Ellie in FEDRA’s military school, hoping it would keep her safe. She tells Ellie that she will protect her, but they need to get her out of the quarantine zone.

Joel and Tess arrive in the aftermath of a firefight between Robert’s guys and Marlene. Marlene gets injured in the fight, leaving her unable to smuggle Ellie out of the QZ. She tasks Joel with taking Ellie with him in exchange for a better truck, a new battery, and other valuable resources. It’s not ideal, but by accepting the offer, Joel and Tess will have a much better chance of making it to Tommy, so they don’t really have a choice. The deal is that they get their stuff and then hand over Ellie, though Tess assures Marlene that if they don’t give them what they want, they’ll kill the girl. Marlene is confident her team will do whatever it takes to get Ellie into safe hands. She’s too important to risk anything else.

Joel and Tess take Ellie back to their safehouse, where they wait until nightfall to leave. While waiting, Ellie finds a book of Billboard Top 100 hits and a code inside. She figures out that when the radio plays songs from the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s, it’s a secret message, but the note doesn’t indicate what it means when the radio plays a song from the ’80s, and Joel refuses to tell her.

When Joel wakes up from his nap, Ellie lies and says the radio played the 1984 Wham! song “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Joel is disturbed, and Ellie realizes that a song from the ’80s spells trouble. Code solved.

Once night falls, the trio tries to leave the quarantine zone. Similar to the opening, this entire sequence is straight from the video game, with them sneaking around through the ravine and cement pipes while stealthily avoiding the security guards and their flashlights.

Just before they make it out, they get caught by one of a guard with whom Joel has previously made trades. They’re no longer on the same team, and the guard pulls a gun on them. Joel has an ugly flashback to an eerily similar moment from 2003, the last time he tried protecting a young girl. Not wanting a repeat, Joel attacks the guard, beating him to a bloody pulp.

One of the cordyceps censors used by the guards to determine if people are sick falls near Ellie’s leg in the skirmish. The scanner gets a reading on her, and the results freak out Tess. The censor indicates that Ellie is infected, but Ellie assures her she’s okay. Yes, she has a bite, but it’s three weeks old. Now we know why Marlene was fighting so hard to keep Ellie safe. She’s immune!

The trio makes it out of the quarantine zone. In the episode’s final moments, we return to the safe house and the radio, which stars playing “Never Let Me Down Again” by Depeche Mode, a song from 1987, meaning there is trouble ahead.

Odds and Ends

  • Sarah and Joel watch the fictional film Curtis and Viper 2, one of Joel’s favorite movies in the game.
  • Marlene mentions Riley while talking to Ellie! Riley was Ellie’s love interest and close friend who wanted to be part of the Fireflies. Ellie calls the group terrorists, but Marlene counters with: “Was Riley a terrorist?”

Grade: A-

Next. 37 fantasy and sci-fi shows to look forward to in 2023. dark

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