When You’re Lost in the Darkness
Episode 1 of The Last Of Us begins with a speech about viral outbreaks and pandemics in the 60’s. The biggest threat isn’t bacteria though, and according to this doctor it’s fungi. It’s an eye-opening speech, one that basically discusses Ophiocordyceps camponoti-floridani (try saying that fast 10 times). The gist is, this fungi can turn its host into a puppet with the puppet master (the fungi itself) pulling the strings and controlling its host. It’s a scary prospect… and one that forms the basis for our tale.
In September 26th 2003, we catch up with Joel and his daughter Sarah. Despite it being Joel’s birthday, he’s intent on pulling a double at work. He promises Sarah he’ll be home at 9. Before she leaves, Sarah takes a watch and a stack of cash from the upstairs drawer.
After school, Sarah has the watch fixed up, explaining the money. However, police flying by the shop in their patrol cars is enough to spook the shop owner’s wife, who hurriedly shuts up shop and tells her to leave.
After stopping by her neighbour’s place to bake some cookies, an unnerving moment involving Connie – the wheelchair-bound woman – sees her start to contort and twist awkwardly. Thankfully Sarah manages to get out before things really kick off, and before she actually sees this take place too.
Back home, Joel is given his birthday present- that watch Sarah had fixed up earlier in the episode. The entire scene is beat for beat the same as the game and it’s beautifully done. However, later that evening Joel’s phone starts buzzing. It’s his brother, Tommy. He’s in Travis County Jail after starting a fight with some guy swinging at a waitress going mad. If he doesn’t get Tommy out now then he’ll be stuck all weekend. Sighing heavily, Joel heads off and leaves Sarah in bed.
When Sarah awakens, alone, a National Broadcast tells everyone to stay inside. So naturally, Sarah decides to go out and investigate her neighbours. Connie is on the floor, feeding and very clearly infected. Sarah bolts out the house when she notices tendrils in her mouth, just as Joel shows up with Tommy.
The pair scramble out and drive off, past Jimmy’s place that’s completely burned up. Joel drives past a family needing help (all of this is very familiar with the game, right?) and eventually into the heart of town. Their original play to get out goes completely awry, especially when a jet plane crashes down onto the road.
Joel scoops up Sarah and takes off when they regain consciousness, but just before one of the infected gets her, a soldier shoots him in the head. Tommy is gone, for now, while Sarah’s injury from the crash is a point of contention. Unfortunately, the soldier has instructions to shoot. After firing a barrage of bullets, he looks set to kill Joel until Tommy returns. As for Sarah, she’s fatally wounded. It’s no good, she’s dead.
We then jump forward 20 years later. We’re in Boston, 2023. A kid wanders into town and is picked up by authorities. He’s unfortunately infected and as such, injected with something that kills him outright. His body is picked up by Joel, who works burning bodies. He’s eking out a living, taking whatever jobs are going, and living in a tight-knit community.
Joel meets with a soldier who owes him ration cards. In exchange, he hands over pills that are apparently from all the way out in Atlanta. He also brings up the jittery nature of the soldiers, who have been under heavy fire from the Fireflies lately, a rebel group intent on cutting out this authoritarian rule from the government.
We also meet Tess, a woman who finds herself scrambling out a building after it blows up. Clearly this is the Fireflies’ doing, but there are soldiers on the streets fighting with this rebel group. Unfortunately, the police believe Tess is a Firefly and take her away.
Joel is still desperate to try and find Tommy in the wake of all this, as we learn the pair were actually separated earlier in the timeline. Joel is drinking heavily, popping pills and eventually is reunited with Tess. She’s been in FEDRA lock-up all day. Tess breaks the news that they need to get the car battery back, which Robert (the man she met earlier in the episode) has sold. In order to get the details, they need to find Robert, get the truck and then go and find Tommy.
Another character we’re introduced to here is Ellie (going by the name of Veronica). Marlene and the other Fireflies inside Boston are keeping her locked up but they intend to leave and head West with her, believing she’s their salvation. Now, Marlene heads upstairs and hands back Ellie’s bag, unlocking her cuffs and revealing her true name. Ellie calls Marlene a terrorist, who scoffs at the idea (even though its true) and goes on to tell Ellie crucial intel that could change everything.
Everything comes to a head when Tess and Joel run into Marlene and Ellie whilst trying to find Robert, who has screwed both groups and is lying dead on the floor. Marlene has been shot, off the back of a skirmish with Robert over the car battery. A car battery that’s faulty and absolutely no good.
Marlene points out that both Tess and Joel are more than capable of taking over her original mission of ferrying Ellie outside the city. The target here is the Old State House where other Fireflies are located. Heading there, Marlene promises they’ll have a car battery, guns and everything else they need.
Joel agrees and they head out in the dead of night. Unfortunately, they’re spotted by a soldier. The same soldier who Joel tried to make a deal with earlier in the episode. He checks each of them for infection, but Ellie stops him. When the guy points a gun at Joel, he flashes back to those horrible moments involving Sarah and kills him outright.
As for Ellie, it turns out she’s actually infected… but her wound is three weeks old and she’s actually immune. As they scramble out the city, they’re dwarfed by a skyscraper, sticking out like a giant tombstone in the eerie, rainy sky.
The Episode Review
The Last Of Us has been dubbed my many critics as the “best videogame adaptation of all time” and against Arcane, Castlevania and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, this one definitely has some lofty boots to fill. However, the first episode gets off to a decent start by adapting the source material well and fleshing out other areas that weren’t quite as clear in the games.
The only gripe here comes from the reveal with Ellie. The scene involving Marlene telling Ellie that she’s “important” and then hard-cutting off-screen feels way less impactful compared to the way it’s delivered in the game, mostly because the reveal with Ellie being the cargo Joel needs to take, and her being immune to infection (which is basically revealed at the end anyway) hits that much harder.
Beyond that though, there’s a really nice ebb and flow to this chapter and you can actually see exactly why this was condensed down from 10 to 9 episodes. It’s clear that this is basically two episodes in one, with the first half serving as the prologue with Sarah and the second half introducing Joel, Ellie and the main cast we’ll be following across the run-time.
Some of the scenes are actually beat-for-beat the same as the games (namely that involving Sarah and Joel on the sofa with the watch) are a nice touch, while other scenes like Tess speaking with Robert before being blown up, feel like they could have been edited out of this completely to avoid bloat.
This is a solid start for HBO’s adaptation but it’s way too early to be casting judgment on this one. The real test will be whether the show manages to maintain this same level of authenticity to the source material when we’re knee-deep in the main plot 4 or 5 episodes down the line. So far so good though!