Prepare never to look at a piece of mushroom pizza the same way again.
HBO’s The Last of Us, based on the very popular video game of the same name, is a survival tale set in a post-apocalyptic America that has been gutted by a sweeping infection. An fungus known as Cordyceps infiltrates humanity, turning the organism’s many victims into zombie-like creatures bent on mindlessly making more of their kind.
The outbreak of this pandemic is horrifying, but wait ‘til you see what happens roughly 20 years later. Don’t worry — I’ll be with you as you read on on for the highlights of Episode 1.
HE WARNED YA! | The series opens with footage from a 1968 talk show. Two epidemiologists discuss the possibility of a global pandemic; one worries about a virus’ spread, but the other says fungi are the real danger. “There are some fungi that seek not to kill, but to control,” he says, pointing to examples of fungi that can infect insects. The first epidemiologist scoffs that that’s not possible in humans, but the second says it wouldn’t take much — the world getting a little warmer, for instance — for norms to change. He mentions Cordyceps as one of the fungi capable of evolving and “burrowing into our brains and taking control” of billions of people. The worst part? There’d be no treatments, no preventative measures and no cures.
In short, if that hypothetical fungal takeover happens? “We lose,” the epidemiologist says.
THE BEFORETIMES | Cut to 2003, as a teenage girl wakes up at home in Austin, Texas, then wakes her dad and makes him breakfast for his 36th birthday. The girl is Sarah (played by Dumbo’s Nico Parker), her dad is Joel (The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal) and they’re pretty much all each other has — plus Tommy (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Gabriel Luna), Joel’s brother who swings by that morning. Sarah laments that her dad is going to work a double construction shift on his birthday, and in the background, a radio report hints that there’s some sort of trouble brewing in Jakarta.
Before Sarah leaves for school, she nips into Joel’s room and grabs his watch and some cash. It’s Sept. 26, we learn via an on-screen graphic. Later, Sarah takes the bus to a clock shop to have the watch fixed. The dread starts to build as police cars, fire trucks and SWAT vehicles scream by. Then a worried-looking woman comes out of the back of the shop and announces that they’re closing — now — and rushes Sarah out, advising her to go straight home.
Sarah winds up at her neighbors’ house, doing homework and making cookies while hanging out with Mr. and Mrs. Adler and their elderly, dementia-suffering relative. Everything seems normal until, while Sarah has her back turned while picking out a DVD, the old lady starts to convulse in a very horror-movie type of way. But by the time an oblivious Sarah turns back from the shelf, the woman appears normal again. As Sarah says goodbye and heads home, a fighter jet flies low overhead. Hm. Weird.
That night, Sarah gives her dad the repaired watch. He teases her that she gifted him something he already owned, and she used his money to fix it. “It’s the thought that counts, and you were never going to do it for yourself,” she says, and despite the ribbing, you can tell he’s touched. They settle in to watch the DVD she borrowed from the Adlers, but she falls asleep. And when Tommy calls from jail, needing to be bailed out after a bar brawl, Joel carries his daughter to bed and kisses her head before leaving to help his brother.
IT HAS BEGUN | Sarah wakes a little after 2 am and hears helicopters passing outside. In quick succession, she realizes Joel isn’t there, turns on the TV to find the national alert system broadcasting on every channel, and goes out into the front yard to see what the Adlers’ dog is barking at. She returns the pooch to its home, but it won’t go inside. And when Sarah enters the open door after hearing breaking glass, she nearly slips in the blood that’s pooled on the floor.
Mr. Adler is near the back door, hurt. Shocked, Sarah walks toward him… and that’s when she sees the old woman feeding on Mrs. Adler, terrible tube-like sucker thingees protruding from the elderly woman’s mouth. She comes after Sarah, who flees. Thank GOODNESS Joel and Tommy drive up just then. Tommy shoots the woman but she gets up a moment later; Joel is able to incapacitate her by braining her with a wrench.
As a relieved Joel hugs Sarah and tells her “we’re gonna be brave,” it’s confirmed: Something VERY bad is happening all around them. They hop in the truck with Tommy and try to get out of the city, where the bulk of the badness seems to be taking place. (Fans of the game will notice that, despite some obvious changes, there are certain sequences that pay loving homage to the original; the frantic ride here is one of ‘em.) Tommy mows down people in his way. Joel makes the call that they’re not going to stop and help a family that needs a ride. The road out of town is completely blocked by traffic. And eventually, Joel & Co. run into a military blockade. Joel quickly improvises a plan to get around it and go to Mexico. But… “Maybe it’s everywhere,” Sarah says quietly. We don’t have long to contemplate that horrible prospect before a honking huge, major carrier, what-would-you-like-from-the-beverage-cart jet crash-lands on the road behind them, pieces of the wreckage shooting into the truck. Everything goes black.
SARAH’S SAD EXIT | When Sarah comes to, she looks out the window and sees one of the infected eating someone else like it’s closing time at Golden Corral. Joel gets her out of the vehicle but her ankle is messed up. As he’s trying to form a new plan, a police car crashes into their truck and suddenly there’s fire everywhere. Tommy is OK but he’s stuck on the other side of the wreck; he shouts that he’ll meet them at the river. Joel scoops up Sarah, tells her to keep her eyes on him, and they take off.
They pass an alley full of infected creating more infected. When Joel pauses too long to look on in horror, a very fast infected man follows him. The chase ends when a soldier takes down the infected man with a bullet. Joel shouts to the soldier that he and Sarah aren’t sick, but the soldier ignores him as he radios into command and receives orders. Joel is still shouting that they’re not sick when the soldier fires on them. Joel and Sarah hit the ground, and the soldier follows a minute later when Tommy kills the man just as he’s about to kill Joel.
Real bad news, though: Sarah took a bullet in the abdomen. Joel tries to pick her up, calling her “baby” and murmuring that it’s going to be OK, but it’s not: She dies. Joel hugs her body to him and cries. (Side note: This is heartbreaking. HOW DO I CARE THIS MUCH ABOUT THESE PEOPLE SO QUICKLY?) Also: Check out what Parker has to say about shooting Sarah’s final moments.)
TIME FLIES WHEN YOU’RE DODGING INFECTED | The action then jumps to Boston, about 20 years after Outbreak Day. The city is in ruins. Heavily guarded walls encircle a quarantine zone — aka the area where survivors live — and the military Federal Disaster Response Agency, or FEDRA, is in charge. There’s a strict curfew. The buildings within the QZ are in ruins. Ration cards are currency. Unauthorized entry or exit from the QZ is punishable by public hanging. From signs on the walls, we can see that Cordyceps infection symptoms are coughing, slurred speech, muscle spasms and mood change. How long it takes to be fully infected depends on where on the body you’re bitten. Leg or foot? You’ve got up to a day to put your affairs in order. Neck, head or face? Fifteen minutes, tops.
Those who are bitten are killed, their bodies burned. And when we see this practice in action, we realize that one of the people carrying out the cremation is Joel. Sarah’s dad, who is looking greyer, grimmer and more beat-down than when we last saw him, apparently also does some business on the QZ’s black market. As he trades a FEDRA soldier some pills for a stack of ration cards, the soldier warns him to stay off the streets for a couple of days, because a resistance group known as the Fireflies have been blowing things up, and everyone’s on edge. Later, we see Fireflies graffiti on a wall: “When you’re in darkness, look for the light.”
MEET TESS | Next, we meet Tess (played by Fringe’s Anna Torv), who’s getting the tar beat out of her by two goons in a dark room. From their conversation, it sounds like their deal for a truck battery went sideways. But before we get too deep into specifics, there’s an explosion that takes out one of the walls of the room they’re in. When Tess gets to her feet, one of the guys keeping her captive is dead. The blast came from a bomb placed in a jeep nearby, which has FEDRA soldiers running to the scene. “I’m not a Firefly!” Tess yells, hands up in surrender, as some of them tackle and handcuff her.
While that’s going on, Joel is worrying about Tommy: He hasn’t heard from his brother in three weeks, which is alarming, because it normally takes him no longer than a day to respond. He gets intel that Tommy likely is in Wyoming, which is smack in the middle of a lot of really bad stuff: infected, raiders, slavers and the like. Back at his apartment — which definitely looks like it survived an apolcalypse, but just barely — Joel has a drink or four, takes some pills and falls into bed, where we see he’s still wearing the watch Sarah fixed, even though it’s in rough shape. At some point, Tess comes home, crawls into bed and spoons him.
When he wakes, she’s cooking. He’s not happy that she’s hurt or that she’s been in FEDRA lockup all day, and he’s real mad when he hears that the guy they were trying to buy a battery from sold it to someone else. The battery is necessary for their transportation to go find Tommy, he reminds her, but she tells him to calm down, and they’ll figure out another way.
ELLIE HAS ENTERED THE CHAT | Elsewhere, at the local Fireflies haven, a teen girl is chained up in a room. Her name is Ellie (Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey), and her presence is the reason that every Firefly in the Boston QZ is going to leave, permanently, that evening. They’re led by a woman named Marlene (Merle Dandridge, who voiced the character in the game), and they’re planning to take the girl west. When Marlene visits Ellie, we find out that Ellie was placed in a FEDRA military school when she was a baby. Marlene informs Ellie that she was behind that decision. “You have a greater purpose than any of us could ever have imagined. So we’re leaving tonight, and we’re taking you with us.” Then she shares some important intel with the girl… but we don’t hear it (yet).
OUT IN THE GREAT WIDE OPEN | Joel and Tess make their way outside the QZ to take back their battery. On the way, they come across a dead man whose infection progressed to the point where he’s essentially glued to the wall by the fungus. Gross! Yet cool! Turns out, the guy who screwed them over about the battery also screwed over Marlene and the Fireflies, and there’s been a shootout that killed a bunch of people and wounded Marlene.
Still, she’s able to pull a gun on Joel when he pulls one on Ellie. There’s some bad blood between Joel and Marlene; he accuses her and the Fireflies of turning Tommy against him. But Marlene needs Joel to get over that, and quickly, because they’ve got something to sort before FEDRA shows up: There’s a team of Fireflies waiting at the State House, and she doesn’t have the manpower or transportation to get there. “What I do have is you, and I know what you’re both capable of, for better or worse,” she tells Tess and Joel. (Ha to Ellie’s, “What are they capable of?” A valid question!)
Marlene offers a deal: Tess and Joel get Ellie to the State House, they’ll get the transportation they need. After some discussion, Joel and Tess agree. They stop by the apartment, where Ellie quickly cracks the code that Joel and his compatriots use to send messages via songs on the radio (in short: ‘80s music means trouble). She also manages to tick off a very gruff Joel approximately 500 times in the space of just a few minutes. And things are relatively chill until they get caught near the wall by the same guard Joel sold drugs to earlier in the episode. As the soldier tries to scan Ellie to see if she’s infected, she loses her mind. Joel gets between them, has a flashback to the night Sarah died, and goes absolutely motherflipping bananas on the guy.
After Joel has beaten the FEDRA dude’s face into a paste, Tess notices that Ellie’s meter is red, indicating that she’s infected! Tess immediately wants to kill the kid, but Ellie protests that she was bitten on the arm three weeks ago and hasn’t turned yet. She adds that they’ll get caught if they don’t run soon, and when a dazed Joel comes back to himself a little he grabs the guard’s gun and follows the women through a hole in a chain-link fence. A sign on the fence reads: “Biological containment area, do not proceed.”
At Joel’s empty apartment, the radio comes on. Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” is playing: ‘80s music, which means bad things a-comin’. As the episode closes, we watch Tess, Ellie and Joel make their way into the ruins of downtown Boston.
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the premiere? If you’re a fan of the game, how did the show match up? Grade it via the poll below, then hit the comments with your thoughts!