The Last of Us Episode 1 achieves the impossible: adapting one of the greatest – if not the greatest – video games of all time with respect, flair, and reaching heart-breaking greatness.
The Last of Us comes from Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl helmer Craig Mazin, with the latter of whom describing the source material as the “best video game story ever.”
Quite a lot of pressure then, given the so-called video game curse that’s afflicted countless adaptations over the past three decades, whether it’s Super Mario Bros, Max Payne, World of Warcraft, or Mortal Kombat.
However, after successes on the small screen with The Witcher and Arcane, The Last of Us doesn’t just feel like a step forward: it’s a new dawn for the genre.
Spoilers for The Last of Us Episode 1 to follow…
The Last of Us Episode 1: We lose
We begin in 1968, with two experts discussing their fears for the next great pandemic. While one favors a new form of influenza, one that could travel from Madagascar to Chicago within weeks, Dr Newman (John Hannah) has a radical theory: fungus.
Viral infections don’t keep him up at night, because “we always win.” But what if our bodies evolved with the changing heat of the planet, allowing fungus the sustenance it requires to live in our bodies indefinitely? What if infections limited to ants could affect humans, with the fungus growing into our brains, filling them with hallucinogens, and devouring its host – all while keeping them alive to spread to “billions of puppets”, without any conceivable treatment?
This is the nightmare Dr Newman envisions, and he’s asked what would happen if such terror ever came to pass. “We lose,” he says, capping off the show’s chilling opening.
The episode shifts forward to 2003, with Sarah (Nico Parker) waking and cooking breakfast for her dad Joel (Pedro Pascal) on his birthday. Their dynamic is especially warm as their scenes develop, but not without its playfulness; he’s clearly a bit scatter-
brained, and she’s almost maternal. We also meet Tommy (Gabriel Luna), his hardy, rifle-toting brother.
In the background, mumblings of disturbances in Jakarta can be heard on the radio. They’re dismissed via blissful ignorance, but their idyllic, suburban Texas life is nearing its end. Throughout Sarah’s day, strange things happen: she notices coughs and odd movements in her classroom, she’s hastily ushered out of a watch repair shop, and her elderly neighbor twitches creepily behind her.
The Last of Us Episode 1: You knew this was coming
That night, Joel returns home later than he promises, without the cake he swore he’d get. Nevertheless, Sarah gives him his present: his fixed watch, paid for with his money. He doesn’t care about the cash, but his thank you is genuine and affecting. They cozy up to watch Curtis and Viper 2, but Joel receives a call from Tommy, who’s stuck in jail after getting into a scrap in a bar with someone who lost their mind.
Joel leaves to bail him out and puts Sarah to bed. She wakes a few hours later, and the world is ending. Flashes of violent green and fire filled her room, overheard aircraft roar below the clouds, and screams are punctuated with eerie silence around the nearby homes. When she goes into the Adlers’ home, she finds the same old woman in a far different state: chowing down on her daughter, with bloody tendrils sprouting out her mouth.
She chases Sarah out of the house, who’s saved by Joel and Tommy at the last minute. Joel beats her over the head with a wrench, and they attempt to flee the city – but everyone had the same idea. It’s here the show really leans into the visual makeup of the game, with the camera rotating around Sarah in the backseat as the carnage ramps up with every corner they turn.
It culminates in a plane crashing into the middle of the street – an awesome nod to Knowing – which causes their truck to crash. Sarah’s ankle is broken, panic is growing, and Joel and Tommy need a way out. Joel carries her and agrees to meet Tommy at the river, but they soon run into a herd of infected. One comes loose and chases them through a restaurant; thrashing, sprinting, and crashing into anything and everything.
They’re pursued outside, but bullets from a mystery savior save them – until they’re told to freeze. It’s a soldier, but Joel’s gratitude soon turns to worry. He assures him they’re not sick, but the soldier receives his orders, and tries to shoot them. Joel throws himself and Sarah into a ditch, and just before the soldier can finish the job, Tommy shoots him in the head.
“Oh god,” Tommy whimpers, as he sees Sarah gasping for air. Yes, Sarah dies in the show too, and it’s every bit as horrific – if not even more so – as the game. Parker’s performance is flawless in this scene; the desperation in her grabs and pants is heart-breaking, as is Pascal realizing what’s about to happen. She passes away, and he holds her in his arms. It wasn’t the infection that got her, it was the worst of us – but not the last.
The Last of Us Episode 1: America reborn… and regressed
We move forward to 2023, with a young boy stumbling toward modern-day Boston. It’s mostly overgrown and derelict, with the exception of the portion within the walls. He’s greeted by soldiers surprisingly warmly, with a kind FEDRA (Federal Disaster Response Agency) woman asking him where he got his wound.
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Behind him, a man tests him for Cordyceps, the name of the infection. The test comes back positive with a bright red light, but she doesn’t recoil in fear or disgust. “We’re gonna find your favorite food to eat,” she tells him, promising toys, clothes, and hope. This will be his last comfort, as we soon see Joel dumping his body onto a fire in the middle of the city, just along from the public hangings for unauthorized entries into and out of the quarantine zone.
It’s bleak, and immaculately staged; the sets are made up of ramshackle buildings decaying out of time and neglect. Priorities are different; clothes are dirtier, attitudes are curter. Money is out, ration cards are in. People incapable of labor, those with lost limbs from the infection, sit on the street.
Joel makes money smuggling pills for whoever can afford them, including a sleazy FEDRA soldier. “The more you shoot people, the harder it is to sleep, I guess,” he quips, but the soldier says he should stay off the streets over the next few nights, as some of the troops are getting a bit trigger-happy.
Meanwhile, Tess (Anna Torv) is being held captive by a rival smuggler, who looks rather nervous that his boys picked the wrong person. She pledges to leave them alone if he lets her go, but an explosion from a fight between FEDRA and the Fireflies (a rebellion group) rocks their building.
She eventually makes her way back to Joel’s apartment, where he drank himself to sleep while trying to figure out the journey to find Tommy, who went on a Fireflies run three weeks ago and hasn’t responded to any communication. Of course, the bourbon dulls the pain of the nightmares: memories of Sarah’s murder.
The Last of Us Episode 1: Meet Ellie
Over at the Fireflies base, Marlene (Merle Dandridge, reprising her role from the game) – the “Che Guevara of Boston” – tries to win over Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a young girl the rebels are holding captive. Not that she’s helpless: Ellie is lively and quick-witted, and the Game of Thrones star plays her with all the sweary, gutsy charm you’d expect. Those who decried her casting have quickly made themselves look like idiots.
They refuse to let her go home, and she doesn’t know why. “You have a greater purpose than any of us could have possibly imagined,” she tells her. Joel and Tess eventually arrive at the same base, where a fight has ensued with FEDRA troops. Marlene has been hit, and while she’ll live, she needs the duo to smuggle Ellie outside the wall to the Fireflies base at the old Capitol building. Hesitantly, with the promise of guns and a truck loaded with fuel, they agree to help.
While killing time in Joel’s home, we get another scene almost verbatim from the game. “What am I supposed to do?” Ellie asks. “I’m sure you’ll figure that out,” he tells her. They’re frosty, but over the course of a couple of minutes, their prickly chemistry is evident.
As they make their way out of the city under the cover of stormy clouds, crackling lightning, and torrential rain, Mazin and Druckmann allow the episode to go into full game mode – all that’s missing is an over-the-shoulder third-person shot. They crawl and sneak past scraps of cars and through rusty tubes, clearly inspired by the game’s level design, and it’d be nail-biting if I wasn’t so giddy.
Just as they’ve nearly made it, they’re caught by a FEDRA soldier – the same soldier Joel gets pills for. But he’s not in the mood to let them off, and forces all three of them to get down on their knees so he can test them for Cordyceps. When he gets to Ellie, she uses her knife to stab him in the leg. As he points the gun at her, his blinding flashback casts Joel’s mind back to Sarah’s death – except this time, he takes action. He tackles him to the ground and beats him to death, brutally and angrily.
There’s a last-minute twist: Ellie’s test is positive, yet she doesn’t appear to be infected. She was bitten three weeks ago, but she’s still her normal self. Tess is panicked by this, but knows they need to move before they’re swarmed by other FEDRA troops, so they head off on their journey.
The Last of Us Episode 1 review score: 5/5
A chilling prologue, an immaculate opening, and an exceptional intro: this is the Episode 1 most shows can only dream of, and The Last of Us is already set to be one of the best shows of 2023. “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.”
The Last of Us Episode 2 will be available to watch on January 22 in the US and January 23 in the UK.
For more TLOU content, check out some of our below guides:
Joel & Tess explained | Sarah spoilers | Fungus threat is terrifying | The dog’s fate | Who is Marlene? | Why is Ellie so important? | Soundtrack choice | FEDRA & the Fireflies explained