Episode 1 Recap for The Last of Us on HBO Max

By Deja L. Jones

It’s finally here! The series premiere of HBO Max’s adaptation of The Last of Us premiered on Sunday, nearly three years after it was first announced. Matching the spirit of the source material is the primary job of any adaptation, and the premiere nails this so well. It doesn’t try to replicate the original game beat for beat — although sometimes it does, and it’s magical — but instead aims to capture its essence and recreate it for the new medium.

TLOU is one of the most lauded games in history, so the series has big shoes to fill. If the first episode is any indication, doing so won’t be an issue.

“We lose.”

The show opens not in 2003 but in 1968 on the set of an ABC talk show where three men discuss … well, world-ending pandemics. How timely! It’s different from the game’s introduction, but it’s the perfect setup for the story that’s about to unfold. Dr. Neuman, played by the wonderful John Hannah, disagrees with a fellow guest’s assertion that viruses will destroy humankind. Instead, he suggests, in evocative and disturbing detail, that fungi will bring about the end of humanity. He even mentions cordyceps, the fungus that causes TLOU’s outbreak, by name. Both the host and the audience look thoroughly uncomfortable before the episode jumps forward 35 years to a seemingly ordinary fall day in Austin, Texas.

The extra time we get with Sarah and Joel here is both beautiful and, if you’re familiar with this story, heartbreaking. We get to see more of their playful, loving relationship as Sarah makes breakfast for Joel who has, unfortunately, forgotten to bring home the pancake mix she previously requested. It’s even clearer in the show that Joel is a father who works extremely hard to take care of Sarah, ironically leaving her to take care of them both when he’s too tired to do so himself.

Time for Mayhem

Sarah goes to school, gets Joel’s watch fixed, and spends a bit of time doing homework and making cookies with the neighbors. Again, the show departs from the game’s plot progression, but the setup is important and still manages to keep all the elements of the original story. Sarah gifting Joel his repaired watch, her waking up to an empty house, and the mayhem at the neighbors’ place are beats from the game that now have more context. The mad dash through Austin as Joel, Sarah, and Tommy try to find a way out of town after things fall apart is as tense as ever in live action, likely because it is nearly identical to the same scene in the game.

Joel’s Breaking Point

The conclusion of TLOU’s prologue is one of the most memorable moments in video game history, and the show does not fail to land the gut punch that is Sarah’s death. Nico Parker and Pedro Pascal have done such beautiful work establishing the bond between Sarah and Joel by this point in the episode, and watching THAT moment unfold hurts just as badly as it did watching Hana Hayes and Troy Baker do it the very first time.

The remainder of the episode continues to provide context to events that occurred in the game and set up the rest of the story, but it also effectively illustrates how broken Joel is even 20 years after the death of his daughter. He’s completely desensitized to the horror of his environment because he’s become an empty husk. It seems like the only emotion he’s capable of feeling is rage — his partner Tess is constantly telling him to simmer down and reassuring others that she won’t let him hurt them when they hesitate to make deals with her out of fear. This is just more setup that will surely pay off down the line when Joel and Ellie begin to forge the bond that is at the heart of The Last of Us.

Introducing the Fireflies

In the interest of providing context, the show also gives the audience a closer look at the inner workings of the Fireflies, the organization trying to overturn the military’s rule over the country and reinstate democracy. Merle Dandridge reprises her role as Marlene, head of the Fireflies, and it’s wonderful to see her get to step back into the character 10 years after playing her the first time. Marlene is the one who introduces the wonderfully bratty Ellie to Joel and Tess. It’s Marlene who hires them to smuggle Ellie out of the Boston Quarantine Zone where they all live and meet up with another cell of Fireflies. This, of course, is what sets the wheels in motion and marks the beginning of one of the best stories in gaming.

This first episode establishes a lot. Joel and Ellie are both perfectly characterized by the time the end credits roll, and with the reveal that Ellie is immune to the cordyceps infection that has taken over the world, the reason for the journey to come as well as its stakes are very clear. The show feels familiar, and it’s not because this is a 10-year-old story that we all know. It’s more that the vibe of the show matches that of the game: Pedro’s Joel feels like Troy’s Joel, and Bella Ramsey is just as feisty and irreverent as Ashley Johnson was in the game. That gorgeous opening theme by Gustavo Santaolalla certainly jams on the nostalgia button though. That guitar melody never, ever gets old.

All in all, the show is off to a fantastic start because it’s done what it needed to do. The characters are established, the stakes are set, and the spirit of The Last of Us, the game, is strong despite the show’s deviations. Watching Joel and Tess understand why Ellie is so important is sure to be as fascinating and entertaining as this week’s premiere was. We’re counting down again — only five days to go!

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