HBO’s The Last of Us Episode 1: Recap and thoughts

Look for the light — a recap of The Last of Us’ premiere episode

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HBO’s adaptation of the beloved narrative game The Last of Us has been highly anticipated for months and even years — either by fans of the series or otherwise. Now that it’s finally out, the takes have started rolling in, and the first episode has been a bit more divisive among fans than the early, glowing critic reviews suggested. This first installment covered the opening few hours of the game, from its emotional opening to the crew’s first steps out of the quarantine zone. Of course, there are quite a few ways in which the show deviates from its source material, which we will cover in the recap below.

Let’s recap, shall we?

Episode One: “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” — run time 81 mins

The show opens with two scientists on the set of a talk show in 1968 where they answer questions about a newly-discovered fungal virus that could potentially spread to humans. After a bit of exposition dumping about how the fungus controls the mind of its host, we’re met with a very HBO-looking opening credits sequence with fungus spreading and growing across the screen.

Joel and Sarah are having a nice conversation over breakfast when we meet Joel’s brother Tommy. We learn that Joel and Sarah have some elderly neighbors, the Adlers, who Sarah will sometimes go over and begrudgingly spend time with. As Sarah goes to school and into town to get Joel’s watch fixed for his birthday, we hear ominous car horns and sirens in the distance.

Image via HBO Max

Here comes the apocalypse

Sarah goes over to the Adlers’ for a bit, and then later presents Joel with his birthday present — an old watch of his that she had fixed. Joel goes to bail Tommy out of jail, and Sarah wakes up to an empty house. She goes back to the Adlers, where the previously senile, and now Infected, Mrs. Adler has killed the inhabitants of the house. Joel and Tommy show up and take Sarah in their truck, heading towards the military checkpoint at the highway. Joel and Sarah get separated from Tommy while running away from Infected, and when they reach the checkpoint, a soldier fires on the pair following orders from a superior. Sarah is fatally wounded, and just as Tommy shows up to save Joel, Sarah dies in his arms.

We skip ahead 20 years (which is now 2023 — the show moved the game’s opening back from 2013 to 2003), and a child stumbles back into a quarantine zone. Soldiers discover he’s Infected, and euthanize him while promising he’s safe now. We then get a look into the bleakness inside the quarantine zone, from burning dead bodies to dwindling food supplies to public executions. We learn that Joel is a smuggler, working as fellow smuggler Tess’ muscle and right-hand man. There’s a “terrorist” group that’s also causing trouble around town known as the Fireflies.

Image via HBO Max

Ellie’s introduction

Meanwhile, there’s a girl chained up in a building, where she is tested for signs of mental alertness and awareness. Joel speaks to the man in charge of the zone’s radio, who confirms he still hasn’t heard from Tommy. Joel says that his brother usually responds within a day, but it’s been three weeks since they last communicated. Joel mixes some pills and alcohol and goes to sleep, and Tess joins him in bed in the middle of the night. In the morning, Joel tells Tess he needs a car battery to go and find Tommy, but Tess tells him that a man named Robert sold their battery to someone else.

Marlene, the head of the Fireflies, tells fellow Firefly Kim that they’re all going to leave the quarantine zone soon to transport “that random girl locked in that room” west. Marlene goes to talk to the girl and tells her that’s the one who put her in military school, and that the girl’s real name is Ellie. We get a namedrop for Riley here — a side character who’s important to Ellie, who we know will make an appearance in a future episode.

Joel and Tess go to confront Robert and come across a Clicker that’s grown into the wall in the sewers (it’s the first we’ve seen of the series’ most iconic enemy, and it actually looks really good!). When they reach Robert’s hideout, he’s already dead due to a deal gone wrong with the Fireflies because the car battery is corroded. Joel and Tess encounter Marlene, Kim, and Ellie, and after a bit of back and forth, Joel and Tess agree to take Ellie to the Capital Building to meet up with the rest of the Fireflies.

The journey begins

The trio stop by Joel and Tess’ hideout to plan out their trip, and Ellie figures out a code that Bill and Frank (some smugglers/suppliers outside of the city) use to share their status by playing songs from different decades. Joel wakes up from a nap and he and Ellie have a conversation — she tells him that his watch is broken. They head outside the walls of the quarantine zone, where they encounter a soldier who scans them for Infection. When Ellie is scanned, she attacks the soldier, who shines his flashlight in Joel’s face. This triggers a flashback that takes Joel back to the night that Sarah died, and he beats the soldier to death with his bare hands.

Tess looks at the scanner and learns that Ellie is Infected, but she counters by showing Tess and Joel her arm and insisting that the bite is three weeks old. We cut back to Joel and Tess’ hideout, where the radio is playing an 80’s song, which indicates trouble at Bill and Frank’s. The final shot of Joel, Tess, and Ellie sweeps out to reveal the ruined, overgrown cityscape as lightning strikes and we hear the screams of Infected in the distance.

Image via HBO Max

And now, some thoughts

Okay, that was a lot, and I’m still working through my thoughts about it after a second watch-through. Let’s start with the stuff I liked. I thought the sets looked great, and I especially loved to see what I assume were practical effects with the aforementioned Clicker that had grown into the wall. I’m excited to see some more of the Infected in action. I liked the actress who played Sarah a lot, and I liked that they added a bit more to her character that we get to see before she gets killed off. Also, huge props to the actors who played the Infected in the crowd scenes — they nailed the physicality and captured the fast, flailing movements we see from the Runners in the game.

Pedro Pascal’s casting as Joel was a part of the show I was really looking forward to, and so far he didn’t disappoint. There’s still a lot to see from him, but so far he’s nailed the look and feel of Joel for me.

Then there’s the stuff I feel skeptical about. It’s funny, I feel like most of my critiques fall on either end of a spectrum — either it’s too much like the game, or it’s too different. Starting with the former, I’ve also seen other reviewers discussing the fact that the show takes too much from the game, and I have to agree. A ton of the dialogue, acting choices, and camera angles are ripped right from the game. Don’t get me wrong, I still want it to feel like a Last of Us show, but when the original is already so cinematic, what are we gaining from doing a 1:1 remake of a bunch of the scenes?

Image via HBO Max

As a megafan of the series, I have most of the dialogue in the game memorized down to the vocal inflections, and I was shocked to find the most iconic scenes from the game were basically copied and pasted down to the blocking and line reads. The whole point of an adaptation is to put a new spin on the source material, but to me, this first episode only muddied the waters in terms of what the story is trying to say.

This brings me to my next point: the differences. As I said, I’m totally fine with them making changes to the game’s narrative — in fact, I encourage it. But for the most part, I felt like the changes they made detracted from the potency of the story. Similar to its gameplay, The Last of Us‘ story is tight and compact, only including what’s necessary to get across its thesis or survival and sacrifice for those you love. To me, it felt like everything in that first game always pointed back to Joel and Ellie’s arcs and gave us further insight into their relationship.

In the show, however, adding all these new characters and extra threads only serves to bog everything down in my mind. We’ve been there, done that with apocalypse fiction — what makes Joel and Ellie’s relationship so poignant and moving is the love and hope they find in the darkest possible circumstances.

I hate to say it, but as of now, I’m also a bit skeptical of this version of Ellie. A sentiment I’ve heard echoed online, and even from a friend I watched this first episode with who was not familiar with the game, is that some people aren’t taking much of a liking to Ellie. I know not everyone is going to love her, but so much of Ellie’s character is her sweetness which often shines through despite her snarky, sarcastic side. So far she’s been mostly abrasive, which isn’t helped by the change that she’s not with Marlene and the Fireflies of her own accord.

Image via HBO Max

Final thoughts

I’m getting ahead of myself here a bit because we’ve got a long way to go. There’s a chance that all of my qualms will be remedied by the time the season wraps up, and I’m certainly expecting Nick Offerman as Bill to be an upcoming highlight, for sure. Overall, I didn’t overly dislike Episode 1, but I also didn’t love it. And I wanted, more than anything, to love it.

If you’re interested in hearing more of my thoughts on the show, make sure to check back, because I’ll be doing one of these recap posts after each episode every week!

Check out the rest of Destructoid’s coverage of HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us here.

[Disclosure: It’s important to disclose that I worked at Naughty Dog for a period of time during the development of The Last of Us Part II. My work did not involve or touch upon any of the content that is covered in the first season of HBO’s The Last of Us, but we believe it necessary and prudent to emphasize my time at the studio nonetheless. — Noelle Warner]

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Noelle Warner
After a few years of working in game development, Noelle joined the Destructoid team in 2021. She particularly loves interactive storytelling and cuddling with her cats!