[WARNING: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for The Last of Us Season 1 Episode 1.]
On the surface, The Last of Us seems to have arrived a few years late. Zombie fever has already swept through the media landscape; The Walking Dead came and went, as did various spin-offs and knock-offs. Pandemic-adjacent stories faded because of the, well, pandemic. With all that in mind, did we really need HBO’s latest post-apocalyptic drama?
Yes, we did. The Last of Us’ 80-minute premiere treads a few familiar paths (especially if you’re a fan of Fear The Walking Dead’s first season), but it also offers a unique post-apocalyptic landscape, memorable characters, and even some groovy tunes. Sure, we’ve seen zombie apocalypse stories before, but we haven’t seen them like this—and for a show about the dead claiming the world, The Last of Us has plenty of soul. Here’s what happens in the premiere.
The Last Day
We’re first introduced to Joel (Pedro Pascal), his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), and his teenage daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), at the very start of the outbreak in 2003. They’re all relatively happy together—Joel’s not the most on top of things as a single father, but the love between him and his daughter is real. Unfortunately, because this is a post-apocalyptic story, that love can’t last. Over the span of a single fateful day, an outbreak spreads across Austin that turns people into sprinting, twitchy, flesh-consuming monsters called “Runners.”
Joel, Sarah, and Tommy manage to escape the pandemonium unfolding in their neighborhood, but they run into trouble on the highway when—as in any apocalyptic story—everyone’s trying to get out of the city. To say these scenes are intense would be putting it mildly. When Sarah discovers one of their neighbors gobbling on a delivery man, it’s grotesque and chilling; Sarah, Tommy, and Joel wind up in the city while trying to escape, which results in a pulse-pounding, neon-lit, claustrophobic sequence with people and Runners swarming around their car.
A Horrifying Heartbreak
A plane crashes on the street, and a chunk of debris smashes through the window. Sarah’s knocked unconscious. When she comes to, Joel’s pulling her from the ruined car; with an ankle injury, running’s out of the question for her. Joel carries her. He and Tommy split up, promising to meet at the river. “You keep your eyes on me,” Joel tells his petrified daughter, “and you don’t look anywhere else.” Unfortunately for them both, as they move through the burning city, they draw the attention of a hungry Runner. The pulse-pounding chase sends them crashing through an abandoned restaurant. They make it out onto the patio, and just when it looks like the Runner might take a chunk out of Joel… someone fires a gun, dropping the monster. A soldier!
As usual in these types of tales, the military is less than competent. (It’s not like they were much better on Fear The Walking Dead.) In this, however, they’re actively harmful, and they deal Joel an unfathomable loss. The soldier orders the father and daughter to stay put while he confers with his supervisor over the radio. Suddenly, the soldier opens fire, hitting Joel in the leg…and Sarah in the stomach. Tommy makes it to them, but there’s nothing to be done. Sarah dies in Joel’s arms, and Joel will never be the same.
Twenty years later, we open on a sequence of a child wandering through the woods. They make it to a place called the “Fedra Quarantine Zone,” where they’re brought safely inside… but when it’s discovered that the child is Infected, the officer administers them a lethal injection while telling them they’ll be able to go play with all their favorite toys. (Heavy, heavy stuff.) Later, Joel—who lives in the quarantine zone—is doing dirty work: burning bodies. When the woman he’s working with sees the child’s corpse, she recoils and tells him she can’t do it. He picks up the body and tosses it on the fire without a word. And that’s how you show character development, all in less than five seconds.
Joel and his girlfriend, Tess (Fringe alum Anna Torv), have been illegally bartering with Fedra guards in hopes of securing a vehicle and a car battery so they can go after Tommy (he left three weeks earlier, and he hasn’t come back). Joel’s able to get a lead on the truck, but the man who’d said he’d sell them a battery scammed them and sold it to someone else. Tess and Joel decide to track him down.
The Start of an Epic Journey
While all of this is happening, we meet spunky, rebellious Ellie (Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey). She’s been captured by the Fireflies, a group that opposes Fedra. Their plan, their leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge) explains to the captive teenager, is to remove all the Fireflies from the quarantine zone in order to take Ellie out west. As with all the best-laid plans, that goes sideways. Joel and Tess, in their search for the battery, wander into a building and then into a corridor littered with bodies. That building is the very same where the Fireflies are keeping Ellie. With their forces crippled from the firefight, Joel and Marlene make a deal: he’s to take Ellie to the Fireflies’ checkpoint, and they’ll give him what he needs.
The deal is struck, and that night, he, Ellie, and Tess start sneaking out of the quarantine zone. As fate would have it, they run directly into one of the guards Joel was bartering with earlier. He forces them to their knees and scans them all for infection, but before Ellie’s results come through, she stabs him in the leg. “Move,” the soldier orders them through gritted teeth, and Joel, remembering the man who shot Sarah, springs forward and beats him to death.
Tess then notices Ellie’s scan came back red: she’s Infected! Or is she? Ellie shows her a three-week-old bite mark on her arm and insists she’s fine—the Fireflies wanted to use her as a cure. In the end, they have no choice but to run lest the Fedra soldiers find them, and they all take off into the waterlogged ruins of a city to the tune of “Never Let Me Down Again” by Depeche Mode.
The Last of Us Season 1, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO