HBO’s adaptation of the critically acclaimed video game The Last of Us is finally here. The story-driven zombie survival game is an unusually good fit for a prestige-style, big-budget TV show that HBO can bring to glorious life. The original PlayStation 3 game had a specific focus on well-written characters and human drama, which are the things you want in a prestige TV series.
The first episode of The Last of Us is a triumphant adaptation of the source material, continuing an encouraging recent trend of video game shows and movies being surprisingly good. After decades of movies like Mortal Kombat and The Super Marios Bros Movie disappointing gamers, the sudden emergence of excellent properties like Detective Pikachu, the Sonic franchise, and now The Last of Us could indicate that the era of reliably terrible video game adaptations is behind us.
The first episode opens on a scene from a talk show in 1968. The host is talking to two microbiologists about their predictions for a future pandemic. One of the experts notes that viruses can cause world-spanning illnesses, but his colleague scoffs at the idea that a virus could bring humanity to its knees. Instead, he says fungi are the true danger.
The fungi expert notes that some species of mushroom can infest ants and take over their central nervous system. If such a fungus evolved to target humans, it could create an illness that humanity is unprepared to create a cure for.
The narrative jumps ahead to “Outbreak Day,” and we briefly follow a likable young girl named Sarah as she takes her father for his birthday pancakes. The gruff man, Joel, gently teases his daughter before joining his brother, Tommy, for their workday as construction workers. The group overhears a news report regarding “unrest in Jakarta,” but scarcely remarks on the nature of the disturbance.
Sarah’s day is a bit unusual. She attends school and hears some classmates coughing ominously. She takes Joel’s old watch to a repair shop and gets it fixed for his birthday, but the shop owner’s wife shoos her out and tells her husband that something is wrong out in the world. When Sarah gets home, her elderly neighbor seems to be convulsing and suffering from a bizarre illness.
Sarah asks her dad if he’s heard anything on the news about these odd events, but Joel seems unconcerned. He gets a call from Tommy asking to be bailed out of jail after a fight in a bar, and Joel leaves to collect his brother. Sarah awakens in the middle of the night to chaos. Sirens and explosions outside send her downstairs, and the neighbor’s dog whimpering at her frightens her.
She heads next door to check on things and finds the elderly neighbor she once spent time with attacking her adult children. In a horrifying moment, Sarah flees the home as her neighbor chases her, bones snapping under the strain and strange fungal growths protruding from her mouth. Joel and Tommy arrive and dispatch the neighbor before loading Sarah into Tommy’s truck and fleeing.
The group tries to escape Austin to no avail. After a brief ride along highway roads and through the countryside, a falling jumbo jet traps the group in downtown Austin on a busy street. Joel gets separated from Tommy but flees with Sarah. They bump into a soldier who has a brief conversation with his superior officer before leveling his weapon at the father and daughter.
In a heartbreaking twist, the soldier opens fire and fatally injures Sarah. Joel narrowly survives when Tommy gives him covering fire with a hunting rifle. The two look out over the chaos, crestfallen, and the narrative jumps ahead by twenty years.
Twenty years later, in 2023, Joel lives in what remains of Boston under the military dictatorship of “FEDRA.” The military keeps the fungal-origin zombies out of the “quarantine zone,” or QZ, but life under FEDRA is miserable. Joel picks up odd jobs for ration cards and works nights as an enforcer for a criminal named Tess.
We learn early on that people are terrified of Joel. One thug, Robert, apparently ripped Tess off for a car battery, and he’s mortified that Tess might tell “her guy” about this betrayal. Tess swears Robert will be safe but later tells Joel they need to find the missing battery and get their money back from Robert.
Meanwhile, we meet Ellie, a young girl who is being held by a resistance group called the Fireflies. Their leader, Marlene, wants to deliver Ellie to some people “out west” for reasons the audience doesn’t quite understand yet. However, the other Fireflies have prepared for the transfer by bombing FEDRA outposts all over Boston to draw their forces away from Ellie’s exfiltration route.
Ellie and Joel cross paths when Tess brings Joel to the rendezvous point to ambush Robert and get the battery back. They learn that Robert tried to sell it to the Fireflies, but the battery is completely dead and useless. Nearby, they find a badly-wounded Marlene, who asks them to take Ellie to their friends at a nearby safe house outside Boston.
Joel is concerned about his brother, Tommy, as a radio operator notes that he hasn’t heard from the man in three weeks. Tommy apparently lives in Wyoming, far from the QZ, and Joel is anxious to make the trip on foot to check on his brother. When Marlene promises Tess and Joel that the Fireflies can pay them with a fully-loaded and functional truck, Joel relents and promises to safely deliver Ellie wherever she needs to go.
As the group slips out of the QZ, they bump into a FEDRA soldier who knows Joel. The soldier uses a handheld device to test each of them for fungal infection–Joel and Tess are fine, but Ellie is infected. However, she doesn’t give the soldier time to execute her. She lunges out with her pocket knife, and Joel, remembering how Sarah died, brutally tackles and beats the soldier. Ellie explains to Tess that she’s immune to the fungal infection and shows the group a three-week-old injury that hasn’t resulted in her getting infected yet.
With the major players now in place and Joel ready to escort Ellie to the safe house, it looks like the team is ready for a cross-country adventure through a ruined, post-apocalyptic American countryside. The show’s excellent production values, top-notch performances, and tight script are all extremely faithful adaptations of the source material.
The best part about The Last of Us so far is that the departures it does take from the original game are completely natural and serve only to expand the scope of the game’s story. Here’s hoping the series continues the excellent momentum from its premier as it gets into the meat of the story!