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The Last of Us TV series episode 1 recap (2023) - an excellent start

The Last of Us TV series begins with a tragic roar that introduces Joel, Ellie, and the world of the horror series, and our recap breaks it all down

The Last of Us episode 1 recap

Our Verdict

The Last of Us cast make sure the lofty HBO series gets started on the right foot.

The Last of Us TV series is in a difficult position. Since Naughty Dog’s 2013 horror game is widely regarded to be one of the greatest the medium’s ever produced, anticipation has been sky high for the drama series.

Having such a built-in audience can be useful, but it creates a dilemma for the showrunners. Should they adapt what’s already there, or push it forward and expand the rich narrative? Bravely, co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, the latter of whom was creative director on The Last of Us games, have chosen to do both, sculpting a horror series that has something for dedicated fans and fresh onlookers alike.

The thriller series opens on a different note to the game, with scientists are on a talk show in 1963 discussing mankind’s chances against a pandemic. One expert believes we’d always win against anything widespread, striking dialogue post-Covid-19, whereas the other, portrayed by John Hannah, holds an alternate view.

He warns that if we ever faced parasitic fungus, we are essentially defenceless. In the ’60s, this is not a concern because these organisms simply didn’t target human anatomy, but, as he explains, if the planet’s temperatures rise, pushing the parasites to evolve, it might be a different story. At that point, we’d lose, and quite unceremoniously.

I’m sure he’s only delighted to have been proven right. We then jump to 2003, in Austin, Texas, where Sarah Miller (Nico Parker) is preparing breakfast for her father, Joel (Pedro Pascal). He’s a single dad, working in a small construction company alongside his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna). They’re a small, happy family, though clearly finances aren’t great.

Gabriel Luna in The Last of Us TV series

After school, Sarah goes and gets one of Joel’s watches fixed as a birthday present. Army aircraft are flying overhead, and the jewelers she’s in closes early. Once home, Sarah visits elderly neighbours, and in the background of one of the shots, you can see an older woman being to act strangely, as if something is trying to control her frail body. The dog knows something’s up, staring her endlessly.

Sarah and Joel watch a movie together, but their viewing is disrupted by Billy needing bail after a barfight. While Joel’s gone, Sarah finds the neighbour’s dog, and when she investigates their house, finds the old woman chowing down on her care assistant, her husband dead in the corner. Sarah begins to run, finding Joel, who takes down the zombified woman by whacking her across the head.

Joel, Billy, and Sarah start trying to drive out of the suburbs, surrounded on all sides by carnage. Passengers flights are flying low overhead, and people are filling the streets trying to figure out what’s happening, and how to escape. A plane crashes in the middle of a rammed street of shops, hurting Sarah and forcing the Millers to ditch their car.

They stumble onto a bunch of infected people feeding on dead bodies, and Joel manages to carry Sarah away from a rabid Runner (the game’s parlance for a person early in mutation, who runs at any target with heightened speed). They run into Billy and a soldier, who questions protocol for survivors. Shots are fired, leasing to Sarah’s demise.

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This ramp up is well-handled, capturing an uneasy vibe and keeping it personal. One of the things that made The Last of Us so great was the intense opening, where we saw Joel and Sarah’s life pre-outbreak to understand exactly what kind of tragedy befell them. HBO’s version adds more nuance, giving Sarah more personality before her untimely death.

The added time with Pascal and Parker’s The Last of Us characters is so good, a family drama that just follows their lives without any undead would be worthwhile. Mazin’s capable direction calls to mind Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, where an explosive beginning is experienced using a mix of shots that stay on the protagonists to keep us rooted in their fear and panic.

Having a preamble that embeds everything in climate change creates added thematic weight, and the basic explanation of Cordyceps is a decent introduction for anyone who’s not big on the tropes of videogames or zombie movies. It all being so different helps contrast to recent PS5 game The Last of Us Part 1, a remake that brings the 2013 original to modern hardware, the third re-release in a decade.

We jump 20 years into the future, and it’s desolate, to say the least. A small child wanders into a quarantine zone in what remains of Boston. They’re infected, leading the staff to quietly kill them using an infection, another team hauling the body into a pit.

Merle Dandridge in The Last of Us TV series

Joel’s among the workers moving dead bodies around to be destroyed. He’s persevered by being an extremely competent handler who does whatever odd jobs pay the most, taking work under the table to gather better supplies. Through his wandering, we see a psuedo-fascist military dictatorship has taken hold, where people are publicly executed for disobeying laws about entering and leaving quarantine boundaries.

Joel and Tess (Anna Torv), a long-time partner, are planning to get out using a truck and a stockpile they’ve gather through the years. Someone’s giving them the run around for the battery, and as they’re sorting it out, we get a feel for who Joel’s become. He inspires fear, suggesting there’s considerable blood on his hands to have made it this far. Graffiti for the Fireflies, an insurgent group who oppose the army’s rule, continues to pop up about the place.

His mission becomes contacting Tommy, who’s stopped sending correspondence. We get mention of the lawlessness that awaits beyond city limits, “slavers” and other threats besides becoming one of the hive. It doesn’t matter, because Joel will not lose another member of his family.

When they finally track down get their battery. Tess and Joel run into Ellie, an orphaned girl played by Bella Ramsey who’s being held captive by Marlene, a Firefly leader. The Fireflies have a particular interest in Ellie for undisclosed reasons, and a deal is struck for Joel and Marlene to bring her to one of their outposts. On the way out, they’re spotted by a guard, who manages to scan Ellie before being subdued, and they make a break for it.

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Dun-dun! Ellie’s infected, but she seems perfectly fine? A conundrum for the next episode to address. The second half of ‘When You’re Lost in the Darkness’ is more about laying the foundations of Joel and Ellie’s relationship. Despite being raised post-outbreak, Ellie’s confident and curious, whereas Joel’s become cold and merciless.

There’s a particular thrill that comes from seeing backdrops you recognise from a game or comic book well captured like The Last of Us does. You can sense the overwhelming anxiety of living in Boston, and being caught between all the rules and wanting to just keep yourself existing for another day. All the people and rundown rooms and desperation; mankind is on the brink, and now we’re just rotting away.

The same goes for The Last of Us cast-members Pascal and Ramsey, who bring Joel and Ellie to life with warmth. This story relies heavily on their contrast and chemistry, and the first impression is strong. That said, Anna Torv as Tess is the secret weapon here. Tess hasn’t had her empathy torn up by grief to the same extent as Joel, allowing her to understand and pushback against his impulses.

Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us TV series

Torv matches Pascal’s energy, making their partnership believable, and implying their unsaid history. As great as Joel and Ellie’s journey turns out to be, The Last of Us is a sotry enormously underpinned by the supporting cast, who all exist in a grey fog of just trying to figure out life after the apocalypse.

Of the many things The Last of Us TV series understands, this is what makes it feel like something that could be very special, at least based on the first episode. We’ve a long trek to go, though, and that could be fleeting comfort.

The Last of Us TV series episodes are available on NOW in the UK, and HBO Max in the US.