The wait is finally over. Episode 1 of HBO’s adaptation of the beloved video game The Last of Us is upon us. Here’s everything that happened this week.
Warnings from 1968
With more room to play here in a TV setting the build-up to the infamous Outbreak Day gets explored. We’re taken back to a talk show in 1968 where two epidemiologists are discussing what the future may hold for, yes, pandemics. The two bicker back and forth on just what microorganism may be the cause of the downfall of civilization, one very confident it will be a virus. But the other doesn’t buy it. It won’t be a virus, it won’t be bacteria, it’ll be fungus.
This is laughed off, but we’re reminded that some fungi “seek not to kill, but to control.” While a virus can kill us, fungi can alter our minds as seen with LSD, it can act as a puppeteer with a marionette. Not only does it control its host, it also preserves it, preventing decomposition. While it’s established fungus can’t live in a host with an internal temperature that exceeds 94 degrees Fahrenheit, something as simple as global warming can force these fungi to evolve. One gene mutation to something like say … Cordyceps, may be able to infect a warmer host.
“Billions of puppets with poisoned minds…”
The only goal then would be to spread the fungus and with no cures or vaccines in this war against the fungus, humanity would lose.
Austin, Texas, 2003
As opposed to the game which begins on the night of September 26, 2013, we begin in the Miller house on the morning of September 26, 2003. It’s Joel’s 36th birthday (making him slightly older than game Joel) and his teenage daughter Sarah is making him breakfast. While they’re eating, Joel’s younger brother Tommy arrives and the brothers decide they’ll be working a double on their construction job that night, with Joel promising to be done by nine and bring home a cake.
While Joel and Tommy prep the truck, Sarah sneaks into Joel’s bedroom and takes a couple of twenty dollars bills and a watch from Joel’s drawer before heading outside for her ride to school. The Millers’ neighbors, the Adlers, are outside and Joel promises Sarah a visit after she gets out of school before driving off.
Once the afternoon school bell rings, Sarah heads into the city to get her dad’s birthday gift, a repair on the watch she’d taken from his drawer. She’s quickly ushered out after a conversation takes place between the shop and owner and his wife in a different language, the wife rushing Sarah out in a panic and closing down shop 4 hours early after a train of sirens goes wailing by.
During her visit with the Adlers, raisin cookies are baking while Sarah peruses the DVD shelf looking for a title to watch with her dad later that night. As she searches, the elderly mother, Nana, being cared for begins twitching just out of focus in her wheelchair after refusing food that was offered to her. (We know what that means!) Sarah takes off moments later, with the Adlers’ dog Mercy looking very suspicious of the now-still Nana, and waits for her dad’s arrival home.
The infamous watch makes its third appearance with some exceptionally game-accurate dialogue, the gift being strapped to Joel’s left wrist before the two settle in to watch the movie Sarah had borrowed from the Adlers. She falls asleep quickly, and Joel puts her to bed before heading out to bail Tommy out of jail after an unfortunate bar fight.
Sarah is woken up by an explosion outside at 2:16 am and finds the cable out, her dad gone, and Mercy scratching at the door. As she tries to get the dog back inside to the house next door, it runs off in refusal to enter the house, but Sarah does and finds a scene straight out of a horror film. A trail of blood leads to Mr. Adler with a bite wound in his neck and the previously wheelchair-bound Nana feasting on his wife. When she lifts her head and spots Sarah, a collection of tendrils hangs from her mouth which is presumably at least a small part of the change from the game’s spore mechanics which are confirmed to be replaced.
Joel and Tommy pull up just in time, killing the infected Nana now chasing after Sarah with a wrench, and the three Millers speed off (game players will be welcomed into this scene with familiar imagery) in hopes of escaping the mayhem ensuing around them to no avail. Tommy and Joel separate after the truck is wrecked, Joel having to carry Sarah who sports a freshly broken ankle.
After a chase from a recently infected runner, Joel and Sarah run into one of the Army soldiers patrolling the city who’s given orders to kill them despite Joel’s instance that they aren’t sick. Tommy arrives and kills the soldier, but he’s too late. He’d already taken a few shots and while Joel is relatively unscathed, Sarah dies shortly after from a fatal wound, setting off the tale of The Last of Us.
Boston Quarantine Zone, 20 Years Later
In the federally run FEDRA quarantine zone, a much grayer-haired and very apathetic Joel is taking the jobs, like throwing the piles of bodies of infected citizens into burn pits, that gives him the most cash. Cash is now government issue food ration cards, but he wants all he can get. However, he has another gig as well. He’s a black market smuggler and he’s supplying the FEDRA officers with narcotics swiped from FEDRA facilities in exchange for ration cards and cigarettes.
During an exchange with one of his FEDRA clients, it’s discovered Joel’s trying to get a truck from FEDRA, and although they don’t have any batteries he seems to have a plan to get one. He’s warned to stay off the streets; the terrorist group named the Fireflies has been out in full force and the FEDRA soldiers are jumpy. He might get shot.
In terms of the battery Joel is after, that’s Tess’ job. She bought one from a man named Robert and it turns out he ripped her off and sold her truck battery to someone else. Robert’s men roughed Tess up quite a bit and he’s afraid she’s is going to send Joel after him–a worthy fear–and is hesitant to let her go but a Firefly bomb helps Tess escape Robert’s makeshift interrogation room and into the middle of a firefight between the Fireflies and FEDRA where she gets taken into FEDRA holding under suspicion of being a Firefly.
Sarcasm is a Girl’s Best Friend
The Fireflies have a young girl chained to a wall in a room, and clearly, she’s been there for quite a few days. They perform a neurological test that she’s already prepared for by having her count to 10, state her name, and hold her arm out before leaving her once again. Veronica, or so she says, is furious at her captivity and claims FEDRA will be looking for her soon enough.
In a new storyline created for the series, Tommy, who Joel has seemingly been in somewhat regular contact with, has gone missing. It’s been three weeks since Joel has heard from him via a radio operator taking cigarettes and likely ration cards in exchange for contact outside the QZ (since leaving the QZ is punishable by death) and he’s concerned. The operator tells him that the tower he communicates with Tommy with is all the way in Wyoming and there’s no way that Joel would survive a cross-country trek with all that lies outside the walls. Clickers, raiders, slavers, there’s no way he’d make it.
This sends Joel into a spiral. He goes home and tries to plot a trip to get there before drowning himself in scotch and pills and passes out.
Get the Battery
The urgency to find a truck battery grows with Tommy’s safety on the line. Tess breaks the news to Joel that the battery from Robert was a bust and Joel and Tess agree to get their money and their battery back. Tess gets Robert’s whereabouts quietly and the two set out to sneak up on him and get their goods.
Meet the Fireflies
Rebellion takes time, but the Fireflies are running out of it. The organization is dedicated to overthrowing the dictatorship set forth by FEDRA, but they’re losing. The Boston faction leader, Marlene, has discovered that they may have a greater purpose than fighting FEDRA on the ground in the form of that girl chained to a wall a few rooms over. They’re leaving the Boston QZ tonight and taking the girl west.
When Marlene goes to see “Veronica,” the girl asks Marlene if it’s going to happen, and Marlene tells her no. What it is we’re not sure of yet. Marlene also reveals that she’s the one who put her into military boarding school and that she’s well aware her name is Ellie. Ellie accuses the Fireflies of being a terrorist group to which Marlene asks her if she thought Riley was a terrorist, and Ellie goes notably silent and morose, and Marlene tells her she has a greater purpose and that they’re leaving tonight before revealing a secret that would get her killed if anyone found out.
Your New Job
On their way to rendezvous with Robert, Joel and Tess come across a clicker embedded into the wall but thankfully dead (once again solidifying the loss of spores and gas masks in the series.) They smell gunpowder and see blood leaking beneath their secret door to find a rusted, non-operational battery and a collection of dead men, including Robert. Then, they stumble upon Marlene and Ellie lunges out at Joel with her signature switchblade, to which Joel promptly tosses her into a wall.
Tess is furious that Robert screwed them over the sake of the Fireflies, insulting Marlene for stooping as low as he did for goods and Marlene doesn’t argue. She also knows that Joel is looking for Tommy, and we find out that Tommy was at some point a Firefly as Joel accuses her of turning his brother against him.
Marlene makes them a deal, get Ellie to the old state house and they can have whatever they need plus some. Get Ellie safely to the team waiting for them and they can have a battery, a truck, guns, anything they need. And that’s a deal Tess and Joel can’t refuse.
Escaping the QZ
Joel and Ellie head to Joel’s apartment to wait for Tess to return before heading out, Ellie deciphering the radio code that Joel uses to communicate with their suppliers, Bill and Frank, using an encyclopedia of Billboard top songs. He’s immediately frustrated she figured it out so fast and opts to take a nap, cueing another game-accurate scene where Ellie comments on Joel’s broken watch from Sarah he hasn’t taken off in 20 years. It’s 60s music for nothing new, 70s for new goods, and 80s, as she figures out by tricking Joel after his nap, means danger.
The trio takes off in the cover of darkness, getting out unscathed through underground tunnels until they run into the guard Joel had traded the pills with earlier that day. Tess and Joel try to bargain with him to let them go and they seem to be convincing him until he scans their necks to check if they’re infected. After the scan, Ellie promptly turns and stabs him in the knee, the gun being pointed at Ellie enough to set Joel off in the trauma of losing Sarah he still carries. He tackles the guard and pummels his face with his fist, it remains to be seen if he killed him or not, but there are more pressing matters at hand.
Ellie is infected.
She promises them she’s not sick, her bite is three weeks old and no one last longer than a day, but they have no time to argue. FEDRA units are on the way and they need to move. Joel takes the soldier’s gun and they slip through the gate of the QZ out into the city.
Meanwhile, back at the apartment, “Never Let Me Down” by Depeche Mode from 1987 comes over the radio.
Episode 2 of The Last of Us will premiere next Sunday, January 22, at 9 p.m. EST on HBO and HBO Max.