Spoilers from the outset for this review of HBO’s adaptation of The Last Of Us.
The flashback to 1968 is one of the biggest deviations from the source material but the perfect opener to HBO’s adaptation of The Last Of Us. Speaking on a television talk show, Dr. Neuman (a fleeting cameo from John Hannah) and Dr. Schoenheiss (Christopher Heyerdahl) debate what could cause a global pandemic. In Neuman’s view, a fungal infection, a life-form with the potential to alter a host’s mind, could wipe out humanity should temperatures increase in the near future, leaving the talk show’s disarming presenter rattled before tidily bringing us into the title sequence. The adaptation has thankfully retained the theme music – and roped in Gustavo Santaolalla to provide a musical score for the series.
Post-titles, we jump to September 26, 2003 – an iconic date fans will recognise as outbreak day. Sarah (Nico Parker) is a self-confident, highly knowledgeable teenager far more mature than her years would suggest. She acts as a stand-in alarm clock for Joel and already has breakfast prepared. She’s even giving him orange juice to swap out his beloved coffee, a tiny little easter egg you could easily miss on first viewing. Joel (Pedro Pascal) and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) work in construction, and they have a big day ahead. Over breakfast, a report on the radio alludes to a “disturbance” in Jakarta.
Joel, quite typically, is unfazed by the report before pondering where Jakarta is. For those who watched Chernobyl (the sleeper hit that put Craig Mazin on the map for dramatic television), the series drew acclaim for a compelling, uncompromising insight into the Chernobyl nuclear disaster – further highlighting the failings of the Soviet Union and the importance of recognising a looming catastrophe. On reflection, the television interview succinctly illustrates the potential dangers of what a Cordyceps infection could do to the planet and mirrors the thematic weight Chernobyl delivered across five episodes.
The Jakarta incident, however, is only one of the multiple hints toward an impending calamity, including the twitches and coughs of Sarah’s classmates, violent altercations throughout Texas, an increased presence of emergency vehicles, and concerned shop owners closing up early (and turfing out Sarah in the process after having Joel’s watch fixed for his birthday). Sarah joins her neighbours, the Adlers (the Coopers in the game), to make raisin cookies and acquire a DVD from Joel’s beloved Curtis and Viper series (an Easter egg from The Last Of Us Part II) as a present. Nana Adler begins to twitch in the living room, unbeknownst to Sarah, as she selects a film from a collection in the living room, an eerie reminder of the mounting Cordyceps threat.
The same night, Sarah exchanges presents with Joel, who forgets the birthday cake, before Sarah falls asleep halfway through Curtis and Viper 2. The scene retains lines from the game verbatim, such as the watch joke and Sarah’s “hardcore drugs” quip. Tommy, a war vet (note the Operation Desert Storm sticker on his truck), is arrested for a bar brawl. Joel puts Sarah to be and takes off to bail him out of county jail. This errand puts Joel out of the picture for the time being while we resume with Sarah, who wakes up in the dead of night to a world where everything’s gone to hell. Dogs are scared, helicopters fill the sky, gunfire and explosions disturb the night, and Nana Adler is eating her family in the kitchen. It was only a twitch, but now she has Cordyceps tendrils filling her mouth. If like me, you’re eating plain fried noodles at the time, it could put you off them for life).
An infected Nana Adler chases Sarah from the kitchen with a frightening pace, only to be given a good old whack by Joel, carrying a spanner. Despite the horrified protestations of neighbours, Joel, Tommy, and Sarah flee their home and reach a traffic jam on a highway. The drive is eerily identical to the source material save for the introduction of low-flying planes (one of which crashes) and a near-miss with the incoming vehicle that sideswipes them in the game. Debris from the plane crash overturns the truck and splits them up. Joel carries an injured Sarah to a river to reunite with Tommy. With a terrible sense of building dread, we know how it ends. Sarah’s death is perhaps made all the more harrowing by Pedro Pascal’s anguished performance in the last minutes. 32 minutes down, we cut to twenty years later.
Emotionally, many of us are probably ruined about now. So we take a breather, and two decades on, we resume the story in a changed world. No sooner have we arrived do we find a little girl in sneakers stumbling to the gates of the Boston Quarantine Zone. This is Ellie. Or so we’re led to initially believe. The little girl, it would seem, represents the evolution of Joel’s character over two decades. He’s a seemingly, unfeeling, uncaring, hardened survivor, character traits confirmed as he’s asked by another QZ worker to carry the little girl (who dies off-screen) into a fire to incinerate those infected. He’s haunted by dreams of Sarah, nightmares that pills and drink fail to hold off, but the adaptation has expanded (marginally) on his romantic subplot with Tess. Life inside the Boston QZ is regimented by a strict military presence, some of whom are corrupt. Those who breach FEDRA rules are publicly executed, and Firefly factions are destroying military targets.
With Tess (Anna Torv) confronting Robert, a double-dealing trader, and narrowly avoiding a Firefly attack, Joel meets with accomplices inside the QZ to find out information on Tommy, who has not made contact with his brother in three weeks. In another scene, Joel exchanges pills for ration cards and cigarettes with a FEDRA soldier, a corrupt official working with Joel to help him leave the QZ in a FEDRA truck to find Tommy. The only problem is Robert has sold a truck battery Joel needs to the Fireflies. In the game, Joel and Tess are after a cache of weapons Robert had traded with the Fireflies, and there’s no mention of Tommy, suggesting his relationship in the adaptation might be less estranged.
Talking of Tommy, Jeffrey Pierce, the character’s original voice actor, makes a small appearance as Perry, sniping at FEDRA soldiers from a rooftop. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. Something tells me we might not see much more from Perry, if at all. Nonetheless, Jeffrey Pierce deserves a shout-out for this role, even if it’s only a five-second cameo. Meanwhile, in a room inside Firefly HQ, we meet Ellie (Bella Ramsey), and yes, this is Ellie. Ramsey embodies Ellie’s rebellious, foul-mouthed attitude flawlessly. In another deviation from Naughty Dog’s AAA title, the Fireflies, led by Marlene (Merle Dandridge), intend to leave the QZ and take Ellie to a new location as a group, targeting random FEDRA locations throughout the QZ to keep them distracted and scattered. The time fighting against a fierce military dictatorship achieves nothing, whereas a cure for the Cordyceps virus would put the world back to rights, accomplishing the Firefly endgame.
The events of Episode 1, identical to the game, take place after the Left Behind DLC, a side story featuring Ellie and Riley. After the two girls sneak out from the FEDRA military school, they’re attacked by infected and both bitten, which leads to the revelation of Ellie’s immunity. Marlene tells Ellie she placed her under the protective custody of FEDRA as a baby and believes that Ellie’s “greatest purpose” could be the key to a cure. Riley is mentioned, and it hits a chord with Ellie. Meanwhile, in cloak-and-dagger fashion, Joel and Tess find out where they can find Robert, which leads them to the Firefly HQ. They discover Robert dead (killed off-screen) and the battery destroyed.
At just over the one hour mark, two worlds collide for the first time as Joel and Tess meet Ellie and make a deal to take her to a Firefly location outside the QZ: the Old State House, otherwise known as the Capitol Building in the game. In return, they’ll be given everything they need to go and find Tommy. The scene further establishes Joel’s distrust of the Fireflies; blaming Marlene for turning Tommy against him, and leaving Ellie to question what Joel and Tess are capable of. At a stop off, Ellie finds a supplies note from B/F, (Bill and Frank), a coded system for smuggling based on the years of hit songs. The 1960s means Bill has nothing new to trade, the 70s he does, and Ellie later tricks Joel into revealing that the 80s is a code for trouble. She remarks that Joel’s watch is broken while he “kills time” by sleeping. As night falls, Joel, Tess and Ellie escape the QZ, only to find the corrupt soldier Joel had exchanged pills with earlier in the episode.
In comparison to the game, the adaptation makes one key amendment to the scene. After Ellie stabs the soldier to prevent her infection from being discovered, Joel intervenes, standing between them. The stand-off reminds Joel of the soldier that killed Sarah twenty years ago. Joel launches at the soldier and kills him in a rage, while Ellie is left astonished. With additional FEDRA forces on the way, Joel and Tess learn of Ellie’s infection, despite her protests that it happened three weeks ago. Together, they cut through a fence and enter a biological contamination area. As Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down” plays on the radio – an 80s song coded as trouble, we see a shot of the skyline of Boston at night. Rain falls. Lightning cracks the sky, and we hear the screeching of clickers.
Episode 1 is brilliant. 10 out of 10. Perfect. Stunning. Druckmann and Mazin have remained faithful to the source material where it counts, and the various amendments are appropriate and enriching. I’ve watched it three times – partly to ensure I’ve collated all the details I’ll need for this review – but also because the premiere episode is just so damn good.
For more The Last Of Us content, join GL’s Nirav, Felicia, and Jess for an in-depth podcast discussion on the first episode to the series.