The Last of Us was introduced to gamers in 2013 on PlayStation 3. While post-apocalyptic zombie stories are a dime a dozen, Neil Druckmann’s focus on the two main characters Ellie and Joel had gamers all around the world invested in their journey to find the Fireflies. This game and the sequel The Last of Us Part II are critically acclaimed.
But that is the video game. Often, the beloved stories we become immersed in for so many hours do not translate well to television and film. So, it’s reasonable that a lot of fans of the franchise, like myself go into the show cautiously optimistic.
HBO Max’s, The Last of Us premiered on Sunday evening on HBO Max. The season consists of nine episodes. It’s co-created by Druckmann and Craig Mazin, who was the showrunner for another HBO Max hit, Chernobyl. The roles of our title characters are played by some recognizable faces in Hollywood. Joel, the hardened smuggler that is tasked with transporting a child across a desolate, dangerous America, is played by Pedro Pascal. Ellie, a teenager with a rare ability to resist the fungal infection that has destroyed so much of the world’s population, is played by Bella Ramsey.
Episode one of the series is titled When You’re Lost in the Darkness. The events of this episode needed to be executed properly in order for the series to work. If audiences didn’t understand Joel’s past, it would be hard to understand the challenges in trying to connect with Ellie as they start their journey. I would even argue that at this point the details of the fungal infection take a backseat. Thankfully, the writers are able to balance both of these plot points beautifully.
The series kicks off with a talk show scene where two scientists are being interviewed. The topic is global pandemics. One of them suggests the dangers of a plague that no one is worried about, brain-controlling fungi (which by the way is a real thing in ants look it up). As excited as I was to move the story along, a sense of dread came over me as we started to follow, the introduction of Sarah, Joel’s daughter, played by Nico Parker.
The Last of Us creative team and Parker do a great job immediately investing us in her character, only to have her ripped away from Joel and us as panic is taking over the world in a similar manner to the game. Despite already going through it one time in the game, this cuts into one’s emotions just as badly. During that time we are also introduced to Joel’s brother, Tommy, played by Gabriel Luna. As well as the recently turned people that are now hunting for flesh in a violent manner.
We then fast forward 20 years and travel to a FEDRA-ruled Bosten, well what’s left of it. This is where we find Joel working and smuggling. FEDRA is at war with the insurgent group known as the Fireflies. Joel’s purpose in smuggling is to raise enough money to get a car and a battery to find Tommy, who is missing. He is not alone though, as we are introduced to Tess, played by Anna Torv.
Ellie, is being locked up by Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, played by Merle Dandridge. She was bitten by an Infected and survived with no changes after three weeks. Marlene explains to her that she’s working for a greater cause and that she is essential.
Joel and Tess are then in search of a dealer that ripped them off, which then takes them to the Fireflies headquarters. After an attack, the only ones left are Ellie, Marlene, and one other Firefly. Out of desperation, Marlene offers a car with a battery to Joel if he takes Ellie to other Fireflies that will then take her elsewhere. On their way out they encounter a guard that tries to stop them only to trigger Joel’s last memory with Sophie causing him to beat the guard to death with his bare hands as Ellie looked on. With that, the journey begins and the episode ended.
This is a fantastic start to The Last of Us. The series successfully sets the foundation for the rest of the series just as it did in the game. While the journey may be different it seems that it will fundamentally keep what makes The Last of Us special, Joel and Ellie. What also works in this series is.the pacing. The episode feels the same as the cinematic cut scenes that we see in the game. It’s such a linear story that not playing as the character doesn’t seem to take gamers’ now tv audience out of it. I am excited about the next episodes. For now, it seems like HBO Max has another hit on their hands.
OVERALL GRADE: A