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The Last of Us HBO episode 1 recap: Trauma and family play big roles

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Note: My name is Gene Park. I’m a reporter covering gaming culture for Launcher, The Washington Post’s video game vertical. I’m following “The Last of Us” from the perspective of someone who has played all the games (more than once).

The first episode of HBO’s “The Last of Us” is important, and not just to set the scene and introduce the characters. For those of us who played the 2013 game, it’s something of a test: Can the show live up to the game’s performances?

The trauma that informs protagonist Joel Miller’s character is that he witnesses the death of his daughter. The U.S. military, under instruction to shoot to kill anyone who might be infected, fatally shoots Joel’s daughter, Sarah. In the game, the original performance of this scene by Troy Baker laid the groundwork for the game’s tone. Pedro Pascal echoes Baker’s performance, but his sunken, very real, nondigital face adds more life to the unfolding tragedy. For a knowing audience, this is a promising sign that Joel’s portrayal is in capable hands.

But first, we get to learn about the nature of the pandemic. The HBO show starts with a 1968 talk show program in which two epidemiologists discuss potential pandemic nightmare scenarios. One of them is confident humanity could overcome a pandemic, an echo of the misplaced optimism that sometimes colored the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. The other presciently outlines “The Last of Us’s” looming pandemic: A virulent fungus that turns insects into primal, ravenous creatures who only intend to feed and spread itself among a populace. This epidemiologist theorizes that global warming could make humans good hosts to such a fungus, susceptible to infection. The science is wonky, but believable enough especially since climate change is known to be detrimental to human respiratory systems and immunity to allergies.

This is more background on the nature of the infection than the game ever covers. Series creator and co-showrunner Neil Druckmann said our real-world pandemic did change their approach to how the show explains its science fiction.

“We just knew people would be kind of wiser to how these things operate,” Druckmann told The Post in an interview last week. “So we just wanted to make sure we’ve done our research and we’re as scientifically grounded as possible, because people are more savvy to how pandemics work and how the government and society can react at large.”

Druckmann goes on to say that the game and the show aren’t really about the pandemic, and he’s right. After the ominous warning from 1968, we flash forward to Austin in 2003. Sarah (Nico Parker) is getting ready for school and planning for her dad’s birthday. Parker and Pascal engage in playful banter, and we even see Joel’s brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) join breakfast. It’s clear that this is a family unit where everyone depends on one another: both Sarah and Tommy hold Joel accountable for the lack of pancakes.

It’s interesting to see hints of Joel’s selfishness early, here. In the game, this was illustrated by Joel urging Tommy to drive past a family in need. That scene is mirrored in the show, but even before that, Joel talks about how he barely wants to share a construction job with Tommy, and isn’t interested in anyone else’s help. Immediately, we understand that Joel wants to provide and be self-sufficient, he just needs help and doesn’t acknowledge it.

The story then follows Sarah, and it’s here where the show employs cliches about ensuing zombie pandemic panic, with background news reports of trouble in Jakarta, Indonesia, as the sounds of sirens and helicopters begin filtering into the background ambiance. All the while, Sarah attends school, and later seeks out a watch repair shop; she wants to fix an old watch as a gift for her dad.

Sarah even visits the neighbors, people we never met in the game. Here, they’re an elderly couple who occasionally need help around the house. It’s clear — to us, the viewers, though not to the characters on the show — that one of them is already infected.

You don’t need to play ‘The Last of Us’ to watch the HBO show

Later in the evening, Joel returns from work and Sarah presents the fixed watch. Some lines from the game’s introduction are repeated here, including Sarah joking about selling “hardcore drugs” to scrounge up money for the repairs. Tommy calls and says he’s been arrested for participating in a brawl (here, again, we can tell the other person was infected; Tommy doesn’t know) and Joel has to leave. The neighbors, meanwhile, transform into monsters. The brothers return right on time to whisk Sarah to safety after she wakes up in the night to find nobody home and the neighbors’ place in disarray.

If you’ve played the game, much of this feels like the show is sort of spinning its wheels until it gets to the meat of the story. But for anyone unfamiliar, it may come as a shock that Sarah is killed not by zombies, but by an overzealous military. As mentioned earlier, Pascal nails the performance, and so does Parker. It’s hard to fight back tears when their performances are so heartbreakingly believable.

After that, we get a jarring flash forward several decades. We meet a child walking aimlessly into Boston, now established as a “quarantine zone” from the pandemic. The child is infected, and the militarized police force opts for euthanization.

We see Joel again, looking sadder and angrier, still doing blue-collar work, this time disposing of the dead. He shows little hesitation in grabbing and tossing the child’s body into a fire. After 20 years, Joel is numb to it. His heart is closed.

But maybe not to everyone. Later we meet Tess, a key figure who in this show is clearly Joel’s partner in romance and crime. She’s arguing with a man named Robert, who apparently tried to screw her out of a deal to get a working car battery. Robert is scared to death — not just of Tess, but of her enforcer, Joel. A sudden explosion caused by nearby conflict between the military and rebels separates the two, and as Tess is apprehended by government agents, she insists she’s not a Firefly.

The Fireflies are a resistance group against the militarization of quarantine zones. We learn that soldiers under FEDRA, the barely-functioning attempt at reestablishing some sort of government, are corrupt, trigger-happy and hog Boston’s meager resources. We see Joel selling painkillers to one of these soldiers, a glimpse into that corruption — but also Joel’s side gig as a smuggler. The Fireflies are shown to be dangerous, with little regard for collateral damage. They’re also losing.

Finally, we meet Bella Ramsey’s Ellie, chained in a Firefly location for as-of-yet-unknown reasons. She’s forced to undergo simple logic tests to prove her awareness of the situation. The Fireflies seem to be restless, questioning their leader Marlene’s plan. But once Marlene writes out her reason silently to a trusted associate, questions turn into unquestioning determination. They need to get Ellie out of Boston.

Joel and Tess’s hunt for a car battery puts them in the orbit of the Fireflies. Joel needs a car battery because he received a signal for help from his brother Tommy, who may be in Wyoming. This plot point, new for the show, gives Joel an initial motivation to leave Boston. Robert tries to fails to scam the Fireflies with the same car battery from before (which turns out to be broken) and he’s killed for it. The Fireflies needed that car battery for their journey out of Boston. With this plan foiled and their numbers dwindling, a desperate and wounded Marlene (played by Merle Dandrige, who plays the character in the game as well) asks Joel and Tess to smuggle Ellie, because she knows these two are “capable” of killing their way through danger.

They reluctantly take the assignment, and as they leave the Boston safe zone, they run into a federal soldier. This isn’t the soldier’s first appearance: He was buying painkillers from Joel, who smuggles goods in and out of the city. But the soldier isn’t so charitable to his dealer, and is determined to turn the three in. As the soldier is scanning all three for possible infections, Ellie proves her fighting spirit by stabbing the soldier, who points his rifle at the girl.

The show goes out of its way to juxtapose this moment with Sarah’s killing, a bit heavy handedly. (The parallels should be pretty obvious to viewers). Joel snaps and beats the soldier to death with his bare hands. But that’s not the show’s climax. In fact, we see that the soldier’s scan of Ellie is positive — which angers and confuses Joel and Tess. Ellie frantically explains that her infection is old, but the three have raised border patrol alarms, so they escape into the darkness of Boston’s outer walls. The adventure has officially begun.

Questions and observations

  • The game left it ambiguous, but strongly hinted that Joel and Tess used to be romantically involved. Here, it’s way more obvious. In one scene, the two have no problem sharing a bed.
  • Joel and Tess do not kill Robert, and frankly, I’m disappointed. The decision softens the two characters, effectively washing Robert’s blood from their hands. The game set these two up as brutal, uncaring enforcers. The show, it seems, wants them to feel a bit more gray. Tess still wants to murder Robert, but we just don’t get to see it.
  • Hi! I’m Mikhail Klimentov, an editor at The Post also watching the show, popping in for a second. I knew that Bella Ramsey had been cast to play Ellie, but when I saw the little girl at the start of the flash forward — wearing a maroon shirt not dissimilar from the one Ellie is often pictured in — I thought maybe we were seeing a younger Ellie. That turns out to not be the case, but Joel absent-mindedly tossing the kid’s body into a fire shows how inured he is to the violence and chaos of his world, and how much growth he’ll have to do to become the man players know he becomes by the end of the game (and this first season).

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