Each week, we’ll recap the biggest moments of HBO’s The Last of Us before placing bets on the odds of survival for our favorite characters – like the sick, twisted, soulless monsters we are.
The end of the world has been imagined so many times, in so many different ways on TV that the word “apocalypse” feels more like an aesthetic than an existential threat. We’ve seen zombies and killer robots, extraterrestrials with hypersensitive hearing, and Lovecraftian entities that drive people to madness, and yet, we’ve never seen something quite like HBO’s The Last of Us. It’s a show that makes the apocalypse feel both terrifying and viscerally possible again.
Most of that is thanks to the storytelling from Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl showrunner Craig Mazin. And maybe a small part of that is because, for a while now, genre fans have longed to experience that feeling of dread and excitement at the prospect of a show that not only understands the appeal of these kinds of stories but wants to push the boundaries of them. It’s what Robert Kirkman was able to do with the first season of The Walking Dead, and if we linger on that comparison a bit too long, it’s only because Mazin and Druckmann’s entry elicits the same kind of awe and expectation of that AMC pilot. Watching the first episode of The Last of Us feels like watching the first episode of the next great television show. This is how pop culture phenomenons are born, how epic adventures get started.
With a lesson on the reproduction methods of potentially-killer fungi.
On a ’60s-era ABC talk show.
Before The Outbreak
How do you prep fans for fungal Armageddon? If you’re The Last Of Us, it’s with a fun little game of “guess the extinction event” that feels a bit too close to our current reality for comfort. Viral pandemics are still the girl boss of world killers, but if the planet got a bit warmer, if fungi had to evolve, what then?
The answer comes slowly and then all at once as we jump from the ’60s to the early aughts where Joel (Pedro Pascal), his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) live in a small Texas neighborhood. Pascal’s proven to have a knack for playing the wearied and weathered single-dad type. And here, well, he’s the physical embodiment of a Reba McEntire song. He spends his birthday working a double shift while his daughter buses into town to fix his bum watch with cash she stole from his top drawer – an “it’s the thought that counts” kind of gift that puts their relationship into perspective. Sarah takes care of Joel just as much if not more than he looks after her, a dynamic that feels foreshadowing in a way.
But it’s the way Mazin weaves in the mundane with the extraordinarily creepy that disturbs the peacefulness of this buildup just enough to put your neck hairs on guard. Sirens and SWAT tanks flying down city streets, twitchy shop owners hustling customers out early, an elderly woman eerily spasming just out of focus, a family dog behaving strangely. Those odd, explainable occurrences eventually add up when Sarah wakes alone in her house to the sound of explosions and TV announcers warning residents to stay indoors. Joel has gone to spring Tommy from the local lock-up, leaving her to check in on their neighbors. It’s here we get the first glimpse of the monster that will soon end our existence, a strain of fungus that – just like the TV doctor warned so many years ago – has inhabited the brain of a catatonic grandma and bent her body to its will. It’s unsettling, terrifying, and a bit nauseating to witness fungal tendrils slithering from the old woman’s mouth before latching onto another human victim. In fact, it makes one miss the good ol days when zombies just used teeth to munch on human flesh.
Everything moves quickly after Sarah escapes the crime scene. Joel and Tommy rescue her, they get the hell out of dodge, they try to make sense of this new threat – Is it terrorists? Are they already infected? – while houses burn and planes fall from the sky and the sick flood the streets looking for their next meal. They’re eventually separated as Joel carries an injured Sarah to safety only to face off against a soldier charged by the Army with clearing the town of anyone exhibiting symptoms — which Sarah is not — but a bum ankle is enough to cause to let bullets fly. Damn HBO for making Pedro Pascal cry in the first episode of this show and damn us for hoping Sarah and Joel might make it out of this mess unharmed. Now she’s dead and Joel, well, we imagine he needs therapy but isn’t getting it.
In The QZ
Another time jump drops us off in the year 2023, in a place known as QZ (or Quarantine Zone). Protected by steel walls and barbed fences, guarded by armed militia, this seems to be one of the few safe spaces for the uninfected to muddle out a meager existence. Joel is more weathered, hardened, like mud that sets in the sun for too long, and he’s forced to take day jobs working in sewers and tossing the bodies of dead infected into the city’s burn pit for ration cards. He’s also got a side hustle, smuggling pills and other black market valuables in and out of the QZ – apparently, a dangerous job since we get a glimpse of a hanging in the town square for the benefit of anyone thinking of leaving this rundown hellhole.
While Joel swigs whiskey and knocks back opiates like he’s the star of some sad country song we meet Tess (Anna Torv), another smuggler and Joel’s kind-of girlfriend. (Do labels really matter post-apocalypse?) They’re in search of a car battery so they can drive West and find Tommy, Joel’s brother who’s gone missing on a run, but they’ve bartered with the wrong guy. So have the Fireflies – a rebel group fighting for democracy and freedom against Fedra, the government in charge of the QZ at the moment. The Fireflies need to smuggle a young girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) out of the QZ. Why? Because she was infected weeks ago and has yet to show symptoms, meaning she just might hold the cure for mankind’s survival. She’s a pain in the rebel’s ass at the moment – all quick-witted comebacks and brash no-fucks-given attitude and you can practically taste the angst and aggravation in the air when Joel encounters her. It’s all so delicious.
Their meet-cute happens after the Fireflies are double-crossed and gunned down, leaving Joel and Tess to reluctantly agree to the job of smuggling Ellie to safety. Apparently, they’re capable of the sorts of things both Bella Ramsey and the rest of us are naturally curious about but their escape doesn’t go as smoothly as they’d hoped.
Smuggling Human Cargo
Before the group gets out of dodge they take a rest break at Tess and Joel’s flat where the show gives us some quiet moments between Pascal and Ramsey that set up the tense push-and-pull between the two characters going forward. Ellie is smart and scrappy, an orphan handed over to Fedra to train as a soldier who has too much sass and not enough self-preservation instincts to guarantee she’ll make it on her own. Joel, weary of watching another young girl under his care die, is distant and visibly bothered by every move she makes, something that seems to delight the young girl and gives the episode a few precious moments of comedic relief. When the group eventually makes it out of the QZ after Joel brutally beats an officer to death and Ellie’s secret immunity comes to light, whatever tentative truce was declared is buried under Joel’s fear and suspicion of who this girl is, and Ellie’s mistrust of this grown man’s intentions.
We have a feeling this road trip isn’t going to be of the buddy comedy variety.
Ellie (10 to 1 odds)
Our numbers are essentially meaningless but the message is pretty clear: Ellie’s not going anywhere. She’s been infected twice now and lived to tell the tale without letting a murderous fungus invade her mind. Is she reckless, cocky, and too rebellious to survive this harsh world by herself? Sure, but that just means someone else is going to die in her place.
Joel (9 to 2 odds)
You don’t hire the internet’s reigning zaddy and kill him off early in the season. (This show might be the next Game of Thrones, but it’s not actually Game of Thrones.) The hair and makeup department worked too hard to give us that salt-and-pepper mop to throw in the towel now, plus Joel seems adept at surviving, even if he doesn’t want to. Will he risk his neck for Ellie in the future? Likely, but at the moment he’d be just as happy to throw her to the proverbial wolves (can animals be infected?) than lose a wink of sleep over her wellbeing.
Tess (7 to 5 odds)
Tess feels like the more rational, level-headed member of this motley band of musketeers so, naturally, her clock is ticking the loudest. She readily takes Ellie under her wing and is constantly pulling Joel back from the metaphorical cliff. She’s pragmatic. She’s tough. She’s the kind of character you don’t let yourself care about on a show like this. Nice try, HBO.
The Last of Us airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.