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‘The Last of Us’ season 1 recap – episode 1: ‘When You’re Lost in the Darkness’

Bella Ramsey (left) and Anna Torv (right) play Ellie Williams and Theresa “Tess” Servopoulos in HBO’s “The Last of Us.” The first episode of the series premiered Sunday. (Courtesy of Liane Hentscher/HBO)

“When You're Lost in the Darkness”

Directed by Craig Mazin 

HBO

Jan. 15

By Ashley Kim

Jan. 16, 2023 8:54 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 24 at 9:50 p.m.

A fungal infection wreaks havoc in “The Last of Us.”

The HBO show, adapted from the 2013 game of the same name, premiered Sunday, almost 10 years after the original game was released. The episode mainly follows Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), first in 2003 and then in 2023, as he tries to make his way in a world plagued by a fungal infection that turns the infected into fast and dangerous zombies. But before the series dives into the story of Joel, it opens with a haunting fictional news talk show segment dated to 1968. In it, two epidemiologists discuss the possibility of a viral pandemic and its consequences. The scene ends with a warning that parasitic fungi can evolve and take root in human bodies.

The episode then jumps to Joel’s birthday in 2003, as signs of disturbing human activity are seen and heard in the periphery. His daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) is a typical early 2000s teenager who dances around listening to Avril Lavigne. It is clear from the start that Joel and Sarah have a deep father-daughter relationship based on how she looks out for him, even going out of her way to get his watch fixed.

[Related: ‘The White Lotus’ season 2 recap – episode 7: ‘Arrivederci’]

But the day is marred by ominous signs, such as the oddly spasming arm of one of her classmates, constant sirens in the background, and a firm warning from a woman at the clock store to go home. There is a well-executed sense of dread that slowly creeps up on viewers until it is undeniable. Tension builds until it reaches a breaking point when Sarah wakes up alone to a loud, burning world and finds the old lady next door violently feasting on other people. The design of the infected is horrifying – they move quickly and erratically, and the fungus manifests as a clawlike creature that surrounds their mouths.

Joel and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) find Sarah horrified in the middle of the street. When the infected old woman makes her way outside, Joel quickly and brutally kills her, to Sarah’s shock. The three Millers frantically make their way through the city in their pickup truck, encountering traffic, a military blockade and a falling plane along the way. The visuals are well-executed, and the timing and cinematography of the sequence make it feel as if the viewers are playing the video game. In the small decisions Joel makes, it becomes apparent that he is ruthless and a little selfish, thinking only of his family and refusing to extend help to others – but his decisions are what keep them alive.

The Millers’ luck ultimately runs out when Joel and Sarah encounter a soldier who is ordered to kill both of them out of fear of infection. Joel survives with superficial injuries, but Sarah is unfairly and mortally wounded. This is the turning point of the story, and Joel and Sarah’s reactions are heartbreaking. Pascal and Parker deliver deeply emotional and masterful performances that linger with audiences to the end of the episode.

An abrupt time skip to 2023 in Boston shows viewers an aging and toughened Joel who is working, dealing drugs and looking for his brother, whom he has not heard from in weeks. The infection has now been named Cordyceps, and there is a militaristic system in place to eliminate the infected and keep the uninfected in line. The brutality is evident in everything – from the public execution of violators to the set design of worn-down buildings and empty, abandoned spaces. In Boston, the Federal Disaster Response Agency, a military force, is at odds with dissidents called the Fireflies, who have a girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in their possession.

[Related: ‘Succession’ season 3 recap – episode 7: ‘Too Much Birthday’]

Ellie is kept hostage for a reason she is unaware of, but through the constant testing of her faculties, it becomes apparent that the Fireflies suspect she is immune to the virus. Ultimately, Joel and Ellie find their way to each other, as Joel decides to take up the task of safely accompanying her at the request of the leader of the Fireflies in Boston. As they leave, they are threatened by a soldier, and Joel, reminded of Sarah and her death, unloads his trauma and emotion onto the soldier, repeatedly punching him to the fascination of Ellie.

All in all, “The Last of Us” is technically and emotionally masterful with no weak links. Immediately diving into the action and heart of the story immerses viewers in this world, and there is just the right amount of mystery and tension to keep audiences engaged in the development of characters such as Joel and Ellie.

The first installment of “The Last of Us” is infectiously exquisite.

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Ashley Kim
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