The Last of Us S1E1: “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” — In That Scenario, We Lose

Joel Miller holds a flashlight in The Last of Us S1E1
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us S1E1, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” (written by Neil Druckmann & Craig Mazin and directed by Craig Mazin)

From the very first moments of HBO’s new Sunday night prestige action-drama, The Last of Us, we know that this will not be like any other Zombie-apocalypse trope that we have come to know (and either love or hate) over the years. Following on the heels of wildly successful shows and properties such as The Walking Dead, World War Z, Night of the Living Dead, and even satires like Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead, the new HBO project immediately defines how it will break free from the (zombie) pack and make this hopeless, lost world one that we want to desperately inhabit for at least the first season.

Adapted from a mega-popular two-part Playstation video game, The Last of Us opens Episode 1 (“When You’re Lost in the Darkness”) with a scene of exposition that fills viewers with just as much dread as it does information. As someone who has played through the first few hours of the game by the time this episode aired, this scene made it clear writers Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin want to both stick as close to the source material as possible while also adding some dramatic depth to the story, hooking the audience on what is to be a new way of telling an old monster story.

This first scene shows us we aren’t going to just be dealing with our father’s or grandfather’s living dead.

Two epidemiologists are part of a standard Sunday morning science talk show all the way back in 1968 and are debating the merits and validity of the possibilities of another worldwide pandemic covering the globe someday (Spoiler alert, It’s possible!). But one of the panel members, played quite creepily by John Hannah, is not afraid of a virus spreading amongst humans, even if it is dangerous.

Why? Because we always win. Our scientific and social efforts eventually coalesce to a point where the virus is eradicated or we develop a certain immunity to it, similar to the Spanish Flu more than 100 years ago. But there is one biological threat for which there is no cure, no means to stop the spread, and no hope of defeating it: Fungi.

In that scenario, he says, we lose. And our world is destroyed.

Joel kneels in front of his daughter Sarah with his hands on her cheeks in The Last of Us S1E1
Photograph by Shane Harvey/HBO

But before the world can be destroyed, we first know it must be built. This world begins with a simple family outside Austin, Texas. We are introduced to Joel Miller (played by Pedro Pascal) and his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker). Joel seems like your average blue-collar single father who comes home late and half-heartedly asks if his 16-year-old has finished her “fractions.” For reasons unknown, Joel’s wife/Sarah’s mother is not around, and he is doing his best to try and raise a precocious high-schooler while also making ends meet as a construction contractor with his brother Tommy Miller (Gabriel Luna).

The world begins to show the first cracks in the foundation when Sarah goes into town to fix her dad’s favorite watch as a birthday present. In the background, emergency vehicles are seen, we see a stray person running, and the shop owners abruptly have to close the store. Viewers know these are the standard danger-is-coming appetizers before the violent main dish.

Once home, Sarah visits her sweet middle-aged neighbors whose elderly mother lives with them. Before she heads home for the afternoon, we notice (although Sarah doesn’t) that her infirmed elderly neighbor all of sudden has a… new, youthful exuberance sweep over her. Ray Peterson would tell you, never trust the quiet neighbors.

After Sarah falls asleep when her dad misses their movie-and-cake date for his birthday that night, she awakes to find her dad frantic after he had to bail out Tommy from jail after a bar fight got really out of control thanks to some people acting crazy. And that’s when the realization kicks in. Things are not all right and they need to get the hell out of town.

What follows is an almost shot-for-shot scene from the video game of Joel, Sarah, and Tommy trying to escape the Austin area. There are tragic consequences and disturbing new realities from their attempt to escape that are much, much better seen than read. Their city seems already lost and the military has already seized control. After their car crashes, Joel and Sarah are forced to set out on foot, coming face to with several of the infected, already looking to spread their disease to anyone they can grab.

But the worst monster Joel and Sarah face comes in the form of an Army officer preventing people from escaping. As father and daughter try to escape the zombies and the military blockade, Sarah is mortally shot, dying in Joel’s arms.

Spend any time playing The Last of Us, and you soon learn these are not ordinary zombies that this world will face, but rather the creatures known as Clickers, whose primary purpose is not to feed so they can stay alive, but to find hosts with the intention of spreading. Circling back to the opening scene with the epidemiologists, this is what makes these kinds of creatures so dangerous and unpredictable. Fungi want to take over their host until there is nowhere left to spread, and they will stop at nothing to make that happen. What we see in Episode 1, however, are only these creatures in their infancy. What Joel, Sarah, and Tommy encounter that night is just the beginning of a very long nightmare.

Fast forward 20 years and Tommy finds himself in the Boston area during the worst dystopian, authoritarian rule imaginable. Instead of family, Tommy surrounds himself with co-workers who help him shovel dead bodies into burn pits and fellow smugglers such as Tess (Anna Torv). These smugglers have apparently developed an intricate network of acquiring and trading supplies such as cigarettes, drugs, and food ration cards.

Graffiti on the wall in the new dystopia run by FEDRA reads "When you're lost in the darkness"
Photograph by Shane Harvey/HBO

A very precarious relationship exists between the smugglers and the members of the ruling military group, FEDRA (Federal Disaster Response Agency). In this apocalypse, the Federal first responders have devolved into a dictatorial military regime and run all activities inside human-occupied Quarantine Zones. FEDRA sets curfews, manages resources for communities, assigns labor, and carries out executions when rules are broken (the Commanders from Gilead would certainly approve).

All the while, they are conducting regular scans of humans to determine if they have been infected. The question immediately is asked of the audience. What’s worse? Become infected and accept your certain fate or continue to be ruled over by new-world FEMA with machine guns and nooses?

One group of rebels, known as the Fireflies, are not happy with that choice and are fighting back. These freedom-seekers carry out routine attacks against the FEDRA, and are responsible for much of the chaos inside the Quarantine Zones.

Joel and Tess sit holding guns
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

When a deal Joel and Tess have with the Fireflies for a car battery falls through, a new item to smuggle is presented to them that can assure they see a massive payday. A young teenager, Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey) needs to be smuggled out of the Boston Quarantine Zone for reasons unknown. All they need is for Ellie to be escorted to the capital and a larger group of fireflies can take over from there.

The smuggling takes place under cover of night, but when the team runs into one of Joel’s FEDRA dealers, things inevitably go south and he is forced to kill the officer to save Ellie. During the scuffle, we learn Ellie’s value and the reason why she must get to safety. She was infected three weeks prior but shows no symptoms and has not had her mind taken over by the fungus. A cure, it would seem, rests somewhere inside her biology.

Now some 20 years after he lost everything that was important to him, Joel must decide if he is ready to be a protector again. Is he ready to be someone who is responsible for a life other than his own? As Joel grapples with the weight of the decision he now faces, the closing scenes of the episode are covered in the lyrics of Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again.” Humanity needs Ellie. Ellie needs a protector and a friend.

“I’m taking a ride with my best friend
I hope he never lets me down again
He knows where he’s taking me
Taking me where I want to be
I’m taking a ride with my best friend”

Questions After Episode 1:

  • Where is Tommy and what happened to cause the fallout between Joel and Tommy? The conversations with the Fireflies imply that something they did caused Joel and Tommy to go separate ways. What was it? Can Joel both guide Ellie where she needs to go and also look for Tommy who hasn’t been heard from in three weeks?
  • There are more than a dozen other characters in the game and who were teased in The Last of Us promotional material. Where are they? How far does Joel go this season?
  • In the opening scene with the epidemiologist, he says there are “no treatments, no preventatives, no cures” to a fungal outbreak among its hosts. Is that true 60 years later? What can we hope to identify by analyzing Ellie?
  • In addition to FEDRA, Joel’s contact in the radio room says there are “raiders and slavers” outside the Quarantine Zones. Do we see these characters and does this become a “battle of the week” formula that sustained The Walking Dead for so long?

Written by Ryan Kirksey

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