The highly anticipated The Last of Us premiered this evening. The series, based off the critically acclaimed video game of the same name, occurs in a world where parasitic fungi transform their infected human hosts into highly aggressive zombie-like creatures. As a result of the pandemic, the United States quickly devolves into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. An unlikely pair set out on a cross country trip potentially carrying humanity’s best chance at overcoming the dangerous disease.
The Last of Us spends a good portion of the first episode providing more backstory to the actual pandemic. The opening with the discussion between two scientists in the late 60s lends some plausibility to the current situation.
Afterwards, there is a lingering uneasiness as we fast forward to 2003, and follow an independent and sharp-witted teen named Sarah (Nico Parker). As she goes about her regular life and starts preparing for the birthday of her father, Joel (Pedro Pascal), there are subtle clues that something is amiss. Whether it’s news reports heard in the background, the flurry of activity from first responders and military, or even the peculiar behavior of a family pet, it’s all bringing to a simmer the upcoming catastrophic event. The unfocused conversion of an invalid elderly woman is particularly unnerving. Though what Sarah is going through is rather mundane, everything going on around her adds to the tension.
When all hell breaks loose, we receive one frantic and chaotic display. During Sarah and Joel’s escape the kinetic energy of the camera work and the different angles and perspectives enhance the level of panic. Despite watching an infected feed in one scene, there is still an aura of mystery about them since at this point, it’s still difficult to differentiate them between normal people. You become fully immersed in the primal reaction of survival.
The Last of Us doesn’t shy away from pulling at your emotions in the very first episode. It dedicates a significant portion to Sarah, and for her part, Parker’s charm and likeability make you invested in her character. Not only that, but she has a genuine love and concern for her dad. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking when tragedy strikes. The event baptizes Joel into the new normal and makes him a colder and more detached person. Furthermore, it provides the first glimpse of how totalitarian the government would become.
The Last of Us then jumps in time another 20 years to the present where Joel takes as many odd jobs he can while also working as a smuggler on the side in order to survive. It’s a tough world with the government taking a hardline stance to incursions outside of the quarantine zones. They are as strict with taking in new residents.
We are also introduced to Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a mysterious girl held prisoner by the leader of the resistance movement. Ellie is a tough, attitude filled teen that may be too smart for her own good. There are parallels to be drawn between her and Sarah, which is purposeful because her and Joel’s futures become intertwined. Ramsey is just as captivating as when we first met her as Lyanna Mormont in Game of Thrones.
As the current grizzled Joel, Pascal strikes a familiar The Mandalorian-esque figure who starts off as a pragmatist. He is a professional, maybe the best he does, that keeps his close circle small. He is very reluctant to smuggle Ellie out. There is a softening of the character compared to The Last of Us video game, which will make him more sympathetic to those new to the franchise. Despite his quiet loner vibes, he is driven by family. His motivations to leave the Boston quarantine zone are more altruistic, and this version of Joel is less violent.
The writing is impressive in that it ties in all these details and aspects throughout the episode. Sometimes, it adds nuance such as the confrontation during the escape. The soldier is one of Joel’s clients, who even gave the protagonist a heads up earlier. The unlucky fellow is only trying to do his job but meets a gruesome end. The scene also dives into Joel’s past trauma of losing his daughter giving the situation a morally grey area.
The ending is well crafted building up the dramatic irony surrounding Ellie’s secret leaving the audience to wait until next week for the fallout. Then the haunting playing of Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” has a possible dual meaning. Not only did we learn that it’s a warning from some referenced characters, which builds the intrigue, but it could also be a message to Joel and Ellie, along with their companion Tess, as they embark on this journey.
The series premiere of The Last of Us is a tense edge-of-your-seat thriller with a finely crafted, nuance filled story. It’s excellent viewing on its own while leaving you anticipating for more.
New episodes of The Last of Us air Sundays on HBO.
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