Everything I Liked About The First Episode Of The Last Of Us

Everything I Liked About The First Episode Of The Last Of Us

This isn’t a review of the entirety of HBO’s The Last of Us. Unfortunately, local distributor Binge didn’t send screeners to us ahead of the review period so I haven’t seen it all yet. But I have seen the pilot, a premiere screening held at The Ritz, an old four-screen theatre in the Sydney suburb of Randwick. Before I go any further, let me hoist the requisite banner.

Kotaku AU Spoiler Warning
Image: Kotaku Australia

There we are. Spoilers ahead. I’m sure most of you reading this piece will be quite familiar with The Last of Us, but if you haven’t played it and were looking forward to the show, then you may consider yourself warned.

The pilot episode clocks in at roughly 85 minutes and comprises the first few hours of Naughty Dog’s beloved game. It opens on a talk show in the 1960s, in which the host and a pair of virologists imagine a global pandemic and the human cost of such a thing (how quaint a notion, in 2023). The conversation at the moment we join is focused on viruses and illnesses. One of the two doctors explains his belief that a truly catastrophic pandemic scenario would be borne on the back of not a virus, but a fungus. Consider a fungus like cordyceps, he posits, which forms a corrosive symbiotic relationship with a host, usually smaller insects like ants. It burrows in, asserts itself over the host’s system, and, eventually, takes control.

The objection from the other doctor on the show is swift. A fungus of the sort we’re talking about couldn’t take up residence in a human body because our bodies run too hot. At the moment the interview is being filmed, in the 1960s, there is no evolutionary reason for a fungus like cordyceps to evolve in a manner that would allow it to thrive in body heat that high. Unless, of course, it was necessitated by a huge environmental change.

Like, say, the planet becoming warmer over time.

“It would be the end of us,” says the doctor, whose fungal rant has sucked all the air out of the talk show’s live audience.

There is a long beat as the idea settles in. “We’ll be back,” says the host, presaging the story to come in a single, neat line.

Sarah and Joel

We don’t meet Joel first. Instead, we meet Sarah, his daughter, in a nimble performance from Nico Parker. As she was in the game, Sarah is every bit her father’s equal. She chides him for not taking enough time for himself on his own birthday. The patter between Parker and Pedro Pascal, who plays Joel, is as sparky and lived-in as it was in the game. He is gruff and focused on getting by. She is spirited and spends a lot of her time trying to coax her dad into allowing himself small pleasures.

After assuring her he will be home by 9 pm on his birthday, Joel tosses a reluctant Sarah to the neighbours, the elderly Adlers, a family only mentioned by name in the game. Sarah, he tells them, will pop by after school to visit with the elderly Adler. We follow Sarah’s day from there, attending school before departing in the afternoon for a quick trip to a jeweller who fixes a broken watch for her.

Across the day, there are small indications that something is wrong being sewn into the background. Radios play obscured news broadcasts, and Sarah begins noticing a greater than normal police presence in town. At the jeweller’s, a harried woman pushes Sarah out of the store with her repaired watch and tells her forcefully to go home, before closing the store hours early.

Good to her word, Sarah visits the Adlers in the afternoon. Looking at a shelf full of DVDs, she doesn’t notice the invalid, wheelchair-bound grandma Adler behaving strangely.

Her obligatory visit complete, Sarah heads home. Joel, typically, is not home at 9. He stumbles in closer to 10, worn out, to find his daughter waiting for him, and one of the game’s most treasured scenes plays out. “How’d you pay for this?” Pascal’s Joel asks, marvelling at the watch she’s had fixed for him. “Drugs,” replies Parker’s Sarah, flippantly. “I sell hardcore drugs.”

The scene plays out from there as you remember it from the game. Sarah falls asleep. Joel takes her upstairs and puts her to bed. And then it pivots — where the game stays in Sarah’s POV, here we briefly switch to Joel’s. His brother Tommy calls to tell him he’s in jail and needs bailing out. Its Friday. If Joel can’t come down now, he’ll be stuck in a cell all weekend and, according to Tommy, people are going crazy in there. It’s a neat explanation for why Joel is missing when Sarah is awoken hours later by the sound of explosions and low-flying aircraft.

After confirming her father is not in the house, Sarah moves outside and across to the Adlers, where she finds her neighbours are already dead. Grandma Adler crouches over her daughter’s bloodied corpse, suckling on her neck. The Adler patriarch bleeds from a similar neck wound, propped up against the back door. He gasps a warning to Sarah, but not before Grandma Adler leaps up and lunges for the girl. Sarah departs the house with Grandma Adler in hot pursuit, running into Joel and Tommy who are pulling up in a mad rush to collect her. After dispatching Grandma Adler, the show begins its recreation of the intro’s most famous sequence — the car ride.

I remember playing The Last of Us in 2013 and thinking the people who made it must have really liked Children of Men. The car ride sequence is something of a full circle moment, highly technical, cleverly edited and unbearably tense, but also a clear homage to Children of Men‘s most famous scene. The camera rotates from the back seat to the front as people thrash and scream and run around the car in motion. We are trapped in this tiny space with the characters, their ragged breathing deafening as the tension mounts.

Tess

Anna Torv’s Tess has one of the more interesting stories in the pilot, another instance of the HBO version of The Last of Us using the TV medium to slip out of Joel’s perspective. We meet her in the midst of a beating, held captive by a prospective business partner who’s changed his mind. Her hands tied, Tess’ only option is to talk her way out, try to cut a deal. The fills in the edges of a companion character who appears for only a short section of the original game, a canny woman who sees the world clearly, but winds up on the wrong end of any deal she accepts nevertheless.

Torv is in excellent form as Tess, her unkempt and wiry appearance perfectly communicating who she is — a woman who is permanently Going Through It. Everyone in her life needs to be convinced to work with her, Joel most of all, despite the closeness of their relationship.

Ellie

Bella Ramsay’s Ellie is perhaps the pilot’s greatest triumph. Not only does she look a bit like Ashley Johnson, the actor who originated the role, she embodies the character’s firey, tomboyish spirit with zeal. Ellie is a suspicious little terrier, cursing fluently at anyone who gets too close. Detained by the Fireflies until they can ascertain the nature of a life-threatening bite, Ramsay understands that the key to Ellie’s character at this time in her life is that she is scared and isolated always.

Ramsay’s best work, however, appears the moment she gets to share the screen with Pascal’s Joel. She is feisty and physical, with a defiant look in her eye and a propensity for shoving or producing a knife. The pair have an instant chemistry, the initial clashing of personalities giving both actors lots to work with. Their partnership is best displayed in a quiet moment, a fan-favourite from the game, in which the pair spend their first night in each other’s company. Joel collapses onto an old couch for a rest. “What I’m I supposed to do?” Ellie asks, annoyed.

“I am sure you will figure that out,” comes Pascal’s comfortable reply.

Look for the light

The premiere episode of the HBO adaptation of The Last of Us sets the tone for the show ahead, one that understands the things that worked so well in game’s cinematic frame and how to translate them to the screen — sometimes shot-for-shot. But it’s also unafraid to do its own thing, letting its actors find their own way to deliver its fan-favourite lines and dipping into other perspectives. This is the kind of deft touch that, I feel, comes from having the game’s creative director involved in the production. It allows itself the space to stretch the bounds of its story, while allowing it to retain the soul of the thing.

I remember the excitement I felt the night I settled in to watch Sin City on the big screen. A comic I’d loved as a teenager, remade as a movie. A huge moment. Imagine my surprise when I left the theatre two-and-a-bit hours later feeling disappointed. It took me a long time to understand why I felt that way. It wasn’t that Sin City was a lazy adaptation or in any way poorly made, it wasn’t. It was a clear labour of love that was so besotted with its source material that it regurgitated it frame-for-frame on screen. It wasn’t brave enough to make many changes and so I sat through two horus of comic-turned-film that I’d already read. I took nothing new from it.

There are people who will want that for the HBO version of The Last of Us as well. It’s a game that means an awful lot to an awful lot of people. The fans that hold it closest will not want it to change. But change it does and, I think, it ways that improve our understanding of its story, its characters, and its world.

That’s a lot of work for a single 85-minute pilot to undertake, but Mazin and Druckmann’s production makes it happen all the same.

The Last of Us premieres on Binge in Australia on January 16. New episodes will drop every Monday. Kotaku Australia attended the Last of Us premiere as a guest of Binge.

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