“The Last of Us” Season 1 Episode 1: Zombie Apocalypse Never Looked So Good (RECAP)

One thing about me that I definitely talk about a little too much is just how obsessed I am with Pedro Pascal. Back when he was on Twitter (RIP), we were even mutuals and had interacted a few times. So the totally healthy part of my brain was very aware that, on some level, he knew who I was. Throughout the years, that quickly evolved (or more likely devolved) into a one-sided parasocial relationship. Now, I’m hoping that my self-awareness of this delusion is enough for you to understand that as much shit as I talk online, I am a professional, and my fangirl persona is not at all how I carry myself offline. However, I just happened to be in California when The Last of Us (TLOU) premiered in Los Angeles. So before we get into my actual review of the pilot episode, let me tell you the story of how I ended up in the same theater as the entire cast and crew of The Last of Us, literally a floor above Pedro Pascal, and yet was not even given a fighting chance to meet, or worse yet, see him.

Image still from The Last of Us (COURTESY: HBO Max)

I had been in LA before the premiere and had made it a point to tell everyone I knew or was meeting with about my overwhelming desire to attend the show’s premiere. Now, I am a big TLOU fan, I’m not the biggest by any means necessary, and the only reason I wanted to attend was to get a shot at meeting Pedro. Is that insane? Maybe, but when it comes to this one goal, I truly do not care how it came across. The important part to note at this time is that no one — and I mean not even people I know that worked on the project — could get me a ticket in since they weren’t going themselves (another long story). So imagine my surprise when a month later, I was informed that a “fan event” company was putting together a lottery for TLOU fans to attend the premiere in LA. At that point, I was in a different city and planning on going home on January 7th…the premiere was on January 9th. Thinking nothing of it, I ended up applying to the lottery. What was the worst that could happen? I don’t get in and return home as planned; no biggie. 

But then it happened. It was five days before the premiere, three days before I was supposed to go home, and I got an email: I had gotten a ticket. Holy fucking shit. I freaked out, ran to change my travel arrangements, and after a few painful phone calls, I made it happen. Over the next few days, I finished putting together my premiere attire. It was beautiful. I had panic attacks every day. I was excited and terrified. I was…incredibly delusional. If you follow me on Twitter, you might be aware of the saga that has been the past week for me, and if I have one bit of wisdom to impart is that you should never expect anything to go your way during Mercury retrograde (yes, I am one of those people and yet I do not follow my own advice). Getting back to Los Angeles was the easy part. It was almost too easy, if you catch my drift. Everything seemed to have aligned for me to attend this event, look incredibly hot while doing so, and in my insane brain, meet Pedro Pascal. 

The first indication of disaster should’ve been the rain. If you know anything about Los Angeles, it only rains once a year, and that fated Monday, it was pouring. I had been bumped from general admission to priority, a label I was sure meant something incredible, but sadly only meant that I was guaranteed a spot inside. I got to the rendezvous point at my allotted time, and a line was forming. The second indication of the disaster was there were three apparent tiers of lottery winners: those that would walk the red carpet, priority, and general admission. We were made to wait in the rain for about forty-five minutes, my beautiful velvet dress getting ruined by the rain (something I only noticed after the fact). It was then that my entire world shattered. Before we were escorted into the theater to watch the premiere, they took away our phones. While at face value, this might not seem like such an insane thing to do, and I do understand the reasoning behind it, pardon my French: why the fuck would you take our phones so early on for a fan event!? In this social media age, as much as the experience matters, being able to take pictures of it to show off matters even more. 

Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller in HBO’s The Last of Us (Courtesy: HBO Max)

We were promptly taken into the theater after that, were given soft drinks and popcorn, and then proceeded to be seated and told to wait for over an hour and a half as the premiere was happening outside, and we couldn’t interact with it. We were forced only to watch a shitty loop of The Last of Us title screen and listen to a very random YouTube playlist. At the very least, they could’ve played the red carpet live stream on the giant screen to give us something to do instead, but we weren’t that lucky. At some point during the night, I sneaked downstairs to use the bathroom and loitered around, waiting to see if I could catch anyone. Still, security was an absolute pain in the ass, determined to separate the fans from the “very important celebrities” entering the theater. Look, I get it. I totally understand. Bombarding these people with hundreds of ravenous fans is not cute. You can’t control or guarantee that nothing awful will happen, and they’re not being paid for their time…but come the fuck on. 

At some point, I headed back upstairs, which was my biggest regret of the night. Pedro Pascal, as I learned after the fact, was one of the last people to show up on the carpet. After their walk-through, they were ushered into a separate theater across the street to take stylized portraits, adding to them being very late to get into the room below us. With all premieres, it was running behind, and after a really long time, and some very cute speeches from creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, the show finally started. As pissed off as I was about the entire experience leading up to the screening, I took the game’s advice and reminded myself, ‘ when you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.’ And the show itself was definitely the shining light that kept me going (that and seeing Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey in the flesh). 

Spoilers for The Last of Us episode one.

Suppose you’ve never played the games and are going into the show completely blind, aside from Pedro Pascal playing a traumatized dad. In that case, all you really need to know is that TLOU is a horror/drama story set in a post-apocalyptic world where a mutated fungus has begun infecting people and turning them into zombies to control the entire world. The show, and game, follow Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler who finds himself on a mission escorting a young girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to a stronghold of a rebel group called the Fireflies. The kicker is that Ellie just so happens to be immune to the fungi virus and is humanity’s last chance to find a cure. 

 Nico Parker as Sarah Miller in HBO’s The Last of Us (Courtesy: HBO Max)

I never once doubted the show was going to be good. While I kept my expectations reasonably low, I had a lot of faith in Mazin and Druckmann going into it; I also had a lot of faith in the cast, particularly Bella Ramsey and, obviously, my leading man Pedro Pascal. At the very least, they’d outperform and carry a shitty show to completion, and at best…well, I don’t even have to speculate. Every aspect of the pilot over-delivered. I was concerned that my experience watching it on a giant movie theater screen would have impacted my viewing experience and made it seem much better than it was, but rewatching it at home with everyone else just further cemented how good the pilot actually is. 

From a writing perspective, there are a lot of choices made that are what they are: choices. It took a while to get used to the crass cuts throughout the episode to either emphasize the passage of time or for comedic purposes. It’s a strong transition, one that I could argue is and is not very reminiscent of video game cuts. The pilot can be divided into two parts: before the apocalypse and the after that, disrupt the routine Joel has built in the past twenty years. Suppose you know the games inside and out. In that case, the pilot nicely sets up the world, characters, and stakes in a way that brings a breath of fresh air to the already existing narrative, from small changes like Joel and Tess (Anna Torv) searching for a car battery instead of intercepting a shipment of guns to Joel deciding to leave the military compound to find his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) to add personal stakes to the suicide mission. The pilot is tactical; it’s fast-paced yet takes time to linger where it needs to. It just so happens that it lingers on the pain and trauma.  

Brendan Fletcher as Robert and Anna Torv as Tess in HBO’s The Last of Us (Courtesy: HBO)

From an emotional perspective, I was destroyed. I knew that they would kill off Sarah (Nico Parker), Joel’s daughter, really early on to set the tone and the backbone of Joel’s character, and holy shit did Nico Parker deliver. I will admit I shed a tear at the premiere screening. Her performance was incredibly raw, and Pascal’s acting alongside her was the final nail in the coffin. But the show wants you to understand that there are no “good” guys. Especially those who are meant to protect us, like the military, are capable of awful things, like executing Sarah and Joel without a second thought, Joel only being saved by his brother as the two are unable to get Sarah to help before she bleeds to death. 

The first half hour was devoted to setting up the world before the pandemic outbreak, and it was glorious. Lingering shots where the horror happened quietly in the background, often ignored by those around it, like the old lady showing signs of infection as Sarah looks through DVDs, to the watch store owners frantically closing the shop early because they clearly know something Sarah doesn’t. The beauty of the pilot is how it uses silence and the preexisting knowledge the audience might have to build up the horror elements of the show and uses the character dynamics it has already set up to spring the audience into action from zero to a million when it needs to. 

Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Anna Torv as Tess in HBO’s The Last of Us (Courtesy: HBO Max)

The second half of the pilot focuses on bringing Joel and Ellie together, this time more than anything, through almost pure coincidence. Joel has been working menial jobs here and there at the Fedra-run quarantine zone he resides in, one of which happens to be corpse disposal. Almost immediately, we’re shown how broken Joel is as he carries a young kid’s corpse into the flame pit without a second thought. He’s convinced himself that this level of dissociation is what he needs to do to survive, that the only way to deal with his feelings is to bury them so far down there’s no way they could ever resurface. On the side, Joel is a very skilled smuggler. As much as he likes to pretend he’s got the brains, Joel is mostly the muscle of the operation, and Tess is the one making sure they’re making the right moves. She’s cunning, clever, and tough as hell, perfectly able to keep and put up with Joel’s shit and the incredibly violent life they lead in this post-apocalyptic world.  This is why we know exactly where these two characters are coming from when they run into Marlene (Merle Dandridge), the leader of the Boston chapter of the Fireflies, and Ellie. 

Ellie has grown restless, cooped up as just another orphan in the quarantine zone. At thirteen, she’s extremely aware that she’s different from any of the other kids, and while we do love and nurture differences in this house, hers could very easily get her killed, so she decides to escape. Thankfully she’s caught by Fireflies before anyone else can get to her, but she’s been pretty much their prisoner for a few weeks before Marlene can get to her. I’ve always loved Ellie as a character, especially how she develops after the first game’s ending. She’s a purposeless girl, aimlessly existing through life until Marlene gives her a reason to keep going, an opportunity to be a hero. 

Merle Dandridge as Marlene and Natasha Mumba as Kim in HBO’s The Last of Us (Courtesy: HBO Max)

Ellie is ready to go before a choice is even presented to her. Still, it’s through Marlene’s direction that she’s able to subconsciously validate this journey as an outlet for her rage and, much later, her desire for violence. And that is when they run into Joel and Tess. They’d both been hunting down a guy that double-crossed them on a battery deal, and it just so happens that it was Marlene who they had been double-crossed with. However, as fate will have it, they got into a little gunfight due to the battery being totally busted. Marlene has been shot, and her second-in-command Kim (Natasha Mumba) has lost an ear, making them unfit to take Ellie on their journey. Since Marlene knows Joel through his brother Tommy, she buys his help to smuggle Ellie out of the city and take her to the old Estate House where other Fireflies are waiting. In exchange, she’s willing to give Joel and Tess everything they need, not just a car battery but guns, supplies, they name it, they get it. Begrudgingly and with no better option, they agree to the terms. 

As scary as zombies and the police system can be in the show, there’s something about the final sneaking around scene in the pilot that not only gave me severe anxiety but also brought me right back to the mechanics of the game. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone that actually likes it when video games enact a sneaking around mission. Still, through a cut-scene format, it was actually beautifully done to set up tension and highlight each character’s reactions to their environment. While Ellie wanders in awe in this new world, completely unprepared and out of her element, Tess is clinical and precise, her movements like a perfectly choreographed dance, one that she, and Joel, have done many times before. And just as they’re about to make it past the patrolling soldiers, they’re caught. A pang of relief washes over us as the soldier is one Joel had interacted with before; they know each other, and he could be…totally not different at all and immediately points a gun at them all, a huge emotional callback to the start of the episode when a soldier pointed a gun at Joel and Sarah. And we all know how that turned out. 

 Gabriel Luna as Tommy Miller in HBO’s The Last of Us (Courtesy: HBO)

Joel and Ellie’s relationship is meant to be a complete juxtaposition of his with Sarah. He doesn’t want to get attached out of fear that he’ll lose everything again, and Ellie doesn’t want to trust this man who, for all she knows, could abandon her just as everyone else in her life has. But it’s in the pilot’s final moments when once again, cornered under the light of a military man’s rifle, that Joel completely loses it. He’s not about to let this happen again, so he shows his propensity for violence in an incredibly raw way, beating the soldier to the ground. That is when a switch flips. Ellie’s eyes glisten over with excitement. She likes it when Joel uses extreme violence to protect her. It excites her to a degree that she finally finds common ground with this man, a burning anger they can relate to. And, in Craig Mazin’s own words, “potentially more dangerous.”

Rating: 9/10

Standout Mentions:

  • Nico Parker is the only nepotism baby I will lay my life for. She is too talented, and I am very excited to see her career blow up. 
  • Gabriel Luna embodied Tommy to such a degree that his accent was literally the same. I hope they continue utilizing him to his highest potential throughout the show. 
  • At the start of the twenty-year jump, we follow this kid (Logan Pierce) who has stumbled into the quarantine zone and has yet to show signs of infection. He’s led inside and sufficiently tested to ensure he’s not. And in one of my favorite pieces of “show, don’t tell” that the episode utilizes, we’re shown that the device comes back “negative,” flashing red. The Kind FEDRA Soldier (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) smiles, her expression not once cracking at the truth as she continues to cheerfully tell the boy that they’re going to get him new clothes, whatever food he wants to eat, and so many toys. And then, immediately in the next scene, we find the kid dead, wrapped up, and ready to be thrown into the fire pit where Joel is working. Two entire scenes were dedicated to showing us that when the device flashes red, it means you’re infected. 
  • And finally, I need to shout out to the entire design team. The sets, costumes, and creatures all look beautiful, realistic, lived-in, and creepy. 
  • Ps. Here are some pictures of me at the premiere for further proof that I was there:
(COURTESY: Aiko Hilkinger)

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