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The Last Of Us: Episode 1 Recap - Look For The Blight

Contains spoilers for "The Last of Us" Episode 1

Here we are at last. HBO's brave endeavor of bringing one of the most groundbreaking games ever to the small screen has finally been released for all the world to see. Critics already hyped it up with its nearly perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, but is the live-action iteration of "The Last of Us" really that good? Well, if the first episode is any indication, we're in for some truly gripping television for the next nine weeks. Mixing all-new elements to keep fans guessing just as much as audience members going in blind, Episode 1 did an impeccable job of ensuring the tone and the terror of "The Last of Us" game wasn't lost in the adaptation.

Without a doubt, spines were chilled, hearts were broken, and television found a new double act that could very well steal 2023 before it's even fired up. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, let's wallow in the heartbreak, regret, and the sight of The Mandalorian clocking a senior citizen with a wrench for our entertainment. There's more to it than that, as "When You're Lost in the Darkness" establishes just how much the world has changed and what exactly got taken from the ones left behind in it. Doing so has given us time to learn what makes Joel (Pedro Pascal) tick, why his cargo is so important, and just what an '80s tune means on the radio. Ready player? Well, then Press Start.

We'll be right back after this haunting message

Jarring "The Last of Us" lovers immediately, the first chapter in this post-apocalyptic world actually begins years before the game. We are first dropped on the set of a talk show discussing future threats of viral infection. It feels like it has co-creator Craig Mazin's fingerprints all over it, like a cutaway scene from the producer's award-winning "Chernobyl," as talk of pandemics and airlines being the best way for diseases to travel. That's before John Hannah's cavalier chemist, Dr. Newman, chimes in with a counterargument. While not denying that viruses have the potential to shut the world down (spoiler: one does), his fear is not from flu-like symptoms, but from a fungus with the intent to dominate.

Hooking the audience, Newman begins to speak of a flora that "seeks not to kill, but control." For the uninitiated, it's a moment subtly setting the ground rules for what's in store. Fans, however, know just what kind of monster Newman is referring to. "Eating its host from the inside out, replacing flesh with its own, preventing decomposition." While it paints a vivid picture, it also establishes immediately that this won't be your standard zombie story. Blending fact with fiction adds a realistic edge to this incoming nightmare. It establishes early on that this virus is a living thing with a purpose: to take its carrier away until there's nothing left. It's a chilling prognosis that the host eventually cuts in on with a "We'll be back." 

Don't be so sure.

The beginning of the end and IT feels familiar

Flash forward to 2003. After a lingering shot reminiscent of another well-known windowsill from the franchise, we meet Sarah (Nico Parker), daughter of Joel (Pedro Pascal). Of course, while most of these stories begin on a day just like any other, the difference is this is Joel's birthday, which Sarah is determined to make a big thing of. Once again setting fans in fresh but familiar territory, this is another chapter that was never in the game, dropping us in far sooner than we were in 2013. Formulaic as it may be watching Sarah go to school, visit her neighbors, and do her homework, it's settling the idyllic calm before the storm. However, it still takes the opportunity to scare us just a little in the process.

After getting a rushed repair job on her father's watch, Sarah heads next door to spend some time with the neighbors and raid their DVD collection. Here, we get our first undeniable glimpse of someone carrying the virus. Out of focus but still just as present, Connie's mother begins fidgeting erratically. The set design and lighting are reminiscent of Beverly's visit to her old home in "IT: Chapter 2," with all sun-scorched yellows. It's also a strong signifier that even though this might be a new(ish) take on an old genre, the classic scares are still the best.

Old turf blooms a different kind of virus

From here, fans of the game would've undoubtedly felt the same level of tension as when "Game of Thrones" readers started seeing doors get locked at the Red Wedding. Between the beautiful moment of gifting her father's watch, to the failed escape from a soldier with orders, this section is almost beat-for-beat the same as the original opening of the game. The only exception is Sarah's last visit to the Adlers, which sneaks in an interesting detail involving the show's biggest threat, as Connie Adler's mother appears to be feeding on her child. On closer inspection, we can see that Mother Adler is seemingly sprouting grass-like vegetation from her mouth and pulling away from her daughter like a weed from the tarmac.

This marks the first noticeable alteration from the original virus and something its creator was happy to tweak. Speaking to Collider, the game's creator, Neil Druckmann, broke down the shift from spores carrying the infection to tendrils saying, "Just thinking about how there's a passage that happens from one infected to another, and like fungus does, it could become a network that is interconnected" he explained. "It became very scary to think that they're all working against us in this unified way, which was a concept that I really liked, that got developed in the show."

Loss and found again

In the checklist of tragedies that unfold in "The Last of Us" game, Sarah's death is one the show simply couldn't fail. Encapsulating everything that makes this franchise great, a pulse-pounding escape ends with the unthinkable, as Pedro Pascal's Joel is left cradling his daughter as her life quickly slips away from him. From Tommy (Gabriel Luna) being too late in his rescue, to Joel's bloodstained outfit as he rocks Sarah back and forth, it's an eerily bittersweet reflection of the moment from the 2013 game. Even back then, it took the original Joel some time to master.

In the official documentary "Grounded: The Making of The Last of Us," Troy Baker who played Joel in the game, explained it took some wise words from Neil Druckmann to handle Sarah's death. "He started talking me through this scene. He was like, 'What I need you to do is I need you to just strip yourself of all these ideas, and I need you to hit this beat, and this beat, and this beat, and this beat.'" To his reluctance, Baker did as was asked and began what he described as "mindlessly doing all these things." The result is laced with moments of a father fighting the inevitable, ("I know baby, I know but I've gotta lift you up") which Pascal also nails. He doesn't necessarily surpass it, but it reignites a scene that never stops crushing hearts, no matter who is involved.

20 Years Later

After a time jump, we're reunited with Joel as a shell of the man he once was. Tragedy and time have beaten the life out of our hero in a world seemingly clinging to a forgotten one. Showing just how heartless he's become, we see him on body-burning duty. He adds another corpse to the fire of the infected, probably only a few years younger than Sarah was. At the moment, a child's guardian, he most certainly isn't. Not for long, though. 

In another part of town, "Veronica" (Bella Ramsey) is being asked to take a health check by a group called the Fireflies to see if she's infected. This lot is a large rebel faction whose call to action is to "look for the light," something that's worth a broken jaw if said in Joel's presence. They're led by Marlene (played here by the game's original Marlene, Merle Dandridge), whose relationship in the show is slightly different and laced with a little more tension.

Veronica is, in fact, Ellie, which Marlene already knows. While they might not be on the best terms here, that's not the case in the game. In the 2013 iteration, they're on speaking terms, bound by a loss teased briefly in the show (listen out for when "Riley" is mentioned). Ellie has a level of respect that Joel will also come to earn in time. However, there's a long way to go before then, and a battery is needed to get there.

One bad deal deserves another

After being double-crossed and taking a beating for her troubles, Joel's business partner, Tess (Anna Torv), returns with a black eye and vengeance on her mind. Together they plan to find out where their car battery seller, Robert, is planning to shift his merch to next and get the drop on them. Instead, they find a dead battery, a dead Robert, and Marlene out of options. It's here where she turns to Joel, making a deal for him and Tess to transport Ellie out of Boston for reasons unknown, which he reluctantly accepts. So begins the official first steps in Joel and Ellie's journey, finding someone else in the world worth trusting and fighting for, not that you'd expect that on their first meet.

Cliché as it may be, with the initial encounter being of the chalk and cheese variety, it's here where Ramsey starts to shine in a role that many thought only Ashley Johnson, the original Ellie, could handle. However, just like Baker passing the torch to Pedro Pascal, Ramsey takes hers and lights up the room. She shows a strength and confidence that Joel underestimated. "Gotcha. '80s means trouble," she says, proving to Joel that there's more to this girl than being just some "big wig's daughter."

From Hard Mode to Depeche Mode

With a plan in place, our three travelers set out to hand Ellie over to the Fireflies. Tess takes charge, leading Joel to brood a little more and Ellie to be in total awe of being in the outside world. That's all until they meet their first issue in the form of a FEDRA guard. As Tess and Joel try to talk their way out, Ellie attacks during the routine health check, putting herself in the guard's crosshairs. It's all too much for Joel, as flashes from 20 years ago come back to haunt him. Joel ends up in a fit of rage and the guard is beaten to death.

Shot beautifully, Pedro Pascal's eyes look like black pearls under the torchlight as he switches off, and the killer instinct kicks in. Call it trauma, self-defense, or both, but Ellie stands by in shock. She watches it all unfold and doesn't look away. When the red mist fades, Joel returns to reality and the voice of Tess, who sees that Ellie didn't pass the virus check and has bite marks to prove it. Three weeks old or not, it explains why this girl is so important and that they all need to move before more guards come to inspect. As they flee the scene into the darkness, we cut back to Joel's radio as it fires "Never Let Me Down Again." Amidst the storm, an ungodly cry fills the air. Clearly, not a Depeche Mode fan.