This week, HBO and HBO Max are testing your assumptions about video game adaptations with The Last of Us. Based on the PlayStation game of the same name, this new adaptation comes from Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl’s Craig Mazin. And the first episode of this new thriller left viewers with a lot to process. How exactly did the apocalypse start? Can Ellie (Bella Ramsey) trust Joel (Pedro Pascal)? And what does the radio mean?
The Last of Us premiere immediately dove into one element Naughty Dog’s original game glossed over: the origins of the apocalypse. In a flashback, Josh Brener stars as a TV host who’s interviewing two scientists about the possibility of a fungal outbreak. It’s all late night television fun and games until one of his guests becomes serious, outlining that if a fungal infection were to spread, it could result in masses of living beings becoming corrupted as the disease tries to overpower and assimilate more and more people. “So if that happens,” Brener’s character prompts.
“We lose,” the scientist answers.
Those are the stakes of The Last of Us, a horror saga about survival in the midst of the Cordyceps brain infection. Basically, it’s a zombie show, but this one is hellbent on making you cry.
That’s apparent in this first episode. The Last of Us game took place in 2033, but for the series, HBO moved things back a few years. That means the main timeline takes place in 2023, and the Cordyceps outbreak starts in 2003. Just like in the game, the series follows Joel Miller (Pascal), a veteran and single father who has pretty much the worst birthday of all time. A huge chunk of The Last of Us‘ first episode is an expansion of the iconic first 15-minutes of the game, and all of the major beats are there. As more and more people are infected, Joel, his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) try to escape a town being overrun by cannibalistic people and crashing planes. It’s not the infected that kill Joel’s beloved daughter but an unnamed military man acting on orders. It’s a truly devastating moment that features a heart-wrenching performance from Pascal.
That’s when The Last of Us jumps ahead to 2023. Twenty years and a new world order later, Joel is now a widely feared smuggler who works with his partner, Tess (Anna Torv). After failing to hear from his brother Tommy for several days, Joel and Tess want to escape the Federal Disaster Response Agency’s (FEDRA) quarantined area and go look for him. Their best bet is to trade a car battery from a shady group of criminals. And that’s how Joel and Tess come to work with the extraordinarily indecisive Marlene (Merle Dandridge).
The leader of an anti-military resistance movement known as the Fireflies, Marlene wanted that same car battery so she could smuggle something out of Boston. That something is Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a teenage girl who was bitten by an infected three weeks ago but still hasn’t turned. Ellie is the first person who seems to be immune to this highly infectious disease, and Marlene wants to get her to the Fireflies’ doctors as quickly as humanly possible. But nothing is ever easy in the apocalypse. While trying to collect the (dead) car battery, Marlene and her men had a shootout that resulted in several casualties and a potentially fatal wound.
Joel and Tess show up exactly when Marlene is at her most desperate, and she asks them to smuggle Ellie out of the city for her. In exchange, she promises to give them a working vehicle and whatever supplies they want, betting Ellie’s life that the Fireflies will give the duo anything as long as she’s delivered safely. Joel and Tess hesitate for a second, but they ultimately agree. And with a pistol to the face and several insults, that’s how Joel meets Ellie.
Initially, Joel and Tess simply think that Ellie is just some bigwig’s kid. But when a FEDRA officer catches them, they learn the truth about her immunity. The Last of Us Episode 1 ends with Joel beating that officer and his former client to death as Tess and Ellie look on. Yeah, this is a bleak universe, so strap in.
What Does the Radio Mean in The Last of Us?
There is one final moment after Joel’s first moment, and it’s arguably one of the most important parts of this episode. Earlier in “When You’re Lost in the Darkness”, Ellie figures out that Joel has been using a radio to run his smuggling operation. If the person on the other end plays a song from the ’60s, that means everything is clear. The ’70s means there’s new stock. And through some low-key detective work, Ellie learns that the ’80s means danger. In Episode 1’s final moments, the unmanned radio plays Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again.” If there was a time to worry, it would be now.
As ominous as this code may be for new viewers, it should excite fans. Joel and Tess mention working with someone named Bill a couple of times. Played by Nick Offerman in this series, Bill is a survivalist who plays a major role in the game. This tense Easter egg provides a little insight into exactly how Joel and Tess’ smuggling operation works while also teasing who’s to come.
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