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The Last Of Us ep 1.png

'The Last Of Us' Recap: TV's Official Daddy Pedro Pascal Vs. The Fungal Apocalypse

By Tori Preston | TV | January 16, 2023 |

By Tori Preston | TV | January 16, 2023 |

The Last Of Us ep 1.png

I played 2013’s The Last Of Us the way I play most games: I technically didn’t. I watched my husband play it because my button-mashing coordination goes all wonky when I feel threatened, which is a completely rational response if you ask me. I’ve never let this stop me from enjoying the experience of (watching someone else play) video games, though, because above all things I’m a story junky — and some games, in and around all the fighty-punchy-shooty bits, tell some pretty fantastic stories. What sets The Last Of Us apart isn’t just that the story it tells is better, but that the story it tells isn’t somehow separate from the gameplay. Most games you play, you get a cut scene indicating that you’ve beaten some form of level, and maybe you’re anxious to get back to playing so you’re about to hit the “skip scene” button but then I’m next to you like “Don’t you dare skip it, I wanna know what happens!” and… anyway, that’s not The Last Of Us.

Here the story elements unfold during the gameplay, and nothing seems like a level so much as just another unique challenge on the journey west. When a cut scene comes along it feels like a seamless reward rather than a momentum-halting punishment. In fact, the gameplay itself wasn’t all that revolutionary from what I could tell (again: not touching a controller), all pretty standard survival game tactics with limited resources and lots of strategic stealth. No, what was different was that skill sort of just… didn’t matter. You didn’t play to beat a time, or for achievements, or to unlock different endings. There’s only one ending, and it isn’t a big boss battle. You just played because you were invested in the lives of these broken, difficult, morally complicated characters named Joel and Ellie. You played to see their story.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that The Last Of Us was always uniquely suited to making the jump from game to television because it was practically Prestige TV to begin with. These reviews breathlessly proclaiming HBO’s new series as the “best video game adaptation ever” are sort of missing the point. Most video game adaptations are based on material that needs to be expanded upon to fill in the gaps where, well, a player would be busy playing. That narrative gap is almost non-existent here. Of course, it also helps that the game’s writer, Neil Druckmann, collaborated closely with Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) in creating this show, and the result is spectacular: Gut-punchingly faithful at key moments, but also expanding and enriching the material in valuable ways. Viewers who never played the game aren’t missing a thing, but players of the game will be impressed with the way it’s all brought to life — and may be in for some surprises along the way that even they can’t anticipate.

The premiere episode, titled “When You’re Lost In The Darkness,” kicks off on the set of a talk show in 1968. The host (Josh Brener) is interviewing a pair of epidemiologists about — what else — pandemics. What microorganisms should we really be worried about? One of the doctors (played by The Mummy’s John Hannah) argues that it’s not a virus or a bacteria that should frighten us, because humans have always faced those and we’ve always survived. No, the real threat is… well, mushrooms basically. Fungi. The types of fungi that infest hosts and change their behavior, causing hallucinations and turning them into spore-spouting puppets. Of course, these parasitic fungi aren’t a threat to humans because our body temperature is too high. But what if something forced the fungus to evolve to higher temperatures, like oh say CLIMATE CHANGE? Well, now that would be a doomsday scenario we’d be utterly incapable of defending against.

So, The Last Of Us isn’t so much a zombie show as it’s a “fungal puppet plague outbreak” show, I guess, but it’s also not an entirely baseless setup. The zombie fungus that takes over ants, the Ophiocordyceps which the doctor describes in this scene, is absolutely real — as The Atlantic’s science writer (and chief COVID correspondent) Ed Yong described in depth in this article from 2017.

When the fungus infects a carpenter ant, it grows through the insect’s body, draining it of nutrients and hijacking its mind. Over the course of a week, it compels the ant to leave the safety of its nest and ascend a nearby plant stem. It stops the ant at a height of 25 centimeters—a zone with precisely the right temperature and humidity for the fungus to grow. It forces the ant to permanently lock its mandibles around a leaf. Eventually, it sends a long stalk through the ant’s head, growing into a bulbous capsule full of spores. And because the ant typically climbs a leaf that overhangs its colony’s foraging trails, the fungal spores rain down onto its sisters below, zombifying them in turn.

(And if you’d like more nightmare fuel about parasites that invade and manipulate hosts, Ed Yong gave a fantastic TEDTalk all about the worms and wasps that surround us: “Are there dark, sinister parasites that are influencing our behavior without us knowing about it… besides the NSA?”)

Anyway, the premiere jumps from 1968 to Austin, Texas in 2003, where we finally meet Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) and his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) on the very doomsday that epidemiologist described oh so long ago: The fungal plague outbreak. Joel is a single father, an army veteran, and a construction worker, and today is his birthday — but instead of following him we stick with Sarah as she goes to school, gets her father a present, and does her homework. All around her things are slowly falling apart — background actors are twitching ominously, emergency vehicles race by with sirens on, dogs whine — and through it all we’re falling in love with Sarah because it’s impossible not to. When you need to grab the heartstrings quickly, hire a so-called “nepo baby” with the face and talent of her mother, Thandiwe Newton, and put her in jeopardy.

By the time all hell finally breaks loose, Joel and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) try to flee Austin with Sarah only to discover the roads blocked off by the military. After an accident forces them to go on foot, Joel carries an injured Sarah until he’s stopped at gunpoint by a soldier, and… the soldier shoots them. Tommy arrives in time to kill the soldier, but the damage is done. Sarah dies in Joel’s arms. This sequence, the escape, is an almost word-for-word/ shot-for-shot remake of the game’s opening scene, and it remains a devastating yet effective intro. It would be easy to say this moment matters because it’s the moment that breaks Joel, turning him into the hopeless, bitter man he becomes, but it’s more than that. In depicting Sarah’s death not at the hands of the infected but a human, it sets up one of the biggest themes of the game: The terrible things we do to survive. In the confusion of the outbreak, when nobody knew what the infection was or how it was transmitted, that soldier was ordered not to take any risks when facing an injured person. She didn’t deserve to die, of course, but it makes sense in the rational calculus of survival. It’s horrific, but it’s justified.

More importantly, we get a glimpse of exactly who Joel truly is in the events leading up to her death: The moment he orders Tommy not to stop for the family stranded on the side of the road. Joel is not and never was a selfless hero. He’s a man who protects his own and that’s it, effortlessly performing the exact same ruthless calculus of survival. The question is whether that’s still the man he is after losing his daughter, and that’s something to keep in the back of your mind as the season progresses.

Our final time jump brings the episode into the present, 2023 — twenty years after the outbreak. Joel is in Boston now, in a quarantine zone run by a militaristic organization called FEDRA (Federal Disaster Response Agency). By day he performs unsavory menial tasks for ration cards just like all the other survivors, but on the side he works as a smuggler with his partner Tess (Anna Torv). Weeks ago, his brother Tommy left Boston on some mission for the Fireflies, a rebel militia that opposes the authoritarian FEDRA, and Joel hasn’t heard from him since. So he and Tess decide to find a vehicle and escape the QZ to track Tommy down, but they need a car battery first — and their hunt lands them on the bloody doorstep of the Fireflies just after a shootout gone wrong. Marlene, the leader of the Boston Fireflies (played by Merle Dandridge, who portrayed the character in the game as well), offers Joel and Tess a proposition: Smuggle a mysterious, violent teenager named Ellie to the Fireflies stationed at the Massachusetts State House and in exchange they’ll outfit the pair with a vehicle and all the weapons they want.

Here we finally met our other protagonist, Ellie (Bella Ramsey), and by the end of the episode we learn just what makes her so special: She was bitten by an infected three weeks ago (and in fact shows up as infected when tested) but never turned. She’s completely fine! She’s probably, like, humanity’s last hope or whatever! We don’t know yet precisely what the Fireflies plan is, but it’s clear Merle sees Ellie as the key to achieving a victory that’s bigger than these endless petty fights against FEDRA, just as it’s clear that anyone else who discovers that Ellie is infected will shoot first and ask questions later.

So a lonely fighter finds himself unwillingly in charge on an orphan with a great gift, in a world that wants to kill the child or use it to unclear ends? Hello, season one of The Mandalorian! The show’s casting is uniformly great, but putting Pedro Pascal in Joel’s dusty dungarees is especially apt precisely because of the baggage of all his other roles. Despite the surface similarities of their journeys, Mando and Joel are not cut from quite the same moral cloth, and there’s going to be fantastic tension as the season progresses between the sort of character you expect Pascal to play and the sort of character Joel ultimately is. Unless… the show makes some changes to the plot. So far, though, I don’t expect that to be an issue. Even if I’d really appreciate it if they did, for the sake of my bleeding heart!

We don’t get to see too much of Ramsey in action as Ellie, but we do see hints of a sort of delightfully bloodthirsty girl that stands in stark contrast to sweet Sarah. Ellie was born after the outbreak, in the Boston QZ, and all she knows is this deadly world order. Fighting for survival isn’t new to her, it’s her whole life, and she shows no hesitation pulling her knife on any threat she sees (including that pesky FEDRA guard and, uh, Joel himself). Though she and Joel aren’t exactly pals or even allies yet, the foundation of their eventual partnership is clear to see. Here is a girl who isn’t fragile, who is a survivor, and who just might need him for exactly the broken ball of trauma and anger that he is — or at least she isn’t put off by his rage, if Ellie’s reaction to Joel beating the snot out of that guard is any indication.

The episode ends before we learn much more, but there are a few last details I’d like to point out. So far the show is refreshingly free of verbal info-dumps, to the extent that we still don’t really know much about the cordyceps infection. A lot of information is given visually, like the poster that describes the time it takes an infection to overtake a body based on the location of the bite. That is our only clue that Ellie is special, otherwise we’d have no context to know why being bitten three weeks ago was a big deal. In fact, so much of the world-building is that way, atmospheric instead of explained, from the graffiti that introduces the Fireflies to that one long-dead infected body Tess and Joel discover in the subway tunnels. Mushrooms have grown out of its flesh, fusing it to the wall, as though the fungus has spent every last resource its host had and moved on. That is the end-stage of the infection, and we saw a few examples of the early stage during Joel and Sarah’s escape (when the hosts still look mostly human), but… well, let’s just say there’s a lot of stages in between for our heroes to encounter.

I said that the story of The Last Of Us wasn’t separate from the gameplay but expressed equally through and around it, and I appreciated the little nod to that in the premiere as Tess and Joel lead Ellie out of the QZ. Though they are avoiding guards rather than infected, it’s very reminiscent of the sort of stealth gameplay you experienced in the original — and based on the previews for the season, there’s more of that stealth to come.

Next week we’ll find out if Joel and Tess manage to deliver Ellie successfully to the State House and if their job is done, easy peasy lemon squeezy. The title of the episode is “Infected” though, so uh… don’t get your hopes up.

Header Image Source: HBO (screenshot)