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The Last Of Us Episode 1 Review: Future Days

EDITORS' RATING : 9 / 10
Pros
  • Spectacular performances from the entire cast
  • Intense action and horror, grounded in human emotion and fear
  • Subverts expectations and builds cleverly off of the games
Cons
  • A lot of exposition is thrown out quickly about the new state of the world, which may be daunting for newcomers

HBO's adaptation of "The Last of Us" is in an unenviable position. While the video game source material and its sequel have a massive built-in fanbase, the team behind the television series has been tasked with bringing a beloved story and characters to the screen without losing what made the original version so special. Perhaps more than any other game in the preceding decade, "The Last of Us" has blown players away with the moral complexity of its characters and the depth of the ruined world around them. Capturing that lightning in a bottle for a whole new medium was never going to be an easy feat.

And yet, if this first episode is anything to go by, series creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann appear to have nailed it. The premiere episode of "The Last of Us" feels of a piece with the critically acclaimed games, but also finds ways to subvert and even transcend the original story. Maizin and Druckmann make some clever choices to lend the story extra relevance nearly a decade after the release of the first game, while the production design and powerhouse performances from the cast make the world of "The Last of Us" feel more visceral and real than ever before.

With video game adaptations, there's always a fear that the final product will be missing that closeness the audience develops from being able to influence the action. Here, however, the team behind "The Last of Us" does the exact opposite. From the very opening of this first episode, this take on the story grabs the viewer and doesn't let go.

The world falls apart

The centerpiece of the episode — the night of the initial outbreak in 2003 — feels like a sustained panic attack on film. We watch much of it play out from the point of view of Sarah, played with heart-wrenching sincerity by Nico Parker. Sarah wakes up alone and afraid in a world that is rapidly falling apart. Following a harrowing encounter with Joel and Sarah's neighbors, even scared families stranded on the side of the road have become untrustworthy. These fears feel all too familiar for an audience living through a pandemic, in some ways recalling the early days of COVID-19 and the uncertainties of how it spread. 

It's also here that the pilot hews closest to the events of the game, up to and including several shots mirroring the game's horrifying opening car ride. The action and suspense ratchets up to an almost unbearable degree as we see the trio of Sarah, Tommy, and Joel make a frenzied attempt at escaping from Austin, TX. The pacing slows considerably after the first half of the episode, but it gives us a chance to  see Joel's new normal. 

Cut to 2023, and all hope is lost. Montages of the city streets show us the dire state of Boston, a place ruled by armed guards and the threat of public execution. In the heart of it all: Joel and Ellie, two people who think they have already seen the worst that this world can offer. These sequences show us a lot of tropes we recognize from other post-apocalyptic shows and media, but it's all done in service of character. We have to know the kind of hell these people are coming from to eventually understand why they need each other. This section of the episode is much quieter, but no less important to the overall arc.

Our heroes are broken from the start

When we first meet Joel (Pedro Pascal) in the pilot, he's already tired and just trying to get by. He's just taking one crappy job after another to try to provide for his little family — and that part of him doesn't necessarily change after the world ends, except he's lost his heart. Joel is reintroduced in 2023 as a man who is still doing everything he can to survive, even though the world has killed him on the inside. This is a man who doesn't blink when he's asked to burn one infected citizen after another, nor does he flinch when threatened with a bullet to the head. By showing us much more of Joel's internal life (both before and after the breakout), the viewer not only understands how much he has lost, but also how much he could stand to gain in his travels with Ellie.

Although she receives considerably less screen time in the first episode when compared to Pascal, Bella Ramsey's take on Ellie is no less impressive. The actor is already nailing the attitude of the spitfire players know and love from the first game. We may not have a chance to see Ellie handle a weapon this early in the proceedings, but she expertly fires off two birds in a particularly memorable moment of frustration. The circumstances of Ellie's arrival in Boston appear to be much less amiable than in the game, so fans of the source material will likely be interested to learn more about her updated history with the Fireflies.

Supporting turns from Gabriel Luna (Tommy), Anna Torv (Tess), and Merle Dandrige (reprising her role of Marlene from the games) further anchor the horror and drama by injecting each scene with much-needed humanity and earnestness.

The Last of Us is in good hands

Overall, the first episode of "The Last of Us" is something of a marvel. The changes made to the sequence of events and other details seem to have been strategically made with television audiences in mind. The result is a bold adaptation that will keep uninitiated viewers guessing, while seasoned fans of the video games will be pleasantly surprised by its detours and added character development. Even the familiar beats have new wrinkles and added mysteries, sure to intrigue even the most jaded of gamers.

This premiere has laid the groundwork for something really special. Our two leads are only just now setting off on their journey together, but a sturdy path has been laid before them. As the most foreboding Depeche Mode needle drop ever takes us to the credits, it's clear that this is one series that will invite water-cooler conversations and watch parties. This is the kind of sci-fi drama that comes around once every so often. Just make sure to keep a box of tissues handy. There will be tears.

"The Last of Us" is now streaming on HBO Max.