‘The Last of Us’ Series Premiere Recap: The First of Us

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In today’s day and age, a tragic amount of folks have celebrated their birthdays with pandemic pancakes. But even among that crowd, few souls have seen their special day pancaked into oblivion quite like Joel, Pedro Pascal’s weary warrior at the heart of HBO’s The Last of Us

Hailing from the house that built House of the DragonThe Last of Us stands out as HBO’s first major post-dragon genre effort. Based on the Naughty Dog video game of the same name, and hailing from the minds of game creator Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl writer Craig MazinThe Last of Us takes viewers on an apocalyptic ride across the ages, from a bummer of a birthday to an even less welcome fungus-filled future. 

It’s a ride all too familiar to those who have played the original video game The Last of Us takes its cues from, with the pilot episode hitting many of the same beats players experienced all the way back in the game’s initial 2013 release. But it’s packed with some significant swerves from the original narrative, too, beginning with an opening sequence created specifically for the show. It’s set in 1968, several decades before Joel’s fateful birthday, on a live television interview between a journalist (played by HBO alum Josh Brener) and a scientist, played by Sliding Doors’ very own John Hannah. In the scene, Hannah’s scientist delivers a chilling monologue, predicting the fall of mankind to a terrifying and unlikely culprit: fungus.

“Fungus seems harmless enough,” he says. “Many species know otherwise. There are some fungi that seek not to kill, but control.”

Hannah’s colleague points out that parasitic funguses can’t take control over humans due to body temperature; Hannah refutes the point with a chilling counter: “What if the world were to get slightly warmer? That’s reason to evolve.”

“One gene mutates,” he continues, “and any one of them could become capable of burrowing into our brains and taking control of not millions of us, but billions of us. Billions of puppets with poisonous minds permanently fixed on one unifying goal: to spread the infection to every last human alive, by any means necessary. There are no treatments to this, no preventatives, no cures. They don’t exist. It’s not even possible to make them.”

What happens if such a scenario comes to pass? Hannah puts it simply: “We lose.” Perhaps there’s a Sliding Doors-like reality where Hannah’s prophecy doesn’t come true. The Last of Us does not live in that world. Instead, the show leaps away from the 1960s and forward to Austin, Texas in the year 2003, where a war veteran working odd jobs named Joel marks his 36th birthday with a cruel gift: the destruction of his world, twice over, thanks to the exact set of circumstances outlined 35 years earlier. 

THE LAST OF US: Gabriel Luna. By Shane Harvey/HBO.

Joel’s birthday starts harmlessly enough, as his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) prepares him a pancake breakfast, despite the fact he doesn’t even like pancakes. As the hours go on, Sarah guides the viewer through the final day of her life. She spends it fixing her dad’s watch (with her dad’s money), studying after school with the next-door neighbor (why is one of them acting so strange, and what’s up with those whispy tendrils poking out of her mouth?), and falling asleep next to Joel while watching a movie. When she wakes, all hell breaks loose. Helicopters race through the sky over the greater Austin area. Fires roar in the distance. Two of Sarah’s neighbors are dead, killed at the hands of the aforementioned whispy-mouthed neighbor, clearly infected with … something. It doesn’t matter what it is, at least not now, and certainly not after Joel clobbers this neighbor over the head with a wrench, scoops Sarah up into a truck alongside his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), and hits the road for somewhere—anywhere—safe.

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