The Last of Us – Episode 1 Recap – ‘When You’re Lost in the Darkness’

The first episode of HBO's The Last of Us establishes a new world for the video game series, with plenty of differences and similarities alike.
The Last of Us HBO TV series - Episode 1 Recap - When You're Lost in the Darkness

From its opening moments, the HBO TV series adaptation of The Last of Us immediately attempts to reframe the events of the post-apocalyptic story in its own, more grounded way. Though based on the 2013 video game series by PlayStation Studio, Naughty Dog, it’s immediately clear that the show, written by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (creative director on The Last of Us video game), aims to focus more on the emotional drama and human conflict of the story.

In this recap of The Last of Us Episode 1, we’ll recount and reflect on the events of the show, and provide some light analysis and context in regards to how well the HBO adaptation handles and portrays its interpretation of this story, and how it compares to the original video game.

For further analysis and reading on the HBO adaptation of The Last of Us, you can check out the following articles: 

Episode recaps and analysis: 

Behind-the-scenes podcast recaps:

The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO Max in the US, and Binge in Australia.

The Last of Us HBO – Episode 1 Recap – ‘When You’re Lost in the Darkness’

This episode was written by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, and directed by Craig Mazin.

The show opens in the year 1968, on a television talk show where two epidemiologists talk about how the hypothetical prospect of a pandemic might unfold in the future – a topic that is perhaps a bit too on the nose in 2023. For a show exploring these themes, however, it’s probably best to get this out of the way immediately. 

The Last of Us HBO - Episode 1 Recap - ‘When You're Lost in the Darkness’ screencap
Image: HBO / Binge

One of the guests begins to talk about the very real concept of parasitic fungi – organisms that infect, kill, and control the body of their host to further spread their existence. Though they only really have the capacity to affect insects at this point (since the fungi can’t withstand the higher temperatures of the human body) the epidemiologist suggests that fungi could evolve, given the right conditions, like the increasing temperature of the earth. Furthermore, he suggests there is no way that humans could combat this. 

On this grim note, the opening titles run. They feature the theme song, The Last of Us, as written and performed by Gustavo Santaolalla, the same as it was in the video game. 

Post title credits, the episode then jumps ahead to a suburb of Texas in 2003, where single father Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), a building contractor, and his teenage daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), are starting their day. It’s Joel’s birthday, and Sarah attempts to make him a nice breakfast before he rushes off to work. It doesn’t go great.

Joel’s brother and contracting partner Tommy (Gabriel Luna) enters to join them, and begins eating leftovers from the fridge in lieu of pancakes – Joel had forgotten to get pancake mix from the store. Joel is painted as being forgetful and preoccupied with his work and his need to keep his family afloat, though has a clear lighthearted side, and is very open to playfully jesting with Sarah and Tommy. Sarah, meanwhile, is portrayed as being the smart one in the family – she corrects Joel and Tommy’s speculation on where in the world Jakarta is, after they hear news on the radio about an incident there.

The Last of Us HBO - Episode 1 Recap - ‘When You're Lost in the Darkness’ screencap
Image: HBO / Binge

Before Sarah leaves the house, she sneaks into Joel’s room to steal a broken watch, as well as a small amount of cash. As they ready the car to leave, Joel and Sarah have a chat with their elderly neighbours – one of whom is old enough to require assistance and seems mostly immobile and uncommunicative – and Joel somewhat humorously makes a commitment for Sarah to pay them a visit in the afternoon.

As Sarah attends school, she’s momentarily distracted by the twitching wrist of a classmate, which causes light to bounce off his metallic medic alert bracelet. After school, she hops on a bus to a watch repair shop in order to fix Joel’s watch, but while the Lebanese owner of the shop is friendly, his wife quickly enters. After a terse conversation in Arabic, she tries to rush Sarah out to close up. Thankfully, the watch is fixed. 

Sarah returns home and honour’s Joel’s commitment by spending some time with her elderly neighbours, doing homework and watching raisin cookies get baked. As she peruses their DVD collection to pick out a movie to borrow (something Joel likes, for his birthday), the eldest woman from earlier, deeply out of focus in the shot, begins to violently convulse.

Sarah takes her leave soon after, but stops to notice that the neighbour’s dog is staring at the elderly woman, who is now sitting perfectly still.

Image: HBO / Binge

Joel returns home from work late at night – later than he promised Sarah, and without bringing back a birthday cake, like he promised. Nevertheless, Sarah presents him the fixed wristwatch (in a jovial interaction that appears to take its dialogue verbatim from the same scene in the game), and the two settle in to watch the film Sarah borrowed. 

During the film, Sarah falls asleep, and Joel gets a phone call from Tommy – he’s in jail after getting into a brawl with a violent man at a bar, and pleads for Joel to come bail him out. 

Sarah is awoken in the early hours of the morning by explosions, and the sound of helicopters, but finds herself alone in the house. She’s drawn outside by the appearance of the neighbour’s dog, who she tries to return, though it breaks free of her grasp and runs off into the night before she can get through the door. 

Noticing the open door, Sarah cautiously investigates the house, and realises something is terribly wrong when she almost slips on a pool of blood in the kitchen, and sees the once-immobile elderly neighbour now eating the necks of her family. She makes a run for it, with the infected neighbour frantically and clumsily making chase. As Sarah gets outside, Joel and Tommy careen onto the scene in their pickup truck, and Joel kills the infected woman with a wrench, without hesitation. 

There’s confusion and desperation in equal measures as Joel, Tommy, and Sarah pile into the vehicle, yell at their neighbours, and careen out of their street, taking out some of their now-infected neighbours in the process. 

In a sequence that feels like it’s pulled directly from the impactful prologue of the game, we’re pulled into the back seat of the car with the characters as they navigate the roads, try to make sense of everything, drive past others pleading for help, and try to find a way out of the city. 

They eventually find themselves, unfortunately, in the midst of town, where crowds of confused people and confined streets halt their progress. Passenger jets also begin falling from the sky, and when one makes a dramatic crash landing nearby, a piece of debris topples their vehicle. Sarah’s leg gets pinned in the crash, and shortly after Joel pulls her out of the wreckage, they’re separated from Tommy in another vehicle accident. 

Joel carries Sarah through the alleyways and shopfronts to try to regroup with Tommy by the riverfront, but the two attract the attention of a lone infected, who stumbles after them. Just as the monster is about to pounce, it’s shot by a soldier, who then keeps Joel and Sarah at gunpoint. 

Image: HBO / Binge

As Joel tries to explain that neither of them are infected, the soldier radios for instructions on how to handle the situation. As Joel slowly realises that the soldier has been ordered to kill them, he dives out of the way just as the soldier shoots, only for him and Sarah to tumble down an incline. 

The soldier follows and raises his gun at Joel, but before he can fire again, he’s shot and killed by Tommy, who’s finally arrived on the scene. While Joel has escaped with just a graze, they quickly realise Sarah is far worse off, and in a heightened, emotional scene, she passes away in Joel’s arms.

The show skips ahead 20 years, after the day of the outbreak, focusing on the serenity of nature at first, and then reveals a devastated, post-apocalyptic cityscape – Boston in 2023.

A young child stumbles through the scene, eventually finding himself in front of a walled city – a Quarantine Zone (QZ) – with American flags flying, heavily equipped guards on duty, and the word ‘WELCOME’ graffitied above its front gate. A guard notices the child, and rushes to assist as he collapses.

Image: HBO / Binge

The child is brought into the city, bound to a wheelchair, and we get a glimpse of how society now deals with the disease that has seemingly wiped out most of the country’s population. As a friendly guard reassures the child, another puts a device to their neck to test them – which results in a bright red screen. 

Upon seeing this, the friendly guard explains that they’re going to give the child some medicine, and then they’re going to find new clothes, and feed them their favourite food. They’re given an injection. 

We cut to a scene inside the city, where citizens are throwing corpses onto a fire. A truck pulls in to bring more bodies, much to their dismay, and a woman goes to begin unloading. She sees the body of the child from earlier – hooded, but whose identity is made clear by his distinctive sneakers, and tells her workmate, revealed to be Joel, that she can’t bring herself to do it.

With little hesitation, Joel picks up the body and tosses it onto the bonfire. The use of a dead child is a grim, but somewhat necessary tool here – in the past 20 years since the death of his daughter, Joel has seemingly tried to close off those kinds of emotions as a defence mechanism to survive this terrible new world.

Image: HBO / Binge

Joel collects his pay for the day, and asks about additional work from the FEDRA (Federal Disaster and Response Agency) officer in charge, which paints a picture of how life in the QZ operates. We’re given glimpses of the despondent citizens of the QZ, the heavily armed presence, the barter economy (which uses ration cards as currency) and strict curfew. It’s a fascist dictatorship, basically. We’re also given a brief glimpse of a Firefly logo. We soon come to learn this is the democratic resistance group trying to turn things around. 

Joel arrives at a public hanging, where individuals that have tried to sneak in or out of the QZ are being executed – with several citizens in attendance. A guard catches the eye of Joel, who meets him in a back alley, and we learn that Joel is now a smuggler – he provides the guard with a small amount of pills. The guard warns Joel that the Fireflies have been increasing their activity lately, and as a result, the guards are being extra vigilant. 

The show then detaches from Joel, and we cut to a couple of new characters: Tess (Anna Torv), who has been visibly beaten, and is being held and apologised to by a man called Robert and his goons. Tess has been looking for a car battery, and had paid Robert for one, but he’d mistakenly sold it to someone else. We presume that Robert’s goons had beaten Tess up after she objected, and Robert is trying to make amends – lest Joel, Tess’ partner, comes to take revenge. 

The Last of Us HBO - Episode 1 Recap - ‘When You're Lost in the Darkness’ screencap
Image: HBO / Binge

Before they can agree on a course of action, they’re interrupted by an explosion, which takes out the wall of the building they’re in. Tess escapes to see that a FEDRA vehicle has been bombed, and that a sniper is on a nearby rooftop, firing on FEDRA soldiers. She sees an incoming squad of FEDRA soldiers, surrenders to them, and is detained. 

In the next scene, we see Ellie (Bella Ramsey) for the first time – sooner than we do in the events of the game. She’s chained up in a room, being watched by guards, and being asked by a woman to count to ten and answer a series of questions, presumably to assess her faculties. She’s angry, and has been there for days. 

We rejoin Joel as he visits a radio service, with people lined up to send messages to their loved ones across the country. Joel cuts in to speak to the operator to ask about Tommy – he’s been gone for weeks, and Joel has been trying to get back in touch without success. He was last seen in Denver. Joel returns home, checks on his secret stash of weapons, and attempts to estimate how far it is to travel to Denver. There’s a shot of Joel’s watch – now broken, but he still wears it – and he drinks himself to sleep. Tess joins him at some point during the night.

The Last of Us HBO - Episode 1 Recap - ‘When You're Lost in the Darkness’ screencap
Image: HBO / Binge

In the morning, Tess tells Joel about the kerfuffle with Robert and the battery – Joel is devastated because he was relying on the battery to travel across the country to find Tommy. The two make a plan to find Robert and confront him in order to find out where the battery ended up. 

As Joel and Tess track down Robert’s whereabouts, we’re introduced to Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies in Boston. We join her as her annoyed subordinates begin questioning the fact that they’ve been seemingly bombing random locations and holding a girl – Ellie – in their headquarters. Marlene reveals that they’ve been slowly diverting FEDRA attention away from their location, in an effort to escape the QZ and take Ellie west across the country. Marlene hands one of her subordinates a message from a radio tower, which stuns and motivates her. 

Marlene meets with Ellie and hands her the backpack that carries her possessions, including a switchblade. Marlene unchains Ellie and formally introduces herself, though it’s revealed that Marlene has known Ellie for a lot longer than she realises, having put her in FEDRA military school for safety. Marlene explains that Ellie can’t go home, because she has a far greater purpose that any of them could’ve ever imagined. She goes to tell Ellie the reason, under the condition that she never tell anyone, for fear of death. 

The Last of Us HBO - Episode 1 Recap - ‘When You're Lost in the Darkness’ screencap

We rejoin Tess and Joel as they enter an abandoned subway tunnel, arm themselves, and move to infiltrate the building where Robert has supposedly holed himself up, discovering a long-dead infected person on the way there. Interestingly, the characters do not wear gas masks as they do in the video game – despite the virus being rooted in fungus. The lack of spores, which is inherently tied to the nature of fungus, is one of the compromises the creators have made here. 

After some light banter about Joel’s construction background – showing that there is still some lightheartedness in these characters, they infiltrate the building, only to find that Robert and his men have all been shot dead, and the car battery that Robert promised them is defective. The two turn the corner to find Marlene and her subordinate from the previous scene, injured, but not before Ellie tries to ambush Joel with her switchblade, and is promptly disarmed. As it turns out, Marlene needed the car battery too, but the deal obviously went bad when they discovered it was defective. 

Now they’ve been injured and the Firefly squadron has been scattered, Marlene instead convinces Joel and Tess to escort Ellie out of the Boston QZ, and rendezvous with another group of Fireflies at the Massachusetts State House, where they’ll be provided with weapons and a vehicle.

The Last of Us HBO - Episode 1 Recap - ‘When You're Lost in the Darkness’ screencap
Image: HBO / Binge

Ellie is brought back to Tess and Joel’s safehouse, and as the adults discuss the best course of action, Ellie uncovers a book – a directory of chart-topping pop songs throughout history, along with a coded note – and quickly deciphers that the radio is used as a communication device between the pair and a couple named Bill and Frank, with 1960s, 70s, and 80s songs denoting differing meanings. A 1960s song means they have nothing in, a 1970s song means new stock, but Ellie can’t work out what a 1980s song means.

Joel ignores Ellie, and takes a nap to bide time in another scene that is nearly shot-for-shot like the video game version (you’ll recognise the ‘Your watch is broken’ line). When Joel wakes, the two have a short conversation, and Ellie mentions that the radio played a song that had the lyrics ‘wake me up before you go-go’, and realises with Joel’s reaction that a 1980’s song means trouble. Ellie smugly reveals that she’s successfully deceived him, to Joel’s dismay, but before he can say anything, Tess arrives and they get ready to leave the QZ. 

After a tense scene where the trio successfully sneak out of the zone, hide in the shadows, and dodge spotlights, they carelessly reveal themselves in front of a guard relieving himself. Fortunately, as it turns out, the guard is the one Joel provided pills to earlier in the episode. 

The Last of Us HBO - Episode 1 Recap - ‘When You're Lost in the Darkness’ screencap
Image: HBO / Binge

Regardless, he orders them to surrender and begins to follow protocol by scanning them with the device that checks if they’re infected. As Tess and Joel are scanned and cleared they try to bargain with him. Ellie, however, looks concerned. As the guard begins to scan Ellie, she pulls out her switchblade and stabs him in the leg. 

In the chaos, the guard points his rifle at Ellie, and Joel jumps in between them, unarmed, to try and talk him down. As the tension ramps up, Joel begins to get flashbacks of the situation with his daughter Sarah at the beginning of the episode, and he suddenly attacks the guard, knocking him down, and beating him to death, his knuckles bloodied. 

As soon as he’s done, Tess quickly draws Joel’s attention to the guard’s scanner – which shows that Ellie is infected, and Ellie frantically shows them a healed bite on her arm and tries to explain that she’s not sick – the bite has been there for weeks. 

As additional guards converge on their location, Ellie urges them to trust her, Tess hurriedly grabs Ellie and rushes to leave, and Joel is left in somewhat of a dazed stupor, trying to process everything that’s happening. Eventually, he grabs the guard’s assault rifle, and they all flee together. 

Image: HBO / Binge

The episode ends back at Tess and Joel’s safe house. The radio suddenly comes to life, and begins to play a 1980s song: ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ by Depeche Mode, as the trio runs into the night, and the sound of infected can be heard. The lyrics: 

I’m taking a ride with my best friend.
I hope he never lets me down again.
He knows where he’s taking me,
Taking me where I want to be.
I’m taking a ride with my best friend.

Stray observations and additional analysis

  • This episode was written by both Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, which can be felt in the way this episode mixes brand-new scenes (especially in the opening half) with those that are very faithful to the game. 
  • The episode was directed by Craig Mazin, and the 1968 cold open of the episode, and subsequent 2003 sequence really highlight his experience directing Chernobyl. It does a fantastic job of creating an ominous, unnerving atmosphere where you know exactly what is going to happen to the characters in question (especially if you’ve played the game), but you’re fraught with nervous anticipation regardless. The prolonged sequence and knowing ‘gotchas’ in the opening – the vehicle that rams the car in the game manages to stop short in the show – only adds to that. 
  • The host of the 1968 talk show is portrayed by Josh Brener, who you probably know from his role as Big Head in the HBO comedy, Silicon Valley. It’s nice to see him again.
  • Even though there are many scenes that appear almost exactly as they do in the game, HBO’s The Last of Us also shows that it’s very willing to detach itself from its central characters and play with chronology, as well as other techniques, in service of telling a much more interesting story suited to the medium. 
Image: HBO / Binge
  • There’s a clear shot of dust in the light in the first scene in Joel’s apartment. In the game, these shots are a frequent reminder of the constant threat of fungal spores that carry the infection. In the show, these spores don’t seem to be an issue (as evidenced by the fact that the characters don’t wear gas masks, even in enclosed areas with infected activity).
  • While likely a compromise in order to more clearly showcase the dramatic performances of the actors, it is strange how even though the show makes a big effort to try to ground the hypothetical virus in real, scientific principles (which is fantastic), it nevertheless throws out one of of the biggest facts around fungi – that fungi and spores go hand-in-hand. It’s how they reproduce. 
  • If you’re a fan of the video game version of The Last of Us, you may have gotten chills hearing and seeing the title sequence for the first time – I know I did. 
The Last of Us HBO - Episode 1 Recap - ‘When You're Lost in the Darkness’ screencap
Image: HBO / Binge
  • Line of the show: When Marlene lets on that she’s known Ellie for a very, very long time, Ellie has a small moment where she dramatically says in a hushed voice: “…are you my fucking mom or something?”

What did you think of the first episode of HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us? Tell us on Twitter, @GamesHubDotCom, and let us know what you’d like to see for future recaps. 

Edmond was the founding managing editor of GamesHub. He was also previously at GameSpot for 13 years, where he was the Australian Editor and an award-winning video producer. You can follow him @EdmondTran