Review: The Last of Us Episode 1: When You’re Lost in Darkness

Preamble

To me, The Last of Us is akin to being the Casablanca of video games insofar as being a much beloved and weighty experience. It also defines and becomes synonymous with an era in a medium’s history (much like Casablanca has become a movie that springs to mind when someone says the Golden Age of Hollywood). The 2013 video game was certainly a paradigm shift for the medium, proving that it can tell gripping, emotive tales that are thematically rich and worthy of being called art.

It’s funny thinking back that I was rather mixed on The Last of Us on my first playthrough. I don’t know if I had become jaded by the zombie sub-genre or the weight of expectation that the game carried with it, but my arms were somewhat crossed throughout. I certainly enjoyed the gameplay loop that stuck an excellent balance of stealth, action and environmental storytelling (via problem-solving) etc.

Without going too much into it, I thoroughly loved Part 2. Its scope, ambition, themes and how it used the controller to make the player complicit in some of Ellie’s heinous acts stuck with me. On a subsequent playthrough via the PS5 remake, Part 1 resonated with me a lot more, with themes and emotions bubbling to the surface with greater clarity.

And now we come to the HBO adaptation of The Last of Us. There is something somewhat ironic and meta about the fact that many reviews of the game have cited it as HBO esque series in its scope and ambition. So, to now see it being adapted to something it was held up against just amuses me to no end.

But before I get to my thoughts on the first episode, let me address the big elephant in the room. As the name of my blog implies, it’s dedicated to discussion and reviews of films etc. However, I have tackled Twin Peaks in the past (through the prism of Fire Walk With Me and some episodes of Season 3) and The Mandalorian. Both those properties had roots in cinema, be it David Lynch’s cinematic prequel or Mando’s first episode being screened at select UK cinemas.

The Last of Us is arguably my first full dip into the waters of television. With this in mind, the reason why I’m asking you all to indulge me is that I want these to be like entries in a diary (much like blogging can be) as I tackle an acclaimed game being adapted to another medium. I think it will be an interesting challenge and a nice change to my other writings. At the same time, my experience with these games has been quite profound and private. Due to reviewing the series, I’m taking myself out of the general noise of the discourse (not watching various breakdowns and reviews etc) and instead focusing on my thoughts on each instalment of the show. So, I hope you join me as I intend to be back here every Monday evening with my thoughts on the latest episode from HBO’s The Last of Us series.

And finally, if you liked my ramblings here, then you can find more at my second home, Horror Obsessive. One of my most recent pieces was about the subtext of the recent Resident Evil game, Village. https://horrorobsessive.com/2022/09/10/a-village-of-abuse-the-subtext-of-resident-evil-8/

Have you seen the first episode of The Last of Us? And have you had any prior experience with the video game? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

By the end of the first episode of The Last of Us, I was reminded of a simple and effective quote from Doctor Who’s 50th-anniversary episode, “The Day of the Doctor.” At the end of that episode, after reflecting on what he dreams about, the Doctor says, “Home. The long way round.” Much like the Zack Synder-directed Watchmen movie and the Damon Lindelof-penned Watchmen series, The Last of Us pilot carries the convictions of its source material but goes about setting up its themes in fascinating new ways.

After a lengthy and tense opening, which has a scientist outline how the human race can be brought to its knees via a fungal virus: the first episode of the HBO series introduces us to Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna) and daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker). Amid the backdrop of a fungal virus, the family unit befalls a devastating tragedy. 20 years later, Joel is working various jobs in a Boston quarantine zone and is trying to contact his brother. He is joined in his search by his frequent smuggling partner, Tess (Anna Torv). However, life becomes complicated for the pair when the leader of an insurgent group (The Fireflies), Marlene (Merle Dandridge), tasks them with transporting a 14-year-old girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsey).

The appeal of the pilot episode is from its dance between faithfulness to the source material and inversion of what we know. The best example is Sarah’s point of view. In the game, we get a brief sense of her relationship with Joel before the action starts. However, here, we get more scenes as the structure is a day in her life.

These scenes where Sarah acts as someone who is almost a parental figure to a dozy Joel are a sweet reminder of how kids are as important in providing a sense of calm and rationality in our everyday chaotic existence.

At the same time, the filmmaking in these sections is quite subtle and impressive. There are a few locked down shots, which occasionally obscure the background. They go a long way in emphasizing tension and the subtle instances of Sarah missing allusions to the brewing of the pandemic. Sarah’s perspective is also crucial for the introduction of a theme that could permeate the entire series.

After finding her elderly neighbour in a zombified state, Sarah runs outside and is met by her father and uncle. She’s horrified to see Joel killing the undead creature. At once, it points to the game’s theme of the lengths we’re willing to go to protect our loved ones. But it also points to how we can lose our humanity in the pursuit of violence (even in a justified situation). Later on, there’s almost a direct mirroring of the tragic circumstances surrounding Sarah (this time involving Tess and Ellie). I found this scene to be the episode’s most promising moment. It’s a reinforcement of the shocking lengths you’re willing to go to protect your loved ones. But it also could be read as a cycle of violence that’s inherently primal and keeps repeating (particularly in this climate). The moment could sow the seeds for some of the themes that spoke to me with Part 2.

While Pedro Pascal has been famed for playing quite paternal roles in the past, he casts an impression as Joel. His initial goofiness and subsequent cynicism (portrayed in fleeting gestures) are striking in illustrating a man who is broken and frozen in time. From the trailers, I had my doubts about Bella Ramsey as Ellie. However, she gives an impressive performance, portraying the fierceness and intelligence that made the character such an indelible presence in the first game. In her reprisal of Marlene, I appreciated Merle Dandridge’s sardonic and almost menacing turn as the leader of the Fireflies.

It sounds odd to say, but the show’s worldbuilding via elaborate set design and frequent bustling activity with slow panning camera moves gave me a better sense of the world than the video game. Part of this comes from the perspective being broader and the details being more sketched in. Also, moments such as Joel throwing a child’s dead body in a fire go a long way in portraying the downtrodden and hopelessness of a post-pandemic Boston.

Overall, the pilot episode is a solid start to The Last of Us series. While it’s undoubtably faithful to the source material, it uses its medium to plant interesting themes and motifs that could permeate the series. Much like the quote from the Doctor, it appears so far to be getting to the heart of the video game in its own unique way.

Advertisement

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
This entry was posted in Review, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s