HBO’s video game adaptation brings pathos and fungus to a bleak alternate 2023.
Welcome, one and all, to my worst nightmare. No, not the premiere episode of The Last of Us, HBO’s 9-episode video game adaptation, but the notion of a fungal pandemic itself. A mutated version of the Cordyceps fungus (yes, the one that makes ants climb to high branches and look like this) causes the zombie pandemic in The Last of Us and the very idea of that horrifies me. If or when this type of pandemic comes to pass, please just place me in a lovely corner of a room somewhere and go about your post-apocalyptic business. I’m out.
Co-written by show creators Neil Druckmann (who also wrote the game and its sequel) and Craig Mazin (who also directed this episode), “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” threads the perfect needles of “exposition time” and “here comes some action.” For full disclosure: I know next to nothing about the video game, so this story is fresh to me. I know some bits and pieces (Pedro Pascal finds himself an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass dad again), but I’m eagerly looking forward to learning the rest from the show itself.
In 1968, a pair of epidemiologists appear on a swinging ’60s talk show to answer some questions about pandemics. Doctor the First (Christopher Heyerdahl) says the next big pandemic will be viral and that humanity will always prevail. Doctor the Second (John Hannah) believes that the next pandemic will be fungal and that global warming would allow the fungus to adapt to human hosts. Were that to occur, he says grimly, we’re done for.
Flashforward to Austin, September 26th, 2003. Sarah Miller (Nico Parker) wakes her father, Joel (Pedro Pascal), and makes him a birthday breakfast. Joel’s brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) stops by to snitch some coffee and half-listen to a radio news broadcast about something happening in Jakarta, and everyone heads out to work and school. On her way home, Sarah catches a bus into the city to get Joel’s watch fixed as a birthday gift, and when the shopkeeper’s wife hustles her home and shuts up shop early because something is happening, she’s shaken.
Sarah spends some time with their next-door neighbors, the Adlers, an older couple also caring for an elderly parent, and as Sarah peruses a shelf of DVDs, we see the old woman shudder and spasm in the background. Joel gets home late, and the pair settle in to watch a movie. Sarah falls asleep, missing Joel receiving a call from Tommy and going to his aid. She awakens later to bedlam–explosions, screams, and an emergency television broadcast telling everyone to stay inside. The neighbors’ dog, Mercy, scratches at the door, and Sarah tries to take him home, but Mercy pulls himself out of his collar and flees in the other direction.
Sarah goes next door to find a kitchen floor covered with blood and Granny eating Mrs. Adler on the floor. She looks up, revealing fungus growing from her mouth. Sarah runs outside just before Joel and Tommy pull up and kill the old woman. As the Millers escape the neighborhood, Tommy runs over a newly infected Mr. and Mrs. Adler, horrifying a neighbor who runs to help them and is promptly attacked. They drive through town, flashing past a cavalcade of disasters: people running, infected people attacking, and planes flying dangerously low in the sky. It’s dizzying and claustrophobic, and while Tommy tries to back out of the crowded street, an airplane crashes into the road behind them. It flips the truck, injuring Sarah’s ankle and separating Tommy from Joel and Sarah. Joel carries Sarah through a diner pursued by an infected, and they’re narrowly saved by a soldier who shoots it as they run outside. Rather than helping the pair, the soldier shoots them regardless of their infected status. The gunfire knocks Joel and Sarah down a hill, where Tommy arrives and shoots the soldier. Unfortunately, while the bullets only grazed Joel, Sarah is shot in the stomach and dies soon after in her father’s arms.
“When You’re Lost in the Darkness” has a lot to juggle as a premiere, and it does so admirably, giving us backstory and setting up no less than four primary characters in its later half.
Twenty years later, a little girl makes her way through the remains of an overgrown Boston. Collapsing near the entrance of a quarantine zone, she’s taken to a pair of guards, one who promises her food and toys and one who administers a blood test with a monitor that flashes red, showing that she’s been infected. The kind guard tells her that she needs some medicine and then she’ll be safe, smiling at the girl as she’s euthanized. Outside, an older Joel is among the workers burning bodies before work is called for the day. Joel stops briefly to watch a public execution (for leaving/entering the quarantine zone without permission) and catches the eye of a FEDRA (Federal Disaster Response Agency) soldier, who motions Joel to a quiet corner where Joel sells the soldier smuggled pain pills in exchange for ration cards and hand-rolled cigarettes.
Elsewhere, a woman named Tess (Anna Torv) argues with black market salesman Robert, who took her payment for a truck battery, then sold it to someone else and let his two henchmen beat Tess up. Tess’ partner terrifies Robert, and she assures him that they want the battery and not revenge before something explodes outside. A dazed Tess stumbles out into the middle of a firefight between FEDRA troops and a Firefly (a revolutionist organization working against FEDRA), leading to her arrest.
In another building, a group of people chain a young woman (a pitch-perfect Bella Ramsey) to a radiator and give her some memory tests. Joel cuts the line at a telegraph office to see if there has been any word from Tommy, whom he hasn’t heard from in three weeks. Hearing that there’s been none, Joel demands the radio tower’s location in Wyoming so he can look for Tommy himself. He heads to his apartment, where he removes a stack of supplies and weapons stowed under a floorboard and passes out after a handful of pills and some moonshine. Tess is there when he wakes up, and we learn that Joel is the partner that Robert so fears.
In the Firefly headquarters, leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge, reprising her role from the game) faces off with displeased underling Kim. Marlene wants the FEDRA troops distracted so that all of the Fireflies can leave that night and take the captive girl west; she gives Kim a message that Marlene received from one of their outposts. The message stuns Kim, but we don’t learn its contents. Marlene visits their captive, revealing that she knows the girl’s name is Ellie. Marlene says that she has to tell Ellie something, but what that is goes unrevealed.
Joel and Tess travel the old subway tunnels to Robert’s location, which turns out to be the Firefly headquarters and find Robert and a number of the Fireflies dead. Marlene was hit during the fight over the (busted) battery and wants Joel and Tess to sneak Ellie to the old State House in the city (outside of the quarantine zone), where another group of Fireflies will meet them and give them everything they need to go after Tommy in exchange for Ellie’s safety. They take Ellie back to their apartment, and Tess leaves to map out their exit; Joel begrudgingly tells Ellie they’ll be okay. Ellie finds an old book of Top Ten Hits with a code inside and tricks Joel into admitting that the decade of songs played on a specific radio frequency means different messages: namely, that ’80s songs mean something is very wrong.
Tess returns, and the trio takes off, almost making it to the border before Joel’s earlier drug customer catches them. The soldier tests them each for infection, but Ellie stabs him before he can see her results. Joel has a flashback to the night Sarah died and attacks the guard, interrupted by Tess grabbing the monitor and seeing Ellie’s infected results. Ellie insists that she will not get sick, that her wounds are three weeks old, and no one lasts that long before turning. With more troops on the way, the trio has no choice but to continue out of the fence and into the open city.
The radio turns on at Joel and Tess’s apartment, playing Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” from 1987. Uh oh.
See what I meant about exposition AND action? “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” has a lot to juggle as a premiere, and it does so admirably, giving us backstory and setting up no less than four primary characters in its later half. The early outbreak scenes with the Miller family were scary and heartbreaking, and the scenes in the Boston QZ were bleak and unrelenting. Is what the people are doing in the quarantine zone really living, or is it just getting by? What will Joel and company encounter out in the wide world? How many faces growing fungus can I see before I start to cry? The Last of Us is off to a solid and beautiful start.
- Among the sights in the quarantine zone: people selling shoe laces for ration cards, workers covering Firefly graffiti, and of course, public hangings.
- The episode’s title, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” comes from the Fireflies’ graffiti: “When You’re Lost in the Darkness, Look for the Light.”
- Joel tells Marlene she’s why Tommy turned against him, which I’m assuming means that Tommy is now a Firefly.
- Ellie gets Joel to react re: the radio code when she tells him that while he was asleep, the radio played “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” which is scientifically* not a song anyone can sleep through.
- *May not be scientifically true.
The Last of Us airs Sundays on HBO.