The Last of Us, HBO's grimy adaptation of the lauded 2013 horror game, begins not with the gnashing of teeth or the cocking of a pistol, but rather the filming of a polite interview TV show circa 1968.
A smirking host speaks with a pair of epidemiologists about the possibility of a pandemic. As one guest considers the horrors of a viral or bacterial spread, the other raises the possibility of something much scarier: a fungal pandemic. The laughter from the studio audience dissipates as the epidemiologist gravely explains how a parasitic fungus can do more than simply kill its host. As science has seen happen with fungus-infected insects, fungi can "alter our very minds," turning hosts into "marionettes" while preventing their decomposition. "Billions of puppets with poisoned minds, permanently fixed on one unifying goal: to spread the infection to every last human alive, by any means necessary," he intones, introducing a new twist on the concept of the "living dead." (In a wry nod, 1968 is the year Night of the Living Dead was first released.)
When the opposing scientist says a fungus could never survive inside a human — they can't survive in bodies with an internal temperature over 94 degrees — the fungi expert considers how that could change should the temperature of the Earth rise. It's all quite portentous for today's audience, who know exactly where this is all going.
One question lingers: Would there be a cure if such an event were to happen?
He scoffs at the idea. It wouldn't even be possible to make one. Should this hypothetical event ever happen, he says with grim finality, "we lose."
Shane Harvey/HBO Nico Parker as Sarah
Now, with that moldy knot of dread turning in your stomach, let's fast forward to 2003. Joel (Pedro Pascal) is the single father of Sarah (Nico Parker). They live in a Texas suburb and he works in construction with his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna). It's his birthday, and Sarah nicks some cash from his drawer to get an old watch of his fixed as a present. After school, she hangs out at the Adlers' place next door, where middle-aged Connie and Danny care for Nana, an old, ill woman.
Meanwhile, something is off. Ambulances and police cars blare in the streets, jets carve the clouds, and the radio reports of unrest in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Something's off with Nana, too, what with the odd, jerky movements and a dog that can't look at her without whining (and, later, growling).
Joel and Sarah's quiet night celebrating his birthday is disrupted when Tommy calls to ask his brother to bail him out of jail. That leaves Sarah all alone when the sound of helicopters and the flashing of lights wakes her to a neighborhood in chaos. Led by the Adlers' dog, she finds the family bloodied and broken in their home, with Connie being feasted upon by Nana, who gnaws with a mouth crawling with root-like strings.
Sarah flees to the yard. Joel and Tommy pull up frantically in their truck. Nana emerges, no longer the infirm woman from before, and sprints towards Joel with an open mouth. He knocks her out, then loads Sarah into Tommy's truck. "It's not just the Adlers," he says as more bloodied, lurching neighbors flood the street. "They're saying it's a virus, some kind of parasite," adds Tommy. She learns the radio is down, as are the cell towers. The highways are blocked, too, with military forces attempting to enforce some kind of quarantine. When they spot a family broken down on the road, Joel tells Tommy to drive on. "Someone else will stop," he mutters.
Shane Harvey/HBO Nico Parker and Pedro Pascal as Sarah and Joel
The trio's offroading leads them to a downtown in disarray. Buildings burn, cars careen, and scared locals sprint around abandoned fire trucks. A helicopter falls from the sky, triggering an explosion that destroys their truck. Joel, Tommy, and Sarah survive, but not everyone is so lucky. All around them, the infected feast on their former neighbors. One chases them through doorways and alleys. A military officer saves them by shooting the creature, but their safety is short-lived. The officer is given orders to kill the survivors, despite them showing no signs of illness. Joel tries to stop him, but Sarah is shot in the struggle. She dies in his arms.
Fast forward 20 more years (what is this, House of the Dragon?) and the world looks very different. A filthy child wanders through an empty park overgrown with weeds, staring down the blasted ruins of Boston, where slumping highrises and the vestiges of infrastructure are choked with suffocating vines and wads of dirt-crusted stone. The child is ushered into a militarized quarantine zone overseen by the gun-toting officers of FEDRA, the fascist forces governing what's left of the world.
Inside the quarantine zone, we learn the disease is a mutation of the genus Cordyceps, a parasitic fungus. Signs of infection include coughing, slurred speech, muscle spasms, and mood change. Also of note: Infection sets in quickest (within 5-15 minutes) for those wounded (i.e. bitten) in the neck, face, or head, but even wounds to the leg or foot will see infection set in within a day. It's a quick process.
It's a miserable place, the "QZ." Armed patrols man the streets, where unkempt survivors take jobs burning the dead and cleaning up waste to scrape by. Public hangings unfold in the town square for everyone to see. Joel, eyes empty and jaw tight, moonlights as a smuggler with his partner, Tess (Anna Torv). He sells some pills to a guard, who discusses the ongoing tensions between FEDRA and the Fireflies, a rebel faction.
Liane Hentscher/HBO Anna Torv and Pedro Pascal as Tess and Joel
Tess, meanwhile, is trading barbs in a crusty storefront with Robert, a different smuggler who promised her a car battery and reneged on it. His cronies beat her up after the deal went south and Robert's scared she'll sic Joel on him. Tess tells him to let it go, that she won't tell Joel it was Robert who roughed her up. Their conversation is interrupted when an explosion rocks the street outside. The Fireflies detonated a car bomb and are trading bullets with the gathering FEDRA forces.
The car battery, it turns out, relates to Joel's current mission. Tommy's been missing for three weeks after an expedition to Wyoming and Joel wants to secure a vehicle to search for him. When he and Tess reunite at their apartment, she breaks her promise to Robert and reveals that it was his guys who left her bruised. They vow to track down who he sold the battery to and steal it for themselves.
Elsewhere in the zone, we meet a teenager (Bella Ramsey) chained to a radiator in a hideout occupied by Fireflies. She calls herself Veronica, but we soon learn her name is Ellie and that she was scooped up by the Fireflies after escaping a FEDRA military school. The Fireflies are cautious of Ellie, submitting her to numerous tests to determine whether or not she's infected. But Marlene (Merle Dandridge), the leader of this area's Firefly faction, appears confident that she's healthy. She wants to take her west as part of a plan that includes staging a number of diversionary attacks — like the one that interrupted Tess and Robert — in order to spread out FEDRA and make their escape. "You have a greater purpose than any of us could have ever imagined," she tells Ellie.
Shane Harvey/HBO Natasha Mumba and Merle Dandridge as Kim and Marlene
Marlene and Ellie collide with Joel and Tess after the latter's search for the missing battery brings them to the Firefly hideout. When they arrive, they find Robert dead and Marlene and her cohorts injured. Robert, apparently, was going to sell the battery to the Fireflies instead of Tess. The problem: it doesn't work. When Marlene refused to buy the broken battery, a firefight erupted. Now, FEDRA, alerted by the gunfire, is on the way. This, coupled with their injuries, puts a big wrench in their plans.
Marlene asks Joel and Tess to carry out their plan, which involves taking Ellie to the Massachusetts State House outside the quarantine zone, where she'll be intercepted by other Fireflies. Joel isn't interested, and not only because this is a distraction from his efforts to find Tommy. Tommy, we learn, is a Firefly, too, and this was a major cause of tension between the brothers.
Marlene promises that if Ellie is delivered safely to the State House, the Fireflies there will provide him and Tess with everything they need to track down Tommy. Joel and Tess agree on this condition: If the Fireflies screw them, Ellie's dead. These are not people who value human life, not after the last 20 years.
"Joel," Marlene says, "don't f--- this up. Please."
Joel and Tess bring Ellie back to their apartment to wait for the sun to go down. He wants to know what makes her so special. "You some kind of bigwig's daughter or something?" She deflects: "Something like that." As he sleeps, she learns that Joel and his smuggling contacts use the radio to communicate messages. If a song from the '60s plays, that means there's no new loot. If a song from the '70s plays, that means there is. It's unclear what it means when a song from the '80s plays, but she tricks Joel, who appears concerned when she says "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" played while he slept. "'80s means trouble," she realizes. He doesn't appreciate her curiosity. She tells him his watch is broken and he doesn't appreciate that, either. It's the same one his daughter had fixed for him two decades prior.
Liane Hentscher/HBO Bella Ramsey and Anna Torv as Ellie and Tess
Joel, Tess, and Ellie sneak out, evading the spotlights of FEDRA as they slip closer to the edges of the zone. When they're spotted by an officer, it turns out to be the one that bought pills off of Joel. He'll provide no special treatment, though; the first thing he does is test them to see if they're infected. Ellie stabs him when he tests her, causing the soldier to draw his gun. The sight of a gun pointed at a young girl reminds Joel of the soldier that killed Sarah, and in a rage he rushes the soldier and beats him senseless.
As he bloodies his fists, Tess notices that Ellie's test came up positive. She's infected. Ellie asserts that she's not sick. She shows Joel and Tess a wound on her arm that she claims is three weeks old. "No one lasts more than a day," she says.
So she's immune? No time to discuss that now. FEDRA is closing in. The trio slips through a fence and into the urban wilderness beyond the quarantine zone.
Meanwhile, in Joel's apartment, the radio turns on. What plays is Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down Again," released in 1987. That can't be good.
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